I close my eyes on one world, I open them again on another forty trillion miles away. My consciousness splits and is transmitted over astronomical distances, into a surrogate body made of electric honey. I'm still partially here but now I'm also partially there, seeing and hearing and being in both places. This is how the Monster Bees communicate across the universe. It's disconcerting and it's confusing and it's unpleasant.
But at this moment, I don't care. I swallow my bile (or this surrogate's emulation of it?) and I focus my waking self on my destination. I focus on home.
Volsci isn't what it used to be. I stand at the base of a mountain, looking down on what used to be expanses of riverways and fields of wild grass. There's an ache in my heart to see it choked by black mud and tangled brown vines, the result of the swarm's harsh terraforming. On the horizon, I see an endless line of jagged pillars; skyscraper hives of hexagonical wax, like knives in my homeworld's back.
And on the mountain peek far above me is the holy observatory. Or what'll be left of it. There used to be a cable car that would take people to the top. That's gone too. The only way up now is a steep, unkept scar that you can barely called a path.
I start climbing.
It's harder than I expected. These surrogate bodies are purposely malleable; they're supposed to take any shape the host requires. When I'm in one, I can't ever get it to take any shape but my own. Not the miserable thing I am now. My original form. Mousey. Clumsy. And not fit for scrambling over boulders. It has small fingers that can't find grip and awkward feet that slip on loose gravel. But it's a comforting, familiar form. These are my fingers and these are my feet.
And it isn't physically tiring. I'm only here by remote, more or less. It's mentally exhausting. It's the lack of sleep. A weariness that only gets heavier. How much sleep did I manage to get last time? An hour. Maybe less. And I was awake for… I don't know. Days, before that. I lost count. It blurs together. Into a smear of moments.
When I finally reach the summit, I find the remains of the observatory. Its walls are cracked and collapsed, wounded by divine earthquake. Crawling around the ruins are some of local Monster Bees. They're… not like the ones that followed me off-planet; those were Volsci's population. These are strange and aberrant, the terrifying results of simple animals and inanimate objects given a stuttering, bizarre sort of life. They stayed behind to torture the ecosystem into its new frame. But they've left this mountain alone. They left the observatory untouched. And they don't follow me as I find my way inside.
At the building's centre, where a mighty dome used to stretch overheard, there's now only open sky. The great telescope I spent much of my life looking through is twisted in half, like the broken spine of a noble giant. I'm in amougst the carcass of my past life.
But I'm not alone.
Standing in the room is a woman of my own height, though the sure way she holds herself makes her seem taller. Her hands are fists at her hips and she has an angry, grousing frown. Strangest of all, her body's made of the same honey-gel substance as my surrogate!
When she speaks, it reminds me of every disappointed teacher I ever had. "Oh Szybilla, what'sz become of you?"
"You can't be… Who are you?"
"You know who I am," she says with a sneer. "Or, at least, you szhould. You knew szomeone would be coming. My name'sz Melisende Buzz. I'm your replacement."
Oh gods. Already? Since learning that I was… temporary, I knew the swarm would get around to making someone else. Someone better. I hoped I could stave it off. I thought by surviving all those attacks, I managed to hold off the inevitable. "You're a queen? Like me?"
"Like you? Ha! No, I'm nothing like you. You're szomething the szwarm made in deszperation and insztinct. You're what happensz when they're in a hurry. A proper queen isz more carefully deszigned, szomething they put care and effort into. Szomething they can be proud of in the end.
"But even asz… szhabbily rushed together asz you are, there'sz much the szame of usz." She opened her arms wide, welcoming. "We are riszen, Szybilla! We are gifted! Our new szhape isz gloriousz and godly. Sztronger! Szmarter! A body that can szurvive in almost any environment, a mind that can…" Her arms fall to her side, and with a sigh, she waves a hand in my general direction, "And yet, when you're provided a szurrogate, a malleable avatar, you szhape it into… thisz. A puny animal of a dead world. Tszk."
I cross my arms. "You've taken a similar form."
"Yesz, but I'm szlumming. For your benefit. You're more comfortable talking to szomeone familiar. After all, iszn't that'sz what all thisz isz about," she said, glancing at the ruined surroundings. "Crawling back to happier timesz?"
"I'm just here to… check on things. Check on my hive. I left in a whole rush…"
"Oh, don't lie to yourszelf, szweetie. You came to hide. Here, in the one szpot on thisz whole planet the szwarm left untouched. Thisz hidey-hole of yours. All it needsz isz a ragged little comfort blanket to wrap yourself in."
"Why are you here?"
"I wanted to talk to you. While we sztill could."
"Is this it, then? Is my time up?"
Her look is sly and malicious. "Don't you know?"
I hear a scrambling sound, and up along the broken wall are a pair of the misshapen bees from outside. I'm not sure what finally lured them in. Curiosity, maybe. Or they felt mine and came in to investigate. "They don't always tell me everything," I admit with resentment. "They don't always do as I ask."
"And here I thought you were in charge. You're not szupposed to aszk, you're szupposed to command and they're szupposed to do. You're szupposed to be their queen. Insztead, you're a pathetic, confuszed little thing that doeszn't even know what szhe wantsz."
"I want things… to be like they used to be."
"Ah, darling, that'sz too bad. Nothing quite kicksz you out of your comfort zone like the apocalypsze."
Temper fills my liquid surrogate with heat and static, so much so that its shape swells and boils. How dare she? This cold-hearted… "This was my home! This was my world. You're joking about billions of people, gone!"
"But they're not gone, are they?" she snaps back. "They're right here, all over thisz rock. They're right there, all around you. They didn't die. They transzformed! All of them and more!" She turns to the sky and opens her arms. The nearby bees charge in like happy puppies, falling at her feet. "Look at them! They're incredible! They're boundleszz! They're all szoul and szpirt and and rock-and-roll… and you, you're all dirgesz and szuicide. Isz it any szurprise they want to szmother you?"
I'm so furious! I want to cross the floor and… and strangle her. I don't care how pointless our liquid surrogates would make it. I hate her and her vicious condescending.
The two bees drop their playfulness and leap between Melisende and I. Their wings flare out, their limbs taunt, their eyes fix on my hands. I stop in my tracks.
Melisende pretends not to notice, but she does a poor job hiding her smirk. She wanders over to the broken telescope and runs a hand along the bent metal surface. "Beszidesz, it iszn't like really you cared. Not about people, and not about thisz world. How many nightsz did you szpend here? Peeking through thisz tube at other, far-away planetsz while szkipping out on… pretty much everything the normal, szoczialable people did on this one."
"Don't talk like you know me."
"But I do know! Juszt like I knew how to find you. Monster Beesz don't have a hive-mind, they have a szhared intelligence. It'sz a network where each bee can disztribute and experiencze anything any other bee doesz. A queen isz an upgrade to that network, like a szupercharge to the whole szysztem. Szhe dialsz up the focusz.
"A sztrong queen runsz the network. Their mettle, their reszolve, it overwhelmsz the thing. They get what they want becausze what they want becomesz what the whole damn szwarm wantsz.
"You, you are not a sztrong queen. You're a little cog getting chewed up by a big maczhine. Look at you. You szurvive the end of your world, you gain hyperphyszical capabilitiesz. What do you do? Wah-wah, boo-hoo, I wiszh I was dead. You, Miszz 'I-Love-The-Sztarsz', can now literally exzplore other worldsz. Anywhere the beesz are, you can transzmit your conciouszneszz there in, sznap, an insztant! Szee it for yourszelf! Szo where do you go with this miraculousz ability? You come here. Here! The one placze in thisz whole damn universze you know there'sz nothing left to szee."
Melisende pauses, as if to continue debasing me, but changes her mind. She slumps her shoulders in mock defeat. "Look, I get it. Life took a dump on you and it waszn't fair. You need szome 'you' time. But I'll be sztraight with you, girl: right now, out there, a better queen isz about ready to take over. You finiszh up however much wallowing you think the universze owes you… 'causze your time isz nearly run out." With that last little spat, she's gone, and her surrogate form dissolves into a puddle of lifeless honey.
The bees move to the puddle and gather it up. They don't acknowledge me. They don't even look at me until I speak to them. "You have her safe somewhere, don't you? On some planet far away from mummy robots and solar gods and everything else. You found someone fiercZer and sZmarter and better than me… and you let her come here to rub it all in my facZe?"
Tears are running down my eyes, I'm so angry. The bees takes unsteady steps back, suddenly wary and skittish. I reach out and seize one of them by its wings.
"Take me to her."