I hold the Monster Bee tightly by the wing. It's hurt and it's scared and I don't care. They should know how it feels. "You found someone fiercZer and sZmarter and better than me… and you let her come here to rub it all in my facZe? Take me to your new queen. Take me to where you're hiding her."
With a hurricane of impressions, my half-consciousness is catapulted into the cosmos. I am a smear of moments spread thin across trillions of light-years. It feels like being shook awake out of a nightmare, but in reverse.
The trip ends in different surrogate body. I clench my eyes and ease my mind into to the unnerving half-sensations of electricity and circuitized honey. When I open my eyes, I see the shape of my hands. My hands, again. Small and clumsy and mine.
I can immediately tell I'm somewhere alien. The ground's made of basalt and obsidian, strangely stepped in naturally uniform hexagons. There's a thin whisky-coloured liquid across the entire surface, ankle deep. It reminds me of nectar, but it doesn't stick or cling. The sky has an orangish-gold tint to it, as if it's just dawn and the sun's just peaking over the horizon, except I can't see a sun or an horizon. And there's a scent in the air that doesn't smell like anything, and yet somehow it reminds me of architectures and blueprints.
Then the smell changes to wafts of alarm and assembly. A dark cloudy shape grows in the distance. Only as it swells with rolling thunder do I recognize it. I freeze in horror as the rolling black mass comes crashing toward me. The black wave.
"You made it! You're actually here!" Melisende's voice pierces through my ice cold terror. I watch her surrogate solidify from the pools of surface nectar. Again, she mocks me by taking a guise mirroring my own. "I have to admit, I waszn't szure you'd find it in you. You've no idea how happy I am to be wrong."
Her cheerfulness is instantly annoying. "Where are we?"
"Thisz isz the planet Carthago, orbiting a szysztem you'd recognizze asz Fabrateria Vetusz." She points up into the hazy orange sky. "You can't actually szee the szysztem'sz binary sztarsz becausze of the treated atmoszphere, but truszt me, they're up there. And over in that direction isz Planet M. And juszt a wee bit to the left of that isz a tiny szpeck you sztill call home." She drops her arm and frowns. "Szorry. It'sz not much of a view from here. I can't sztand not szeeing the sztarsz."
There's a rush of wind and the roar of a million beating wings and suddenly the swarm is all around us. They circle around us, catching us in the centre of a tornado of terrible bodies.
"Oh, don't worry about them," Melisende says, "They're juszt agitated. Here, letsz introduce you." She takes my hand, pulls us right up to the raging bedlam, and bellows above it all, "HEEEEEEELLOOOOOO CARTHAGOOO! Thank you ALL szo very much for coming out to szee usz on this fine… whatever time of day it isz! I'd like you to meet szomeone very closze to me. You KNOW her. You HATE her. You're all szcared PANTLESZ of her. Szhe'sz your emergency queen… SZYBIIIIIIILLAA!"
The tornado slows down. The mood of the circling swarm transforms from predatory to protective, a pride of lions becoming a herd of buffalo. Tamed. Accepted. Just like that. With just a few words from her.
I yank my hand from hers. "That's not who I am."
She throws me the sort of smile a cat would when it's deciding how deep to claw you. "Ha! It'sz abszolutely adorable how you believe your brand of dullnessz isz szomething unique. Come with me. I need to szhow you szomething." She gives the swirling mass of Monster Bees a shoo-shoo-ing motion, and the tornado disperses in fits and bunches. When the cacophony fades back into the gold haze of the sky, Melisende waves for me to follow.
We walk along a path that leads generally downhill. After a short time, the distinct shape of a city skyline starts to reveal itself. Tall structures of geometric wax and honey, hundreds of stories tall, resembling the hive pillars constructed on my home planet. But where those were ugly, crude formations, these are amazingly intricate arrangements! They're laid out in senary arrays, which themselves are connected by deep concave walls in further groupings of six. The closer we get to the hive buildings, the more I see how the entire design is fractal, the pattern harmoniously repeating itself in the all the larger and smaller details.
I don't know how awestruck I look, and I can't bring myself to hide it. "This is… incredible!" I reply. "It's like art made of math and… and more art. Why does it look like this, when Volsci… doesn't?"
"The Monszter Bee szwarm invaded Volszci for its reszources. They peeled it open and uszed everything up. But here, on Carthago, they came to make a home. And unlike Volszci, here, they were invited.
"The szwarm isz a timeworn szuper-race with followersz and worszhippersz, juszt like any of the othersz. But when it comesz to the Monszter Beesz, szocieties tend more toward the doomszday-cult-ish end of the szpectrum. An upheaval of order, a great cleanszing, a deszcent into purity through szacrifice, and szo on and szo forth. Here, the Monszter Beesz found a populace willing to transzform, wanting to shed the huszks of their old livesz, szo that they could join their harrowing godsz asz aszcendant progeny.
"It'sz in fertile ground like thisz that the Monszter Beesz evolve into empiresz. It'sz amongszt reszolute people like thesze that the szwarm cultivate their sztrongest queensz."
We arrive at the centre of the hive city. The fractal architecture cumulates at this point, forming an open-air cathedral. In the very midpoint is a massive amber crystal, with sharp edges and wide points that have been allowed to form randomly. Embedded within is a sublime, womanly creature covered in ebony skin and onyx scales. Gods, she is… her body is… beautiful. It's the same beetle-esque shape of my deformed body, but here an artisan hand's been lovingly applied. Where I am bulky, she is sleek. Where I am knotted, she is supple. There's nothing but majesty about her! It's overwhelming! I fall to my knees, lean my head on the crystal's warm surface, and cry.
"Only a week or szo left until thisz hyper-embryo szplits open," Melisende says.
"And what'll happen to me?"
She looks down on me and shrugs. "Your Volszci szwarm will be insztinctively welcomed into Carthago'sz szwarm. Your allies, your General and his Szoldier and those Mummy Machines, they prefer a timid queen, szomeone they can easzily control; they'll missz having your army at their szide, but I doubt they'll missz you."
I glare at her. At her perfect confidence and her stinging wit and that condescending tone. She is all my failings, come alive to rub salt in my self-inflicted wounds. She is my bitter ruination.
"Oh, if you could only szee the look on your face right now," she says, clucking her tongue. "Look, I don't know what to tell you. You have talent you don't apply, you've had opportuntiesz you didn't exzploit. You've been, at beszt, a footnote in the livesz of anyone around you."
I look up at the crystal embryo, at the innately perfect being within. I feel my heart clench. In impotence. In resentment. At her. At myself. She was right. I should have done more. I wish I'd done better. I could be better. I would. "Given the chance."
"To do… what? It wouldn't bring Volszci back. It wouldn't make you normal. Whatever that meansz. It wouldn't make a lick of differencze. It wouldn't matter."
"It'd matter to me," I snarl, jabbing my finger at my chest. "It'd make a difference to me!"
"Yesz," she said. "Yesz, it will." She put a hand on my shoulder. It feels… oddly comforting. Even reassuring. Then she smiles, and looks up.
Out of the hazy orange sky, a pin shape falls from some impossible distance, trailing black smoke behind it. I watch it come down, faster and faster, closer and closer, growing massive in size. It makes a screeching pitch that I recognize as rocketfire, and the missile arcs at nearby horizon.
There's a sudden flash. Then a silence. Then a crash that knocks me completely over. Fire and lightening set the horizon alight. The six-sided city shakes around me and the fractal buildings crack.
I scramble on the ground, the sanity blown out of me. When I look back up at the sky, I see another missile screaming down ou tof the haze. It punches the ground somewhere on the other side of the city. I cover my head as the explosion overwhelms everything. The ground heaves again.
Melisende heaves me to my feet. "Open your eyesz! We should szee thisz! We're privileged, you and I! Not many othersz get front-row szeatsz to a show like thisz and have the chancze to bitch about it the next day!" She points straight up, straight at another missile. It comes right down down on us. It detonates right over our heads.
I scream, but the sound dies within me.
Everything flashes white.
Then everything goes black. I'm left with wretched quiet.
After a while, I realize that I'm in outer space. And very disoriented. The explosion destroyed my surrogate body, so my mind was… moved? Moved. Moved to another surrogate body. Somewhere near by.
I'm standing on a metal structure. A spacecraft or a station, perhaps, but I'm on top of it rather than inside. It's orbiting a orange-gold planet that I assume is Carthago. A patch of it glows with ominous blooms. An intense glare catches my attention, and I watch a massive missile launch from a similar structure some distance away. Both of these structures are connected to long, colossal frameworks of black steel and dark marble stones, with those frameworks stretching farther back to… a monumental torso! I'm standing in an open hand! The open hand of a giant machine! It must be a mile tall! It's so huge, I can't process the perspective right. It points at the planet surface with the other hand, and another missiles launch from its finger.
A comet lands beside me without impact. Its fire dissipates inward, revealing the familiar Soldier. The Soldier. Here. With me.
He approaches and nods. "We're later than expected, I know. We mobilized as soon as we could."
He misinterprets my confusion. "Mobilized. Got moving, got organized. It wasn't the distance between here and Planet M that was the problem. It was these Mummy Machine titans. There isn't many left and they're kept in deep hibernation. Getting them up and going again is a whole process. A sacred ritual or some such, apparently." He shrugs. Then he grudgingly adds, "Anyway. We found this swarm's right where you told us it'd be. Good job. We'll flatten the entire hive. That'll get their queen and her loyalest Monster Bees. The survivors should join you after that."
"I told you," I repeat his words under my breath. It's a strange sensation. Like déjà vu while half-awake. "I told you."
"Melisende, are you all right?"
"I'm juszt… I don't… " A chill goes up my spine. I ask him a question I already know the answer to, "…what did you call me?"
"I called you by your name." The Soldier furrows his brow. "You didn't want me calling you 'Sybilla' anymore."