Chapter 1: Overture
The ship is far too big. The machinery is primitive, unwieldy, at odds with her fine-tuned technological senses. There are no plasma conduits, no neurosensitive viewscreens, and it ran on fossil fuel. It stank, and everything about it is frankly ugly.
Lewe clicks her mandibles, fussing over a console until a light flickers on. A cool human female voice informs her that her course is set; there is nothing more for her to do but wait. Outside a tiny circular window, the lights of burning planets drift by like lanterns on a lake, blazing colours on ink-black, valedictory.
Sleep comes into her possessively, ice-cold and broaching no argument, beyond even song.
It’s a dusty afternoon amongst the sea of white tents, packed so close together they seem to breathe in synchrony like a flock of grazing sheep. Now and then a figure enters or exits with a flap of canvas, a flash of mottled grey and brown, antennae twitching, tasting the air for food, for vibrations, for danger, for hemolymph, for diesel and electricity.
Lewe sits very straight in her mother’s place, folding bandages to be collected later. She breathes in the sour stench from the body she has known since she opened her milky newborn eyes from the tattered sac, and tries not to feel the ever-present hunger.
Later, W’ee’cos would tell her she had six brothers and sisters, his accent still strange around the vowels. Lewe had nodded and lent against him, silent. She had seen what fire does to unborn of her kin: flayed to a blister, she imagines that brilliant flash of agony along nerves that have barely felt anything of this world.
“Let me tell you a story, Lewe,” he says now, very softly. Lewe isn’t sure if it’s husky from thirst or conspirational tone. It’s the same story, over and over, across the five years and seven months since they were sent to District 10, varying in coherence depending on W’ee’cos’ condition. A man, a human man, a beautiful angel he married, sickness, betrayal, love, rebirth… It all sounded so fantastical, so far from real life, the characters so awesome. Maybe that was why he loved repeating it. Sometimes, dreaming was the only way to be without regret.
The sky has gone dark by the time he falls asleep, clearly exhausted. Lewe tucks the sheet of plastic they use as blanket up to his shoulders, and creeps out of the tent. Perhaps tonight she could catch a rat to chew on, and it wouldn’t taste as foul as last time.
They let her in to deliver the sheets and bandages. Their strange, flat faces are blank, dressed in identical clothes that makes them even more indistinguishable from each other. Lewe wonders if they, the poleepkwa, also looked the same to the featureless humans.
W’ee’cos doesn’t think so, despite having once been one of those fleshy, shell-less aliens. He said once that she’s as pretty as a rose. Lewe didn’t know what a rose was, so she asked if it had a shiny exoskeleton and amber eyes. There was another girl, from Tent 498H, who was called Rose. W’ee’cos paused, laughed, and said it’s a flower, with many petals, red like that – he pointed to a piece of a broken cup half-buried in the mud – and it grows, like the grass.
“Lewe” isn’t a flower. It’s not even particularly feminine. It means nothing but a mush of sounds in poleepkwa, and in a human tongue, in that harsh local Afrikaans dialect, it means “to live”. To live, to survive, to keep breathing, to eat, to see the world, such as it is.
Such as the blank featureless corridors of the building, grey and white and silver. She counts levels and doors until she arrives at the correct room, and places the items in the correct drawers. Counts the same steps back out, ignores the men who stare at her, fingers twitching on their weapons.
Outside the electrified wire fence, her hive-kin moves restlessly in the dirt.
A week after midsummer, Meredith moves into their tent. Lewe has seen her around the camp talking with others, sometimes sharing food, sometimes simply listening, silent and watchful. Tall with slender, saffron-tinted antennae; her gaze full of steel and intellect. She walks in, backlit by the twilight sun, just as Lewe is kneeling in the dirt cleaning up after her mother’s episode. Her ostia flutters strangely as the tent-flap settles.
Meredith says the humans burnt her tent to the ground because of reasons they would not elucidate. “I hope you do not mind,” she sets down her sagging knapsack of rations and clothes, “I can share my food with you in return.”
Lewe shrugs. They could always do with more food. “Left side or right?”
“The one near the exit.” Merry accepts the thin piece of cardboard they use as bedding, and makes herself a nest.
Lewe finishes her cleaning and goes outside to discard the soiled rags. A human approaches her, weapon slung across a shoulder jauntily.
“That bitch in there?” he jerks a chin at her tent.
Lewe hesitates. The soldier leers. She could feel belligerence and superiority wafting from him like a pungent smell.
“I’m sorry, I’m not sure who you’re talking about,” she says, as politely as she could.
The man eyes her suspiciously, taps the muzzle of his gun against his palm like he’s contemplating whipping her across the face with it. “Yeah?” he says casually, and reaches a hand toward the tent-flap. “Don’t mind if I take a look then.”
“Wait – “
He pulls it open.
In flurry of limbs and an aborted scream, the human male has slumped to the ground, unmoving.
“Have you killed him?” Lewe asks, antennae twitching with anxiety.
“No. But I thought about it,” Merry says, wiping her claws on her rumpled overall. She grabs the unconscious solider by one of his boots. “I’ll be back in a moment.”
Lewe sighs, tension draining from her joints. She knows she should be angry, livid even, for this stranger bringing down violence on them out of the blue. She tastes adrenaline in the air and the sharp tang of human blood and something else, and oh, there’s that strange flutter again.
Perhaps her confusion had shown, because Merry leans forward and twines her antennae with Lewe’s, no more than one soft caress, enough to say wellbeing-affirmitive and worry-negative and not enough for anything else; and if she had any sense of Lewe’s warring impulses she showed no sign of it.
And then W’ee’cos cries out, mandibles clicking furiously in pain, and there’s a garbled name in there somewhere.
Lewe listens to her mother sob for a man called Christopher.
Chapter 2: Cross-pollination
Her hive-kin are starving. Every week there are desiccated exoskeletons that the humans pile up and douse with petrol, the sickly sweetness of it mingling with the smell of disease and desperation and the keening of small children. The light and heat of the fire attracts tiny insects, and those who do not die in their waltz with flames feast upon the remains of the dead.
It makes her chaeta stand on end.
Merry’s scent-signature flings out lashes of cold hatred and dark sorrow. “This situation cannot persist,” her mandibles click hard against each other.
“What can we do?” Lewe asks. They have been living in District 10 for almost fifteen years.
“I do not know,” Merry says furiously, “But something will happen. Something has to.”
She wakes up in the middle of the night, checks for her mother’s breathing, and sits up to find a water-pack.
There were so many stars, and such deep and terrifying blackness between them. The metal room was haunting in its emptiness, the silence following her out of her sleep. She was certain she would die alone in there, only several centimeters of material between her and the vacuum of space.
She allows the water to trickle coolly down her esophagus. W’ee’cos tosses around fretfully. Merry –
Her bed lies empty, plastic sheet thrown to a side carelessly.
Lewe pauses and listens, antennae straining for a telling sound or smell. But there is nothing except the snoring of her neighbours. Then she tilts her head quizzically at a soft humming that hadn’t been there before. It pauses, then begins again. There seems to be some kind of aesthetic pattern to it, strange and so mesmerizing.
She follows the sound to the back of their sleeping-place, a strip of space between tents, to find Merry stretched out on the dirt, eyes reflecting the sky. Merry blinks at her, waves her over. Lewe squats obediently at her side.
“What kind of noise were you making?” Lewe asks, watching Merry’s antennae flick lazily.
“It is called a ‘song’. But not the way we mean it. Humans sometimes make them, for fun and for battle.” She hums. It’s the same tune as before. It sounds and feels nothing like weeping.
Lewe closes her eyes and listens, not quite convinced that a planet so violent could produce something so - pretty. “Does it have words?”
“They are forgotten,” Merry says. “My foster-father used to hum it to me, when I was a hatchling.”
They don’t speak for a while after that, the song hanging between them, soft and ephemeral.
“There is a story,” Merry begins suddenly, “about a couple who loses their infant during a terrible flood. The cradle floats down the longest river in the country, past three starving black serpents, to a shining palace where a goddess lives.”
“Does that have anything to do with the song?”
“No,” Merry says, “I don’t know. It’s just a story. Shall I sing again?”
They fall asleep curled into each other, foreheads touching, the sun creeping up insidious as a scorpion.
Merry finds a job as a laborer loading and unloading laboratory supplies. It gives her two extra ration tokens, and a 500- pek bar of creosote per month. She always shares, smiling when Lewe gets her teeth stuck in it. And with extra rations, W’ee’cos seems to get better daily. It almost makes Lewe feel guilty, living in such luxury when all around her are neighbours slowly dying.
She finds W’ee’cos sitting up, talking quietly to Merry, his claws delicately shaving and manipulating a tiny piece of aluminum. They both fall silent as she walks in.
"Talking about me?” she asks lightly.
Merry looks at W’ee’cos – was that a flicker of uncertainty? But W’ee’cos smiles and shakes his head. He offers the piece of metal to Lewe. “Showing Merry how to make this,” he says. “It’s a flower,” he adds unnecessarily.
“A rose,” Lewe says. The small ornament gleams in the light, each petal perfect and triangular.
“I would never be able to make that,” Merry says admiringly, “my hands are like shears; I would destroy the material.”
“Nonsense,” W’ee’cos snorts, “here, you try.” He pulls out a few beer cans and begins showing both of them how to patiently twist the metal into shape.
But it’s Lewe who swears under her breath when her hand slips and her nail scratches a petal. Merry takes it from her, reattaches a good one, and hands it back.
W’ee’cos watches this, his thorax expanding and deflating deeply.
The thing is, it wasn’t the sickness in the end. Not the sickness that devoured W’ee’cos’ heart from inside out anyway, or the sickness that the humans had created from peeling open and mutilating poleepkwa men, women, and children. It was another kind of sickness.
The men came in the middle of the day with the sun winking off the windshield of their dusty metal trucks mounted with tanks and missiles. Several dozen men disembarked with the guns that belched fire – more came with rapid-fire weapons, and some – Lewe’s hemolymph froze in her chambers – touted pseudo-Teslas, reverse-engineered weapons of her people, bastardised to accommodate human DNA. Their faces were like masks of death, grinning, gleeful, mindless.
But that’s getting ahead of history.