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The Nursery Chamber

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The new nursery chamber was ready, with its feeding tubes set up to deliver the two different nutrition fluids needed; the first would provide the incubators with the proper nutrients to carry the eggs inside them to term, the second fluid to encourage and enable them to produce the sweet white nectar fluid in a continuous flow; she had noticed, on her various visits to the main incubation chamber, that the suction cups at each incubator’s thoracic sacs did not seem to collect the fluid all the time. It was an inefficiency that she had worked to find a solution for, and the result was a second fluid that could be fed to specific incubators in conjunction with the original nutritional fluid.

There were racks and racks to one side of the new chamber, ready to receive cocoons, eventually, when this chamber was occupied and working to full capacity.

It would not be long, now, though; she could hear the whirr of wings and looked up to the entrance near the ceiling far above her to see the first incubator enter, carried firmly by a worker. It was wrapped in webbing and seemed dazed, sedated, as it was brought down to the floor below her perch on the wall. Another worker brought a feeding tube down and pushed the end into the incubator’s mouthparts, securing it into place with webbing that wrapped around the back of the incubator’s head (but left its flat eyes and stubby triangular breathing appendage free) before using the cutting implement on her back leg to slice the webbing wrapped around the incubator. The new mixture flowed along the feeding tube, a pretty pale blue liquid that the incubator swallowed almost reflexively, though its flat eyes were wide and it scented of apprehension.

She had told the workers to find incubators in the main chamber whose eggs were about to hatch. This one had been brought here just in time because she could see the movements under the soft carapace of its abdomen that signified that at least one larva had emerged from its egg and was trying to find its way down the long narrow winding egg tube to the incubator’s hole.

The creature’s scent had changed and the worker pulled it upright, holding it still even as it squirmed in discomfort as egg after egg hatched and the first larvae began their journey out of the warm acidity of the incubator’s egg sac. Eventually, the first one wriggled free, dropping the short way to the nursery chamber’s stone floor where it lay, squirming, its round ultraviolet mouthparts already open and flexing in a quest for nutrition.

Mathematically, she knew that this venture might not work; each incubator had a clutch of about twenty eggs inside its soft-shelled body, swelling its abdomen beautifully, but each one could directly feed only two larvae at once. She had had feeding stations set up around the chamber, but hoped that each larva would ingest at least once directly from the source. This was why she had spent the past two lunar cycles preparing the new nutrition mix, that would increase each incubator’s output of the white honey-fluid. Everything so far indicated that with the new mix, an incubator’s thoracic bumps would flow with the white fluid constantly, whether there was anything (whether larva or collection cup) attached to receive it or not. It was also possible to adjust the mixture to alter the type of fluid the incubators produced, depending on whether the nest needed workers, soldiers or drones.

There was a pile of wriggling larvae on the floor under the incubator now, and then the final lump emerged, the egg-shells glued together by larval waste, which was scooped up by a cleaner beetle, who would remove it from the nest to a dump site outside.

The worker let the incubator go and it immediately tried to scramble away from the heap of wriggling blind larvae, which were still seeking the provision of food. Each one was about half as long as the incubator’s front leg between the upper and middle joints, and a dull white; they did not require the iridescence of an adult even for communication.

The worker caught the incubator, whose vocalisations were muffled by its feeding tube, but which nevertheless sounded panicked and desperate. It was on its four limbs, though the rear two were bent so that its second joint was on the floor and taking the creature’s weight. Very curious - she had not realised that these animals walked upright, but that was what this position suggested. And of course she had seen them upright, before, when new incubators were brought into the nest.

The two soft fat thoracic lumps swayed underneath the creature, dripping white honey fluid onto the larvae beneath it, as it struggled ineffectually in the worker’s grasp. One of the larvae found the incubator’s front leg and began crawling up, in search of the source of the fluid. The incubator shuddered and its sounds and scent grew more distressed as it twisted its head away from the fat white larva, trying to break free of the worker’s solid grip, shaking as it sought to dislodge the larva.

Another larva found the incubator’s rear leg and a third discovered its right one. The first larva had wriggled around the incubator’s soft pale shell by now, and latched onto the small dark nub at the tip of the thoracic bump where it began suckling greedily, its fat stubby ultraviolet tail waving gently in bliss. It could not be dislodged now until it had sated itself and let go of its own accord. That would not take long, overall, perhaps half a brightday, and it would need several such feedings before it would begin to spin a cocoon.

It wasn’t long before one of the other larvae discovered the incubator’s second milk-sac and joined its sibling in feeding, sucking the fluid greedily even as the other larvae swarmed the incubator, seeking their own meals.

There were other incubators in the chamber birthing larvae now, and some with larvae crawling over them questing for food. Several shrieks and screams echoed from various different points of the chamber as incubators came into close proximity to the fat white larvae for the first time, before they had feeding tubes inserted into their mouthparts, effectively gagging them and muffling the uncomfortably loud piercing sounds which were making their broods squirm and chitter anxiously.

She was pleased to see her own incubator among this group, and could not help watching it closely as the first larvae emerged. It trembled and shook and screeched like all the others, but its feeding tube was soon in place and its dangling thoracic sacs were welling with honey-fluid. The first larvae were feeding before the last ones emerged, crawling over the incubator’s soft-shelled shaking body as they waited for their own turn to suckle.

She found herself fluttering her wings and rubbing her forelimbs, nervous larval behaviour of her own, until the last incubator had its feeding tube webbed in place and could no longer produce those loud shrill sounds that were too much like an alarm call. The nervous scent that rolled off each incubator even after it had its feeding tube webbed into place was blanketed by a heavy calming wave of pheromones secreted by each worker present, including herself, as they sought to calm the larvae and the struggling incubators.

The incubators could not produce those sounds while feeding, and each clear feeding tube was soon flowing with the pale blue liquid that would encourage continual production of the honey-fluid so necessary for proper nutrition of the larvae. She was gratified to see each incubator’s thoracic sacs beginning to drip with the white honey-fluid, even as more and more larvae began to squirm free of their incubators while the next few incubators found their larvae beginning to latch on to feed from them.

She did not know how long she watched, but it was almost possible, if she kept her focus on her own incubator, to see the two feeding larvae visibly growing bigger and fatter as they suckled. One could eventually no longer hold onto its host and slipped, hanging from the soft round dangling sac by its mouthparts, which caused the incubator to toss its head from side to side, shaking and shuddering, causing the larva to drag against the chamber’s floor, still feeding. The larva didn’t even seem to notice its change in position; its fat tail was still shaking in ecstasy until it eventually let go, with white fluid dripping onto it from the soft fat honey-fluid sacs until a sibling crawled down around the soft pale carapace of the incubator from its back to latch on in turn even as the sated larva wriggled over onto its stubby legs and crawled back up to join the end of the queue of waiting hatchlings that were squirming over and under the incubator.

Maybe they wouldn’t need the backup supply of honey-fluid after all.

Some of the incubators tried to rise to their rear legs but were pushed down by workers, or held down by the sheer number of larvae surrounding them and crawling over them.

She rippled a question at one of the workers, Can they take another brood while in this state?

The worker’s iridescent carapace went solid black in thought before she rippled back, Yes. The larvae will feed for four cycles, then pupate. Eggs incubate for five cycles. But there will need to be a rest of three cycles without a clutch before they can take another brood, if you want them to last. So you may lay another clutch now, but not again until that clutch has reached adulthood.

That was what she had thought. She left her position on the wall of the chamber and flew down to the incubator she had chosen for hers. It had one larva hanging from each of its thoracic bumps, which were the size of an egg by now, and its stubby mating appendage was hanging limply between its legs. She walked around it, studying it the way she had the first time she’d laid her eggs in it. Its surface was soft, and its abdomen was still a little rounded (though nothing like as rounded as it was when full of eggs) with some pale web-like markings that hadn’t been there the first time. Maybe they signified an adult rather than a larva or something? Its flat eyes were dull, though half its face was obscured by the feeding tube and its webbing. It moaned around the tube as another larva flopped down, distending the thoracic sac as it hung, its mouthparts clamped hard around the sensitive nub, still suckling before drowsily letting go, yielding its place to another.

All her larvae were going to be workers, she was not going to let any of hers become drones, she thought, as she circled behind the incubator and carefully moved larvae aside so that she could access the incubator’s egg tube with her ovipositor.

These larvae would be adults by the time the next clutch emerged, she thought, pushing egg after egg into the delicious tight warmth of the incubator’s egg tube. This was a very different position from the first two times she had laid her eggs in it, but it was just as easy to position all her eggs deep in the creature’s acidic egg sac.

It had a very pleasing bulge hanging beneath it as she moved away, allowing an eager drone to come and pump his fertilising fluid in, further swelling the incubator’s abdomen. When the drone flew away, she could see the dark hard plug sealing the eggs and fluid inside the incubator. A worker flew down with a suction tube and stimulated its mating appendage until it groaned, tensing and relaxing as white salt fluid spurted into the clear tube. The tube was removed and the worker took it to attend to another male nearby; there was far less salt fluid available than sweet honey fluid, but it was just as valuable to the nest and was collected regularly from every male incubator the nest owned.

Her incubator groaned again, rubbing its bulging egg-filled abdomen with a foreleg and shifting under the larvae crawling over and around it, and groaned a third time as it let a thin stream of yellow waste water out of its mating appendage. A cleaner beetle was there almost immediately, sucking it up with its proboscis - the cleaner beetles kept the nest clean because they used the incubators’ waste fluid as their own nutrient supply. It was a good arrangement - and it didn’t matter too much if the beetles laid their eggs in unoccupied incubators, either, because the nest could always use more beetles.

She returned to the nursery chamber every brightday, sometimes finding several incubators lying on their sides on the chamber’s floor. The first time she saw this, she was alarmed, until one of the junior workers told her to observe more closely. She did so, seeing the creature’s side rising and falling, and that the larvae did not seem in distress but were continuing to feed as frantically as though their host were still moving around the chamber.

It is a rest period. Each incubator does this once a brightday, for the whole darktime. We cannot feed them then, but they still produce the honey-fluid - look.

One larva had sated itself and let go, and the thoracic swelling was still leaking the white fluid so necessary to the nest’s survival.

It was nearly four cycles now since this nursery chamber had been opened for use. Some incubators were still moving, but much more slowly, their abdomens huge with eggs, their sucking larvae dragging along the floor, tails waving lethargically. It could not be long at all before the first ones began to spin their cocoons. Even as she watched, the first larva did begin, the webbing silk emerging from its tail and enfolding it before hardening into the dark cocoon that would be the final stage before adulthood.

A worker waited nearby as each cocoon formed, flying the hardened cocoon to the prepared cocoon rack and webbing it in place. Once an incubator had no larvae left to feed, it was gathered and webbed to the wall by its four soft limbs, with a further band above the bulge of its abdomen, its nutrient supply switched solely to the pale green nourishing fluid designed specifically for egg incubation, and suction cups fitted to its swollen thoracic sacs to gather all the honey fluid produced, though that was in reduced quantities now to give the incubators time to recover.

It would be an additional cycle before these eggs hatched, but while this new brood fed as larvae, the incubators would remain empty of eggs, and then the breeding cycle could begin again. She suspected that the salt fluid from the male incubators would still be collected even during this rest period, though, and probably also the honey-fluid that males and females both produced in such quantities.

It was a good system, she thought, and would ensure several healthy broods, and keep the incubators healthy for many many seasons to come.