The blistering sun gleamed off the black scales of Soldier 1077’s riding monitor, flashing in her glassy eyes and baking her ochre chitin. She dipped a clawed hand into a tub of black grease and rubbed it on the ridges under her eyes and above her mandibles. The monitor’s long, bony spine rolled back and forth as its claws found purchase in the dry, brittle scrub, and 1077’s joints ached from rocking with its movements.
1077 checked inventory again, her memory always growing hazy every few hours of the journey. She ran her hand across the belt of shells. 12 left. She checked again. Yes 12. More than enough for, what was it? She unfolded the rawhide map tattooed with dotted lines and crosses in red ink. 3 sheds. Yes 3.
She drew her lever-action 8 gauge from its cracked leather holster and checked the action several times. It clicked smoothly, with no trace of jamming. She’d traded it from the ape-kin for a year’s worth of sheddings, her life savings. At fourteen months, 1077 was older than all in the colony but the queen, and sacrificing a few comforts was well worth the time the shotgun had added to her service.
All memory of luxuries and leave-time faded quickly, the only strong memories she could hold were the action and the Queen. The action she learned from, the Queen she loved. A deep primal love, a desire not to please, but to serve. The Queen’s word hung in her brain for weeks, long after anything else had faded.
The taste of fear pheromone split 1077’s mouth and her musings. The hairs on her back and upper arms stood on end. She slipped five shells into the 8 gauge without looking, her eyes darting around the scrub and burnt gums.
The beaten yellow path in the scrub twisted around a fallen gum and a red rock outcropping. Dark wet splashes crossed the path and led into the bush. 1077 pulled on the reins of her monitor and tasted the air. The pheromones followed the trail of splashes to her left. She jabbed her monitor with a tranquiliser and it fell to its stomach, billowing out a cloud of dust.
1077 swung down from her saddle, draping the belt of shells over her shoulder and swinging the 8 gauge from side to side with her right arms. She called out into the bush, her voice a series of clicks and high-pitched scrapes.
“Queen Misery of Guilt, report.”
There was no reply.
1077 stepped into the brush, using her lower left arm to push spikey grass out of the way while she held the shotgun with her right. Past a thick hedge of lantana, on a mound of gravel under a paperbark, were the thorax and head of an ochre-coloured Soldier. Long dead, but arms still seeming to claw for a text-caster just out of reach.
She tasted the Soldier, then reached down and picked up the text-caster. Random characters on an unsent message. She walked back to the Soldier, hefted her body face up. A haemorrhage lance lay snapped in half beneath. 1077 checked the map again twice. The forage shed was just around the corner.
She swore, a series of slow clicks. Making her way back to the monitor, she buttoned up the found text caster in the woven sack on the back of her saddle, and strapped her own over her left shoulder. She unsheathed her sting, just in case. A last resort that was equally deadly for both parties. 1077 made round the corner, swinging the 8 gauge at each blind spot she passed.
The shed was buried in a pile of lantana and broken branches. Its corrugated iron walls had a patina of patchy red and yellow rust. The door had been torn open, and hung by one twisted hinge. The shed was deceptively small from the outside, with only the entrance peeking out from the vines, but inside was enough foraging equipment for 70 or so Workers, smaller and more vulnerable than 1077 and the rest of the Soldiers.
1077 tasted the air again. A strong scent. Female. The taste of spit and battery acid. It was a scent not many recognised. Usually only the nomadic males holed up in the forage sheds, and either moved along after a brief respite or were cleared out by patrolling Soldiers.
Females mostly stuck to their own territories, the cracks and caverns and underground seas of the deep beneath, relying on the males that crept up to them in hopes of reproduction for sustenance. A female on the surface hadn’t been encountered in many of 1077’s lifetimes, and she had only seen one, once on a low patrol.
They hadn’t bothered trying to fight on that patrol, though several Soldiers were present. They caved the tunnel and dug in a different direction.
1077 stepped into the shed, her eyes fading gradually from colour to grey as they picked out detail in the dark. Thick cords of silk were strung taught across the wide concrete floor. Broken harvesting equipment covered with a sheet of web created a mountainous grey landscape. The husks of males, half again as big as 1077, were strung from the ceiling, nine legs curled around them and eyes white and drained of liquid.
1077’s body pressure increased. The memories of action flooded back. Vivid images flashed in her mind’s eye, and she had to fight not to dodge phantom blows.
She moved further into the dark, 8 gauge shaking in her claws, stepping where the web was thinnest. There were no signs of life or movement, not even the webs stirred in the still and stagnant air. She entertained the briefest hope that the female had moved on, that maybe the Soldier had proved more trouble than the shed was worth.
The landscape of web rose in a circular crest, then dipped down to a wide hole. Filling its centre was a frieze of fractal ridges on a circle of grey carapace. 1077 froze, her body still but her antennae flailing. The circular pattern lifted slightly, revealing the massive, deep black abdomen it was connected to. A hairy claw slipped out. She readied the shotgun.
It sprang, faster than anything she’d seen, faster than the trigger on her shotgun. Eleven black, furry legs scrambled wild across the web, swinging out and sweeping 1077 under fat mandibles and a mess of milky, oozing eyes. The female was monstrous, easily the size of the biggest of the Worker’s harvesting equipment. Bigger than the queen, though ugly and malefic where the queen was beautiful and maternal. Smaller males clung to the jagged bristles that jutted from the female’s carapace. Every interlocking part of the female moved rapidly and randomly, and screamed violence.
1077 braced herself under the female with her legs and lower arms. Four glassy fangs extended from the female’s maw, dripping a slow and painful liquidation from the inside out. 1077 planted the 8 gauge in the gap between the female’s thorax and abdomen, and fired, pulling the action down quickly and getting three shots through. The first two sprayed shards of carapace and droplets of ichor all over her, the recoil sending the third up the female’s side and shearing the mandibles off a stray male.
The female stamped down on 1077’s upper left arm, crushing chitin and tearing it and the belt of shells away. 1077’s legs spasmed and she dragged herself out from under the female with her arms, still gripping the shotgun and text-caster tightly.
The female drew back, legs coiling and ready to spring. 1077 lifted herself to her feet, legs still spasming and making her wobble in place.
The female sprung. 1077 loosed her last two shells into the female’s pus-seeping eyes and fell onto her back, slipping under and digging her sting into the gap in the female’s carapace. The sting dug into flesh, hooked and tore out of 1077’s abdomen.
The female’s bristles vibrated, making a loud and low hum. She flailed and drew back, leaving 1077 prone in the middle of the shed. The males abandoned the female’s back, crawling across the floor and up into the roof, randomly placed eyes glinting in 1077’s grey vision. The female pulled into the corner and curled up, forelegs covering her face, as if in shame.
1077’s legs were uncontrollable now, thrashing in all directions. She glanced over at the belt of shells, still draped over her severed arm. It was too far, too close to the female, who still shook and hummed deafening death cries. 1077 dragged herself back with her lower arms, still pointing the shotgun at the males. They hadn’t worked out she was dry of ammo yet, but it wouldn’t be long.
A trail of her life fluids extended from the torn hole in 1077’s abdomen across the floor of web and concrete. She got her back against the corrugated iron wall, baking hot to the touch from the harsh sun above. She unslung the text caster from her shoulder, her claws fumbling over the keys.
She tried to think, her thoughts slipping, of all the things she wanted to say to her love, her duty. The fate she cleaved to. She felt things she couldn’t quite understand. 1077 wrote.
“Action required. Forage Shed 37 West Kingdom.”
She looked up at where the 8 gauge was pointing. The males were making tentative steps down the strands of silk to the floor.
“I’m sorry,” she added to the message, and sent it.