One year after the end of the world, the Hive begins to starve.
They are not the first: the world ends in winter. The colony prepares, as it always does, and its stocks of honey tower, leaking soft and sweet down walls and cells. Their home smells of comfort. The workers cluster to their queen, warm each other, whisper and hum. Theirs becomes a furred, compact world, measured in rolling wave-like rotations from outside to in, so no bee ever freezes. They sing of the springtime. They cluster and quiver and warm their honey, drinking it soft and golden like the evening rays of late summer suns. The world ends, and they do not see it.
Spring comes. The flowers do not bloom, and the sun is weak and wavering. The colony huddles. It weathers. And as the forest begins to wilt, the ants and worms retreating deep inside the newly tainted earth, the leaves rotting on their branches, they weather while the honey runs low.
When they leave at last, the light is weak, the land is quiet, and the birds have been eaten by shadows. The world has ended. The colony continues.
The humans have many, many stories about the bees. They are winged goddesses, the bringers of prophecy. They are priestesses and guides and killers of demons. They are the tears of the sun god on a hot desert sand, and the planters of the seeds from which the first humans came. Forty-thousand years ago, they gave their wax to the spear-makers. The carvers of hieroglyphs took their forms and wrote them into pharaoh’s names. The colony is older than memory. So, at the end of memory, when the leaves are afraid to rustle and the sun is tired, tremulous, the bees continue.
But the Hive is starving.
Now the workers leave their home and venture outwards. Through the spindly grasping trees that bleed a sticky red sap-substitute; past the rivers choked and dammed with the dead. Over wilted gardens and fields, the grass burnt black, strands snapping as they sway. Someone has summoned a magic from its sleep, coaxed it out into the light and set it loose, unleashed. It is eating the world.
The humans survive, as they always do. Though their cities are broken, ground down to scrap, and they make their homes in hidden places where they think they won’t be found. But the magic finds them too, and they are changed.
Everything has changed.
And today the Hive hunts humans.
It wraps itself in human clothes, retrieved from the bodies by the river, washed by a hundred tiny legs, dried with fanning wings. It has practiced the human shape; the walking takes a week to master, and its arms still aren’t quite right. It stuffs itself into gloves, boots, a wide-brimmed hat and scarf, unfortunate workers protesting at the heat, clinging to each other for shape.
They are all workers. The male drones are mindless; they do not think except when the queen tells them to think, and they do not leave the home. The larvae are too small, too helpless, and too few. The queen herself cannot afford to step beyond her waxwork walls. They would crumble without her.
The workers should scout pollen and nectar; there is none to be had. Instead they dress in human clothes, stand by the river and practice the human speech they have gathered instead of food. Hello, and How are you, and Run! Run!
In keeping with current fashions, they shape a mask from greenish leaves, bark, mud and dry gold grass. This, to cover the face they will pretend to have. The humans do much the same, these days.
The Hive will hunt them. It doesn’t want to; doesn’t outright tell its queen what it will do, as it dons its ragged human clothes and hums to soothe its suffocating selves. It feels a sense of shame; collective, magnified.
But it is starving, and the flowers are all gone.
It staggers through the woods, remembering the steps it practiced, trying to simulate weight and balance from a thousand buzzing, bumbling workers. It hums a tune. It practices speech. It passes by the darkened patches of bracken and moss, and it never, ever, steps in shadow.
It skirts the ruined city. That place isn’t safe. It doesn’t want to enter. There will be humans inside, but there will also be un-humans, and the latter make the workers shake with fear. The Hive moves on. It looks for movement, checks the paths and forest trails; a deer would be better than a human. A cow, a fox, a rabbit. It doesn’t want to hurt a human. But it’s hungry. The comb is running dry. The larvae’s pleas grow pitiful.
In its pocket, it carries a tiny hunk of honeycomb, no larger than a walnut. A bribe; a gift; an enticement. Its scent makes the Hive rumble, hungry. But there isn’t enough for all, so none will eat.
There is a bridge leading into the city. Somehow it still holds, though the river it crosses is murky, bubbling, sulphurous yellow. A human woman stands in the middle. She sees the Hive approach, and raises a hand in greeting. Her mask is leather, well-crafted; her eyes are hidden by a black mesh stretched across the mask’s inside. She shows no skin at all. This is normal.
The Hive pauses. Consults. Struggles for consensus. Some wish to disengage, disintegrate and flee to the home, to quiver in the tunnels and cells, to comfort the larvae with empty hums and hunger. They are outnumbered, and yield to the majority. A decision is made: they will attempt to…converse. Slowly, the Hive steps onto the bridge.
There is some debate on the subject of plurals and pronouns. The Hive is a collective, a cradle of corridors humming with life like sparking synapses; a consensus of alike individuals who speak and sing and dance and feed, and know no silence for as long as they live. There is no I, or me. Only a shared mind milling with multitudes, where new ideas come slow and sticky, and no one thinks as one.
But the Hive agrees: to harmonise, allowances must be made. It must be an I, so as not to draw the eye. It must blend, like a bird in the bracken.
It approaches the woman on the bridge.
“Hello,” it says, and it is pleased, because it has practiced speech, and the result is satisfying. Its words are light, like a wing on the breeze; sweet and warm, like molten honey. “Can you give…me directions?”
The woman nods to indicate assent. “Of course. Where are you going?” She speaks so softly. Her words have a silky note to them, a shimmering that draws the ear. The Hive leans closer.
“To the Dying Forest,” it says, although this is not the true name of its home, and it dislikes having to call it so. “My brother went there yesterday, and he hasn’t come back. I am afraid.”
“Yes,” the woman agrees. “That is frightening.”
The Hive has not prepared for this halt in conversation. It convenes, briefly, and fashions a response. “I am afraid,” it repeats, in the hopes of emphasising the urgency of its mission.
“What’s your name?”
Again, an unexpected twist. The Hive hums its distress, quivers its collective wings to cool its overstressed minds. What is a name to a collective? Are they not one and all alike? Does a tree give names to its individual leaves, as they flutter and rot and fall with the wind? What is a name? Why should it need one? What sort of name would suit a human? It has never met one before now, and thus does not know.
“Bee,” it says, flustered, a-buzz. “We are Bee.”
The woman watches. “Beatrice?” she suggests. “That’s a common name. Bee for Beatrice?”
Saved. The Hive agrees that this new name is suitable. “Yes,” it says. “Bee for Beatrice.”
“I thought you might be,” the woman says enigmatically. “You look it.” She tilts her head slowly, the leather of her mask a dull shine in the sunlight. Her voice is still so soft, and again the Hive leans in to hear her. “I thought you were dead. So many are.”
This is a fact. The humans are so few, these days. Once they worshipped the Hive, fed it and warmed it and gave it new homes. Once the humans called the workers goddess and priestess, the salt of the weeping sun god, she who stings the demon. Those were very good days; the Hive whispers, and agrees: it is mourning. It wishes the shadows had stayed in the shade. They were not so easily kept as bees.
“Not dead,” it hums. “Not today. Not tomorrow, we hope.”
The woman nods. “The forest, you said. Do you need a guide? I could come with you.”
This is progress. Much faster than expected, on a quest where success was always deemed unlikely. A desperate attempt, carried out in secrecy and shame when there seemed no other option. But it is done. And it is easy. The Hive hangs its head, and recites, “Yes. Please come with me. I am lost.”
It does. It is glad that the woman does not ask to touch it; scouts have observed many times that contact among humans is common, and different. They do not huddle, thorax to thorax, antennae slipping and sliding, wings entwined in the cold. They touch hands and arms. Sometimes they exchange hugs. Sometimes they fight, but their skins are soft and malleable, like wax, and they lack the suicide stingers of the Hive’s defence, and their battles are won in bruises and blood. They lack fur and abdominal plate. They are warm and sometimes damp, and above all they are different. The Hive is glad not to touch this woman. It does not think it will convince.
She leads the way through the stone city, her boots crunching on broken pebbles and scattered shards of marble, cracking like shells. She is clever; she skirts a blackened patch of earth, where the magic bubbles, beguiling, slowly stripping the skin from a captured mouse. She does not step in shadows.
The city is so silent. Even the sporadic humans are absent today. No doubt they hide in their own hives, holding their children, hoping. They have learned, as the Hive has learned, that some days are very bad for venturing outside. Often they are better at knowing than the Hive itself. If today is such a day, then it has made a mistake in wandering.
There are so many shadows in the world.
It hums to comfort itself. In response, the woman starts to sing under her breath. It’s a soft sound, high and lovely, and just a bit too quiet to hear. The Hive drifts closer. It finds itself soothed. It wonders if it should offer her a piece of precious honeycomb, in exchange for the song. And in apology. Collectively it hums in misery, regret, and shame; it shares a mutual whisper that the world is not what it used to be. That it misses the flowers.
“Yes,” says the woman, cutting off her song. “I miss them too. And the rain. I remember how the droplets used to glisten when the dawn came. I remember the shimmer of sunlight and silk. I remember being alone. It was better that way.”
“No,” the Hive says. “Alone is not right. One must be many.”
“For you,” says the woman. “Not for me. We’re very different. And also the same.”
She leads them out of the city, the cracked, crazed stones swallowed up by the trees. Here the wood is a naked thing, twisted by spellwork, burnt and still burning. The knots are shaped like crying mouths. The remnant leaves weep in the wind. The sap congeals like day-old blood. This is their home now.
“Do you remember the devastation?” asks the woman. “I don’t, and I do. Most of me was sleeping. Some awake; that part is mad, now. It gnaws at my legs and eyes, though I push it constantly back to its place. It trembles and whispers words that sour my weaving, and then I have to silence it and start again.”
Weaving is a concept the Hive understands, though its application is somewhat different. The one weaves among the many through the corridors and cells, past the larvae and the drones. The worker weaves in the bee dance to map out the where of good pollen and nectar. The swarm weaves around and about its queen, waxworking comb to form a new nest. Weaving gives life; the Hive understands.
“Tell me about your weaving,” it requests.
The woman dips a hand into the pocket of her heavy coat. She withdraws it. In her glove, she has a tangle of threads.
“I can’t show you real weaving,” she says. “Not like this. But I found thread in an abandoned home in the city; it will have to do.” She takes the thread between her fingers and starts to weave.
The Hive moves closer to watch, humming soft appreciation. She is a master at work, an artist with thread. She folds and twists and twines, pulls and wraps, and the weave begins to take shape around fingers that flicker as fast as gossamer wings. Between her hands, she shapes a web.
“Beautiful,” the Hive tells her, because it is true.
“Useless,” she responds. “Nothing sticks to this thread, and it falls apart as soon as it leaves my fingers. Beauty is fine, but I am starving, same as you.”
The Hive confers, contends, concludes. It does not wish to harm this woman. It has never wished to harm anyone, and would not do so if the flowers were not gone, and the waxwork crumbling from its home. Hunger has brought it low, taught it shame. The Hive’s hearts ache.
From its pocket, it pulls the scrap of honeycomb.
“A gift,” it says. “We have nothing else.” It offers her the comb.
She shakes her head. Folds the string up between her fingers and pushes it back into her pocket, and then makes a similar pushing gesture at the proffered gift. “No,” she says. “I can’t eat that, though I wish I could. I’m sorry. I know what it must have cost you to offer. Take it home to those that need it.”
There are few enough of those. The larvae die in droves, faster than their queen can lay. Some of hunger, some of sickness, some of the silent sadness that pervades the colony. And some are killed. They have to be. They have mutated.
“We’re here,” says the woman abruptly, and the Hive comes to a halt. It’s true; they have arrived. The colony sits in the hollow of a slowly dying tree, golden and humming. The wax is brittle, cracking at the edges. The buzz of welcome is a muted, desolate thing. The Hive is ashamed.
“We were better in the past,” it says, and remembers. A hundred thousand flowers and filaments, the scent of pollen on the breeze, the beating of wings and the song of the queen. All the memories slightly different; together, they cluster and cling and, united, they form the whole. “We were healthy, and proud. We did not need to fear the shadows. We did not need to kill our twisted young. And we did not hunt humans.”
“Times change,” the woman says. “But you have changed too slowly. Too late. You should have gone to the mosquitos and learned the ways of blood. The caterpillars could have taught you of leaves. You clung to your flowers too long, and now the ones who might have helped you will only eat you too.”
“We couldn’t forget the flowers,” the Hive says. “The spreading of pollen, the propagating flight. Because when we do forget, then the world is truly finished. Who will wake the springtime?”
“The spring is gone. The shadows ate it.”
“No,” the Hive insists. It speaks as one, its words shaking with the force of a thousand wings whirring combined. “We remain. We change and adapt, and we suffer, but we remain. We will bring the flowers back.” It confers again and finds itself united; among the many, not one dissenting voice is raised. It reaches a decision. “You can leave now,” it says. “We are sorry for what we tried to do. We are not your enemy.”
The woman watches. She says nothing for the longest time; the Hive buzzes and hums and huddles for comfort. It whispers that the queen will not be pleased. It agrees that she will understand, when they explain. They will have to hunt again tomorrow.
“I don’t know where the flowers are,” the woman says at last. “I’ve asked. I’ll keep asking until someone tells me. But in the meantime, you will have to make some changes.”
“We know,” says the Hive. “But we don’t know how.”
“I’ll teach you.”
The woman takes her mask between her gloves, and pulls it free. With it slides her wide-brimmed hat, the scarf around her neck, the black mesh that lined the mask and shielded her eyes from view. Her many eyes. She blinks, and she is neither a she, nor a woman.
“You have a lot to learn,” say the spiders. Their voices overlap, a silky whisper, a hint of scuttle. Like the Hive they are a multitude, but not a we, or a collective in uniform shades of gold, black and brown. They twitch and move and clamber over each other, each distinct and different. They are green and brown and black and red and dozens of shades in between. Smaller than bees, larger than birds. They glisten with gossamer threads of spider silk. The Hive confers, and agrees: the spiders are very lovely.
“We hope you will not eat us,” the Hive says. “We’re not worth the effort.”
“No,” the spiders say. “I wouldn’t. You have to bring the colour back into the world. I will guard you. I will weave around your broken hive, and close the holes with web. I will join you in the cold nights, and you and I will warm your wax. I will bring you to the moths, and they will teach you how to eat from leaves and mutant fruit. If I find them, I will bring you flowers.”
This sounds very much like a discussion for the queen. But she is asleep inside her tunnels, exhausted by her frantic, fruitless laying, and the Hive confers. It doesn’t take very long.
“We could protect you,” it says. “Our workers and drones could keep your silk intact. We could herd your meals towards the webs, and help you with the harnessing. We could help you clean the scraps away, just as we clean our own home.” It reaches for its mask of leaves and mud and grass, pulling it free. It sheds its awkward clothing, humming with relief, stretching wings and legs, fluttering antennae. It buzzes towards the spiders.
It is strange, but they seal their partnership as humans do, with touch. Leg to leg, antenna to mandible, appendages weaving and waving.
They have no names to share, but they start to learn each other. Even among the many of the Hive, there are still individuals. She is an expert pollen finder, and she can fly for hours without rest, and she is the larvae’s favourite for her humming, and she has the clearest bee dance, and she once led her sisters into battle against a wasp and lived. The spiders have their own stories: she has the strongest silk, and she builds beautiful miniature webs, and she has eaten several males after mating, and she is one of the mad few who witnessed the devastation, and she is as large as fifty bees combined, and soft besides.
The queen, when they tell her, is wary, but graceful in her weariness. There isn’t much she can do about it and, anyway, the workers are quite badly smitten, and their pleas are very moving. She dissembles, hums disapproval, admits defeat. The spiders enter the colony. They begin to weave.
The Hive adapts to these new neighbours quickly enough, though it is often confused by the new concepts that are waved in front of it, fluttering idle like stray threads. The bees are one among many; the spiders, a many of ones. The spiders are an I, never a we. They are very sure of this, though the Hive has asked several times to make sure. There is no spider colony; they divide and disperse, stringing up their webs like netting in all corners of the forest. They will return to help when help is needed. Otherwise, most prefer to be alone.
But not all.
She is sprightly, swift, and venomous; she joins the colony’s defence force, and shares in the war stories and reminiscing. She has never killed a human, but she claims to have scared off dozens with an unexpected leap and flick of her mandibles. This is highly impressive; the guards hum their united approval, and admire her fangs. One darts forward to touch them with a trembling foreleg, quivering as she does. The spider lets her do it, and very kindly doesn’t bite.
She is small, brown, and unremarkable, her webs flimsy but prolific; they tatter in the breeze, and she casts herself out on one daring line to begin repairs. She builds in the branches above the colony, an aerialist in the leaves. Several workers stop by frequently to commiserate the broken webbing, and wag their antennae as she repairs the gaps. They agree: she is determined, unyielding, undefeatable. They sit on a branch and hum to her as she weaves.
She is as large as a blackbird, furred in red-and-brown, looming like a monument; rumours say she eats mice. But she is as soft as bumblebee dander, and she dislikes the cold. The colony consults, and converts a section of wax into a chamber she can enter, and as the days grow colder they are glad of her. She stretches her many legs out and lets the workers clamber all over her, huddling for heat. They teach her to hum. Her buzzing rocks the colony walls like a cradle.
She is a third of the size of a bee, but she leaps a hundred times her own height, and she is fond of the larvae in their little wax cells. She sits with the queen and sings to them. She doesn’t know the bee songs, mellifluous and mellow, but she sings them her own: whimsical threads of jumping tune that cling to the waxwork for days. She sits and listens as the queen tells the bee stories:
In the distant, near-forgotten days, the humans would trade their most important events for our honey. Their unions and births, their guests and departures. Their deaths most of all; they knew that we would want to mourn with them, and they would tell us. Some would hum the sad songs, and hang our homes with black. Some would tap upon our roofs and tell us (quietly, so as to show respect) that one of their household was dead. If a keeper died, we would share in the mourning feast, and they would turn our home to watch the last farewell. It was important to tell us; failing to do so would bring bad luck on us and them, and any other who kept us. They knew to put the bees into mourning. And we loved them, and mourned when we were asked to, because we knew they had asked no one else.
“Very nice,” says the spider, and twitches her legs to convey admiration. “Spider stories are much less impressive. Did you know there once was a human who was turned into a spider because her weaving was too lovely? I know; I don’t believe it either. No human could weave like a spider. It’s a silly story, anyway. What? You want to hear it?”
“Yes,” say the larvae from inside their wax cocoons.
“Yes,” say the workers, cleaning their colony.
“Yes,” says the queen. She folds her forelegs and sits by the spider. “We’ve never heard this story before. Will you tell us?
And the spider spins her tale.
Sometimes, the Hive and the spiders fetch their human clothes from a hollow in a dying tree, and swarm and skitter to fill them. They wear gloves and scarves, boots and hats. They fix their masks to their faces (nothing strange about this, all humans wear them these days) and practice their speech. They stagger, stumble, straighten, and walk. They traverse the countryside together, crunching black grass and twig under their boots, because it is far safer to travel in pairs these days. The Hive gathers sweet leaves and shoots, overripe and mutated fruit, and their insides change to digest them. The spiders gather meat.
They are careful not to step in the shadows.
“Have you seen flowers?” the Hive asks everything it comes across. Crippled birds and feral cats, humans in their masks. “We’re looking for flowers. Any kind will do.”
“Have you seen flowers?” the spiders croon to the bats, rats, and stunted deer that wander into their glistening gossamer nets, and do not leave. “My bees are looking for them. Wilted, diseased, or changed; any kind will do. Have you seen them? No? That’s a shame. Maybe the next one will know. Sleep now.”
The sun rises and sets in a lurid shade, marigold-orange, hibiscus-red. The distant clouds squat on the horizon, soft and fat and shaped like trees, growing ever further away. The shadows shiver and squelch, reaching beguiling arms towards the unsuspecting. The nights are a muted silence, like soft winter snowfall. When the cold comes, the bees retreat to their home, where the wax is crumbling, and the walls are more than half web. Some of the spiders go with them. The honey is long gone, but they have stocks of rotting and sun-dried fruit, and when those run empty the spiders bring them more-
She who is large as a bird, furred and friendly, extricates herself from a protesting bundle of bees and scutters out into the cold. Her legs sink into frost-bitten leaf litter. She hunts mice. Once she has hunted, she climbs into the trees and bushes, and tugs at stunted citrus and undersized pomegranate. She carries them back to the bees. And when the bees cannot gnaw their way through peel, she works her prodigious fangs into the fruit, sputtering as the juices soak her. She doesn’t mind too much. The workers will clean her.
She who reweaves her weak threads in the night, as the day winds scatter them, brings dewdrops down to the home, sitting pearl-like on leaves. She does this for hours, up and down the trunk, dragging her leaves. She’s happy to do it, she says. She misses the bees who would hum as she wove.
She who is venomous, alarmingly coloured, and the last remaining guard of the colony; all the rest are shivering inside. She scouts perimeters, scares off ants, savages roaches and rats twice her size. She brings her war tales back to the home, and the drowsy guard bees listen and hum. She enjoys her self-assigned role. She swears to her bees that she will bite anything that comes close.
She who is smaller than a larva, and sits in the center of the home with the queen, whispering stories as the workers swap shifts, moving in waves, taking their turns on the cold outside. The bee tales are older than memory, but spider tales are different. Their legends twist and turn on themselves, narrative threads building to form a pattern, a whole, and the meaning is never clear until the entire work is done. The spider tales take days to tell. The bees whisper them on to their siblings who cannot hear them. It is a cold, hungry winter, but it is not bad. They confer, and decide that they would not have it any other way.
The rivers are murky, but there are very few bodies floating down their currents and curves. The trees have started to change; they bleed when their twigs break, but their leaves are green and do not rot until they have fallen. The grass is stubborn; new strands peek through the brown-and-black landscape, reaching for a sun that is brighter than it was. There are butterflies. Their wings have too many folds, their legs have too many teeth, but they are butterflies nonetheless.
The spiders don their human clothes and go walking. They are gone a long time; several days pass, and the bees grow fretful. They tidy and clean and bother the queen with their pining. They peek outside the home, fly out in groups, return disappointed. Nothing is the same without the spiders. The home is not home anymore.
When the spiders come back, they chatter and click with excitement.
The Hive forms a shape it hasn’t practiced in months, head and arms and legs, tottering. “Hello,” it buzzes. “Welcome home. Please don’t leave us again.”
“I was walking,” say the spiders. “I spoke to the moths and the butterflies, the bats, the hawks. I spoke to humans, in their mud-and-leather masks. But they weren’t you, and I am glad to be home.”
The Hive hums affection. It is sluggish still, pushing off the winter cobwebs, dusting the wings. It is looking forward to travelling with the spiders on their futile quest, through the land that changes and changes, and the shadows they must not step into.
“We missed you,” the Hive says. “Where did you go?”
“Hunting. Looking. Finding.”
The spiders reach into a pocket of their tattered old coat. From it, they withdraw a bundle of hope, tied with silk thread.
“I brought you flowers,” say the spiders. “Do you like them?”