Rick is a Peacekeeper--an officer of the law. He guards the remnants of civilization in a city that is the last bastion standing after the cataclysmic events of the far future. One fateful night he meets Andy, a mysterious young man who seems too good to be true... and who may endanger the lives of everyone Rick has sworn to protect. But Andy knows things about Rick's city that he ignores, including the monstrous secret hiding deep underground...
This is the final chapter of 'Spark'. Any comments or questions can be directed to the author at nothlit(at)hotmail(dot)com
This is a work of fiction. Any resemblance to real people or events is entirely coincidental.
"Rick! Rick, please wake up!"
I grunted, then tried moving slightly. The anxious voice had woken me up, but I wasn't sure I wanted to awaken.
"Rick? Give him some more water, Dean. I think he can hear us."
"Is that a gunshot wound on his arm?"
"Yes. I think. Rick? I'm going to prop your head up to give you some water. Okay?"
"What...?" I mumbled. I cracked my eyes open a little bit and cringed when I saw very bright sunlight shining straight down on my face. I shut my eyes again and tried to sit up slightly. I felt Andy's hands on the back of my head, propping it up. Then I felt something against my lips. A bottle.
The second the cool liquid touched my mouth, I began to gulp greedily, reviving with each mouthful of blessed water. I could not stop drinking. My stomach growled and I felt a cramp threatening, but I still kept drinking. It felt like the difference between life and death.
"Take it easy, man," a different voice said. "You were pretty dehydrated. I did give you an emergency IV but you were nearly gone."
I opened my eyes again, carefully. A shadow covered the sun and the light wasn't shining in my face anymore. I could see Andy inches away, holding the bottle so I could drink. To the side, on my left, was a stranger who looked a lot like Andy. It had to be Dean.
I drained the bottle. Andy took it away, and I was able to sit up all the way on my own after a bit. I felt woozy. I saw another bottle lying there and I took it. I drank it all; this bottle was not only water. There was something salty mixed in with it, and I recognized the flavor of electrolyte powder.
"What happened?" I whispered after I had finished. I had meant to speak louder, but my throat felt raw.
"Dean found us," Andy said, looking at his brother. "He revived me and then started to work on you. I should probably introduce you two: Dean, this is Rick."
Dean edged forward and stretched out his hand with a smile. "You're the guy who saved my life on the radio," he said brightly. "Thank you."
I shook his hand, wishing my pounding headache would go away. I felt hot all over, and the bump on my skull hurt worse than ever. I was alive, though. "From the looks of it, you were just in time to save us," I answered, still a bit groggy. My voice was more steady this time, though.
Dean nodded. "I hurried as much as I could when Andy's beacon started beeping. I thought you would be back at the Plant so I was back there originally, but then the bombs went off... It was madness over there; still is. I thought Andy was dead."
The resemblance between the brothers was strong, but where Andy had a strong brow and a serious expression, Dean was smiling slightly, his features softer than his brother's. They shared the same hair, light brown and slightly curly, but Dean wore his own long, bound back in a ponytail, not like Andy's neat, close-cropped haircut. He was also thin and lanky where his brother was strong and built-up. And he was also much younger than Andy, at least five years from what I could tell. He was practically a teenager still.
"We almost died," Andy told him. "Rick had to drag me through that awful underground trek at one point. The tunnel went on and on... but we had no choice. We had to follow the queen."
Dean caught his breath. "The queen? The queen is alive? How?"
"I don't know," Andy admitted. "She was standing over us when the bombs went off. We would have been crushed otherwise. After the dust settled, she simply start tunneling. We followed."
Dean nodded thoughtfully and took out a small electronic pad. "Of course. They are supposed to have been burrowing creatures originally. A landslide would no more affect her than if somebody had sneezed on her. Nevertheless, we are almost ten kilometers away from the original cave-in. Her burrowing speed must have been—"
I held up a hand. "Kid. Slow down. What's going on back at the city? I'm far more interested in that."
"Peackeepers are trying to get into the Plant," Dean answered vaguely. "They haven't been successful. About the queen, though; if she's alive maybe we can track her! This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and—"
I interrupted. "She's gone. I don't think we would be able to find her even if we tried. We would have to go underground, follow the tunnel again, and trust me: she's a mean bugger. I saw her eat a man today."
Dean blinked, and put down his pad. "Sorry, sir. It's just... I can't believe you actually saw her. Did she interact with you? Is it true that she has a rudimentary level of understanding of what is going on around her?"
I looked at Andy, one eyebrow raised. He shrugged. "I forgot to tell you. Dean is a biologist, the best exobiologist there is on the Mainland, in fact. That was one of the reasons why they decided to take him as a hostage to, well, motivate me to cooperate. He was the source of most of our information regarding the source of spark."
"Is that so, Dean?" I asked him.
He nodded quickly. "Yes. I have studied spark all my life, with a particular emphasis on the queen life form that produces it. She is the last surviving specimen of her species, did you know that? Nobody knows how old she is, and most of the information on her is classified here in the Island, but back home there are certain documents from before the war which I was able to decrypt with Andy's help. Everything about her is amazing. Her incredibly fast healing rate, her theoretically unlimited lifespan, even her parthenogenetic reproduction mechanism. She's a work of art."
"You do seem to know a lot about her," I admitted.
"I had actually requested official permission from the Islander government to come and visit this facility before the Mainlander terrorists got to us," Dean told me. Even though he was young, his demeanor and the way he spoke reminded me of the senior scientists I had met during my training on the Mainland. He frowned as he remembered. "They took Andy first, since they needed an engineer to hack the systems that would allow them to get past the security of the Plant. They only found out we were brothers later, but by then it was too late. They abducted me from the University one night when I was working late. Soon afterwards they made us come here."
"How did you find us?" I asked him. I was not particularly suspicious of the kid, but I wanted to know for sure.
"Andy's beacon, like I mentioned," he explained, taking out a small cylindrical object. "He designed them himself."
"Oh, that's right," I said, remembering the blurry moments right before I had lost consciousness. "You activated it before I blacked out, right, Andy?"
Andy nodded. "It was long shot, but I knew that if Dean was around and able to help, he would come. It was good that he did; I did not pass out like you did, but after an hour or so had gone by I tried waking you up and you wouldn't respond. That's when I noticed that your shirt was caked with blood from when Bentley shot you." He paused, and his look grew more serious. "The shot hit an artery, Rick. You were bleeding out, back there in the tunnel."
I shuddered involuntarily. I remembered how thirsty I had felt, and how weak. Severe blood loss, then.
"I still don't know how you made it," Andy continued. "When I saw how serious it was, how much blood you had lost, I began to freak out. I had no way of carrying you out of here, or of getting water, and I couldn't just leave you. It was awful."
"You should've seen him," Dean said, grinning at his brother. "When I got here he was crouched over you, shielding your face from the sun, your head on his lap. He was crying."
I shot a quick look at Andy, and he gave me a shaky smile. "I thought you were dying," he said, taking my hand in one of his. He squeezed it, and held it. I squeezed back. "I didn't know what to do, and when Dean came I started shouting at him to do something."
Dean nodded knowingly. "Good thing I did know what to do. You were lucky I was carrying emergency field rations and standard-issue equipment. I gave you that IV shot of stimulants as soon as I was able to, and got some liquids into you. It took us the better part of an hour to revive you. To be honest, I thought you wouldn't make it; you looked pretty far gone."
"There's also... something else which you should probably see," Andy said. The tone in his voice was guarded.
"Is something wrong?" I asked quickly.
Andy and Dean exchanged looks. "Not wrong, not exactly," Andy said. "Here, take a look."
Andy grabbed my forearm and turned it so my palm would be facing outwards. He lifted the tattered sleeve of my shirt from it, and I was surprised at how much of the fabric was stained red and maroon with my own blood. My skin was dirty, a mixture of dirt and blood, and when he lifted the sleeve higher I saw a few scars crisscrossing my forearm from where I had cut myself with the sharp rocks and random shards of glass while climbing the tunnel.
"Here," Andy said, lifting the sleeve with one hand and pointing at my biceps with another. "You see it?"
I looked. There was nothing.
"Holy shit," Dean said. "It's gone, Andy. It was faint before, but now it's gone."
"What's gone?" I asked anxiously.
Andy reached out to poke a small circular patch of skin that looked cleaner and lighter than the surrounding area. It was a perfectly circular hole, such as a bullet would make.
Suddenly it hit me. I had been shot in that arm, right there were the new skin was. I could remember the pain still, and there was a slight stiffness to my arm that remained. Cautiously, I flexed the muscle. There was no pain, not anymore. And no wound.
I looked at Andy, and then at Dean, hoping for an explanation. They looked as dumbfounded as I felt.
"It was glowing," Dean said quietly. "That's what we wanted to show you. When I got here, your gunshot wound was still there, but it was glowing."
"We thought it was an infection or something," Andy said. "We cleaned it as best as we could, but even though the wound was there it was not bleeding anymore. I don't know when it stopped bleeding, actually. By the time Dean found us, it had stopped. I had been pressing down on it, trying to staunch the blood flow as soon as I saw that you were bleeding out. Then it closed, all on its own."
"It's just not there," I said softly, running my fingers over my arm. Nothing felt wrong, only slightly tender around the area. "How is it possible?"
"I have a theory," Dean said.
Andy nodded. "He already told me," he told me. "And it makes sense. I don't like it, but it makes sense."
"What is it?" I demanded.
Dean took a deep breath. "It's possible that your exposure to pure, undiluted spark has contaminated you somehow."
"Contaminated?" I asked, dread building in my voice. I had seen spark junkies lying on the sidewalks, seen the ravages that their addiction had caused. At first they would be overly energetic, violent even, but those who had been taking it for more than a few months became little more than mindless beggars—the spark did something to their minds. Would I be like them now?
Dean look uncomfortable as he explained. "After treatment for use as a fuel source, spark is a highly dangerous psychotropic agent," he told me. "I'm sure you know this. Spark addicts tend to be dangerous and unpredictable, and Andy has told me that you're a Peacekeeper. You probably have dealt with them a lot more than I have.
"The same properties that make spark such a valuable electrical catalyst are also responsible for the corruption of the minds of addicts. Spark is electrically unstable, and it causes random electrical synapses to go off in the brain, firing their tiny electrical currents out of sync or on random pathways. When I was studying at the University, I read an old experiment report that proved that refined, treated spark would cause neurological breakdown and dementia in mice when they were exposed to it over a period of several months."
I looked from Andy to Dean. "I've seen that happen to people here. Does that mean the same will happen to us? Both Andy and I were exposed to it."
Andy nodded slowly.
"Dean," I asked. "Are we going to go insane?"
Dean shook his head. "I don't know. Nothing like this has ever happened before as far as I know. Islander scientists would probably know more about this than I would, since you do have the last living surviving queen in here. However, I can tell you this. You were not exposed to the refined form of spark, the one that is actually used in electricity generation. You got it in its pure form, completely biological in origin. Since you're not dead already, it stands to reason that it's not toxic. Also, you did not use a subcranial injection to get it into your system like an addict would. It just got in your eyes and in your mouth. If anything, I think it might have been beneficial. Your wound is gone, Rick. You healed as fast as the queen herself would have. Andy, too. You had lost a lot of blood and were virtually on death's doorstep, but look at yourself now. You're almost well again and it's been less than two hours since I found you half dead. People don't recover that fast."
"But what does it mean?" Andy asked his brother.
Dean shrugged. "Like I said, I don't know. We have no way of knowing how the spark will affect you, and now that the queen has escaped there will be no way to get more samples of spark to analyze the substance from a biochemical perspective so I could tell you more."
His words reminded me that the queen was truly gone. And that in turn reminded me of the fact that an entire city had suddenly been left without its main power source.
"The city," I said suddenly.
"What about it?" Andy said.
I tried to stand up. The wooziness had receded, and I felt stronger already. The only thing that refused to go away was my headache. I succeeded in getting to my feet on the second try.
"We have to do something, go help," I said, already looking everywhere to get my bearings. It was easy enough. A gigantic plume of black smoke was rising up into the sky on the west, where the Plant had exploded. It was further away than I thought I could walk, but I needed to go there and help. Somehow. I started walking.
"Wait, Rick," Andy said, standing up as well and stopping me with his hand. "Where are you going?"
"Back to the city," I said. "The explosions must have collapsed the entire Plant. There may be people trapped there, or even Peacekeepers sent to try and assess the situation who don't know what happened underground. I have to go and help t hem."
"Islanders are all doomed anyway, without the spark," Dean said sadly. "Two or three people more helping with the rescue operations won't make a big difference in the long run."
I whirled on him. "So?" I snapped. "We can't just give up. I can't just stay here and let everybody die. There's got to be something we can do."
"Actually, there is," Dean said. "I was going to suggest it."
"What?" I demanded angrily. I took a step in his direction. "Tell me!"
Dean flinched slightly in the face of my anger, but he held his ground. "We have to find the queen again. Now, before it's too late and she has had time to burrow so deeply underground that we will never find her. The tunnels she is making now are temporary; they will eventually cave in, sealing her from the surface as she builds a nest. When that happens, not even underground thermal imaging will find her. We need to act now, zero in on her position so we at least have that information to bring back to the city. We can make a difference that way. We can help the Islanders by capturing the queen once more."
"Yes," I agreed, seeing the sense of his plan. "We can capture her, if we hurry."
Andy and I staggered physically from the force of the mental impact at the same time. Along with the word rode a vast and unyielding wave of loathing, and anger, and defiance. Sensing it had been as if I had had two people scream the word in my ears on either side simultaneously while a third person punched me in the gut. For a second I simply could not talk. From the way Andy had gone pale, all blood drained from his face, I could guess he had felt the exact same thing.
"What's the matter?" Dean asked anxiously, looking from one of us to the other. "What's wrong?"
"It's her," Andy said quietly.
Dean looked at him, mouth agape. "The queen?"
Andy nodded slowly. "She doesn't want to be captured. But I think... I think I know where she is."
He cocked his head as if listening to something, nodded to himself, and started walking. At first I just stared, but then I heard it, too. Well, I didn't exactly hear it. It was more like an additional sense, something I had never had before, telling me where to go if I wanted to find her. It was like a slight tug from an invisible rope in the center of my chest. All I had to do was follow the direction the tug was coming from.
"Andy? Rick? Where are you going?"
"We can still find her," I said distractedly, trying not to lose the sense of the direction the tug was coming from. It was hard; I felt it coming from below, but it would flicker in and out of my awareness as I walked. It was almost as if the rocks beneath my feet were interfering with the signal somehow, and it was easy to get reception in some areas rather than others.
We were walking back to the original tunnel, Andy slightly ahead of me. As we reached the tunnel mouth, he looked at me and I nodded. Oh, yes. The signal was much stronger here.
"Guys, stop for a second," Dean said behind us. "Stop. You're acting really strange now. What's going on?"
I saw Dean put his hand on Andy's shoulder, but Andy shrugged it off. He tried the same with me, and I pushed it away. Couldn't he see that we needed to act now that the signal was so clear? I stepped into the darkness of the tunnel and Andy followed close behind.
"Stop!" Dean yelled. I heard him scrambling behind us, then stumble in the near-complete darkness of the tunnel. There was no glowing queen to light the way now, and neither Andy nor I were glowing either. We would be going blind into the earth.
I paid no attention to Dean, concentrating instead on listening. There was something...
"Can you hear that?" I asked Andy.
"Yes," he said. I could barely see his face. "She's calling us."
I nodded in the darkness. The tug had become a yearning, and there was something else as well. A sense of stopping, of digging. Of exhaustion. "She's stopping now. Making a nest."
"Let's go," Andy said.
"Andy, stop," Dean protested, shouldering past me to block our way. "Something's wrong with you guys, can't you see it?"
"I don't feel wrong," I said.
"She's doing something to you," Dean told us, still looking the way with his body and his arms outstretched. He was a lighter shadow in the darkness of the tunnel. "Remember what I said about spark? That we didn't know what the consequences would be? I don't like this. It looks like a neural link to me, the way you claim to hear her, but it's simply not possible. There is no transmitter, no receptor anywhere."
Andy tried to push past him, but Dean fought back.
"No! Listen to me, both of you. This connection you seem to have all of a sudden is dangerous. I don't think we should try and follow her anymore. You know where she is; let's go back to the city and come back with a contingent of soldiers that are equipped to deal with this. You can't go any further; the closer you get to her, the stronger the pull will become."
"We need to bring her back," I told him. "You suggested this idea in the first place. Now get out of the way."
"Andy!" Dean pleaded.
"Take my beacon," Andy told him. "Call for help and stay outside the tunnel. Rick and I will go and find her. You will just slow us down."
"I need to do this, Dean," Andy said. "I'm responsible for all of this happening in the first place. We can't leave the city without a power source. I have to try and make it better."
I had started walking before actually deciding to do so; the pull was that strong. Andy followed after giving the beacon to his brother. Then we set out into the darkness.
"Andy! Rick! Dammit!"
But his voice wasn't important. We needed to get there. She was calling.
We walked for a long time in the darkness, side by side in the ever-narrowing tunnel. My weakness from earlier was gone. We were descending, and as we did so the temperature rose slowly but steadily. There was nothing to see, but there was only one way to follow so getting lost wasn't an option. The surface of the tunnel we followed was rough underfoot but sufficiently smooth that we did not once stumble over a fallen rock or trip over a hidden depression beneath our feet. I was on the right side of the tunnel, with Andy on my left and each of us trailing the wall with one hand. I could see nothing, but I could hear Andy breathing beside me. I could sense the slight tremors that shook the walls of the tunnel at regular intervals and which grew stronger the more we walked. I could smell a foreign odor as well, animal in nature, sharp and penetrating. It got stronger as we descended until it permeated the air, saturating our nose receptors so that we ceased to perceive it altogether after several long minutes had passed.
And there was the call, the faint whisper of a summons I could not hear with my ears. She wanted us to come, and there was command but also urgency in the mental link she shared with us. I knew it affected us both because, incredibly, I could sense Andy's mind through her; just a little, no more than a shadow of faint perception, but it was there. In linking with both of us, she had linked us together.
We kept going through the darkness and as we did the walls of the tunnel got rougher and even more narrow. I could tell that the queen had gotten more and more tired as she had burrowed underground. It had been cycles beyond counting since she had last been free to move like this. The growing unevenness of the terrain made it harder to walk, and when Andy tripped the first time I reached out and took his hand in mine to steady him. I wasn't prepared for what happened next.
The faint mental connection between us got stronger immediately. I felt a flash of surprise coming from all three of us: from Andy and me, wonder mixed with fear. From the queen, approving satisfaction. I knew I should have probably been scared of my mind right then, trying to escape what was almost certainly a trap this creature was weaving around us, but it didn't feel wrong. This... link, it was fascinating, and more than that. It was like discovering a sense I had never known I had, a new kind of perception that could link me to other beings.
Almost as an aside, I wondered if I was having hallucinations of some kind. Dean himself had said that spark was a known psychotropic substance. I had seen junkies run straight into deadly traffic fleeing from vivid hallucinations that only they could see. Could this be something like that? Could all of this in my mind?
I shook my head, trying to dislodge the thought. No. This felt real. And I had to keep going, I had to reach the queen whether she was willing to let me or not, because everything depended on her now. The survival of my city was on the line. But what if she was mind controlling me now, somehow? Would I even know?
"It's not like that," Andy said into the darkness. His response felt so natural that it took me a few moments to remember that I had not actually spoken the thought out loud. Yet he had heard it. "I am still myself, with free will. She wants us to come to her, but we can still say no. Watch."
He stopped in the darkness and let go of my hand. Instantly, my awareness of him faded. I stopped as well, uncertain. Then I heard him distinctly retracing his steps, going back to the surface.
I followed him just to find out if I could. I was able to do it just fine. I could still feel the alien call in my mind, but it was a suggestion, not a coercive order. I breathed a sigh of relief. Then Andy came back, and took my hand again. Our mutual link sprung to life again, and with it the awareness of the exhausted creature that was close, very close.
"See?" Andy said. "Stop being so paranoid, Rick. Come on. We have to reach her."
"And then what?" I asked him, knowing full well that the queen was listening in that disjointed, alien way of hers. Even as I thought that, I got a vivid visual image of antennae sweeping the darkness, gathering information on humidity, temperature, vibrations. Here, in the dark tunnels, she could sense everything better than we could. I shuddered involuntarily.
"Then what?" Andy echoed. "Then we see. There has to be something we can do."
"Dean was right," I said. "We have no weapons. She obviously doesn't want to be captured again. What the hell we going to do?"
Andy started walking with me in tow. "Let's find out."
We saw the glow of her nest long before we found it. It lit the walls of the tunnel in soft bioluminescent white and light blue. When we rounded the final corner, we stepped down a small incline and right into a very large, nearly circular chamber that almost looked like a cave, except that it was too regular, too much of a near-perfect sphere to be natural. The walls glowed brightly, all splattered with spark as they were. The glow was brightest at the bottom of the nest, where the spark was thickest, and its light illuminated the hulking, pulsating body of the gigantic queen that was waiting for us.
Lit by this unearthly glow, she looked both more terrifying and more magnificent than I had ever seen her. The strange light illuminated patterns on her carapace that I had not seen before, intricate jagged lines and spirals that reminded me of phosphorescent paint under black light. She was not digging anymore, but had settled her massive bulk against the far end of the nest. As soon as we arrived, she lifted her head with those ever-moving mandibles and looked at us out of her many, many eyes.
I felt Andy grip my hand tighter, and I instinctively stepped forward a little bit, standing between him and the creature. As she saw this futile attempt at protection, I felt mild amusement coming from her mind. She was perfectly aware that she could kill both of us in seconds and there was nothing I could do to prevent it. But still. There have to be some reason why she had called us, some reason when she hadn't simply disappeared underground forever. Why were we here?
Hearing her mind from so close was almost overwhelming. Andy gasped behind me, and I barely managed not to do the same. I had understood a single word as usual, but riding underneath it had been so many things, perceptions my brain had no name for. It was confusing, and I first I thought she had been referring to us as weak.
"She refers to herself," Andy said, knowing my own thoughts as I knew his. I wasn't even sure he was speaking aloud. Then I felt approval from the queen, and then she projected more sensations in quick succession, too many for me to remember at once even with the mental link we were sharing. But together, Andy and I supplemented the other's understanding and I was able to make rough sense of what she said.
She projected faint memories of living underground, then the blur of overwhelming loneliness and tormenting captivity. She projected viciousness, and hunger. There was also understanding of her weakness, and understanding that she could not tunnel far enough to escape humans, not when all other queens in the planet had tried to do the same and been destroyed in the process. She had to do something else, something as alien to her as this mental communion was to me. I felt her struggle to create the concept, drawing knowledge from Andy's mind and mine. Surrounded by glittering spark, her razor-sharp legs close enough to impale both of us faster than we could run, we were completely caught in the majesty and otherness of this form of life as she thought with our brains. None of the other queens had ever communicated is closely with humans before; none of them had ever needed to. This time, however, there was no other way. She had already sent out tendrils of seeker awareness through the entire planet and received no response. She was alone. She had to survive somehow.
The concept was almost formed now, helped along by both our minds. It suddenly clicked into place, this desire of the alien queen, her solution to her impending captivity.
She wanted to make a bargain.
She presented the solution to Andy and me, and without looking at each other we agreed immediately. We did not need to speak; we were linked so closely that merely thinking about the other brought awareness unlike any other I had ever felt. It was communion like I had never known, deeper than anything I had thought was possible to share with another human being. Together, we saw her proposed solution and analyzed it.
We knew that it was not optimal for the people back in the city since she would not be going back into captivity, and that many would still suffer, but only for a time. Her idea was a compromise, a desperate measure. There was no other way. I felt her digging through our minds, evaluating thousands of scenarios faster than a computer could ever do it, and come to the conclusion that our agreement would hold if Andy and I completed our part of the deal. We promised to help her, Andy and I, without speaking a word, and this promise was binding in a way that spoken words could never hope to be. We had been free to accept or reject it, but once freely accepted there was no way but to carry out our duty. Her vast, terrible mind would make sure of that. I couldn't help the thought that flashed through my mind: how would she enforce our cooperation? The answer came immediately. She would show us how.
Abruptly, the queen cut off all contact. She severed the link between herself and us, and the loss of the unity was as shocking as if somebody had dumped a bucket of ice-cold water on me. I knew a moment of complete despair, and I desperately looked at Andy's face only to see that same emotion mirrored in there. It was unbearable. After having sensed him so completely, it was torment to know he was standing right next to me but be unable to feel him like I had. I felt alone, adrift, isolated from the world. I felt trapped in my own senses, lost in crushing loneliness.
Andy stumbled forward and I took him into my arms, hugging him desperately. He returned the hug, even sobbing slightly. I was shaken to the core as well. The cruelty of showing us the magnificence of a sense of communion we had not known we had, only to take it away like that, was beyond words. It felt worse than suddenly going blind, worse than having an arm cut off. My mind screamed inside my skull but there was no way out.
A sinuous, segmented coil of the queen's body shifted position. She lowered her head and turned it slightly so one row of eyes could stare at us in the glow of her own spark. Twin antennae brushed the air around us, stopping and then moving again, smelling, hearing, feeling. She did not speak to us, still cruelly holding herself back, but her message was clear.
I held Andy close to me and wiped a tear from my cheek. "We understand!" I told her as loud as I could. "We will do it, dammit! Just bring it back, please!"
Her mandibles clicked twice. Then she straightened up and suddenly—
Andy shuddered against me with the relief of our renewed connection. I felt his fear at being plunged into loneliness merge with mine, and I also felt the cold amusement of the watching queen. We renewed our promise soundlessly, knowing perfectly well that we would do whatever it took to keep this link intact. The queen allowed herself satisfaction, and her own fear at her fate eased slightly. She had been a cornered animal, forced to do anything to stay alive. The bargain she had struck displeased her, but there was simply no other way. Even with our help, there was no turning back the tide of humanity. At least not now. At least not yet.
Her body shuddered. The spark around us crackled and the stripes running along her abdomen suddenly began glowing brighter even as everything else dimmed. She seemed to be gathering the energy of spark into herself, drawing the brightness into her body and channeling it down her abdomen, focusing it on one single glowing point. Organs that she had not used for many, many years were suddenly shocked into action, and there was pain. There was a lot of pain. Andy and I shared it, cringing, knowing that she was shielding us from the full horror of the spasms that racked her atrophied body so long kept in captivity. She would only be able to do this once for many, many years. But she would do it, or die trying.
The brightness inside her abdomen increased, grew, then focused. The stripes along her body lost their glow and transferred it to that point at the very end of the writhing, slick cylinder of her lower body. The glowing point began to grow, encasing something that had been stored there, something that even now began to pulse with life. The glow elongated, outlining the thing inside the queen more clearly. Andy and I both saw a dark shape inside the glow begin to move with uncoordinated jerks, struggling, fighting. Slowly, slowly, the spark's glow encased the feeble shape completely.
And then the queen gave birth.
She screamed. She screamed with her mind and with her screeching mouthparts as well, but she focused every ounce of her energy into the birth and both Andy and I could not tear our eyes away from the glowing egg that she was slowly pushing out, enduring agony as she did so, never stopping, not once, not until the egg had been laid in a pool of congealing spark between her many razor-sharp legs, shielded from the world by her body. We felt her mind give in to complete exhaustion as the birth was complete. She had pushed herself too far, too fast. She had no energy left and so she collapsed.
She was not dead, but almost so. She barely had energy to lift two of her legs out of the way and allow Andy and me to rush forward and take the enormous egg which reached up to our knees between the two of us. It was still slick with spark, but it felt warm and alive.
The queen's word echoed through our minds, and the link grew fainter as she lost consciousness, but it was not gone like before. Andy and I looked at each other on either side of the big glowing egg. The larva of a juvenile queen inside it was already moving, her many-legged outline dark against the brightness of the flexible veined shell, ready to hatch at our command. She was the queen's bargain, a new source of spark for our city in exchange for her own life. There had been no other way. Andy and I had known it as well. Both sides lost something, but both gained time. That was all that mattered now.
When we came out of the tunnel carrying the egg together, and entire contingent of soldiers and Peacekeepers was already there waiting for us. They took the egg away and questioned Andy and me for a very long time. They kept as separate from each other, and from Dean, for nearly three days. I was not alone, though; the queen's gift to us held true. I had only to think of Andy to feel him respond, and even though physical separation made it impossible to communicate actual words, I was aware of him and he was aware of me. It was incredibly reassuring.
They asked me about the mission, about how the queen had escaped. I told them about Bentley, about the drill and the explosions, even the tunnel part—I shared everything except the fact that the original queen was still alive and the mental link we still shared. The temporary tunnel she had made in her flight had collapsed in on itself soon after Andy and I had exited it for the second time carrying the precious egg, before the digger crews have made any significant progress at plotting its structure. The queen was buried far underground and inaccessible. She would not be found now, not unless she wanted to.
I was questioned by scientists on the egg as well, and I told them as best as I could how to create a suitable environment for the young queen when she hatched. I didn't know much, but Dean was a huge help in that. I also told them that the new queen would not hatch until Andy and I gave the signal imprinted on our minds, and at first they thought I was crazy, or hallucinating on spark. Only after several lengthy interviews and a lot of discussions with Dean did they unwillingly concede that what Andy and I said might be true. This more than anything eventually swayed all the authorities to let Andy, Dean and I go free; we were the key to the new source of spark and they needed our cooperation. There were still charges of terrorism levied against Andy and Dean, but I threatened everyone for weeks, all the way to the High Justices, and forced them to drop the charges on the grounds that neither of them had done anything willingly. They made it difficult, but in the end they had no choice. By then word had gone out and it was evident that Andy and I still held the key to the city's spark. Electrical power was already failing rapidly in many sectors, all emergency generators working far past their capacity. The network needed to be reestablished, and quickly. So they gave me everything I asked for in the end: a pardon for Andy and Dean and also Islander citizenship for both. Only after that had been cleared up did Andy and I go down to the hastily reconstructed Plant for the new queen's birth.
We were surrounded by dignitaries, engineers and scientists on that day. Dean was nearby, but he was lost in the crowd of important people who wanted to see this strange thing happen. We stepped forward together, and saw the array of tubes and machinery prepared to receive their new host. I felt a moment of revulsion at what we were about to do, condemning a sentient organism to a life of captivity from its very beginning. Andy caught my thought, of course, and the faraway grown queen echoed it from her underground nest, but we all knew that it was the only solution. And so Andy and I reached for the egg on either side and spoke with our voices and our minds. The shell cracked, surprisingly brittle suddenly, and every bit of spark inside it was absorbed by the larva that had been growing there. We stepped back hurriedly from the dog-sized creature that broke out, legs flailing. It resembled a gigantic silverfish, and many of those attending stepped back in instinctive fear. Someone hastily snapped on the containment field, trapping the new queen securely. Then behind us everybody began speaking at once.
"The city will live now," Andy said to me, looking at the horrifying creature as it was secured to the many tubes that would bind it.
"I know. But for how long? The grown queen... she will not suffer this to go on for very long. You know that. Eventually, she will attack."
Andy smiled at me, and his roguish charm melted my heart. I knew his mind through our precious link, knew the depth of feeling he had for me and which I shared, and he was speaking for both of us when he said, "I don't care, Rick. It was worth it, because I met you. And as long as we are together, I know there will always be a way."
I kissed him then, long and deep, ignoring the dozens of people who wanted to ask us questions. My life felt right for the first time in many, many years. I gave in to the happiness, surrendering to the strangeness and also to love.
>From the corner of my mind, coming from far underground, I felt a faint echo of alien amusement. I did my best to ignore its deeper threatening, menacing note.
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