Finally, we were in the main chamber of the hive. The tunnel suddenly opened up into a vast, open room, and I stared at the pulsing monstrosity of the slaver queen before me.
Above us, countless thousands of drones zipped back and forth, the buzzing of their wings melding together to create a constant hum that vibrated through the underground maze. They paid us no attention. Only the queen, bloated and reposed upon her disturbingly organic throne, bothered to spare us a glance.
“So, you’ve come to me,” she hissed, shifting her bulk slightly so her face could stare down at us. “A wise choice. Many do not willingly come to serve.”
Behind me, I heard Cain grunt, but I didn’t hold back my anger. “We aren’t here to serve – we’re here to destroy you!” I shouted. I hoped that the undercurrent of fear didn’t show in my bravado.
The slaver queen blinked, for a moment appearing disturbingly human. “To destroy?” she repeated. “You have come to the seat of my power, the very heart of my hive, and you make threats?”
I was worried that she would attack us right then, and I could hear the almost imperceptible creak as Cain shifted his stance, moving to get a better grip on his weapon. I knew that he was a fraction away from attacking. But the queen was rising up, towering above her twisted throne.
There was nothing to do but continue, to press onward with my speech. “You’ve stolen the people of the neighboring towns!” I yelled out. “You’ve corrupted them, turned them into mindless drones! This isn’t right! For what you’ve done to them, you must be punished!”
“Ah, humans,” the queen spat, gazing down at us. “So torn, so frustrated by life. You speak of the freedoms you seek, of the horrors of being a ‘mindless drone’, trapped here.” She raised one long arm, encased in plates of chitin, and a squadron of drones changed course overhead, buzzing down to land alongside the throne.
I stared at the drones that had landed, wondering if they had come from the nearby town. The enslavement process was acting rapidly, twisting their limbs, rupturing their spine as wings burst from their backs, and stimulating the formation of chitinous plates that grew across any exposed skin. However, one of the drones still seemed slighter than her male cohorts, and strands of thick, lustrous reddish hair poked from between the armored plates. My breath caught. Sue. The barmaid, who had graced me with a dimpled smile before bustling off with her tray of drinks.
“And despite your insistence on freedom,” the queen continued, swaying back and forth as her many legs wriggled back and forth, “you humans are so quick to embrace order. You insist on choice, but you are happiest, at peace, when you have orders to blindly follow.” She smiled. “And now, this is my order. Die.“
At this command, the drones leapt forward, their arms rising to brandish claws and spines. My draw was only a millisecond behind Cain’s, and our bullets stitched holes across heads and chests. I felt a brief but deeply penetrating pang of regret as the drone that had once been Sue fell back, her wounds gushing ichor.
The queen was already calling down more of the drones, and the hissing sound that filled the chamber was rising in intensity. I turned my pistol on the queen, but her armor was thicker, and the bullets failed to penetrate.
Cain had a different idea. “Hold them off!” he shouted, closing his eyes as he focused. I didn’t know what weapon he was magically calling into existence, but I kept my eyes skyward, carefully placing my shots to keep the drones at bay.
Through the hum I could hear a lower pitched sound, growing steadily closer. The guards, larger than the drones and outfitted with ranged, shooting spines, were drawing near. “Cain?” I called over one shoulder as I slammed another clip into my pistol.
The only sound I heard in return was a brief, mirthless chuckle. I turned, just in time to see the four rockets streak past me in tandem. Cain was standing in a brace position, the smoking quad-launcher still on his shoulder, grinning slightly as he watched the missiles tear holes in the slaver queen.
As she fell, the queen let out a high, keening scream, picked up and amplified by the drones. As her massive body hit the floor of the chamber, sending a shock wave through the floor, the drones dropped as one, like marionettes with cut strings. With the queen dead, there was no central mind, nothing to control the drones, and they would all cease to function. Staring around at the insectoid corpses, I felt a rush of melancholy, mingled sadness and frustration. We had avenged those people, stolen from the nearby towns by the slavers, but we had not been able to save them.
Cain punched me in the shoulder, interrupting my reflection. “We better get out,” he said. “No telling how these tunnels will hold up without the queen.”
I nodded, following my companion as he picked his way through the cracked and shattered bodies littering the floor. I spared only a single glance at the massive remains of the dead slaver queen. Cain had seen hives like these before. I made a mental note to ask Selene about the origin of these slavers. For now, however, I focused on escaping from this gigantic underground hive before it became our tomb.