The humans died, one by one: some in the arena, and some after they'd succumbed to the chemical conditioning of their alien captors. But Tess took a cold comfort in observing that most of them still lived longer than the bugs. She'd fought through fourteen generations of chitinous monarchs. It disturbed her to admit it, but she'd been able to tell them apart for a long time now.
They'd been a science team, taking readings near Gliese 581. Tess was the only woman on the crew, and now she was the only human for twenty light years. She spent the timeless hours between battles composing research papers in her head. "Physiology and Anatomy of the Gliese-System Hive-Organized Astrobiological Lifeforms," subhead: How to Squish a Bug. Fourteen co-authors, credited posthumously.
The gloom in her cell was brightening: the slime-door was thinning. A high, piercing whine filled her skull. Time to fight.
The arena was a curved sticky bowl made from the same mucilaginous material as the rest of the astrohive. It sucked at the soles of her boots with every step. The walls rose high above her head, and behind them the bugs were gathered, vibrating their serrated forelimbs to produce the terrible whine.
There were marked differences among them. Each generation only lived for what Tess estimated to be about two Terran weeks, and the newer ones were definitely more human-like than the originals had been. She could pick out three queens in the stands, each attended by a cluster of her offspring-servitors. And then the youngest, the newest princess, stood alone. She had recognizable arms and legs, only two of each, although the arms ended in clawed pincers rather than hands, and she had delicate wings folded behind her. Her huge multifaceted eyes glittered in their own iridescent light.
They'd theorized—Tess and Min-jun, before they took him—that the battles might be designed to induce an adrenalin response in the humans. They thought the chemical reactions of fear and violence made a human brain more susceptible to the bug's pheromones. Not to discount the ritualistic purpose that the arena clearly served in Gliese-bug culture: there was obviously a social component as well.
But it was always after a fight that crewmembers began to talk about the beauty of the alien queens, raving about the smooth sheen of their carapaces, the sweet curves of thorax or abdomen, the sweep of their mandibles. It happened one by one. And one by one, the bugs came, and took them. And then there was another generation in the stands.
So the princess was waiting for her mate. "I'm female, do you understand!" Tess shouted at her. "It won't work with me!"
The black rainbow of her eyes shifted and shimmered, but the princess gave no response. And on the other side of the arena, a second door began to dilate and to thin.
Abruptly the bugs stilled their applause, and the whine ceased. The sudden, predatory silence was worse.
Tess cast about for the weapon. There was always one—and it was always perfectly adapted to the creature that would emerge. A long, thin harpoon for the snaky thing. An electric lasso for the winged horror. Min-jun had believed there was some sort of message there. "Trust us," or maybe, "adversity drives evolution." Tess thought the bugs just wanted to keep things sporting.
There was no weapon. The membranous door was translucent now, and whatever lay behind it would be on her in a moment. Tess kept looking frantically, but the arena was a smooth shining bowl. There was no weapon.
Was this some kind of final test? Or had the bugs finally determined that she was of no use to them? In desperation Tess clawed at the walls that encircled her, but it was nothing that fourteen men had not tried before her. The arena could not be scaled. Her hands sank uselessly into the jelly-like sludge, and it healed itself as soon as she withdrew.
There was no weapon.
The door opened.
It was a multi-legged thing, hard-shelled, just like the bugs that had created it. Tess couldn't remember who had first suggested the awful thought: maybe these are the rejects. The genetic sports, the discarded spawn. Engineered offspring that didn't grow according to plan.
Or maybe they did plan it. Maybe it was wanted all along, this hideous thing, rippling like a wave as it came for her on its dozen clacking segmented legs.
Tess was beyond screaming. Screaming didn't help. Only the weapon—where was the weapon? She threw herself to the side, somersaulting under the thing's scissoring mandibles and lunging back to her feet.
There was always a weapon. She cast about again—and again, saw nothing but the sleekly curving sheen of the arena, and far above, the bugs clustered about their queens. The princess stood alone, watching, impassive--
—no. Her wings were vibrating. What was that? Excitement? Anxiety?
Tess circled backwards, keeping the wall behind her and the living nightmare-bug a few paces away. Even after her months of captivity, after seeing her friends and colleagues surrender one by one, she wasn't tired or ready to die. She was only angry.
Tess was the same. The arena was the same. The monster was different, but still the same, and the bugs were—mostly—the same. The only difference was the weapon, its absence.
And the princess. She was different.
The xenopede lunged for her, a sudden jerking burst of speed that took her off guard. Its mandibles scraped her arm, ripping a gash in her dirty uniform and lacerating her bicep. Tess did scream, then, but she was already moving, scrambling back.
Distance. It didn't help. The thing was emboldened now that it had tasted blood. It followed her, no more hesitation. Its many rippling legs kept it close upon her. There was no escape.
"Help me," Tess choked. She was clawing, crawling, kicking, rolling. Her grasping hands tore up a gelatinous blob from the arena's floor, and even as the arena squelched back together she threw her handful of goo directly into the mandibles of her attacker. It reared back, surprised, its first few sets of legs waving feebly in the air.
"Help me," Tess said, more strongly. She had a few desperate seconds, and there was only one gamble to make. She looked for the princess—the beautiful, shining princess, who watched with rainbow eyes.
And who moved, then. Alone among all the spectators, the bug princess raised her forelimbs and began to rub them again. One high, thin thread of applause wound through the arena.
Tess ran for her life. Keeping to the edges of the arena, dodging, weaving—winning herself one more second, a few more breaths of life. Something was different about the sound the princess was making. Not just a whine, now: there was something crackling and harsh in it. Chrrrksh, chrrksh. Tess couldn't afford to look.
The xenopede darted forward again, and Tess was too slow. Pain exploded in her leg. It had her, the thing's mandibles were locked around her knee. It had her. Her brain almost refused to process the sight of her own body enveloped by that metameric horror. The pain was searing, and though she kicked and struggled, it was no use. She was knocked to her back, she was being dragged, the monster was eating her--
—and something fell next to her head, something dark and curved and serrated and sharp. Tess grabbed it, heedless of the way it cut into her hand, and slashed at the xenopede. Its horrible face was over her so she stabbed at that, stabbed deeply into one of its black eyes, and when it dropped her leg she just kept stabbing. It tried to retreat but she hacked at its joints, at all the weak spots she'd seen in its arthropod's armor while it was stalking her. She kicked away still-twitching limbs as she dismembered them. And she did not stop until the heinous thing lay curled and unmoving at her feet.
Panting, bleeding, Tess looked up. There was only one place in the stands that her eyes were drawn. There she was, the bug-princess, though one of her forelimbs now dangled awkwardly, and in color it was a startling pink.
That's what Tess held in her hands. The dark sharp thing—it was the carapace of the princess's own pincered arm. She'd forced an early molt, given Tess the weapon of her own body.
A low buzz began to echo through the astrohive. The other queens were talking, and mostly not through sound. Even with her human senses, Tess could feel the change in the air as their pheromones swirled around her. Her head swam and her vision blurred. The bug-servitors seemed agitated, clustered around their queens, grooming them while the . . . it was an argument, wasn't it? . . . continued.
At this point the slime-door to her cell should be opening again. But nothing happened. Instead Tess swayed on her feet, clinging to consciousness. Her leg hurt terribly. She thought the princess might be hurt too. It should make her glad, but it didn't.
Eventually other apertures dilated far above, where the bugs were. One by one the older queens retreated, taking their retinues with them.
And the princess spread her gossamer wings and flew down, into the basin of the arena. She settled only inches away from where Tess stood with the claw still in her hands. They were alone.
Kill her, said some distant part of her mind, but Tess rejected the thought at once. "Look at you," she murmured drunkenly, "nymph with fairy wings, so beautiful, and so brave."
The princess cocked her head and clicked her limbs. The air around them was heady with chemical messages, and Tess, her vision swimming, began to hallucinate that she could read them.
I am for you, the princess was saying.
"Yes," Tess murmured. "But they pushed it too far, didn't they? Made you too human. They've repudiated both of us now."
The princess took a delicate step backwards, and then another. Come. Come with me.
So Tess limped after, bearing the princess's claw like a knight with his lady's favor. And the astrohive opened for them, the arena yawning and hollowing into a corridor that extended even as they walked into it. There was sadness in the air, Tess was sure of it: but heady excitement too.
"Will it hurt?" she asked, as the last door opened. "When you . . . mate with me. And after."
The princess clicked again, and buzzed her wings. Tess tasted confusion. Her brain groped for a translation, and whether it was hallucination or not, the words slowly formed in her mind: This . . . isn't . . . reproduction.
This is . . . exile.
And, oh sweet Einstein and Turing, she saw what lay behind the door. It was the ship. Their ship, her ship, the RV Abhaile. It meant "homewards" in some Old-Earth language.
She wanted to run to it. Her shaking legs would only carry her one halting step at a time. Her breath hitched in her throat and tears burnt her eyes, but would not fall. She crashed against the ship's pitted hull, fumbled for the hatch. When it opened the blast of pheromone-free, oxygen-rich human air enveloped her and, for just one moment, Tess's head was clear again.
How to Squish a Bug. Fourteen co-authors, credited posthumously. She had a weapon in her hands and a free choice in her mind.
She looked back at the princess, at the culmination of their brutal captivity.
And the thing of it was, the bug was still beautiful. Her fairy wings, her shining eyes. Her smooth and gleaming carapace, flawless except for the soft fleshy pink of the exposed forelimb.
"Are you coming?" Tess said roughly. "You know—you won't live long enough—it takes more than two weeks to get back to human space. You'll die on the way."
The princess came forward. Hesitantly, she raised her healthy arm, and with infinite grace laid her shining black claw against Tess's brown human hand. Again, the musky tang of the bugs' chemical communication enveloped her.
Two...weeks...of love. A lifetime of passion. I will cherish it.
Tess closed her fingers carefully around the princess's hand. "All right, then," she said. "I'm bringing you home."
I'm a writer and mom living in Oakland; my previous fiction has appeared in Dragon magazine and the anthologies Fae, Love Hurts and Short Story Bites.