Kevin Harville

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Welcome to the Hive

By Kevin Harville

Mandel awoke on the deck of the spaceship. His resting spot was more like a wedge than a walkway. The crash had left the ship askew, and he just lay there feeling helpless in the vee joining the floor and the bulkhead. He was not particularly hurt, but felt helpless. He knew his name. Not much else. Certainly not enough to fix a starship.

Twenty minutes or an hour ago (he never was good with time) he had overheard meaningless chatter. Some sort of insect problem. Bugs. Huge bugs. A fleet of grasshoppers. It made no sense. Grasshoppers lived in fields. Grass.

The pilots had tried hiding the ship from the bugs. But it was not an attack that destroyed the ship; hiding, itself, had led to this disaster. He understood that much.

He looked above his wedged position. He remembered being quickly helped into--or rather, in such chaos, put into--the crash chamber when the ship lost control. Airbags lay next to him, now deflated. An orange light flickered within, hidden from sight, but lighting up the chamber erratically. The outer panel sat a few feet away, wedged as he was, with the airbag deployed.

Mandel crawled carefully forward past the internal wreckage. He could float for seconds at a time as he worked his way to his goal. He had experienced low gravity for the fun of it, but this time it was not play. Metal twisted like taffy. Panels hung dislodged, sparking. Warning lights beeped—too late.

The cabin awaited ahead. He slid down into it as if sliding in a playground. There they were near the ship's control panels. It didn't take a doctor; even Mandel could tell they were dead. The pilots: a man and a woman. He had seen death before, but this time it was personal.Through their bloodstains, he could see the desolate, rocky terrain through the panoramic window before him.

He knew he was merely a passenger. He had heard some say he was more trouble than he was worth. Others said he was precious cargo. Was this all his fault? He should have cared more. Felt more. He was in shock. But there was no doctor to tell him so.

He knew where to find food on the ship. There would be more than enough for a while, he knew. It kept him hopeful. Kept him from despair. But even despair seemed too complex of an emotion. Too much of his fate was simply unknown. Beyond his control.

Mandel found ways to keep himself busy waiting for help. But he had to avoid the bridge after a while. It stunk. He ignored the dead bodies. Rather, he avoided them. He loved his crew. Had loved them, anyways.

No, he still did. He just couldn't think about them now. To care now would hurt too much.

He found some games to play, but not even a computer opponent survived, so he played against himself. His watch had no games or activities; it only showed night, day, and numbers. What a waste. Boring. But better than nothing. He waited. But he didn't know what he was waiting for. The concept of rescue made no sense now. He had only the moment. The long, boring, lonely moment. But he was used to entertaining himself. Space itself was lonely, so lonely the word lost meaning.

Eventually the entire ship stunk, between the decaying pilots and the lack of working restroom. He curled up to sleep in a corner in engineering, far from the bridge. He couldn't sleep well with emergency lights always glaring—softly blaring, really, but annoying at all hours, especially when he wanted to sleep. A harsh blinding light flashed through the ship periodically as the asteroid rotated the ship to face either one of the two suns. Two painfully bright beacons. Mandel napped, out of boredom, several times a day, only to be woken by the light. The time on his watch lost almost all meaning, except that it still showed shipboard day or ship night.

On the third night, he finally realized the service tunnels were dark and smelled less offensive, and he got a restful night's sleep on his small pile of blankets.

The fourth day Mandel opened a new deck of cards and reinvented poker. He knew these were from the homeworld of some of his distant ancestors, but he was generations from Earth. He laid out five cards: a royal flush. Of course, the unshuffled deck was already suited. He laid out sets and quads. Full houses. Four of a kind. The patterns and order mystified him for hours. He had fun, as much as solitaire-poker in a death-ship can be fun.

By the fifth day he was hearing voices regularly. Dead relatives spoke to him. He heard them. Clearly. He could have been terrified of ghosts or his own mental state. But the voices instead calmed him. Kept him eating. Kept him drinking. Kept hope alive. "Have patience, Mandel."

The fifth night Mandel awoke to a jolt. The remains of the ship shook. There was a harsh noise. A drilling. Cutting. He hopped down from his service tunnel nest and ran to the site of the intrusion. The rescuers or invaders, he had no way of knowing which, pulled the metal plating into their own craft, blinding his eyes with light he hadn't seen since before the crash. Mandel was worried the heavy metal would drop in on him. He stepped back and hid in a corner, keeping one eye on the intruders. But his curiosity and hope conquered his terror. Anything was better than loneliness.

The light filled the hall. Fresh air rushed in, but it was an alien air. Sweet and brisk. Like a gust of honey. Mandel closed his eyes, inhaled, and saw himself standing in a heavenly field of blooming flowers. A primal memory. Elysian Fields. But he didn't know the name or have any belief in an afterlife. In the expansive fields, the pilots of his craft were alive, holding hands. Happy. Waving goodbye. He knew it was forever, yet still it was the comfort he needed in the crisis.

Mandel snapped back to the moment, breathed a breath of bravery, and looked above. These creatures must have been three times as large as him. More likely four. He trembled at the energetic hissing and clicking. They spotted him with frightening enthusiasm. Practically crawling all over each other. Bugs. Giant bugs. He had seen a hundred variations of ants and of grasshoppers. None this big.

Mandel ran to his tunnel and hid. But he knew it would do no good. They would find him. He knew it. He broke down in tears, trying to be silent, but failing. Clicks and hisses echoed throughout the ship. Closer. Closer.

And find him they did. Within minutes. They shone their headlamps into the tunnel where he curled in a corner. All Mandel could see was the light. All he could hear was hissing and clicking. Then their translators kicked in. "We are here to help you. We can take you back to your people."

Could he trust them? He had seen many sentient species before. But not giant bugs. Hide deeper in the twisted hull or come out to see who invaded his crashed ship? He made his choice. And he was so lonely. So damned lonely, if he used words like that. He chose to trust. He chose hope over fear. He made a life-defining decision: always choose Hope.

He eased out of the tunnel. The rescuers turned off their headlamps to avoid blinding him further. He stepped from the tunnel to the floor. The biggest choice he had had to make. Ever. The lead bug introduced himself, via the translator, "I am Chonnis-Mith. Come with us to safety."

Mandel played the polite diplomat and replied, "Hi Johnny Smith. I'm Mandel." He reached his hand toward the giant bug who, unfamiliar with his customs, gently touched Mandel's arm with the rigid shell of his own.

"Hello Mandibal," came the alien's mistranslated beeping and clicking.

Mandel felt everything would be OK and broke down in tears. Maybe tears of relief, but more, perhaps, tears of hope. He looked at these terrifying beings, creatures present before only in his nightmares, and he realized they were the ones the ship was running from. With fear gripping him he chose to surrender to fate and believe goodness flowed throughout the Universe. It was the bravest moment of Mandel's life. Perhaps because bravery is simply better than terror.

He had no idea that he would eventually choose these strange beings as his new family. He had only faith that if he believed everything was okay it might just make it so, that love was stronger than fear. He had never been so terrified, yet so brave, in all his four and a half years.