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by Kevin J. Anderson
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An unending swarm of giant beetlelike Klikiss poured through the transportal on Llaro for days, marching from some unknown, distant planet. During the initial panic, Mayor Ruis and the Roamer spokesman Roberto Clarin had issued a futile appeal for calm among the people. There was nothing more they could do. With the Klikiss controlling the transportal, the colonists had no way to leave Llaro. They were trapped.
The horror and shock gradually dulled to hopelessness and confusion. At least the creatures hadn't killed anyone. Yet.
Alone on a barren hill, Orli Covitz stood looking toward the termitemound ruins and the colony settlement. Thousands of intelligent bugs moved over the landscape, investigating everything with relentless, alien curiosity. No one understood what the Klikiss wantedwith the exception, perhaps, of the strangely haunted Margaret Colicos, the long-lost xeno-archaeologist who had spent years among them.
Presently, the fifteen-year-old girl saw Margaret trudging up the hill toward her accompanied by DD, the Friendly compy who had taken a liking to Orli almost as soon as he arrived with Margaret through the transportal. The older woman wore the field jumpsuit of a xeno-archaeologist, its fabric and fastenings designed to last for years under tough conditions in the field, though by now it was tattered and stained.
DD walked cheerfully up to Orli. He studied her expression. "You appear to be sad, Orli Covitz."
"My planet's being invaded, DD. Just look at them. Thousands and thousands. We can't live here with them, and we can't get off the planet."
"Margaret Colicos has lived among the Klikiss for a considerable time. She is still alive and healthy."
Breathing heavily in the dry air, Margaret stopped beside the two. "Physically healthy, maybe. But you may want to reserve judgment as to my psychological health."
The distant, shattered gaze of the older woman discomfited Orli. She didn't want to imagine what Margaret must have endured among the giant insects.
"I am still getting used to talking with other people again, so my social skills may be somewhat lacking. I spent so long trying to think like the Klikiss. It was very draining." She placed her hand on the compy's shoulder. "I really thought I might go mad . . . until DD arrived."
The compy didn't seem aware of any sort of threat around them. "But we're back now, Margaret Colicos. And safe among friends."
"Safe?" Orli didn't know if she would ever feel entirely safe again. Not long after she and her father had left dreary Dremen to become colonists on Corribus, black robots had wiped out the settlement, leaving only Orli and Mr. Steinman alive. To make a new start, she had come to Llaro. And now the Klikiss had invaded.
DD's optimism was unrelenting. "Margaret understands the Klikiss. She will explain them to the colonists and show you how to live together. Won't you, Margaret?"
Even the older woman had a skeptical expression on her face. "DD, I barely understand how I survived. Though my years of training as a xenoarchaeologist should count for something."
Orli reached out and took her calloused hand. "Then you have to tell Mayor Ruis and Roberto Clarin what you know."
DD dutifully took her other hand. "Knowledge is helpful, isn't it, Margaret?"
"Yes, DD. Knowledge is a tool. I'll explain what I learned and hope it turns out to be useful."
As they descended the hill toward the town, they walked directly past several spiny Klikiss warriors and a troop of mottled yellow-and-black builders that had begun to dig long trenches, disregarding any boundaries the colonists had marked. Anxious, Orli held the woman's hand tightly. Margaret was unruffled, though; she paid no more attention to the individual Klikiss than the creatures seemed to pay her.
"Why are there so many types of Klikiss? They've all got different colors and markings." Orli had even seen some with almost human heads and faces like hard masks, though most just looked like bugs.
"Klikiss don't have sexes, they have sub-breeds. The large spiny ones are warriors to fight in the many hive wars. Others are gatherers, builders, scouts, scientists."
"You can't be serious. Those bugs have scientists?"
"And mathematicians and engineers." Margaret raised her eyebrows with a certain measure of admiration. "They discovered the transportal technology, after all. They invented the Klikiss Torch and left detailed records and intricate equations on the walls of their ruins. Those creatures solve problems through brute forceand they do it well."
Orli watched the swarming Klikiss, whose clustered, towerlike structures looked like a giant hive complex. "Do they have a queen?"
Margaret stared with unfocused eyes, as if buried in unforgettable nightmares. "Not a queena breedex, neither male nor female. It is the mind and soul of the hive."
Orli drew the woman's attention back to the real question. "But what do they want?"
Margaret remained quiet for so long that Orli thought she hadn't heard. Then the archaeologist said, "Everything."
Most of the Klikiss had moved back into their ancient city as if nothing had changed in millennia. One huge Klikiss, with a silvery exoskeleton adorned with black tiger stripes, had an extra pair of segmented legs, a carapace full of spikes and polished knobs, and several sets of faceted eyes. Its head/face was ovoid, composed of many small plates that shifted and moved, almost giving it expressions. This one seemed much . . . vaster somehow, more important and ominous than the others. Orli stared, her eyes wide.
"That is one of the eight domates that attend the breedex," Margaret said. "They provide additional genetic material necessary for spreading the hive."
"Will I see the breedex myself?"
The older woman flinched. "Hope you do not. It is very risky."
"Did you ever see herit, I mean?"
"Many times. It is how I survived." She offered nothing more.
"So it can't be that risky."
They passed by EDF barracks built among the alien towers. The soldiers were pale and frightened, their uniforms rumpled and stained. These Eddiesstationed here with instructions to "protect the colonists" and guard the transportal so the Roamer detainees didn't escapecould now do little more than watch the invasion, as helpless as the colonists they were supposed to safeguard.
Orli was surprised to see that the Klikiss had not disarmed the troops. "Why do the soldiers still have their guns?"
"The Klikiss don't care."
Without asking permission or making any gesture to acknowledge what they were doing, the Klikiss workers began to tear down the modular barracks, ripping open the walls with their armored claws.
The edgy EDF soldiers began shouting. "Wait a minute!" Some of them pushed forward. "At least let us get our stuff out first."
The bustling insects diligently continued their tasks, paying no more attention to the distraught men than they would to ornamental rocks.
Bolstered by their fellows, several soldiers ran toward the barracks. "Stop! Hold on!"
Klikiss workers tore one section into scrap metal, strewing dismantled bunks, storage units, clothing, and supplies around like garbage. The nearest EDF soldier got in the way of an insectile demolitionist and raised his pulse jazer rifle. "Back off, bugs! I'm warning you"
The Klikiss swung a segmented limb, decapitated the man, and returned to its labors before the corpse fell to the ground. Outraged, nine uniformed soldiers screamed, took aim with their high-powered rifles, and started shooting.
Margaret groaned and squeezed her eyes shut. "This will turn out badly."
"Isn't there something you can do?" Orli cried.
"Not a thing."
As projectiles slammed into them, the insect creatures didn't comprehend what was happening. Despite the weapons fire cutting them down, workers continued to destroy lockers full of clothing, equipment, scrapbooks of friends and family.
EDF weapons splattered eleven of the insect workers before the rest of the subhive turned on the soldiers. Dozens of spiny warriors marched up while the soldiers kept firing until their weapons were empty.
Then the Klikiss killed them.
Orli stared at the bloodshed, speechless. Even DD seemed alarmed. A troop of workers arrived to replace the dead insects, and others hauled the human and Klikiss bodies away.
A tiger-striped domate strode up to Margaret and spoke in a clattering language. Margaret made a clicking, unnatural sound in her throat, while DD translated for Orli. "The domate says those newbreeds are defective. They have been eliminated from the gene pool." It turned away as a new troop of workers continued the demolition of the barracks in order to build their own structures.
"They're going to kill us all, aren't they?" Orli asked with grim resignation.
"The Klikiss aren't here for you." Margaret narrowed her eyes, staring at the ancient structure that housed the transportal. "I learned something very important when I deciphered their language. Their primary enemies are the black robots. The Klikiss mean to wipe them out. All of the robots. Just don't get in the way."