Hana paused on the moving sidewalk and lifted her multi-faceted eyes to the crystal dome over her head. She never tired of staring at the blanket of stars outside, so unlike her subsurface hive-world of Radeen.
Two chattering Falkanians bumped her as they travelled to work. Her translator caught their complaint about her blocking the walkway. She ignored the green furballs, always rude and in a hurry. She tried to keep her four hindlegs tucked in, but she had to spread out to steady her taller insect body on the moving sidewalk.
She hadn’t been working for Interstellar Communications long, and she didn’t want a reputation for being late if she hoped to be promoted. Part of her salary went to Radeen until she repaid her transportation and education costs to the hive.
The city moved past her as the sidewalk took her higher to the IC offices. Hana lived in a small apartment on a lower level of Topside with reasonable rent, but she enjoyed exploring her adopted city on some rare time off. Around her, the white towers grew slenderer and more ornate as she approached headquarters.
She brandished her bracelet to enter the building. The ID gave her access to her home, office, and what meager funds she’d saved since she’d arrived. She deposited a few molecules of scent wherever she went without conscious effort, but didn’t need to follow her previous days’ trail to find the way to her desk.
Workers sat at their positions, sorting through the thousands of items received during the night shift. Evantine, a friendly Pruvian at the next desk, waved a pseudopod in greeting, and Hana waved back. The open floorplan held rows and rows of desks, each covered with holo-screens. People with scales, feathers, and tentacles occupied the desks.
Not needing a chair, Hana rested on her four hind legs, supporting her thorax on her lower body as she activated her screens. No single consumer had time to sort through the numerous newsfeeds for what might interest them, so they paid people like Hana and her co-workers to filter the information.
Mr. Oday passed through on his way to his office, not greeting anyone. Like most of the human administrators, he wore the green and white uniform of IC personnel. Hana, who didn’t require clothing, wore a green and white vest with various pockets. She found it handy for carrying things she’d never needed in the hive: pens, thorax polish, small tubes of artificial syrup for snacking.
“You’ve learned to sort information so fast,” Evantine said. “I can’t believe you haven’t done this before.” She kept one of her four eyes on Mr. Oday entering his office. He didn’t approve of idle chatter, and he watched them continuously.
“The hive school prepared me well,” Hana said. Scanning and rerouting information for IC wasn’t difficult. Radeenians had good memories. When the queens provided surplus workers to be trained and sent to work off-planet, Hana had volunteered.
“See you at lunch?” Evantine asked. She and Hana and several co-workers ate together every day. A social creature, Hana missed people. She and the others in her section had started working for IC around the same time, and they knew little about Topside.
“Of course.” Her screen showed a news story in her area of expertise. She found the item about a hive battle between rival queens had potential, and flagged it for distribution to her clients.
“Where are you exploring this free-cycle, Hana?” Evantine asked.
“I haven’t decided,” she said. “I’d like to see the tunnels they drilled when building the dome.” She didn’t miss Radeen terribly, but she enjoyed enclosed spaces.
She’d seen the KEEP OUT signs in the lower part of the city, and didn’t intend to venture into outlawed Undercity. Hana had no desire to be shipped home to care for larva.
“Mr. Oday is looking at his chrono,” Evantine said. “I’d better get back to work. Don’t forget to sign his Boss’s Day Card.”
They returned to their screens. Hana wouldn’t go anywhere near Undercity.
Hours into her day off, a blaster shot hit the Undercity tunnel behind her. The bleeding stub of her missing leg weakened her as she ran. During the encounter with her attackers, only her larger size and superior strength had kept the gang from tearing off her other limbs and crushing her thorax. She didn’t know why they’d jumped her. She’d been following her unexpected scent trail into the tunnels when she’d paid too little attention to her surroundings and encountered the gang. Now, they were hunting her.
The thugs shouted to one another, angry they’d lost her in the maze of corridors. In her weakening condition, she couldn’t race through the tunnels much longer.
She stopped. Stones rattled above her. Corridors ran vertically and horizontally, chiseled from stone during the asteroid’s dome construction. Fearing the gang had found her, she scrambled into a narrow corridor. Unlike the clean and organized city, the haphazard catacombs were dirty. Pipes, cables, and unpainted conduits crisscrossed narrow tunnels, and she moved through the openings she found. Criminals and cutthroats, like the ones trying to kill her, lived shadow lives here.
The corridor grew smaller. She checked her bracelet, but it held no maps of the tunnels. Her scent trail had disappeared while leaping between gaps in the floor, and she couldn’t retrace it to find her way back to Topside. At least her stub had stopped bleeding. Her giant ant-like body could withstand a great deal of damage, and the leg would grow back. She walked well on her three hindlegs, but how would she explain her condition in the office tomorrow? Maybe no one would notice.
She stopped to listen for pursuers, angry for getting herself into this mess. Her co-workers had warned her. “Don’t go there, Hana.” “It’s where the unregistered riffraff live, Hana.” But the scent trail she’d encountered while exploring had belonged to her, and it shouldn’t have. It led to Undercity, somewhere she’d never been before, but her scent trail was unique and unmistakable. How could she have forgotten she’d ignored the warning signs and entered these tunnels before?
“Welcome back, Red Queen,” a harsh voice said from the shadows. “We didn’t expect to see you down here again.” A grizzled Cardenian stepped into the weak light, half his snake-like face blackened and scarred.
Her eight hearts pounded at the sight of the energy weapon he held in his right claw. A blaster beam might bounce off her thorax, but a head shot would fry her brainpan. Unlike legs, her brain couldn’t regenerate.
“What do you want?” Hana raised her forearms. Cardenian scales were tough, but her wrist spikes might hurt him if she attacked his vulnerable throat.
“You know what I want, Red.” He thrust his ugly face further into the light and bared his teeth. “I want to do to you what you did to me in the arena.”
“You have me confused with someone else.” The translator in her bracelet made her sound as if she was begging. She was. “I don’t know you.”
“You’ll remember me when I cut you open and hand you your guts.” He stepped closer. Large and reptilian, he stood in the corridor with a half-dozen armed aliens of different species behind him, all looking as ragged and scarred at their leader.
She teetered at the lip of the vertical tunnel she’d scaled, a hole in the floor between her and her attackers. Even with the asteroid’s lower gravity, a long fall could kill or cripple her. She couldn’t reach a Topside hospital in time. Still, if the choice came between jumping and being headless, she’d take the leap.
As the Cardenian drew closer, she looked down and jumped. But instead of leaping down, she sprang up on her three legs. The vertical shaft ran past the corridor and far overhead. Even with a missing hindleg, she reached far enough to find purchase on the uneven walls. He fired, but the beam sizzled by her. She ducked into a shallow niche.
She scuttled forward as fast as she could, hoping to find another intersecting corridor before the Cardenian and his men fired. She didn’t dare turn to look. When a small cleft appeared before her, she took it. Another blast zipped by, and the heat singed the fine hairs on her back.
Her luck ran out when the cleft ended ten meters into the rock. The Cardenian and his mates clambered below. More familiar with these tunnels than she, they might know a way to reach her. What had the Red Queen done to them?
While her chitin was red, she was only a Topside office employee, and not a queen of any sort. She raised her forearms as the noises drew closer, intending to fight until she lost her remaining limbs.
She should have known better than to come in through Tiger country. Old Clem wouldn’t forgive her for what she’d done to his face.
How had she known her attacker’s name, and how he’d gotten injured?
He appeared in the tunnel across from her perch. Hana tore an electrical panel from the wall and whipped it at him. The panel sliced through flesh, and her target, now headless, dropped to the ground.
She quivered, not believing she’d killed someone. Her revulsion at seeing a dead body didn’t stop her from leaping across the gap between them and picking up Clem’s blaster. She fired down the shaft.
“You’re pretty strong for a giant ant,” she recalled someone saying after her first arena fight.
“Radeenian,” she had said. “I’m from the hive planet Radeen. I’m not an ant.”
What was happening to her? Why was she remembering a conversation she’d never had? She was a low-level news distribution agent for Interstellar Communications. She had to return Topside; she mustn’t be late for work.
Taking advantage of the break in the fire from below, Hana followed the corridor to a larger opening. Beyond, she found her scent trail, old but familiar. She followed it as the tunnel widened.
Hana hoped the path would take her to an exit, but instead, she entered a large cavern containing a bustling market. Shoppers and sellers shouted their wares: “Pots,” “’Puters,” “Fresh Fruit.” Unlike the inhabitants of Topside, the people she passed wore rags and dented space armor. Most of their clothes looked shabby, and a few wore no clothing at all.
A human merchant with a metal hand slid apples into a bag held by the thinnest Falkanian she’d ever seen. Everyone looked tired and hungry.
There were a hundred ways into the city, not all of them through the public airlocks, and much of Topside’s contraband supplies, drugs, entertainment, and black-market items originated here. Very profitable.
No sign of Clem’s Tigers. Perhaps he had met others of her species, such as the Red Queen he’d mentioned. Leaving the crowded chamber, she climbed a staircase bearing a faint scent of her earlier passing.
A corridor split off, and Hana followed it. Why did this all look familiar?
Her trail ended at a blank wall. Without hesitating, she reached into a crevice and pressed a button. A section of the wall swung inward. She had found one of the Red Queen’s secret lairs.
Whoever the Red Queen might be, she had good taste. The circular cavern contained soft furnishings, and silk draperies hung from the walls. A faint scent of cinnamon hung in the air.
It made no sense she was following a year-old trail of her own scent when she’d only started working at IC two months ago.
She must have wandered down here by accident and forgotten somehow. Could IC have made her forget she’d been to Undercity?
Hearing a sound behind her, she climbed up the wall and whirled around, assuming one of Clem’s henchmen had found her, but the chamber was empty. She’d heard the sound of the door locking automatically.
She panted through her side ventricles, unaware she could move so fast. No wonder she’d been unbeatable in the arena.
Trophies and weapons hung on one wall, and Hana saw them through a double image of now and then.
A well-stocked cabinet nearby showed tubes of various colors, and she selected one. “Hibiscus nectar. My favorite.”
She savored the beverage, relishing the taste she couldn’t afford Topside. Finishing it and withdrawing her proboscis, she rose to her full height. With the taste of the syrup, her memories flooded back. Her Radeenian memories were chemically reactivated when her senses were triggered.
IC wiped their employees’ memories regularly, restarting their contracts and ensuring their pay was beginner’s pay. She recalled telling the police, but they’d reported her to IC. The company had captured her and scrubbed her memories. How many times?
She was more than an office drone from Topside.
A shudder passed through her, and her antennae quivered. She was the Red Queen, and nobody’s drone. She made a profit from betting on herself in the arena.
Hana moved to her weapons wall and pulled down an illegal firearm.
She checked the weapon. It was fully charged. She had tried going to the authorities, but that hadn’t worked. The IC and everyone Topside was probably in on recycling employees and paying them nothing. She’d tried the civilized way. Now, it was time to hire the leaderless Tigers and give the corporations some direct persuasion.
It was Boss Appreciation Day tomorrow, and she had the perfect gift for Mr. Oday and his superiors.
It felt good to be home.