Naturally, the sedative fog did nothing to slow the rabs' forward progress; Cincinnatus had his shotgun in firing position at once, aiming downward between his legs, as he waited to see what condition the rabs were in when they arrived.

They were still bouncing off the walls, but now he could see it wasn't a controlled movement. Instead of always landing on legs, any part of their bodies might hit the wall, and they tumbled end over end instead of jaws first.

"Spray's working," said Cincinnatus.

He reoriented himself so he could walk in the corridor again. Drugged-up rabs from Ender's direction pelted him in the back as rabs hit him in the front. The suits absorbed much of the shock, but not all of it. Not enough of it. There'd be some bruising, and when they hit Cincinnatus's facemask, the impact rocked his head back. He moved forward briskly, firing off a short burst of spray every ten meters or so. Ender didn't fire at all -- they were moving into the residue of Cincinnatus's spray, leaving Ender's original burst of fog to guard the passage behind them.

Cincinnatus passed a large airtight door on the right, leading toward the center of the ark. He made a quiet bet that Carlotta would choose this one, because it wasn't open and therefore might be rab-free. Sure enough, she levered it open and there was no debris inside, though a good amount of it began osmoting through, along with fog.

He saw Ender move through the door and Carlotta closed it. The amount of debris that had come through was relatively slight, and Cincinnatus led the way along this corridor at a brisk walk.

After a short way, the corridor opened out into a huge sandwichlike chamber. Cincinnatus forced his mind to reorient to the way Formics would have seen the room. The space between floor and ceiling was no more than a meter, but both surfaces undulated. And both surfaces were pocked with indentations. Deep ones.

"Sleeping quarters," Carlotta guessed.

She had to be right. Each indentation was deep enough for a Formic worker to crawl in to sleep. The soft, organic surface would protect them from the stress of acceleration. Cincinnatus reached a hand inside and pressed against it. It broke. Once it might have been resilient, but it had dried out. Probably the Formics moistened their own cells when they slept, to keep them supple. But now the walls crumbled into flakes when pressed. Some of the cells had Formic corpses in them. Most were empty.

They found themselves in a long corridor running in the direction of the axis of the ship. This time the tube had tracks on what the Formics would consider to be the floor and the ceiling. It made sense -- a cart would never stay on tracks that only ran along the floor. Something was hauled along these tracks -- and regularly. Cincinnatus saw that the metal tracks were shiny with constant use.

"The trains are still running," Carlotta said.

As if on cue, Ender gave warning from the rear. "Press into the corners, here comes the train."

Cincinnatus dropped to the "floor" he had been walking on and stretched himself out. Moments later, a tram moved along the tracks, tension bars holding the wheels to both sets of tracks. The body of the tram was like a chicken-wire cage, bulging with some kind of organic material. Plants? No, they were writhing, pushing against the wire. But nothing was getting out.

Not rabs, not even rablike. These were soft-bodied creatures, more like slugs, but with wider bodies and a kind of hair. Or cilia. Caterpillars? Analogies to Earth fauna would probably be unproductive and misleading. Ender's job, anyway.

Cincinnatus followed the tram but did not try to keep up with it. The thing was automatic. The question was whether it would run in a loop or reverse direction and come back this way for another load.

It didn't come back, and after a while Cincinnatus came to a place where the tracks curved inward toward the center. Cincinnatus stayed with them, of course, and came up against the back of the tram, which was stopped exactly over an opening. A sickening odor was coming from the space where the opening led.

Through the chicken wire Cincinnatus could see that something was cleaning out the cage.

It was a rab.

But it ate nothing, just scraped out the last of the clinging slugs. Then the opening closed, the tube was dark again except for the light from Cincinnatus's helmet, and the tram moved along in the same direction instead of backtracking. So it was a loop. And the load had been delivered.

Cincinnatus gathered them around the place where the opening had been. There was no visible lever to open the door.

"What now, Lot?" asked Cincinnatus. "There was at least one rab on the other side, but it didn't eat the slugs, just pulled them out."

"Did it look like that's what the grabbing claw was designed for?" asked Ender.

"Not our concern right now, but ... yes," said Cincinnatus. "Could be that this is the task the rabs were actually designed for."

"Meanwhile," said Carlotta, "I think we can trip the signal that tells the system that a tram is here, so the door will open. It's mechanical. Look, the wheel passes over a treadle and the pressure trips a switch." She looked at Cincinnatus. "Ready for me to open it?"

"Fog ready," Cincinnatus said to Ender. They got their nozzles into position to spray into the opening. "I warn you, it stinks in there," said Cincinnatus. "Now, Lot."

The door opened.

The stink hit them right away and got worse as they moved into the room, which was humid and hot.

A half-dozen rabs were gathered nearby, but they were busy herding the slugs along a metal ramp that sloped gently upward. One of them noticed Cincinnatus and turned to face him, but it didn't leap to the attack. On the contrary, it simply went back and flipped the lever that closed the door again. But by now Cincinnatus, Carlotta, and Ender were all inside the chamber.

No, not chamber. Cavern. Unlike the Formic workers' dormitory, this space had much higher ceilings -- several meters, maybe five. But rising to it or descending from it like stalagmites and stalactites was a lot more of that organic material, only now it was spongy and resilient, and the indentations were far narrower.

The rabs pushed the slugs up the ramp toward the center of the cavern. There was a platform there, with a soft light aimed at it from several directions. The whole room was centered on that space.

Tags: Orson Scott Card The Shadow Science Fiction