The smell got worse the farther they moved along the ramp, but they also got more used to it. The helmets also started cleaning the air inside the visor, which helped a little.
The slugs stuck to the ramp and the rabs clung to the edges of the ramp. The mags kept the children standing upright.
"It's like a throne room," said Carlotta.
"These are egg chambers," said Ender. "This is the Hive Queen's chamber."
But there were no eggs. Instead, the closer they got to the platform at the center, the more the egg chambers were filled with a brown goo with streaks of green. Putrefaction. The slime of decay.
At the end of the ramp, the slugs were pushed onto the platform. But since it was already piled high with slugs, mostly dead ones, the new ones toppled off to the sides, plopping into the slime below the ramp. The slugs swam like eels, but there was nowhere to go, except slime-filled egg chambers.
"They're feeding the Queen," said Ender. "Only she isn't here."
By now Cincinnatus had reached the platform. He waded through slugs toward the center. At the focal point of the beams of light, a low wall kept any of the slugs from getting into a three-meter-wide circle in the exact center.
Within that wall, sprawled and curled across more of the organic material, was the gray, dried-up corpse of a winged creature that had to be at least the size of the Giant.
"She's here all right," said Cincinnatus. "But she isn't hungry."
Carlotta hated the Hive Queen, dead as she was. The Hive Queens' ability to communicate so perfectly with their daughters meant that there was no need for any kind of communications system. The Hive Queen could pilot the ship from anywhere. The pilot could be anywhere, too, with no need for visuals or even instruments, because whatever the Hive Queen knew from any of her daughters was known by all the others.
She stood over the Hive Queen's body while Ender took holoimages of the corpse.
"Don't touch it," Ender said. "She'll crumble into dust."
"So I guess this means interrogation is out of the question," said Carlotta.
"Go ahead and ask her anything," said Sergeant.
Carlotta didn't feel like joking any longer. "Somebody piloted this boat, and it wasn't her. But I can't trace the communications system because there isn't one."
Ender was oblivious to their concerns. "I've got all the images I can and they're stored back on Herodotus. So I'm going to take a sample."
"What happened to 'crumble into dust'?" asked Sergeant.
"I'll be careful," said Ender.
Carlotta saw that Ender really did have a delicate touch -- he lifted off sections of dried-up Hive Queen from various regions of the corpse, but never disturbed anything, or even pressed downward. Just nipped a bit, raising it as he did, and pushed it into self-sealing sample bags.
"The Formics were really good at genetics," said Carlotta.
"But no lab," said Ender. "Not here, anyway. Or their lab was the Queen's own ovaries. By an act of will she could decide when to extrude an egg that would become a new queen. And presumably to create an egg that would become a rab instead of a worker."
"It can't have been reflexive," said Sergeant. "She had to plan what she was doing, at least when she was making rabs."
"And while she was doing that," said Carlotta, "who was piloting the ship?"
"She was," said Ender.
"And who was tending to the ecotat, and who was doing maintenance everywhere, and who was reporting to the other Hive Queens on other worlds?"
"She was," said Sergeant. "Hive Queens are smarter than we are."
"Multitasking is fine, but was she really seeing and hearing the sensory input of all her workers at the same time, equally well? Or did she concentrate her attention where it was needed?"
"The individual Formic workers weren't just an extension of her mind," said Sergeant. "Not like hands and feet. More like perfectly obedient ... children."