The drones watched these images, his inquiry, till he had repeated them several times.

Then the messenger let go of him and retreated to the distant corner where the others awaited him.

"What did you say?" asked Sergeant. "Did you piss them off?"

"They know this cocoon is dead," said Ender, "and they want a live one."

"Well, abracadabra," said Carlotta. "What do they think we are? Wizards?"

"They think there's a living Hive Queen in a cocoon somewhere. A human has her. I saw him -- they know his face, it's the same face every time. When they saw our ship and realized we were human, they thought we were bringing that cocoon with us. They thought that's what I had in the sample case."

"Sorry to be such a disappointment," said Sergeant. "Why would they think a Hive Queen cocoon survived?"

Then the two who were wearing their helmets grew quiet, listening. "The Giant's laughing," said Carlotta.

"Put your helmet on," said Sergeant. "You want to hear this."

"My helmet tells them I'm done talking with them, and I'm not."

Sergeant sighed, but Carlotta came close to Ender, sat beside him. He could hear the Giant faintly now.

"It's the Speaker for the Dead," the Giant said. "The Speaker for the Dead has that cocoon. She's alive inside it, that Hive Queen. That's why he could interview her and write his book."

So The Hive Queen was based on truth after all. And these Formics knew about it because all Hive Queens were in constant contact with each other.

But not the drones. Ender realized that the moment the Hive Queen died, the drones had contact only with each other. Their mental powers were much greater than those of the workers, but they didn't match the Hive Queen's ability to project its mental control or contact over seemingly infinite distances. The drones had to be close.

The messenger drone returned and landed on his head.

It had a different message now. Ender saw the life of these drones for the past century. There had been twenty. Now there were only five.

Ender saw the death of each one. It was numbingly alike. They opened the door, and while most of the drones fought off the attacking rabs, a few would fly past them, outmaneuvering the rabs. They went to the ecotat and entered through a portal known only to them. The feral rabs could not get through it.

Inside the ecotat, they would gather all the slugs they could and then fly back, slowly, burdened with the clinging slugs.

As they neared the helm, they would pry off a slug or two and fling it near the horde of rabs pressing against the door of the helm. The rabs immediately went into a feeding frenzy. While they were distracted, the door opened again, and the drones flew in with their remaining slugs.

Only now and then a rab noticed them and bounded upward, clawing. One by one over the centuries, drones were killed. And as fewer drones remained, it became harder to fight off the rabs at the door, and more dangerous.

The expeditions to the ecotat ended. Instead, they opened the door just a crack and closed it at once. Then they fought the rabs that got in, killed them, peeled them, ate them.

But their flesh was nauseating to eat, and worse, they lost more of their brother drones in fighting the rabs that got in. It had been a long time since they had dared to do any such thing. They had been fasting. Two of the drones had died of starvation. The others ate their bodies -- not a strange thing to do, in Formic term

s, for the Queen herself would eat drones that she no longer found useful, then cause an egg to hatch as a drone and bring it to take the eaten one's place. Drones were, in a word, delicious.

That's what had kept these five alive till now.

Ender reached into his sample case himself and took out the two slugs he had collected. They were still very much alive; Ender had a clear enough memory of the images of the drones feasting on slugs that he now thought of them as delicious, though of course humans could not metabolize half the proteins in their squirmy bodies.

The drone that had been talking to him waited till last, allowing the others to feed first. The drones were small enough that Ender could see that even a portion of a slug was a substantial meal.

They saved a good part of both slugs for the drone-who-talked-to-humans. He ate last; he ate best.

While they ate, Ender summarized what he had learned.

"I think that meal saved their lives," said Ender.

"A little hard on the slugs," said Sergeant.

Tags: Orson Scott Card The Shadow Science Fiction