Three Hundred and Forty-Nine by Gerri Leen

Flying low, skimming trees, he presses his little ship on.

He can feel her. It’s in his basic genetic makeup to be able to find her and follow her this way, but to do it on behalf of the humans who hunt her is abomination.

A beacon in his ship lets them tail him, and they keep a craven safe distance between them and the one they seek.

His mother, his queen, his life.

He wants to turn the ship around, to steer it back the way he came, slam it into the craft of his masters and send them crashing to the ground. He wants that with every cell in his body. But while he was made to do what’s right for the hive, he was changed to do the bidding of the humans.

They couldn’t change her: his mother, his queen, his life. She broke away, and he doesn’t know how. He only knows it was long before he was hatched—he’s never met this creature that laid the egg he rested in for so long, held in suspension until another hunter was needed.

His personality was tweaked—first at the genetic level, then through conditioning once he’d hatched—until he wasn’t just her son but also their creature. A slave of the humans.

The masters, as they demand to be called. They used pain-sticks to remind him to call them that when he forgot—or just didn’t want to. That kind of resistance was long ago, though; he finally surrendered to them or they never would have set him loose to find her.

He hates them. If hate could make a ship turn around, then he would flip his in midair and abandon this hunt.

But hate cannot.

Another ship slips out from behind a hill, flying even lower than he is, too low for his masters to see on their sensors. This ship is actually moving treetops as it flies.

And then he feels her. Not the way he always has, as some vague sense, as a presence with significance but no context. He feels her close, feels her emotions—she’s happy to see him.

She’s dismayed to see him.

She’s resigned that another of her children has been sent to hunt her down.

He learned to speak the master’s language with difficulty, but this sharing he and his mother are engaged in is effortless. And pleasurable. Since he was hatched, his life has been nothing but pain and restriction. Finally he feels free, to share, to be understood, to just…exist.

But this sharing is also painful. He didn’t want to find her and she doesn’t want to die.

She’s the queen. She should endure even if none of her clutches do.

She seems to sense he has questions about her and sends him the answers he craves. She came to this planet in a ship much bigger than the ones she and he now ride in. A ship that should have been undetectable to humans, but the shielding device failed during entry through the atmosphere. Then the ship blew itself apart when the humans tried to mine its secrets. She was well clear of it when it exploded, hidden in the woods, gravid with young and growing dangerously cold on this blue-green world where their kind could never be warm, not even in the hottest season.

It was the cold that made her slow, the cold that let the humans catch her.

She clutched before they caught her, but he and his siblings had no chance to develop properly, moving more slowly because of the cold. Some hatched, others didn’t. Then they were held, hatched or not, in a stasis that still whispers in his skin. He doesn’t want to go back to that cold: if he succeeds in his hunt, will he? Or will they kill him outright?

His mother failed as a settler. He can feel that she wanted to pass this planet by, but it looked so appealing to those who send out the queens with their load of eggs—her future army—that she had no choice. Obedience to the hive was total.

Had she not been captured, she would have set the extinction of the humans in motion.

Had she not escaped, he would never have been awakened by those same creatures.

He can feel some sweet sense from her. It’s in his memory, as if something that has been locked is finally opening. She’s sending him some kind of signal, something that goes deeper than just the information she’s feeding him on his background, and he sees images of their home planet—but not just sees. He hears and smells and feels and even tastes. He understands that he should have been able to do this all along. It’s everything he’s never known because he wasn’t raised in the proper way.

The clutch should have hatched all at once. They should have tumbled together as they learned to navigate their world, sleeping in a clump, listening to their mother, to her stories of home, her plans for them.

The forward guard. They would have been invincible.

No one worried about the humans. No one thought they could stop her, let alone freeze her brood in their machines or hold her in a cell or, once she escaped, chase her over and over until she grew tired…so tired.

She’s killed three hundred and forty-eight of his siblings. The death of each of them rings a hole in her heart that resonates to where he is. This feeling of regret nearly sends him to his knees, but he pulls himself upright.

Inside him, a war goes on between the programming that makes him give chase and the need to rebel that he feels each time his queen’s mind touches his.

He can tell from her that this inner struggle has happened three hundred and forty-eight times. None of her children have been able to break free and turn on the humans.

He senses her raking his memories: she wishes to know how many of her children are left.

There are six hundred and fourteen left. Each small enough for the humans to hold in their ugly, multi-digit hands, with their sickly soft skin sliding down to measure and weigh his brothers and sisters. Once out of suspension, they will grow fast, as he did.

As three hundred and forty-eight of his siblings did.

He feels her weariness. Soon, she won’t be able to keep going. The humans allow her no time to rest, and their species runs in cycles. Awake and active and then down, into the earth, to sleep for weeks or even months.

She hasn’t slept in one thousand, five hundred and fourteen days. He can sense from her that she’s afraid, that this is longer than any of their kind has ever gone between hibernations. He sends her whatever strength can be carried through the bond they share. He wants her to get away.

He doesn’t want to be the child that brings down his queen.

Even if failing to kill her likely means she’ll kill him.

He sends her everything he can, everything he’s seen, every memory of every man and woman and even their hideous spawn. He sends her locations he’s been, images of the machines and technology and anything else he can think of.

He senses her gratitude.

He also senses there’s nothing new in what he’s sent. The humans are careful to keep his kind away from anything his mother might use to her advantage.

The humans are determined and have time on their side.

And the humans have spent many lifetimes perfecting how to hunt a species to extinction.

“You have a shot. Take it,” comes across the speakers, and he realizes the humans have seen his mother’s ship because she’s lifted it out of the sensor dead-zone.

He reaches for the weapon controller as he’s been taught. He also drops the shields, as he must to fire a shot.

He feels her gentle regret as she fires first.

His ship buckles from the hit, and then from another, then his mother’s ship zips away, once more skimming the trees, and he imagines another of his siblings being awakened.

He manages to turn the ship even as fire engulfs it and he steers it back the way he came, toward the ship of the masters.

She must sleep. She must endure.

He must help her.

They must die.

But their ship is already gone. He fires anyway because finally he has the power to do this and he will use that power even if it’s futile; the blast hits nothing and makes electricity from the control panel arc onto him, filling him with fire that finally makes him feel warm enough.

He has just enough time to revel in the heat before his ship hits the ground.