The Ant Farm

When Haden had been missing for three days Anna’s mother said Anna had to go find him and bring him back. “It’s not good for him to be alone so long,” she said. Anna didn’t bother to point out that Haden would never be alone so long as he was on the ship, or anywhere within a thousand miles of another Node. Even now, if she focused, she could sense his troubled thoughts, not far away.  “I’ll find him,” she promised.

Of course, knowing he was there and pinpointing his physical location were two different things. First she tried asking him, broadcasting her silent appeal through the aether in the way her own mother would never be capable of: Haden come home people are worried.

There was no verbal reply, which didn’t surprise her, just a sullen resentment backed by a slow-burning rage. She caught an image of a insect trapped in the wrong hive, trying to escape only to find the hive was held inside a glass box. Then even that withdrew, as Haden quieted his thoughts.

She would have to do it the hard way. That was fine. Haden was right: they were bound in glass. But that also meant there were only so many places he could go, and Anna was good at empathy, at imagining the feelings of others, human and nonhuman alike.

She might have started at the Sarasohn’s house, over on Ash Street, but Teresa Sarasohn, Haden’s mother, was the one wailing about his absence so vociferously, and Teresa had long ago crossed that twilight border into insanity. In any case it seemed unlikely Haden was just holed up in a closet there for three days.

Where would he go? If Anna were to hide somewhere, she would go to the public library. There were only occasionally people there – Miss Tangier, the librarian, had moved to the other side of town to be with Henry Reeve, and only came in once a week to tidy things up a bit – and there was a little back room with a door that would lock, where Anna liked to go to read.

But that was Anna, not Haden. She wasn’t sure Haden had ever even learned to read. What was the point? She could imagine his thought-stream: primitive scratches like claw-marks of predator on tree marking territory if one wants knowledge just dive into the hive memory-mind.

Diving made her think of swimming. Haden did like to swim. Maybe he was at the rec center. So she made up a PB-and-J sandwich and put it and a water bottle into her backpack and set off on her bicycle.

A number of people were out. Mr. Selwood was mowing his lawn, which was silly since everyone knew the town grass wouldn’t grow higher than four inches anyway, but it provided him with a sense of ritual. He raised a hand in greeting as she passed, and it made her think that this must be how it felt on Earth. The (false) sun was shining and the (reengineered) grass particles glittered in the air around the old man (who would die onboard). Harv Michelsen sat drinking on his porch, watching her with dull eyes. Lucy and Ian were playing in their yard, doing two-person acrobatics, and she sent them a flash image: monkeys swinging through trees. Not that she’d ever seen a real monkey. Together the twins laughed and dropped from their handstands to scratch their armpits and make primate noises.

When she reached the rec center she set the bike outside the door and went in. When Haden was three he’d made himself a breather-mask and a weight-belt, and with them he spent hours submerged at the bottom of the rec center’s swimming pool.

He wasn’t there now. Nor was he hiding in the change rooms, or broom closets, or the sound booth above the roller skating rink.

She went back outside, thinking as she rode. Haden had always been troubled. Of all the town’s progeny, he was the one who seemed closest to the Hive. Nearly all of them had the full-black eyes of their creators, but the other features varied. Some were smaller than usual (like Demitri, who would never grow taller than three feet), some were taller (she thought the near-Earth gravity on the ship couldn’t possibly be good for Ellen’s long, spindly limbs), some had visible luminophores on their faces and bodies. Haden didn’t look as nonhuman as some of the others, but his mind was more Hive than human.

Thinking of the Hive made her think of small, comfortable arrangements, which made her think of the Marron Apartments. Lots of little boxes, most of them unoccupied, now. Maybe he was there.

The apartments were a little spooky, even in the day. The hallways were dirty, unvacuumed. She knocked on each door before entering. Number 404 was locked, but she didn’t try to go in. Matty Klein lived there, and she didn’t care for visitors much.

When she reached the last unit, 408, she paused, chewing a little on her lip. She hadn’t had a glimmer of Haden in the building, but she thought she was getting closer. She saw the staircase to the roof and went up it.

The Marron was one of the tallest buildings in town, situated near its eastern edge. She padded across the tarpaper roof, looking in each direction. The town had four hundred and fifteen residents, one hundred and two of them eight-year-old children. It was about one thousand nine hundred meters in radius, with a generous boundary of Wyoming grassland and cottonwood trees along the river. Early on several people had reasoned that there must be a gap in the wall to let the river run through, but of course the Hive had expected that, and the divers were repelled as though they’d reached a brick wall.

That river boundary wasn’t far from here. Anna looked and saw the trees, some of them right against the wall. A hive in glass, she thought. Alisha Giardano had one like that, though its inhabitants were long dead: an ant farm, she called it.

There was a path along the river, of packed dirt, with a bench along the way. After a while she had to dismount from her bike and walk it, because of the tree roots. There were sparrows in the trees, and she heard a crow cawing, some of the few animals allowed in the Habitat.

She found Haden right at the Habitat boundary, where a big cottonwood pressed against the wall, its branches curved and twisted by its limits. He had built a little platform up there out of scrap wood and nails, nestled in a high branch, not against the trunk but out a little ways. Haden? she sent.

Go away, came the thought, not in English but in the nonverbal communication of the Hive.

I’m coming up.

She clambered up, panting. When she reached the branch of the tree house, she could see Haden sitting with his back turned. The platform was barely three feet on a side, and she only hoped it would hold them both. The last few steps were tricky, too, since you had to go right out on the branch. She gathered her courage and stepped forward in a half-crouch, dropped to her knees as soon as she reached the platform, frightened. What would Haden even do, if she fell?

Nothing, came the answer. But don’t worry, the Hive won’t let you die by accident.

Of course not: there was too much invested in them. Decades of subjective time, a century of planetside years, vast resources, all dedicated to the project of bringing humanity into the Hive. And central to that project were the hybrid children, living bridges between species.

Your mother is worried, Anna sent.

Is she really my mother? Haden replied, still not looking at her. She doesn’t feel like it.

She gave birth to you.

The Hive gave birth to me.

She cares for you.

She hates me. She thinks I’m a monster. Maybe I am, to her. Maybe I am, to all humans.

Now he turned to her. Look. Look at me like a human would look.

She tried. At first she saw only Haden, but she tried to divorce herself from his thought, tried to think like a human would think. His eyes, like hers, were black, but they were very large, and looking close you could see tiny internal facets within them, like an insect’s. He never blinked, because he didn’t need to. He was completely hairless, his nose tiny, his mouth and lips small, and he had not teeth but only two bony plates, top and bottom, the color of black ivory. All across his cheeks and forehead were the tiny silver patterns of luminophores, that even in the sunlight sparkled and flared with meaning.

I’ll never be human. They hate me and I hate them.

He reached out a long-fingered hand past the edge of the platform, and touched the wall of the Habitat. It looked like nothing, like the horizon, but that was just an illusion. Around the whole two-kilometer circle of the town was a dome as hard and impenetrable as diamond, which projected a holographic image of the world around it.

But outside that wall, Anna knew, wasn’t grassland or the highway to Casper, but the almost incomprehensibly vast bulk of the ship, upon whose surface the town, the Habitat, was an enormous bubble. And outside that bubble was the limitless expanse of interstellar space.

Someday soon the ship would reach its destination. Until then, they had to be children, and try to understand. Humans can love at the same time as they hate, she told him. They’re different from the Hive that way. You must look for that love. 

She could tell that he didn’t understand. She reached out and touched his arm and said it again. When they touched, their inhumanly complex nervous systems joined and fused and they felt each other’s bodies and thoughts as one. For just that moment, he believed her. “Come back,” she said.

“Okay,” he answered aloud, in English. Slowly, carefully, they descended the tree.

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