1: Forbidden Cave

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I knew things would go sideways when our human guide told us we couldn't go inside the cave. Even after I reminded him our queen commanded we explore its depths.

"Why not?" I asked. I'm a communicator so I was the only one of our little group who could wrap my tongue around their strange, verbal lingo. Truth be told, I was the only one of us who had a proper tongue.

"It's too dangerous, Gabby."

"What do you mean? What kind of danger?" I'm not not sure why the humans gave us names. It seemed important to them. So I was Gabby and Doc was Doc.

Our guide, his name was Wasim, said, "No one knows exactly, except the immortal gods. There might have been records once, but now," he made a gesture I knew indicated an apologetic tone, "there aren't even stories. Just a tradition that no one goes in the cave. They'll shoot anyone who tries." He was referring to the fifty or so men he led. They sat on their camels, watching, fingering their rifles. I'm not sure why Wasim was their leader. Doc was our leader because the hive grew it for that role. All humans looked pretty much the same. Two arms, two legs, and so on.

I translated for Doc by emitting the appropriate pheromones while Wasim and I talked.

"Tell them that we are going in the cave and if they try to stop us then we will call in our forces who will eat them alive." Doc emitted. I expected that. Doc never met a mystery that didn't need solving.  Plus it reported directly to the queen, so there was that.

"We can't tell them that," I emitted back, "and furthermore -" I found myself stopping in mid-emit and shouting at Wasim, "We're going in that cave and if you try to stop us, we'll kill you; end of discussion." Doc had seized control of me using its leader pheromones. I'm glad it seldom did that. It hurt. Doc transmitted orders to Gillian at the same time.

Gillian was a burrower. It didn't mind being controlled by Doc because it had no real mind and was instead a welter of instinctive behaviors.  Mostly involving eating things.  Sort of like the men's camels but far less complicated. Putty in the claws of morphs like Doc, and me to a lesser extent. Gillian scuttled forward with a speed I knew the humans didn't expect. It reared up and seized Wasim in an irresistible embrace of about fifty pairs of little claws. He screamed and struggled. The human managed to produce a pistol but Gillian took the weapon away from him and ate it. Burrowers do tend to have a weakness for refined metals.

The others started screaming at us. Everything turned to chaos. Camels were bellowing, dashing all around us. Men discharged their rifles haphazardly; some of the bullets kicked up close. One whizzed by my head and clipped off the top of one of my feelers. A man rode by and jumped off his mount. He landed on Gillian's back and struck several blows with his knife. Doc dispatched the man with a flourish of his sword claws.

Doc and I hid behind Gillian, who still had Wasim, and backed toward the cave.  More accurately, I hid behind Gillian while Doc used me as an improvised shield.  They kept shooting, but at best only kicked up some sand near us. They were afraid of hitting their captain.  A good thing the humans could only shoot once before they had to reload.  A bad thing that we were only moving as fast as Gillian could back up.  When you're built like a ten meter long centipede, you tend to do your best running low to the ground.

They surrounded us.  Some on foot, others still mounted.  Their eyes glittered with hatred, mirroring their scimitars and rifles in the huge yellow sun.  The humans were silent.  The only sounds were liquid growls and such from the camels, the creak of leather harness, a jangle of metal.  The assemblage stank of fear, urine and palm oil.  Our lives balanced on the tip of a claw.

My head still hurt from Doc's earlier control.  I felt as if a thousand eater gnats were all trying to gnaw a new home in my brain.  I struggled for words, forgetting that only the humans understand speech.  It didn't matter because Doc was forcing me to speak to them again.

"You men, anyone moves and your leader dies for Gillian can crush solid rock in her claws," I said.  

Doc issued a chemical order to Gillian, who slid Wasim's knife out of his sheath and snapped the blade with one of its smallest claws.  

"That will be your leader's neck and spine if you don't back off now!"  

Wasim groaned.  I think Gillian had knocked him senseless when it grabbed him.  The men seemed uncertain now.  A few backed up a little; a couple edged forward.  I was still in a haze.  I realized that the little messenger morph I carried so I could communicate with the hive at long distance was gone.  The humans had enjoyed feeding it dates and other tidbits.  It reminded them of a creature they called a parrot, because it rode on my shoulder.  They thought it was my pet.  Hopefully it hadn't been trampled in the melee.  We'd need it later.

We continued our slow retreat toward the cave mouth.  Sixty meters ... forty.  Wasim muttered something.  The men behind us gave ground just as the men in front pressed forward keeping pace.  The ring of enemies was slowly tightening as we retreated.  

Thirty meters.  Twenty.  

Wasim sputtered and coughed.  Some of the men exclaimed or swore.  Then their captain screamed.  

"Kill them!  Forget about me.  They mustn't reach the cave alive!"

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