The House of God

Eric struggled to keep his wings from quivering. God forbid Captain Pollux think him afraid. He braced them against his thorax and focused all his eyes straight ahead, waiting for inspection. He tried to quiet his mind as the masters of knowledge taught, but the ideas they called “wild” and “blasphemous” bit deeper into his mind.
The House! they said. Explore the House!
The House was where god lived. On hatching day, it was their first lesson:
God gave us the hive; god takes the honey
God comes in the smoke that brings sleep
The chosen ones give their stings to god to show our gratitude
God gave us the hive; god takes the honey

On his second day, Eric asked, “Why does god need the honey?” They put him in a comb for the day. By his fifth day, he was too big to fit into a comb; he asked again. He was sent to the bottom of the hive, to sweep the Sun Gate clear of the legs shed by his elders. That was when he first saw the House.
It was the largest thing in the world, surrounded by flowers stuffed with so much pollen he grew dizzy. Only the Harvester Corps would ever get close. He enlisted the next day. At four weeks, his training began.
Captain Pollux filled Eric’s vision, startling him. Pollux looked him over slowly while Eric tried to keep his gaze focused on a spot over the Captain’s bristly hairs. Pollux knew about Eric’s interest in god’s house, and that he’d been caught outside four times without clearance, all of them on the Sun side, facing god’s House.
“Cadet Eric,” he said. “You have received the second-highest marks in hive history.”
He nearly leaped into a flight of joy, but contained it.
Pollux stared at him several wingbeats before continuing. “But the rank a Cadet receives depends also on their devotion to god… and to the hive.”
Oh, no, Eric thought.
“The Royal Council does not fault your devotion to god; in fact, they feel your devotion to god… limits your devotion to the hive.” He straightened higher and barked, “What is the hive?”
“The hive is life!” the cadets all answered together.
“What is the hive?”
“The hive is all of us!”
“What is the hive?”
“The hive is more than any of us!”
“The hive,” said Captain Pollux quietly, “is more than any of us.” His stare froze Eric to the spot.
The Royal Council were suspicious. They weren’t going to let him graduate. They would keep him inside the hive. He would be chosen to give his sting to god and die…
“Cadet Eric,” Captain Pollux announced, “you are hereby promoted to the rank of Junior Harvester, second class.”
The pendulum of emotions swung wide. Second class! Most cadets graduated fourth class. His antennae vibrated with pride.
When Captain Pollux reached the last cadet, the Senior Harvesters marched in, one for each graduate, as guides for their first six flights; some Junior Harvesters took more risks than necessary. Eric’s guide turned to face him, and he suppressed a moan.
What next? Across from him was Winifred, the oldest Harvester in the hive. Whispered rumors said she’d outlived three queens, and had regrown all of her legs — twice.
Eric bowed deeply. She returned the bow, a small dip of her head, Senior to Junior.
“Good morning, Junior Harvester, second class, Eric,” she said. Her voice whistled. “Are you ready for your first harvest?”
“Good morning, Senior Harvester, ninth rank, Winifred,” Eric said. Junior and Regular ranks counted down as they rose; Senior ranks counted up. Rumors also said the ninth rank had been created for Winifred. “Yes, I am, Senior.”
She nodded once and led him to the Shade Gate. Eric’s disappointment grew. He had hoped to see the House on his first day. The Shade Gate led away from it, into the tall, fragrant beans.
He was so absorbed in his disappointment he almost lost Winifred when she dropped. He hurried to catch up; she was dropping so fast, he thought she was injured. Just as he caught up to her, she swooped under a leaf. He followed.
“Good,” she said. “We might have lost them.”
“Lost them, Senior?” Eric said.
“The guards following us, of course,” Winifred said. “And please, call me Winnie. I’m sick of being reminded I’m older than everyone else.”
“Yes, Sen— Winnie,” Eric said. “But, what are we doing?”
Winnie’s whole body seemed to quiver. “Eric, what would you like to do more than anything on your first harvest?”
He knew it was dangerous, but she showed a kindred spirit. “I want to see god’s House.”
“Good!” she said, and tapped his foreleg with her own. “Very honest. But I’m afraid that’s not possible.”
Again, his hopes crashed. “What? Why?”
“Because, Eric, the Council knows. That’s why I was paired with you, and why we’re out in these beans. The guards will find us soon, but be patient. We’ll get you to the House soon enough.” She turned toward the stalk and said, “so you see, Junior Harvester, that the poles god provides the beans also make harvesting from them much simpler for us. Note how the blooms are spaced apart…”
Eric tried to follow her words, but was distracted by a pair of stern-looking guards that dropped into sight twenty lengths away. The watched and listened for a few dozen wingbeats, then drifted up and away. Winnie kept talking, but she waggled her antennae at him.
By the fifth day, they went out the Heat Gate to the hollyhocks and apple trees on that side of the house. The long afternoon baked the ground, warm air lifting them to the top of the apple tree. Even from there, the House was taller still. He hoped she meant to take him closer than that.
The sixth day, Eric’s last flight with Winnie, was their first without guards. As they flew from the Cold Gate, she had asked him, “Eric, have you ever tasted rose nectar?” The roses were on the Cold Gate side of the house. It took all his resolve to fly with her, rather than cut a beeline for the House.
It was impossibly huge, up close. Thirty hives stacked together wouldn’t reach the top of it. He kept gazing at it between bushes.
“Eric, stop gaping and get back to those blooms,” Winnie said. “We need to finish this row before—”
As Eric turned to see why she had stopped so suddenly, the sun went out. A shape nearly as large as the house moved over him. He scrambled down to the base of the flowers and peeked between the petals. Huge, terrifying legs reached for the rose where he hid. An acidic, spicy smell overpowered the scent of the rose. The giant blossom shuddered, and the world swayed crazily around him. Heat and light flashed in and out. Eric curled into himself and prayed.
When all was still, he crept up the petals. He had to find Winnie. He reached the top of the petal and new terror closed around him.
The sky was gone. The sun, the grass, the flowers, even the hive — gone. He was trapped in a world utterly alien. A square of sunlight sliced into his vision, and he saw, at a distance, the bean poles. He dashed for them. They slowly grew larger; he flew faster. The square of sun filled his vision. He could almost smell the bean field. Then—
He crashed so hard, he couldn’t see straight for several wingbeats. He flew forward again, slowly, and found a nearly invisible wall blocking his path. It was so smooth, he could hardly walk on it, but it was clear as air. As he was looking at the beans and sunflowers, he pictured the world in his head, trying to place where he was from what he could see.
If the beans are there, and the sunflowers are there, then I must be… Eric lost his grip on the wall and fell into a trench. He barely noticed.
I’m inside god’s house. Had god known Eric wanted to learn more about him, about the house? Had god brought him inside to reward him, or to punish him?
He felt a rhythmic shaking. Shaking presaged god’s appearances, he knew.
God stood in the sunlight, not thirty lengths from him. He towered over Eric. Eric heard a rushing like rain and smelled water, mixed with the scent of dried leaves and animals. Water was how god grew the flowers. God was rewarding him for his devotion by showing him the secrets of creation. He climbed the clear wall, determined to speak to god directly.
How do you greet god? he thought. What do I say? He climbed higher. God is more senior than any bee, Eric thought. When there was as much wall under him as above him, Eric turned and called out, “Most Senior god!”
God seemed to notice him then. God stretched a leg out and hooked something large, lifting it in the air. Eric gaped at god’s strength. He brought it down on Eric, impossibly fast. A wing crumpled, and one foreleg tore loose . Panicked, he flew down and up the wall and from edge to edge, searching for any gap, any escape. God swung again, and batted Eric into the trench where he had fallen before. God landed a deafening blow on the trench, but its sides kept Eric from being struck. He crawled into a tunnel at the base of the wall. The blows stopped.
He had brought Eric into the house to destroy him, after all. He had been wrong, just as the masters and the council had said.
Eric felt the heat of the sun fade from the wall. Perhaps god had gone. He couldn’t back out of the tunnel, though. His damaged wing caught on something when he tried. He gave up hope. He was going to die, trapped in a tunnel in god’s house. God had condemned him.
A cool trickle of air whispered through his hair. That came from ahead, Eric thought. It might lead outside.
He pulled himself slowly along the tunnel, antennae guiding him. After four lengths, he saw a dim light ahead of him. With hope pounding in his thorax, Eric crawled faster. A rough hole, barely large enough for his head, went through the base of the clear wall to outside! But another wall, made of unbreakably hard strands laid in a perfect grid, stood between him and escape. He marveled at the perfection of the grid.
Eric crawled up and down the grid, searching for flaws in it. The sun came out from its clouds, and Eric grew warm. He searched faster, his legs catching in the grid. He forced himself to work steadily, before he lost more of them.
In the topmost corner of the grid, toward the cool side, he found two of the strands broken. He pushed, bit, and pulled at them. It was getting dangerously hot. He managed to get his head through the hole, but stuck on his damaged wing. With a cry of desperation and despair, he forced his way out, the wing tearing from his shoulder. He fell to the ground, too exhausted to use his three remaining wings.
It was late when he woke. Eric looked around. He was in the grass on the Sun Gate side of the house. He chewed a blade of grass; it wasn’t very good, but the moisture helped him feel better. He got up on his legs — still five legs, he noticed — and buzzed his three wings. He winced at the pain on his left side, but buzzed them again. It was tolerable. He beat them harder and lifted off.
Emergency Services workers lifted him from the ground to the hive; he didn’t have the strength to fly up that high. They put him in an enlarged comb, and he slept.
He was called before the Council as soon as he was well enough to stand. He was sure this was to be a trial that would end in his execution. The guards put him before the Stand and backed into the shadows. Eric heard the Council approach the Stand. The new wing wouldn’t lay flat against his thorax and shook like a seed in the breeze.
Senior Harvester, ninth class, Winifred climbed to the highest seat and turned to him. Eric couldn’t have been more shocked if god himself had taken the Stand.
“Junior Harvester, second class, Eric,” Winifred said. “You were seen to be taken up by god himself two days ago. Describe to this Council what happened to you.”
Eric told his story, without embellishment or exaggeration. They gasped at his description of god’s first blow. One of them kept gesturing with his antennae to another while he described the grid. When he was done, he hung his head and waited.
The Council members vanished from the Stand, but Eric could hear them conferring behind it. He was practicing his Last Words speech when the Council stepped up again.
“Junior Harvester Eric,” Winifred said, “the Council have some questions for you.”
“Y-yes, Senior,” Eric said.
“Did you see god clearly when the flower you were harvesting was cut?”
“No, Senior. God stood in the shade.”
The Council members looked back and forth at each other.
“Could you smell god, Eric?”
“Oh, yes,” Eric said. “The breeze was toward Heat Gate, so I smelled god clearly. God smelled of spice and acid.”
“And when god smote you in the house, did god smell the same?”
Eric felt they could have knocked him over with a wingtip. “No, Senior,” he said. “Not the same at all. The smell was of leaves and death.”
A loud murmur spread through the chamber.
“Eric,” Winifred said, “you have done a great service to the hive. The masters of knowledge have theorized for generations that there are others like god, and that some of these godlike ones betray god, and work evil. You have confirmed the existence of these other godlike ones. Your place in the hive’s history is assured.”
“You will return to work when you are able, Regular Harvester third class Eric.” The guards nearly had to carry him back to the comb.
Winifred visited him that evening.
“Good evening, Senior,” Eric said.
She waggled her antennae at him. “Good evening, Regular Harvester Eric. How are you feeling?”
He rocked his head side-to-side. “Good.”
“You surprise me, Eric.”
“Surprise you, Senior? With my escape?”
“Oh, no. When god clipped the rose you were in, I knew you’d be back in a couple of days. If anyone could get out of the house, it’s you. Do you remember at your graduation, Captain Pollux told you your marks were the second highest in hive history?”
The change of subject threw him. “Y-yes, Senior.”
“Did you never wonder who had the highest marks?”
“Why, no Senior. Never.”
“Hm,” Winifred said. She looked at him, head tilted for several wingbeats, then turned to go without another word.
“Wait!” Eric called.
She stopped, but didn’t turn more than her head. “Yes, Regular Harvester Eric?”
He realized he’d left out her title. “I’m sorry, Senior. But Senior, who had the highest marks?”
“I did. You’ll find that all of us on the Council are among the most intelligent, and the most ambitious, in the hive. We will watch your career with great interest, Regular Harvester Eric.”

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