A/N: This is a commissioned interlude, connected to the Termite interlude posted a couple weeks ago. The next regular chapter will be posted tomorrow as scheduled.
The town was (for the moment) named Eastland, located about fifty miles southwest of Portland, Oregon and a bit north of McMinnville, the seat of Yamhill County, which Eastland was part of. A little over a year earlier, its population had been around nine thousand and rapidly dropping as older citizens passed away and those who were younger moved on to towns with better prospects. In the thirteen months since, that had ballooned out to about sixteen thousand. Construction projects and new jobs abounded in the area, as multiple companies flocked to build, bringing a flood of people and resources.
There were plenty who objected to so many changes and new arrivals of course. Many town meetings had been held where new demands and rules for what these incoming companies were allowed to do, where they were allowed to build, what sort of businesses could be there, and more were argued over and either adopted or rejected. For the most part, the town accepted the new arrivals and embraced just how much their town’s fortunes had been reversed. After all, not so long ago, there had been very little in the way of new jobs and steady income. The population had been sliding for years, even decades, with no indication of anything new arriving to stabilize their prospects. Entire families disappeared from the town, heading off to bigger cities. Cities with jobs to offer.
But then something had arrived. Something that had changed the town and its inhabitants forever, and had triggered this year of mounting prosperity and growth. And that prosperity and growth showed no signs of abating any time soon. Particularly given the town’s full embrace of their new situation, to the extent of already unofficially adopting a new name. A name that would become official once it made its way onto the ballot in the next year.
Once it did, and passed, Eastland, Oregon would become Honeyland.
At a small diner in the middle of town, a diner that had stood and been owned by the same family for well over sixty years despite some recent efforts to buy them out, a Latino man in a suit sat on a stool at the counter with the latest copy of the town’s paper held in front of him. He wasn’t from Eastland (or Honeyland, as many had already taken to calling this place), but the man was curious about local events. And besides, he had time to kill before his guide arrived. Humming softly to himself, he glanced over the headlines, his eyes scanning idly across stories about the local high school baseball scores. As he did so, a small insect buzzed near the paper in front of him, and the man absently drew a hand back to swat it away.
His hand never made it that far. Just as it started to move down, the man’s wrist was caught in an iron grip that was almost, yet not quite, painful. He looked up to see the older, gray-haired guy next to him, who had been engrossed in his own coffee, holding his arm. “Around here,” the elderly man informed him in a low voice that bordered right on the edge of being threatening, “we don’t look kindly on people hurting our friends like that.”
Hurting their–only then, as he looked back to see the yellow and black insect hovering in front of him, did the Latino newcomer realize what he’d almost done with that unthinking swat. Eyes widening, he shook his head. “Oh–oh, damn. I’m sorry. It wasn’t–I was just–”
Another hand, belonging to the young, dark-haired waitress behind the counter, was extended to gently pry the old-timer’s grip away. “Thanks, Karl, but I think it’s probably safe to let him go now. You didn’t mean any harm, did you, Mister…?”
“Deans,” came the easy response. “Agent Deans, Miss, ahhh… Hayley.” As he answered (taking a glance at the nametag she wore) the man flipped open the wallet that sat on the counter in front of him to reveal the FBI badge there. “And no, I didn’t mean any harm. Force of habit, I’m afraid.”
“You make it a habit to crush people who were just trying to check the baseball scores?”
The new voice, or rather, voices, came from Deans’ right. He turned toward that way to find not just the single bee he had almost swatted, but a small swarm of them. Fifteen, to be exact. Each of them spoke as one, forming a perfect chorus. “Our deepest apologies in that case. We will make certain to ask your permission next time.”
For a moment, the only thing the man could do was stare, struggling not to gape open-mouthed. His words finally emerged after a few seconds of that. “I–they’re right, you do talk.”
“Not in the same way that you do, Agent Deans,” came the fifteen-voiced response. “We are implanted with what you would consider a chip in the back of our thoraxes and connected to our brains. A small, quite powerful speaker extends from the chip and out the underside of our abdomen, producing the sound you can hear.”
Taking that in, Deans slowly shook his head. “Sorry, I just–I’ve never actually had a face-to-face with insect-Touched. You’re not exactly common, especially with–” Cutting himself off at the thought, he grimaced. “Sorry. I should’ve been paying more attention to what I was doing.”
Again, fifteen voices spoke as one. “The fault is partly ours, Agent Deans. We forget that not everyone who might happen to be in town is entirely accustomed to our presence. Don’t fear, we will not hold it against you during our tour.”
“Oh, I’m supposed to meet…” the man trailed off upon realizing the truth. “Ah, you’re who I’m supposed to meet here, aren’t you?”
Fifteen bees flew down, then up in a perfectly coordinated maneuver that he took to be their version of a nod. “Yes, we are here to answer questions and take you to see the town on behalf of the hive-queen. But you should eat your breakfast before we go. It is the most important meal of the day.”
Sure enough, as the man glanced to the counter, he saw that the toast and eggs he had ordered had been neatly placed in front of him during his distraction. “Oh, thank you, Miss Hayley. And thank you, Karl.” He added with a look toward the man who had stopped him from swatting the bee in the first place.
From there, he ate his breakfast, including (at the urgent suggestion of both the bees and humans), putting honey on his toast. It was local honey, grown and provided by the very hive that the swarm in front of him were representing. And the moment he did, biting into the honey-covered bread, the man’s eyes closed with a murmur of pleasure. “My God,” he managed after a long moment of simply absorbing the taste, “it’s even better than what you get in the store.”
Hayley grinned, winking at the bees who hovered nearby. “It’s fresh,” she reminded him. “Right out of the hive, practically. The stuff we send to the stores is pretty great, but nothing compares to what you can get right here. Right, guys?”
There was an almost melodious buzzing sound that was apparently their version of a chuckle, before those fifteen voices replied together, “We do endeavor to provide excellent honey for our friends and fellow citizens of Eastland. And, of course, an excellent product for others to buy.”
“How do you do it though?” Agent Deans asked curiously after taking another amazing bite. “I mean, you’re just one hive. No offense at all, but your honey is sold all over the country. They’ve built an entire factory to help process it. You’ve got multiple shipping companies moving in to take it everywhere. How can you possibly produce that much? I looked it up, and a hive should only produce about a hundred pounds a year, maximum. You’ve been producing a lot more than that.”
That buzzing chuckle came back once more, before the bees assured him, “We will get into all of that and more. For now, enjoy your meal, Agent Deans. When you’re finished, we will take you on a tour, and answer any of your questions that we are able to.”
They really didn’t have to tell him twice. Deans ate all of the toast, then got seconds to put a bit more of that incredible honey on. He could see exactly why the town’s fortune had turned around so thoroughly, with their ability to ship that stuff all over the country. However they managed to produce so much of it, the fact was that they did produce it. And having that product had been one of the primary catalysts that had begun to bring Eastland (soon to be Honeyland) back to life. It wasn’t the only thing, of course. But it was the first, and arguably the biggest, factor in the town’s new prosperity. It was the main catalyst from which everything else had grown.
Eventually, after finishing and paying for his breakfast, Agent Deans left the diner. The small swarm of bees flew ahead, guiding him out to the street. On the way, he briefly wondered what the flying insects did when someone wasn’t there to open the door. His answer came when they flew, one at a time, through a tiny hole in the wall next to the door itself (he supposed it was there rather than actually in the door so that someone opening it wouldn’t end in tragedy for the bee trying to go through the hole).
Either way, once out on the streets, the swarm hovered in the air in front of him. That chorus of joined voices asked, “Would you like to take your car, Agent, or walk so that we might show you around? If you are not pressed for time.”
The man shook his head. “No, I ahh, I’d like to see whatever you can show me. That’s my job, actually. There are a lot of… curious people back at the agency who want to know how all this works.”
Again, that buzzing chuckle followed by the chorus of, “That is not surprising, Agent Deans. Come, we will tell you what we can. And answer any of your questions. Surely you have many.”
They began to fly down the sidewalk, with Deans following. Before saying anything else, the man glanced around. There were people, obviously locals, walking everywhere. And more than that, there were other small swarms of bees right alongside them. They were everywhere, working right alongside the humans. He saw one man in a delivery uniform standing outside a van, holding the back door open while a swarm of bees landed on several large boxes that were stacked outside of it. Three or four bees per box landed, then rose into the air again with the boxes coming with them.
Tactile telekinesis, Deans knew. That was one of the Touched-bees powers. Just by touching something, they could lift incredibly heavy objects (particularly given their relative size and strength) and fly around with them. It was one of the things that allowed the hive to be so helpful to their human allies. Not to mention how much they used it to build their own devices.
Yes, build their own devices. Because beyond their greatly enhanced intelligence/sapience and the Field-touched power of the tactile telekinesis, the bees were also Tech-Touched. Hence the communication devices that had been implanted in all of them that allowed the bees to talk as they had been.
From the briefing he’d received before coming here, Agent Deans understood that the bees were specifically focused on creating devices that, as the eggheads had put it, ‘enhanced cooperation and benefited the group as a whole.’ That was their Tech-Touched specialty, as it were. They specialized in designing and building inventions that would help groups work together. So, ‘devices that allowed them to communicate with humans’ definitely fit within that.
“I do have a few questions, actually,” the man managed after trailing after his escorts for a minute as he took in the sight of so many humans and bees working together. “I’m not sure how to ask this without being, ahhh, rude. But the way you all speak together, knowing… uhh, the way your people–insects–the way hives generally–”
“You wish to know if we are individuals,” came the chorus of responses as one, “or a single hivemind.” From the way they said it, the question was clearly one that they were accustomed to.
Pausing briefly to watch a handful of bees who seemed to be serving as crossing guards (complete with keeping a hand-held stop sign suspended in the air) to help a group of children cross the street toward an elementary school, Deans slowly nodded. “Yeah. Yeah, sorry, I don’t know how else to put that except, are you individuals, or one big collective?”
“The answer is yes,” came what seemed to be the teasing response. All fifteen bees flew up directly in front of his face, hovering there for a moment. Then, apparently to make a point, seven of the bees flew to the left, while the remaining eight flew to the right.
The eight bees to the right, without the seven to the left, continued with, “We are a collective.”
The seven bees to the left, without the eight to the right, added, “But that collective may be of any size. Even one, though that is rare and frightening.”
With that, the eight bees split once more, becoming two separate groups of four. The first four announced, “There are three levels of our minds. The small, the large, the whole.”
The other four further clarified, “The small is our own individual minds. What you would call your own thoughts. They are small, and do not say much on their own. It is lonely in the small mind. We don’t like it.”
The group of seven then added, “You might think of it as being somewhat asleep. A brain that is half-conscious, and feels… sluggish, or trapped. It is claustrophobic and lonely.”
“Lonely,” all fifteen bees chorused together as they flew back into one group again, continuing with, “The large mind is us. Any group together may swarm and become a large mind. That is less lonely. We think better, we think stronger, we are more than we are as small. It is the large mind that we use in most interactions.”
“And the whole mind, that’s what you called the last one, right?” Deans guessed. “That must be the entire hive.”
Sure enough, the fifteen bees flew up, then down, their version of a nod again. “Correct, Agent Deans,” came the response. “We are always connected to the whole mind. Think of it as your internet, as we all access it and may see and interact with each small and large group as needed no matter how far we are from one another. But it is more than that. It is a personality, the full collection of our small and large minds. The hive-queen directs this whole mind, yet we are all a part of it. This is hard for human individuals to understand, which is not intended as an insult. You simply do not have the proper frame of reference. We as the hive are one mind. We as the large minds are one mind. We as the small minds are one mind. All are true. We are whole and we are pieces. We are one mind fractured into as many parts as necessary to do our work.”
“I ahhh… I think I understand,” Deans slowly replied after thinking about that for a minute. “I mean, I think I get what you mean in general, even if I don’t have the right frame of reference, as you said. It’s kind of like having one mind that’s really good at multitasking.”
There was a brief pause before the swarm of fifteen carefully agreed, “It is something like that.”
With that much explained, at least as much as the bees are able to, the group continued onward. Deans was led through the town. He saw even more examples of how the hive and humans were working together. The bees used their telekinesis and their inventions to help their human allies put buildings up quickly and far more easily than the humans could do alone. That was how this town was able to expand so quickly. Houses and other buildings were much easier to build when you had a fleet of flying insects that could land on large materials and fly them exactly where they needed to go.
Eventually, they came to the main plant where honey was sorted, packaged, and shipped. Watching pallet after pallet of barrels being loaded into the back of several large trucks with the town’s soon-to-be official moniker on the sides, Deans slowly asked, “Okay, what about the honey? You said you’d explain how it’s possible to have so much of it.”
“The simplest explanation,” the bees informed him, “is that we have created machines which do the same work we would do, but far more efficiently. Flowers are grown within a greenhouse in the center of the facility. Everything from nectar extraction all the way through the rest of the… process is performed by our machines, supervised by parts of the hive. Rather than acting as the individual workers to create very tiny amounts of honey, each of our small and large minds in the factory supervise the production of much larger amounts. That, and the aid of our human allies and friends, allows the level of production that you see.”
“Well, it’s working for you, whatever the specifics,” Deans murmured. “I heard the FDA reps were impressed by your set-up.”
Again, that up-down hovering nod. “They visit quite often, to ensure our work remains impeccable. We are told there is some pressure from outside forces to declare the factory unsanitary. But we take great pains to ensure that it is safe at all levels.”
They were right, Deans knew. With a grimace, he nodded. “Yes, well, there’s a few people out there who don’t exactly like the idea of insect-Touched. Actually, that’s part of–”
“You wish to speak with the hive about the Merit termites,” the swarm finished for him. “Before the situation escalates further.”
There was no sense in beating around the bush, so Deans simply nodded. “Yeah, pretty much. The… first contact with the Merit termites didn’t exactly go very well. Not like it did here when you and the people of Eastland started working together. What was that–a kid you talked to first?”
“Phoebe Burton,” they confirmed. “Nine years old. We prevented her abduction by a stranger, a member of one of the so-called Abyssal cults, and ensured his capture. Her mother and law enforcement were grateful. This eased our introduction to human society and allowed us to set the groundwork for the alliance that exists today.”
Deans exhaled long and slowly. “Yeah, well, things were different in Merit. A few… overly-excited individuals down there made things a hell of a lot more complicated.”
“They tried to kill the hive,” his escorts pointed out bluntly. “Townspeople there worked very hard to kill those intelligent termites.”
“Not all the townspeople,” Deans protested. “Believe me, a lot of them–most of them tried to stop it. Things just got really bad really fast, before anyone realized just how far south it was going. Now we’ve got the military keeping people out and we’ve tried to send some people in to talk, but there’s a lot of… distrust. And from what we’ve been able to see, things in Merit could blow up even worse. The termites are working on their own countermeasures. If we’re not careful, those people who want the full-on war, who want to genocide the hive, are gonna get what they want. But I– some of us thought that it might be easier to communicate with the termites and come to a mutual understanding if we had a go-between that was more on their level.”
For a moment, there was no response. The bees simply hovered there in front of him. He had the feeling there was some bit of conversation or consideration (probably both) going on, and remained silent rather than interrupt.
Finally, the bees moved, hovering up a bit closer as they answered together. “Yes, Agent Deans. We believe that would be for the betterment of all, hive and humans alike. Allow us some time to prepare a group of ourselves to send a large mind with you to speak with the termites of Merit. We will invite them to join us here, in the safety of our home-hive, where we all may work together.
The agreement seemed to take a weight from the FBI agent’s shoulders, as he straightened a little bit. “Yeah? Good. Well, thanks. Thanks a lot, seriously. You have no idea how helpful that’ll be.”
“We believe we do have some idea,” the bees corrected. “We are well-aware of how badly our own introduction and integration to society could have gone. It is our duty and our honor to be able to help others in such a position.
“We only hope that we are not too late to help calm this situation, before it escalates into something far worse.”