Dr. Krum's expression was unreadable, but she didn't appear aggressive. Her mind was uncomfortable to touch and Kutoth avoided doing so whenever possible, but now he felt the waves of annoyance flooding off of her, and it made his tail lash.
"We'd be happy to aid you any other way, but we simply don't have the security measures-" A loud beeping cut through his words. The pair broke eye contact to watch Kutoth's bracelet light up. His mouth split in a wide toothy grin and he flailed his hands dismissively. "Would you like to accompany me to the myrmex catching, Dr. Krum?"
All animosity dissipated as the woman returned his smile. "That sounds fascinating."
Across the Refugium candidate beepers lit up to announce the clutches' readiness. Halls and elevators cleared to allow easy access to the subterranean biome as the candidates flooded in - a much larger group that the Refugium had ever seen before, but after all, there were a great many eggs. Many of which appeared to be sporting... knitted caps? A great deal many of them, which meant someone here had been rather busy. Even now Gleam's drones were adjusting the hats on a few eggs, tugging them snugly over their slimy carapaces.
Her warrior paced the length of the cavern, overseeing the placement of foodstuffs in various piles within easy reach of the hatchlings. Gleam had been insistent that the grubblings would be ravenous and if they weren't given enough to fill their bellies, they'd turn their attention on anything else that might fit in their mouths. Best to have well stocked larders. The cave stank of it, piles o fruit and grain, vegetables that seemed a little off, meat piled high, and buckets of fat feeder worms Gleam said would be particularly favored. A few of Janos City's restaurants had donated frozen stuffs to help sate the oncoming hoard of hatchlings.
Kutoth and Dr. Krum made their way to the far end of the clutching cavern, nearest the queen who watched them both with gleaming, black eyes.
:: There will be many queens. ::
"You can tell what they are inside the eggs?" asked Dr. Krum.
:: No. We need queens so there will be queens. :: She turned away from them, antennae-ears flicking upward. :: They are coming. ::
The collective milling of the candidates dimmed to silence as a wet ripping sound announced the first hatching. And then, chaos began.
As an announcement broke out and dozens of people began to swarm inside the cavern, Tobias knew something bad was about to happen. Idein shot him a meaningful look then jerked his head at Shaltach, whose face was doing jumping jacks between excitement and annoyance at having been called out once again.
"We should probably leave." Tobias craned his head looking for the exit, but everything from a tiny weasel-like creature to a dragon blocked the way now.
Besides, it was already too late.
:: Where are we going?:: Trouble's bright mind voice flooded Tobias' head with equal parts joy and trepidation. The rather large nectar slurped out of its egg and wobbled its way to Tobias' side, trying to stand on its shaky hindlegs to look over the crowd too.
:: Nowhere without me :: harrumphed Done. The soil leaped out of the soggy mess of its split egg and pounced on its larger sibling.
"You should see your face," said Idein, holding back - just barely - the urge to laugh.
Something smashed into the back of his leg. He caught himself before he tripped, twisting around with a glare, to see the grinning face of Ready, a large arbor hatchling.
:: That was good right?:: Ready asked, gathering its clumsy legs for another leap. :: I'm gonna be big and strong, just wait!::
The egg Shaltach had been leaning over began to split, and before the wriggling white and orange fungus hatched, it shouted a static word of greeting through the woman's mind.
:: I'm Exception!:: it squeaked, bursting free of the egg and sliding down to Shaltach's feet. It stared up at her with huge eyes and a huger grin. :: We're going to have so much fun.::
"Hell yeah, we are," Shaltach agreed.
:: I want to have fun too! :: a squeaking dervish of green and yellow rushed toward them. Ruckus shoved their sibling out of the way and grabbed one of Shaltach's hands gently between its mandibles. :: I'm going to be super duper good at adventures. ::
"The Capsuleer is going to kill us," Tobias groaned.
Pallienth was likely the largest candidate in the cavern, and she shielded her bondmate Shepherd from view of the others with one partially extended wing. Several eggs touched their minds before the hatching had even begun, eager and joy-filled at the thought of being linked vortally to another. The pair had chosen a spot that was convenient for Pallienth's size and close to the eggs that reached out to them. A grubbling stirred inside its semi-translucent shell, dug its claws into the skin and ripped it open. A gleaming white fungus spilled onto Pallienth's paws in a puddle of ooze.
There were no words needed. This was Rahd and it linked itself to Pallienth and Shepherd immediately.
:: You won't go without me! :: a mind voice shouted across the cavern. A red-brown soil marched indeterminately toward the dragon and vort pair, and instantly its name became Ksaa. :: I will dig many tunnels! The best tunnels! You'll see! ::
Something nudged against Pallienth's wing and she opened it enough to reveal a bright yellow nectar grubbling, crawling across her tail to hunker beside Shepherd. Shepherd reached down to stroke its head and its mind voice shivered through both of them, shy and nervous. :: You're for me... and I am Darh, and we'll be good together, won't we?::
A fourth mind voice blasted through them all, ferocious as an antlion. :: I will keep us all safe forever!:: it was a brown soil, but the grubbling headed straight toward a pile of food, already filling its mouth with everything in reach. :: I'm Dara, and no one will ever hurt you again while I'm around. ::
Uncertainty pricked at the young candidates Iselfleya and Tarasso as the hatching began, although the dragon anthro hid his well.
"We've got this," said Tarasso, shooting his companion a cocky grin. "And I'm going to impress a queen."
Iselfleya didn't get a chance to respond. An egg tore open near them and she felt the first brush of another mind to hers, bright and sparkling like summer sunshine.
:: I'm not worried about living above ground. :: said Best, a deep red and white fungus that trotted toward Iselflaya on wobbly legs. :: I can live anywhere as long as I'm with you. ::
:: And me!:: a bright pink nectar burst out of the top of its egg, getting a knit purple hat snug over its head in the process. Brightest hurried toward the young woman, shying away from other siblings that hatched around it.
They really did look like bugs, didn't they? Tarasso kept his smile in place, but he couldn't shake the worry of what people back home would think of these. At least they weren't black, like those acid-spitting bugs. But still...
A mind brushed his and Tarasso snapped his gaze up to see a very large green arbor headed toward him. The name hadn't been intentional, but the arbor was Arx. Its gait was jaunty and open, and some of Tarasso's fear dissipated.
:: I'll make a good impression:: said Arx. ::Don't worry::
:: As will I. :: This voice burst static bright through both Iselfleya and Tarasso. They turned to see a sleek green arbor heading toward them and the realization that they both heard its mind voice dawned with a flicker of horror.
"You're Commitment," said Iselfleya, mouth suddenly dry.
::And you're both mine.:: Commitment responded.
Oh no, thought Gyles as the egg directly in front of xyr feet burst open to reveal a pale brown soil grubbling.
:: Yes!:: said Oh No, leaping out of the goo at its new bond mate. :: Oh No will be a very good worker, you'll see! ::
Meel grinned and brushed some of the slime off the little soil. "I think this one is mine, too."
:: And me:: another mind voice, deep as resonating as space itself, wound its way into Gyles and Meel. A black and gold decay grubbling flicked an ear in their direction, then turned to the food. Belonging. :: I want to be part of the Considerate Traveler, too. I want to see all of space. ::
A note of panic touched their minds, and Oh No wriggled out of Gyles' grasp toward a very small egg, its ears perked. :: This one doesn't want to be for eating, but it's broken. ::
Indeed, the hatchling inside was tiny and clawing at the sides of the egg, but couldn't seem to penetrate the thick skin. As much as Gyles didn't want to cause trouble bringing a bunch of dragons back to the Considerate Traveler, xe couldn't sit by with that voice trickling fear between xyr and Meel. The pair of humans - along with Oh No - hurried to the egg and dug their fingers into the slimy surface until it split. A tiny pink nectar puddled out, shivering.
:: I'm not food :: said Fortunate Egg. :: But I am very hungry.::
:: You're the coolest looking person here!:: a bright mind voice shouted at Gilles, leaving a vaguely citrus feeling in his mouth. A brightly colored fungus grubbling headed toward him at a clipped pace.
"Woah," he gasped.
:: That's right ::
Behind Woah slunk a smaller green arbor, trying valiantly to wink various sets of eyes at anything vaguely female.
Woah sighed, and said. :: Act Natural ::
Mandy stood in the midst of the crowd with a sensual smirk gracing her lips, hips cocked. This was a weird place, filled with some very odd creatures, not least of which were the myrmex themselves, but she wanted to fit in as best as she could.
A blue-black grubbling approached her with a serious expression. :: I'm Bitter, and anyone who hurts you will pay. ::
"Excellent," said Mandy, crouching down to stroke her new bond.
Unlike her companions, Dorothy kept a little out of the main circle, trepidation making her fidget in place. Would any of these creatures like her?
She needn't have worried. A pale yellow nectar headed toward her with its head held high, and behind it, a larger soil in a myriad of browns.
:: We think you're perfect:: said Beauty, nuzzling Dorothy's hand.
:: And we'll always think that, no matter what :: Beast agreed.
The ground was becoming slick with egg slime, making treacherous footing for Mey-laa's hooves, and she was beginning to doubt whether she'd bond at all or end up face first in the slime with a nasty fall.
:: You don't need to worry :: said Foundation, a bright green arbor scurrying through the piles of eggs to reach her. :: There won't be any falling down with us. I want to help you build!::
:: I'm glad you made it :: Observe sent to Savas, their mind voice cool and calming among the myriad of sounds Savas was attuned to. The grubbling spoke before they'd even torn through their egg, and Savas made their way toward it to help them peel out of the slick shell. Observe proved to be a brightly spotted green arbor, who regarded Savas with a smile and a rumbling stomach.
"Where are the others?" asked Savas, closing their eyes to listen more intently.
Vision, a deep black decay, said nothing as it approached and they sat in silence next to Savas, all their eyes glaring out at the other candidates.
:: We can be your eyes :: said the final voice, Oculus, a dark brown soil, shaking bits off goo off its many legs as it meandered toward them. :: We'll help you find this Vella Crean. ::
A mossy green arbor stuffed its maw with mouthfuls of food as it regarded the candidates, but Business had already made its choice. It took its time headed toward Aivery, as if the desire for a mind link wasn't its more pressing issue.
:: We're going to learn lots of things together:: said Business, sitting promptly at Aivery's feet. :: And then we're going to be in charge!::
Aivery wasn't sure what to make of that, but she was happy to go with the flow, and followed her new bond to one of the feeding stations.
Azuutal was overcome with excitement. The myrmex were fascinating! And so insect-like! He examined one of the empty egg pods, testing the thickness of the slime, the textures of the 'shell'. If only he could have brought a tablet here to record notes!
:: I'll remember things for you, if you'd like:: said a quiet voice, rustling like butterfly wings through Azuutal's mind. He turned to see Lacewing, a pink nectar, slinking through the eggs toward him.
:: Can I see your claws?:: pale green arbor Beetle pounced on Azuutal's feet, prodding his toe beans with clumsy hands. :: What's venom mean and what's it made of? When are we going to see your world? What kind of bugs do you have there?::
Azuutal smiled and folded his wings over his two young bonds, already brimming with love for them.
A grubbling was staring at Shieno and had been for some time without making any form of mind connection with the terigon anthro. His swarmed buzzed uncomfortably under the scrutiny. As insect-like as these dragons were, they were also insectivores, judging by the number of fat mealworms they were gorging on, and Shieno suspected that more than one of them would consider his personal hive a treat. The grubbling wiggled, shrieked, and pounced. Shieno took up a defensive stance, but before the grubbling reached him something else bright and quick slammed into it.
A deep red fungus clicked its jaws and screeched at the attacker, ears pinned back. :: These are mine!::
Shieno felt the brush of Own's mind as the hive accepted the little myrmex.
::I'm part of this hive, too:: said Chakra, a brightly marked decay who had been sitting patiently behind Shieno.
Bonding completed, Shieno led his pair of grubblings from the den. He'd get them their own food somewhere the rest of his swarm would be safe.
Enebris watched with delight as grubblings burst out of their eggs, only to be greeted by the warm comfort of a knitted toque or scarf. Indeed, even Queen Gleam was still wrapped in the scarf Enebris knit for her, humming a low tone of contentment that lit the wool up in a spectrum of deep purples. Even if none of these hatchlings chose her, there was a deep contentment in having so many of her gifts well received.
Enebris spotted a bright green arbor struggling with a scarf and rushed to help. Their minds brushed.
Vibrant looked up at her with pleading eyes. :: I wanted to see how it worked, but I'm stuck. ::
"I can teach you," said Enebris with a soft smile. She helped untangle Vibrant's claws from the neat weave.
:: Can you teach me, too? Mostly about the chentuu, I think.:: a pale fungus nudged its head under Enebris' arm. It was wearing one of her knitted caps, which made its ears flop down against its cheeks. :: They look so soft in your mind, I'd really like to meet them. ::
"And you will." Enebris adjusted Peaceful's hat. "I'll make you one of these with holes for your ears, too."
:: I'd like that very much! ::
:: And one for me too, right?:: Vibrant pleaded.
Enebris laughed and hugged her bonds close. "Of course."
"Woah, that's a lot of legs." Caspian goggled as a very large green arbor made its way toward him.
:: I'll have wings too:: said Many Legs, stretching out its secondary arms toward Caspian. :: But only if you feed me lots and lots. Otherwise I'll have to...: it paused, eyes scrunching tight. :: ...eat your sister or something. Please feed me.::
Caspian grimaced and hurriedly led his bond to one of the feeding stations.
Kkaesinel, the lone sira in a cavern full of much larger aliens, was surprisingly calm as the hatching commenced. She trotted through the eggs, stepping around rambunctious grubblings, enjoying the feeling of being surrounded by people again. The cavern was so large and wide, so full of life, that it almost felt like a home cave.
:: It's not, though. :: a voice gently touched her mind. Kkaesinel turned to see a pale brown soil moving toward her, head low.
"I know," she said. "This is just a dream."
Kaloysha's expression turned tight, but it pressed up to Kkaesinel's side and remained there for the rest of the hatching.
Another voice, light and filled with excitement touched the sira's mind with a sense of joy but no words. She watched a rather large egg split and spill a second soil to the cave floor. Kanerviss shook the goo from its hide and joined Kkaesinel, nuzzling her neck and churring with contentment.
:: We're your family now. :: said a third voice, hot and flickering like fire. Sshrashi, a small but vibrant decay, joined their group. :: We'll follow you through any tunnel, any cave.::
A ripple in the time-space fabric warped a few of the eggs nearest the cave entrance. A spot that had definitely not been empty previously was (still) containing the eager and unflapple form of Ishenki who had definitely been there all along.
:: Just in time:: a bright mind-voice tasting of too much sugar splashed through Ishenki's head.
"Always!" Ishenki beamed at Minutes, the flashy orange fungus that bounded to her side.
Most of the eggs hatched, leaving behind only a handful of empty duds that the grubblings made quick work of consuming, and soon the chaos of the hatching ebbed away until only a few stragglers were left behind. Kutoth turned to speak to Dr. Krum but found the woman had already slipped away. He frowned. That was certainly a feat to accomplish while standing next to a telepath, but he couldn't feel any trace of her mind left in the biome.
:: There are many good bonds. :: Croke, the drone, fluttered down next to Kutoth. ::Lots of happy grubblings with full bellies, and nobody died!::
"I do prefer my hatchings without any grievous harm," Kutoth laughed.
They were shortly joined by Boldly who watched the remaining candidates with a deeply judgmental expression. :: They're going to go away now. So far from their home nest.::
"Yes," Kutoth nodded, reaching out to pat the little drone on the shoulder. "Many of them will start entirely new colonies, with any luck. You might see some of them again."
Boldly harrumphed and darted off. :: Can't have grubblings come back when there are new eggs to tend. Queen Mother will make many more. ::
Kutoth grimaced and eyed Gleam. Hopefully she wouldn't be planning any new clutches for some time yet. He appreciated the species and wanted them to thrive, but this had been... a lot. The Refugium's subterranean biome would need some time to recover.
And he had Dr. Krum's machinations to worry about.
The Refugium did not need xenomorphs running around its hatching grounds.