The Hard Problem of Consciousness cover by Bo Kaier#Hivelife this week on the Drabblecast!

We bring you “The Hard Problem of Consciousness” by Andrew Giffin.

The Hard Problem of Consciousness
by Andrew Giffin

Rain fell and the air reeked of communication. Chemical signals trailed behind every scurrying figure. Pat shuddered at their segmented legs working in unison, a group of them passing her cab beetle. She’d hated bugs since she was a girl.

The war officially ended two years ago. Pat still had trouble adjusting to civilian life. She woke up screaming sometimes, dreaming of tunnels and dead friends. That it was a dream-she was still alive-was barely a comfort.

Her scent translator picked up a hail. She guided the beetle through streets lined with brown, rounded buildings, each structure built with chewed-up dirt and saliva.

The cab beetle let out high-pitched chirps as it stomped along the pheromone trail to where the lone passenger waited. Bioluminescent lighting from the city illuminated the bug’s reflection in spreading puddles.
Pat had tendered her resignation from armed service shortly after the hasty truce between the two species, human and the Hive. Then she was pulled in the lottery.

A percentage of humans already on Hive worlds and bugs already on human worlds were required to stay and work for a period. Intended to facilitate a sense of cooperation, it instead created a constant state of tension-one always in danger of bubbling over.

The door of the cabin opened as the beetle knelt to let the passenger onboard. Pat eyed traffic for an opening before coaxing the beetle back on the road. The cabin swayed in its harness.

As a cab wrangler on the Hive homeworld, she had amassed almost enough to buy passage off-planet. Part of the truce ensured she made five times the amount her job normally paid. Instead of providing incentive for her to stay, she worked harder to leave as soon as possible. With two months left, she couldn’t stop daydreaming of Earth-even while steering the large beetle around the sprawling colony.

“Where you headed?” Pat said into the face mask of the translator, her words emerging as their equivalent scent. Navigating traffic for a few blocks, she realized the insect hadn’t responded.

She glanced at the rearview mirror to see the bug studying her reflection, its mandibles occasionally twitching. She tried to shake the feeling of cold steel in her veins, turning briefly to ask again. “Where to?”

The bug cocked its head, mandibles moving faster, antennae doing small out-of-sync circles. “Patsy Elaine Roberts,” it said, the cabin air thick with the smell of her name. Her scent translator’s words sounded stiff and impersonal, so much smaller than the insect’s pheromone cloud.

She took calming breathes as her beetle came to an intersection. While waiting for traffic to slow, she glanced again in the rearview.

Its head remained cocked, the fragmented geometrics of its compound eyes hidden by shadow. “This one can sense your FEAR/PHEROMONES. It pours off you in waves. Not a pleasant SMELL/STATE, but satisfying in its own way.” Its fumes wafting through the back of the cabin became foggy, transforming the passenger into a shimmering mirage.

“Do I know you?” She steered while waiting for a response, the clicking of mandibles filling the silence.

“You were there, were you not? At the storming of the HIVE/WORLD? Part of the invading force intended to kill our QUEEN/MOTHER/ALL?”

Pat moved her hand to the small gun holstered on her leg. “A lot of us were there. Half this city is veterans.” She tried not to sneer and realized she might be giving off that scent already. Communicating through two different senses was difficult, which led their species to war in the first place.

“This is a TRUE/FACTUAL statement; this is not the whole TRUTH/FACT.

You were there that day, one of the first waves. You were the only surviving member of your UNIT/HIVE. Is this not more accurate?” The questions radiated from its segmented body as the translator droned monotonously.

She had flashes of nightmare images, the kind that only escaped while asleep.

A pincer snapping the neck of their squad leader.
An entire tunnel collapsing.
Waking up beneath a pile of severed limbs.
The horrible earthy fumes.
The feel of wet dirt at the back of her throat.
The sound of chittering in the dark.

She shuddered involuntarily. The memories made her sick.

“We have observed you for some time, Patsy Elaine Roberts,” it said.

“Chosen very carefully.”

“Chosen for what, exactly?” Her fingers closed around the grip of her gun.

The clouds of words swam in the confined cab, subtly shifting color as they swirled together.

“Chosen to bring the bomb this one carries to the QUEEN/MOTHER/ALL and detonate it.”

Pat jerked her head towards the passenger. “What makes you think I’d do that?” She turned back to the road, the gun now in her hand.

The passenger clacked its mandibles twice, the equivalent of a shrug. “It is a matter of CHEMICALS/SCENTS.”

Pat guided the beetle to the side of the road, raindrops a constant patter on the roof and windshield. She turned and pointed the gun at the passenger.

“Why don’t you tell me exactly what the hell you’re talking about before I splatter your brains across the backseat?” Her lips curled into a snarl.

The bug stared, tilting its head the opposite direction as before. Its antennae continued to move in small, rapid circles. “You can not pull the trigger of your weapon any more than you can avoid bringing the bomb to the QUEEN/MOTHER/ALL. It has already been determined.” Its mandibles opened and closed, steady like the rise and fall of lungs.

“You willing to bet your life on it?” She thumbed the safety.

“There are those among the HIVE/WORLD who follow a different QUEEN/MOTHER/ALL, those who did not wish for the war to end. Those who wish to see the current regime crumble, retaliation for allowing peace with the HUMANS/INVADERS. Those that will install a new QUEEN/MOTHER/ALL and see you driven from our world.”

“Okay, you’re revolutionaries, great. How does that make me your patsy?”

“It all comes down to CHEMICALS/SCENTS. You live in an illusion. Your chemicals hide from you, behind your concept of ‘free will’ and ‘self’. It is not your fault, the illusion is strong. But it is still an illusion.

“Our new queen has perfected the CHEMICALS/SCENTS to control HUMANS/INVADERS.”

Pat squeezed the trigger, readying herself against the thunderclap of the gunshot, the sight of bug guts smeared across the back seat, the smell of smoke and gore.

It never came. No matter how hard she squeezed, her finger wouldn’t move.

“This one thinks you understand now. You are overwritten. It must be a shock to one living in an illusion, but CHEMICALS/SCENTS are reality. They are all that is, objective. Everything is reducible to them. The HIVE/WORLD understands this,” it said in great billowing clouds of scent, the shade lightening.

“So what now?” The gun still pointed uselessly at the passenger.

Her mind screamed at her legs to stand, at her arms to open the door and run away from this nightmare-worse than a nightmare. At least those had already happened. This was unfolding now, and she couldn’t wake up.  

“Now as this one said. You will take this cab into the HIVE/WORLD. You will drive into the depths of the conception chamber, where the QUEEN/MOTHER/ALL will be fertilizing the DRONES/GENDERED/SLAVES. The altered scent sacs in this one’s body will force any who oppose us to allow you to pass, just as you are forced to drive. Then the bomb will detonate.”

“What about you? Won’t you be blown up, too?”

“A small price to pay. When investigated, they will discover a HUMAN/INVADER was behind the assassination. A veteran, the only survivor in her UNIT/HIVE. One with a history of visiting the psychologist for post-traumatic stress nightmares. One with a plausible motive to finish what the war started.”

Pat stared in disbelief. “You’re a bastard, the whole lot of you,” she whispered.

“We do not have a concept of that word. We are children of the QUEEN/MOTHER/ALL.”

She sneered.


Her body turned with her hands on the reins, driving on towards the hive.

“You’re wrong, you know.” As long as she didn’t violate the order to drive, didn’t try to escape or kill the bug, she had free reign of her body.


“We’re not just chemicals. There’s more than that.”

Its mandibles chittered quickly in laughter. “Your own inability to escape proves otherwise.”

“You may have figured out how to control humans, but that doesn’t mean we’re only chemicals. We don’t need a queen. Maybe your brains lack the complexity for individual subjective experiences.”

It considered. “Possible, but unlikely.”

“I’m not even really talking to you. I’m talking to your replacement queen through a proxy. You might as well not be here. No wonder she’s blowing you up. You’re a fingernail clipping, a flake of dry skin. You’re shit, and you don’t matter.”

“We all matter to the QUEEN/MOTHER/ALL. We are her BODY/SWARM.

We all work together to realize her goals, her will made manifest. Our eyes are hers, our ears, bodies and limbs are hers. We are subjective experience on her behalf.”

The bug leaned forward, its face finally visible. “Only your species ascribes special meaning to this. Your mind is a feedback loop. You react to stimulus, then noticing the reaction becomes the new stimulus, and on it goes. You are only the performance of functions. Strip away those parts of your brain and you go too.”

They approached the mound, the street an incline.

“Have you ever woken up screaming? Began your day by sobbing until you vomit? Of course not. You’ve never done a goddamn thing the queen didn’t want you to do. You have no idea what it’s like for a nightmare to make you physically ill.”

The buildings grew sparse in the ascent to the top of the mound.

“Your dreams are like your sense of self: meaningless.” The bug slid back into shadow.

“Forget dreams. Let’s talk about nightmares, you son of a bitch. Let’s talk about how afraid I am to sleep every night, how my mind loves to torment me. I’m forced to relive the most horrific moments of my life.

“You have no idea how much I wish you were right, that I could turn off the part of my brain sending me through hell every night. But it’s not reducible.

I know better than anyone there’s more, and it’s misery.”

Her voice cracked as the cab climbed. She wondered what her desperation smelled like to the bug.

“We are almost there.”

Pat could no longer speak, her voice turned off like a light. She sat, horrified, the cab plunging down the central shaft and into the darkness that haunted her dreams. Her eyes wouldn’t shut. She was unable to move at all; the bug was in control now.

Bioluminescence throbbed in her vision, the nightmares breaking free. She thought of Earth, filling her mind with the ocean of her longing for home.
She remembered: golden light streaming through the trees behind her parent’s house on late summer afternoons. Her grandmother’s hot turkey soup and fresh-baked bread on snow days, the smell itself warming her. The sound of the beach, the rhythm of the waves like the heartbeat of Earth.

Memories flooded her mind, washing away the grim reality of the mound. The bug had full control over her physical brain, but it couldn’t control her consciousness-the experience of being Patsy Elaine Roberts. She wanted to tell the bug it was wrong-her mind wasn’t reducible-but she couldn’t speak.

She remained in beautiful memories of Earth as they journeyed to where the queen waited in the darkness of the conception chamber; where at long last every nightmare would be over.