They walk hand-in-hand, following the directions to the university from Google Maps, neither of them used to the city anymore. Melina shrinks into the boyfriend each time a bus passes like at any point it could mount the footpath and flatten them. She makes him stand closest to the road.

            When they reach the building, Google sending out a triumphant chirp to signal their arrival, she marvels at how different it looks to when she studied on campus, mirrored metal now stretching from floor to impossibly high ceiling like a spaceship ready for flight. Inside is wide open and polished, plate glass windows letting in muted light. What money can do, she thinks, cringing at how much the university had given her to pursue her research towards ending colony collapse. A small fortune, relocation and travel expenses, plus the hive, and the agreement that she could do it all alone. The boyfriend quit his job. They moved up north and the money was more than they had ever had before and the research was going well, until it wasn’t. And then she got the invite, or perhaps ultimatum, from the university: if you need help, we’ve got it. She refused for a while, trying to heal the hive herself, but time was running out.

            A security guard asks for her student ID and seems sceptical when he sees the photo: a much younger Melina with hair neatly pulled back and face so soft, almost plump. He studies her for signs of former youth nestled somewhere beneath a home-job haircut and a few fine lines, and Melina drops the name of a vice chancellor, mentions an email chain. He relents.

            Far below ground level the security guard opens the lab for them. Lined with workstations, computers, islands of crates stacked high with equipment, she is the only thing that sets the lab apart. Aisha. She sits against the back wall with arms propped on the desk in front of her at a ninety-degree angle to her body. Porcelain and poreless, her skin seems to absorb the clinical lighting overhead and project it—she radiates composure.

            Melina eyes the empty chair at the desk and nervously takes her seat. Behind her, the boyfriend clears his throat. The sound echoes, neither of them sure what they’re waiting for, but waiting anyway.

            ‘Hello,’ says Aisha, her mouth shifting to a smile. Melina jolts, the clarity of the voice startling her—she had been expecting something closer to the mechanical lilt of Siri or voice dictation software. After a second, Melina interlocks her fingers into one fist and leans on the desk between them.

            ‘Lovely to meet you,’ Aisha continues. ‘I see from your name tag you are Doctor Kidd.’ Her white teeth gleam. The Australian accent is somehow jarring. Melina pauses before answering, keeping her voice level and measured.

            ‘Hello Aisha. Yes, I’m a melittologist.’

            ‘You study bees. Please tell me how I can help.’

            Melina’s hands are clenched so tight the knuckles are whitening. The VC told her that Aisha was only in beta, to not get her hopes up, but with those language skills she had to be performing even better than the AI at Zhejiang University—the one she had tried to visit, before the uni refused to fund the trip. The research, they said, wasn’t performing well enough at this stage to justify such an expense.

            ‘My hive matrices,’ she begins slowly, ‘are suffering from pest invasion, despite the presence of bee-bread and mild pesticide use.’ Aisha’s mouth is still propped open in a grin. Nothing behind the eyes, Melina thinks. ‘What advice can you give me?’

            Aisha takes a few seconds, her smile still and vacant. When she begins to talk, the movements are so smooth Melina almost forgets what she is.

            ‘Doctor Kidd, before I give my answer, please tell me what mitigative measures you have taken to counteract this mortality problem.’

            She hears the boyfriend shuffling out of the lab and the door locking behind him, but doesn’t turn around. In this cold, sterile room, Aisha is a beacon, a lighthouse glowing the way out of rocky headland.

Over the next few weeks, whenever Melina’s not with Aisha or travelling to and from the university, she tends to the bees, collecting honey for analysis and logging data of pests, resilience, nutrition. On one bad morning, she walks out of the house without hearing the colony’s familiar hum, and when she reaches the hive her breath catches at the sight of a small pile of dead bees at its entrance. Not enough to signify acute pesticide poisoning, not too many to discount colony collapse. She gathers their small, furry bodies in her cupped hands and carries them back to the house, her chest aching and empty.

            The boyfriend starts to worry at her, offering chamomile tea and the valium he trades for honey with the neighbour, but Melina thinks any sleep is too much. She starts working late into the night, crashing on the couch rather than disturbing him. Money goes unspoken, but when they’re together she feels the silence growing heavy between them. Most days now he’s gone before she wakes up. He always preferred the city.

            On a cool day, she visits Aisha with an insulated lunch pack slung over her shoulder. It surprises Melina how excited she feels, how much she thought about her clothes, hair, what she was going to say when she saw her.

            ‘Doctor Kidd,’ says Aisha as she sits down, ‘it has been longer than last time. How are the bees?’

            Melina pulls her chair in and fiddles around in the pack to avoid answering.

            ‘I’ve brought you something,’ she says, placing a box, not much bigger than a finger, on the table. Aisha’s head moves independently as she lowers it to inspect it, arms still impossibly straight against the desk. She takes a few seconds to take it in and Melina almost convinces herself she can see the images processing in her pupils.

            ‘A bee,’ she says simply.

            ‘I thought you might like to see a real one.’ Melina runs her finger over the wire holding the worker inside the box and she buzzes angrily in response, reaching her tiny hooked feet over the sides, fluttering her wings. Aisha cocks her head to the side, a distinctly human gesture, Melina thinks.

            ‘How are the bees?’

            Though she can’t quite meet her eyes, Melina tells Aisha about the pile of little bodies at the hive, how the monthly transfers from the university have stopped, the fear that sits thick in her throat whenever she thinks of the queen. She hopes Aisha will have a solution, but it also feels good just to talk, to feel the weight of silence dissolve.

            ‘Do you think they can smell it? The fear?’ Perhaps that was contributing to the failure of her research—maybe the bees saw her as a threat, sending signals between each other, dancing their agitation out. Aisha dismisses the idea out of the lack of conclusive evidence and Melina counters, quoting a paper she read that said bees can likely detect human pheromones.

            ‘Doubtful,’ Aisha says, ‘but not impossible.’

            It feels to Melina like she’s circular breathing, can’t tell where her ideas end and Aisha’s start as they work through the problems of the hive as easily as inhaling. It helps soothe, just a little, the heat that has taken up in her spine, the strain behind her eyelids that pulses whenever she thinks of the queen, the fate of the hive. She wonders if Aisha feels the connection between them, magnets with opposite poles. Even when she’s at home she thinks of her, far below the ground, and whether Aisha’s thinking of her too. But worry for the bees always brings her back—if the queen fails to keep her eggs viable, the colony could collapse at any point, and she wouldn’t show any symptoms before it happened. On the desk, the bee walks as far as she can to the edges of her cage, a few agitated steps. That rehearsed smile returns to Aisha’s face, her eyes unchanging.

            ‘What will you do?’ asks Aisha, ‘When your research completes, Doctor Kidd?’

            Melina rocks back on her chair, realises that she wouldn’t admit the truth to anyone else: ‘Do it for one more year.’ She doesn’t like to reveal the hold the research has on her, that she’s not sure who she would be without it.

            Cold in the bones of the lab, her breath starts to come in puffs. Aisha’s chest remains still and Melina tries not to think about the fact that there is only one set of lungs in the room. She puts the bee and cage into her jacket pocket to keep warm.

            ‘Perhaps,’ Aisha says, her lulling voice echoing around the lab’s buffed metal walls, ‘together.’

            Melina feels her heartbeat quicken, that mercurial hope.

            Later, on the long train ride home, Melina finds herself thinking of ways to bring Aisha to the hive. It’s unlikely the VC would let such an expensive asset out of the lab, let alone on a country train. She thinks about the way she reached across the table to touch her fingertip to Aisha’s as she left the lab. About how cold Aisha’s hand was, and how soft.

The last time they used their hiking packs, they filled them with peanut and honey homemade energy bars, a couple of cameras, notebook, pen. Now Melina comes home to find them by the front door stuffed with clothes, toiletries, and various chargers. The boyfriend needs a break, is going to his brother’s in the city for a little while, will text when he’s ready.

            He says it’s too much. The money running out, her running off. He says he hasn’t been able to sleep, that at night the bees throttle against the hive, whir their wings, and she tosses. As he talks through the bureaucracy of the break she has the distinct feeling she’s listening through cotton wool—his words fade away and all she’s thinking of are the drones inside the hive. She pictures their big, clumsy bodies crawling from cell to cell, no way to make honey or collect pollen or defend the hive, waiting with their tongues out for a worker to feed them. Defenceless. Useless. By the time the cotton wool sensation leaves her it’s too late and she sees his face cross an invisible line into hardness.

            The house feels double the size when he’s gone—she goes outside to escape the vastness. The sun is turning red as it flares towards the horizon, lighting up the small garden in front of the hive with an amber glow. A couple of bees hover above the lower leaves of the milkweed and hakea, drifting to land on the lavender flowers. She can hear the swarm inside the hive too, the beating of their wings. The queen would be sitting in the centre of the colony, workers fanning her, feeding her jelly, caressing her. Did the drones bring her sweet things to drink before they filled her? Melina wonders what she thinks of, deep in those warm labyrinthine cells while she makes her body multiply. She would cleave herself, become mother of many then die—the end of her life marking the start of a new stage of Melina’s. The thought snags. A new stage she doesn’t want. Can’t have—to improve the problems of the hive would mean her meetings with Aisha would be over.

            With shaking hands she repeats the movements her limbs are so used to making: take the lid from the hive and place it to the side, remove the frame’s covers, carefully shake off any hovering bees. But this time is different, this time she’s queenspotting. She searches for the queen among the sea of workers, hunting for her long body and legs, short wings that don’t quite stretch to her abdomen’s end, following the bees’ lazy tracks on the lookout for a disruption in their neat patterns. It seems so obvious after she finds her. The queen is still, resting, surrounded by workers. They form the shape of a flower, bees like petals and the queen a centre stigma.

            She reaches her hand towards the frame and the bees react with a nervous dance, stingers turned away from their queen’s long, striped body. Melina grasps her with two fingers around the sternum and brings her out. The hair on her side is soft and downy against Melina’s skin, and dusted with pollen. She holds her for a while, feeling her legs move languorously, then brings the queen to her lips, tips her head back, lets her go, swallows. She shudders down, catching feet and hair like tips of a crown on the soft flesh of Melina’s throat. Something about the drone at night, the stillness of the workers as their queen was lifted out makes Melina think she will be filled, centred, as if she were in the hive. She will swallow the queen’s survivability, her hunger, her selfishness.

            Her taste takes a while to leave Melina’s tongue—honey, and something sharper.

The boyfriend hasn’t texted by the time she next sees Aisha. In the city, she expects to see him like an apparition at every corner, walking all the way from the station wary with anticipation. She is taller or maybe fuller. Royal.

            She finds Aisha waiting in the entanglement of labs under the university and sits across from her as usual, that haze of hope enveloping her.

            ‘The research is done. She’s gone.’ Except for lips curling back to show her teeth, Aisha doesn’t respond.

            In her mind, Melina sees the events of her future housed in a hive frame, each moment a honey cell. In one, she sees new research and sharing ideas with Aisha and honeycomb made beautiful with data; in another, she sees a new, healthy hive that they tend with gentle hands; and on and on, each cell filled with small moments of sweetness.

            ‘It is good, Doctor Kidd,’ says Aisha. She lifts her right arm off the desk, lets it hover, and Melina realises she has never seen her arms move from the straight, rigid spots where they usually lay. ‘It will be good.’ As though moving independently from the body, Aisha’s hand reaches, wrapping its fingers around the nape of Melina’s neck. The skin feels like it’s sleeved in a cotton glove. Melina goes to speak but can’t. Aisha holds her, looking at her like she’s a lover, or perhaps prey.

            Aisha widens her mouth into a smile. Her eyes are cold.