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Monday, March 18, 2019

Read Chapter One of "An Ant Story"! (Unfinished Novel-In-Progress)

Not the official title ... at least, I don't think it is.


Chapter One
Bartholomew's Battle Plan

You might be wondering who is talking to you. I’ve been thinking about what human name I’d like to adopt for this tale. I think I’ll go with Bartholomew.

   There have been many notable Bartholomews in your history. One of them was an apostle to an ancient prophet you claim to care about but would re-crucify the moment he came back from the dead, as many of you believe he will. Another was a famous encyclopedist. Another, Bartholomew of Lucca, was a historian. I like that more. But the Bartholomew I’d like to model myself after is Bartholomew Dias. He was an explorer—the first European to reach the Indian Ocean from the Atlantic—and a squire of the royal court. Both roles I’m quite familiar with. At least with respect to the first one, I am now.

   You might wonder how I am so familiar with your history. Over many years we have come across your books, often left thoughtlessly behind near our Queendom, and, lately, your technology, including your electronic communications devices. We have spent much time learning how they operate and translating your languages. We learned how to “hack” into your devices, and how to keep them on, and how to hoodwink your greedy human hives—what you call “corporations”—that we were paying to keep the “data plans” going.

   It was through your technology, ironically enough, that we learned just how much damage you humans are doing to the planet. On one recent presentation the Queen herself attended. We of the court had prepared a video (I believe that’s the right word) of sorts to show her, at her request. We were using one of your “Smartphones,” which we had modified and inlaid into the wall of the Royal Auditorium.

   The Queen isn’t as you humans might picture a monarch: stuffy, berobed and bejeweled, fawned and attended over by servants, and wearing a gold crown. Nor is she like queen ants your ostensible scientists study. Our Queen is basically a larger version of any of us, and is just as down-to-earth as any of her citizens. I’ll call her Beatrice, after Beatrice Webb. (Look her up.) I won’t use that name often; most of the time I call her “Mom” or “Mother.”

   She watched quietly while we of her court waited, seated around her. (No, not in seats shaped for humans. We’ve also watched your animated films about us. They’re ridiculous.)

   The video concluded.

   She sat quietly for a long time. We expected that. The video was quite grim.

   “Bartholomew,” she called.

   I was sitting four rows behind her. I came forward instantly.

   “Mom.” I bowed my head, widening and flattening my antennae, both appropriate signs of respect.

   “That last segment ...”

   “Yes, Mom.”

   “The human leader, it was mentioned, is making plans to journey to this part of the world at some point so that he can watch the beginning of the construction of—what are they called, William?”

   (All these names are borrowed from your human ones, let me remind you one more time.)

   William, one of Mom’s closest advisors, seated just to her right, answered with a disgusted grumble, “An ‘oil derrick,’ Your Highness.”

   “Yes,” she replied sadly, clearly agreeing with his attitude. “An ‘oil derrick.’ A device that dredges up the substance humans have powered their entire civilization with. Yes?”

   “Yes, Mom,” we mumbled.

   “And which is currently altering the climate and therefore endangering all life, yes?”

   “Yes,” I said. “One of many harmful human actions, I’m afraid.”

   “Yes, yes,” she nodded angrily, gazing up at the screen, which featured an oil derrick. “So this leader is planning at some point to come to this part of the world to see this ‘oil derrick’ constructed in the ocean, to give it his official sanction and blessing?”

   “Yes, Mom,” we answered.

   “Will we be able to see this ‘oil derrick’?”

   My fellows gazed nervously at me. It was a question I’d hoped she wouldn’t think of asking, because I knew the Queen would take the news poorly; and when she takes news poorly, she does not drag her abdomen!

   “Yes, Highness,” I said. “We have converted the humans’ measurements to our units. The ‘oil derrick’ will be located three ‘miles’ from the Queendom, which converts to slightly more than two million quaooms, Mom.”

   “It must be positively massive!” she exclaimed.

   “Yes, Mom,” answered William. “As most human things are. This one will be especially so. It will also generate colossal amounts of toxins and pollutants, all of which will wash ashore just beneath the Queendom. It will despoil and poison the Queendom.”

   Our Queendom has a name, if you haven’t guessed. I’ve been using “Queendom” because, like all of our language, our Queendom’s proper name is unpronounceable to human mouths. For you humans, I shall call our home “Spain” in deference to one of your grander, more cultured, and more romantic nations, and also to be parallel to my chosen name and namesake.

   (I’m fully aware, yes, that Spain, like all your human nations and territories, is far from perfect, especially in the way, historically, it treated minorities, and the way it once projected its military and economic power around the world. I’ve got it. I choose to call our Queendom “Spain” in the grand tradition of all that nation accomplished during its celebrated “Golden Age,” influencing human cultures around the world even today.)

   Spain is located near one of your highways, which you have designated Highway 101, also called the “Coast Highway.” At its nearest, Highway 101 is about forty-three hundred quaooms from us, at the edge of our frontier. We live on, and down, a cliff that looks over the ocean you call the Pacific. Your cars and other vehicles zoom heedlessly by on Highway 101. We have long since learned to avoid it and the vehicles completely, and to shield ourselves both from the sound, and from people who emerge from the vehicles in the turn-out just next to Spain to take a look around.

   Queen Beatrice looked frustrated, as we all were. “We cannot battle that!” she gestured angrily at the image of the oil derrick. “We cannot battle humans—at all! We cannot stop them from building that monstrosity, which means they will poison us!”

   “Yes, Mom,” we all said in glum and hopeless unison.

   As you have no doubt figured out by now, we aren’t a typical ant species. Of those, Spain is surrounded, at least at cliff-top and the frontier leading away up there in all directions, by a tremendous colony more than a hundred million strong of what humans call “carpenter” ants. They are largely non-sentient and somewhat prehistoric-looking, at least to us. We learned long ago how to live peacefully with them by various artificial scent cues and regular antennae “codes” used to communicate with them. Unlike us, they are blind; unlike us, their society is unconsciously structured by evolutionary forces. While not free of those forces entirely—just like you humans—we have transcended them to a degree, one which allows us freedom of will and movement. We call the colony of “carpenter” ants the Tantur Legion.

   Somewhat jokingly, Grace, who serves as the Queen’s daily scheduler, and who was seated next to William, said, “Maybe we should just send the Tantur Legion against them.”

   We all chuckled. Queen Mom did, too. “They do have a vicious sting,” she said as we quietened.

   “Or maybe,” I said, not measuring my words, “we should attack the humans. We should attack their leader.”

   Every head in the auditorium jerked around. No one was laughing. Usually, from William, such a suggestion would meet with “Preposterous!” But even he remained quiet.

   “Bartholomew?” asked Mother.

   I glanced nervously at everyone, then her. “I’m sorry, Mom. I spoke out of turn.”

   Her antennae were still triangulating on me. She shook her head. “Spitball. Shoot from the hip. Think outside the box. Brainstorm.” She gave the ant equivalent of a grin. “I too study the humans and know something of their language. Please. Go on.”

   Was it true that this wasn’t the first time you humans had angered and frustrated me, and so I, angered and frustrated, didn’t research the occasional notion I had about going to war with you? Sure. Was it also true that members of the Royal Court had gotten wind over the years about my bellicose mood, not to mention my long hours of research that mood inspired in Spain’s grand library? That was true as well.

   I felt sorry for everyone. They were so desperate to stop this ‘oil derrick’ that they were reaching out to me and those research efforts for something, anything. The silence was telling—and damning.

   I love Spain, and I love my Queen. I would lay my life down for anyone in Spain. We number just under six million, but I feel like I know every single ant here. We are a family. As far as any of us know, we are the only ones of our kind on the entire planet.

   As everyone patiently waited, I gathered my thoughts. “Allow me to suggest that perhaps this is our time, that this is our great task, that this is what future generations of ants will judge us for.

   “We do not have their technology,” I went on, anticipating their counterarguments. “Ours is different, perhaps lesser in some ways, but still potent, and in other ways superior! We live much more simply than they do, and, importantly, happily. None of that should keep us from this challenge. We are ants! We are born engineers! We see a challenge and overcome it with singlemindedness of action that humans can’t even dream about!

   “The human city named Brookings is eleven-point-four million quaooms from us. That is where the human leader will board the boat that will take him to the spot where the ‘oil derrick’ is to be built, as part of some showy ceremony. We have never dared such a journey before, even in our wildest dreams. Perhaps we should stop dreaming and dare it.”

   One of my rules for living is: If you’re going to make a fool of yourself, half measures are meaningless.

   And so I went all in with my foolish notion, my utterly fuzz-brained idea, my head-up-my-abdomen “brainstorm”—even before the Queen, who watched me expectantly.

   “We build a craft that can transport a specialized attack force to Brookings. We have the skill. We have the technology. We launch it, travel the great distance to Brookings, and attack the leader. We scare him away from this part of the world. We scare away his helpers and drones who would aid him in the building of this ‘oil derrick.’ We save the ocean. Maybe we even save the world.”

   I was acutely uncomfortable. The whole of the auditorium held completely silent, everyone’s antennae triangulated firmly on me.

   To break the silence, ever denser as it was becoming, I bowed my head and said in as calm and steady voice as I could: “You told me to spitball, Mom. I have. Forgive me if it is not sufficient.”

   I expected—hoped for, actually—an explosion of noise as my fellow citizens shouted out the many completely rational and reasonable objections for why my “spitballing” was anything but rational and reasonable. I expected Queen Beatrice to dismiss me with a wistful nod, and perhaps a well-meaning and gentle rebuke not to waste her time again unless my “thinking-outside-the-box” solution was at least a minusculely possible (which I honestly thought it was, given some truly original thinking and planning, but couldn’t blame her if she didn’t).

   Instead that damnable silence held. Almost as if choreographed, the others turned to look at Mother, whose steady gaze only made it more agonizing.

   “Attacking him, as I understand it, won’t stop his citizens from building that monstrosity,” she finally said. “Or am I wrong?”

   Reynaldo, one of our chief Drones, just behind her, answered. “It won’t, Mom.” He glanced uneasily at me. “The reason why is that they aren’t his citizens, much as I’m sure he’d like them to be. The country is ruled by a ‘Constitution’—a set of laws drawn up by drones—not by a single ruler.”

   “He’s an insane human who believes himself to be their overlord,” I countered. “His sycophants believe him to be infallible. They believe him to be the greatest possible leader. They believe him to be an absolute ruler. They do not believe in this ‘Constitution’ of theirs, no matter what they say to the contrary. In fact, they despise it.”

   All heads swiveled once more towards me. The image of the human leader was on the screen now. He was a bloated, misshapen human with a sagging orange face and spidery hair to match.

   “Go on,” said Mom. I found it astonishing—and terrifying—that she still wanted my input. I think everyone did. I saw it flash in many eyes.

   “His idea of rule is not yours, Highness,” I offered, this time very carefully measuring every syllable I spoke. “You are not the same in a political sense as him. You are our ruler, yes. But your rule has nothing to do with you or your person. Your rule, if I may be so bold, Your Highness, is uniformly and totally dedicated to your people. Our needs are your needs. Our health and welfare are your health and welfare. You are not interested in puffery or praise, and are dedicated to our freedom of will, thought, and worship. The least of us is your greatest concern.”

   I motioned emphatically at the photo of the human leader. “That is not this human.”

   I had done my homework before this meeting—as I always had before any gathering that included Mom. I had read up on this leader—“Trump” as he was known to the humans. And I had allowed myself to “spitball” just to myself for days prior, with my wife, Mariana, watching from the quiet of our bedroom. My solution was at least theoretically workable. It only required a great act of will from the entire Queendom of Spain to make it possible, if not ultimately successful, and some truly original thinking from our own—admittedly not our strong suit. That last condition was the one, frankly, that concerned me the most.

   Ryana, who had been sitting next to me before I rose and hurried before Mother, spoke when the silence again became agonizing. She appeared quite nervous.

   “Mom,” she began, “allow me to voice my support for Bartholomew’s idea. Should it please you, I’d like to hear more about it, and I’d also like to suggest to Bartholomew a possible leader for this proposed mission.”

   My antennae perked up involuntarily.

   “Yes,” said Mom. “Please. I think we’d all like to hear who could lead such a perilous and daring adventure! Go on, Ryana.”

   Ryana turned to me. “I would like to suggest Andalusia from Purple Rock. I think she would be the perfect choice.”

   I waited for “Preposterous!” from William. It didn’t come. I glanced out at the audience. No one commented or even looked like they might. I gazed last at Mom. “I do not know this individual, Mom.”

   I knew she would. The Queen knows her entire Queendom and doesn’t forget about a single one of us.

   “Andalusia,” she smiled. “Purple Rock? Is that where she’s living now?”

   “Yes, Mom,” answered Ryana. “The last I heard, that is.”

   William finally spoke up. “Are you talking about Crazy Andy?” he demanded. “I am not certain how she’d be the appropriate choice for a task that will surely strain every single resource of the Queendom to its breaking point? What if she isn’t a suitable fit?”

   Several others grunted in agreement. I glanced at them. Sure enough, they were all part of the Guard. The term ‘crazy’ caused immediate murmuring. It wasn’t considered a decent word to use in the context it was, especially before the Queen, who scowled.

   I stated earlier that I felt like I knew every one of the six million citizens of Spain. Here I was, feeling shame that I couldn’t place the face of this ant, this “Crazy Andy.”

   Leopold, one of the generals of the Guardians, grunted, “If anything, this would be a military venture. It should be entirely staffed with military personnel.”

   Other Guardian mucky-mucks nodded.

   Mom looked to Ryana, then me. “Objections?”

   Ryana didn’t have anything to offer, but I did.

   “Guardians require leadership,” I said, triangulating on General Leopold. “Non-military leadership, to be precise. The Guardians serve us well, and we are grateful for them. But planning is not the Guardians’ forte. Nor is retreat. Nor is—”

   I had to stop when the outraged grunting and murmuring among them became too loud to continue, and when General Leopold interrupted with “Now hold on!”

   Queen Beatrice held up a foreleg. “Please. Let Bartholomew finish.”

   “My point, My Queen,” I said when the disgruntlement abated to a satisfactory degree, “is that this mission should be overseen by non-military leaders, just as all missions domestically are. We do not venture beyond the Tantur Legion, and have enjoyed peace for our entire history. We have the Guardians and the Legion to thank for that.”

   I bowed my head respectfully towards General Leopold, who grunted again.

   “More than ever, this mission, should we undertake it, will require non-military planning, scientific research, and tremendous engineering execution in concert with the Guardians. I, for one, would like to meet this Andalusia.” (I purposefully refrained from saying “Crazy Andy,” remembering Mom’s scowl.) I turned to Ryana. “What makes this individual so special?”

   Before Ryana could answer, Mom began laughing. “I think, for the purposes of a tentative go-ahead for this mission, I shall assign good Bartholomew here to go and visit my daughter Andy.”

   She brought her antennae to bear on me. “Purple Rock. And Bartholomew?”

   “Yes, Mom?” I asked, somewhat alarmed at her joviality.

   “Tell her I said hello. I’ll receive your report no later than three days hence. We need to move on this if we’re going to go through with it.”

   With that our Queen dismissed us, but not before admonishing us all: “Please do refrain from using the word ‘Crazy’ again in my presence, especially with respect to Andalusia, and especially if she’s the one to see this mission forward.”

   “Yes, Mom,” we answered. William looked ashamed.

   As we shuffled out of the auditorium, Ryana grasped my midleg. “Go in with an open mind, won’t you, Bartholomew? She really is a remarkable ant.”

   “I—” I began.

   But she had already released me and left.