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Monday, April 1, 2019

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

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


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Prologue
Chapter One
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Chapter Two
The Trip to Purple Rock
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The more inquisitive of you might have figured out that a single standard human foot equals a hundred forty-four quaooms, and may be thinking that, in terms of comparative proportions, that quaooms and miles have very little in common with one another. And you’d be right. Humans compared to miles are significantly smaller than ants compared to quaooms. In point of fact, the average ant from my species is one quaoom in length, a little more than two millimeters by your easier-to-understand metric system. Carpenter ants, by contrast, like those of the Tantur Legion, are three times our size.

   Queen Beatrice is about the size of a Tantur Legion ant. Most of her size is confined to her abdomen.

   To us, she doesn’t appear as a giant, just as an ant from the Tantur Legion doesn’t appear giant. Very large? Yes. But not giant. A two-hundred-pound human male, equivalently, might see a six-hundred-pound human as very large, perhaps, but not as a giant. Or maybe you would. I suppose it depended on how much of that weight went into the human’s height. Maybe? Maybe not?

   My species isn’t black or red, or a combination. If you were to pick colors to describe us, it would be light lavender for our heads, antennae, and mesosomas (our middles), and a darker purple for our abdomens. Our legs are, or tend to be, a gradient of light lavender at the bottom to dark lavender or even black at the top. Many are splotched, almost always asymmetrically so. Our eyes tend to be black, but variances are known to exist. Some of us even have blue eyes!

   We clothe ourselves. We often adorn our legs with “jewels”—shiny grains of sand and rock—and we clothe the top portions of our abdomens with all manner of plant fibers, reworked and dyed spiderweb, artistically fashioned and preserved flower petals, and the like. Our jewels and clothes tend to be symbolic and convey our occupations and our proximity to the Queen (our proxima).

   We have a functioning economy, but unlike you humans, no one in Spain goes hungry or for want of the basics needed to live a happy and fulfilled life. Wealth to us is always defined, first and foremost, as a social measure, not an individual one.

   Purple Rock, where this Andalusia apparently lived, was located near the bottom of the cliff we call home. In human terms, it was more than three hundred feet down the cliff face, putting it within range of the ocean’s spray at high tide. It was as far down as any Spanish citizen cared to live. The danger was obvious, I should think. It wouldn’t take a particularly big wave, with the right wind, to blow what would appear to us to be a catastrophic flash-flood of water our way. And in fact we have lost citizens in just such a fashion. Washed out to sea, they drowned.

   Purple rock was located in a deep crevice that by virtue of its orientation to the sea and a nearby great rock was somewhat protected from such scary events.

   I should be clearer here. A “great rock” you humans would call a boulder. To us, great rocks look like mountains, but I’ll refrain from using that term so as not to confuse you.

   So let’s do a little math. Three hundred forty-eight feet (the exact distance from Clifftop to Purple rock in human English units) is a little more than fifty thousand quaooms. In other words, to get to where this Andalusia lived, I would have to travel the body length of an average Spaniard some fifty thousand times. That is, if it were possible to go directly there in a straight line (it isn’t).

   Now let’s pretend that a quaoom is defined as the average height not of an ant, but of a human being. That’s about five and a half feet. If you, average human being, were required to travel five and a half feet fifty thousand times (fifty thousand one hundred twelve, to be exact), how far would you have to travel? It turns out to be a little more than fifty-two miles. That should give you a little perspective on the size of Spain and how far Purple Rock was from Clifftop and the Royal Auditorium I was in with the Queen and her advisors.

   Mariana, my wife, gave me the necessary transportation change at the door, and a kiss. “Be home for supper?”

   I did the ant equivalent of a human shrug, which was to briefly raise my antennae before relaxing them again. She twirled hers around mine—a show of affection. “I warned you, husband, that your big ideas would one day get you in some real trouble. I think that day has come.”

   I hadn’t shared with her the reports of how the oil derrick would destroy Spain, only alluding to them and their grim findings. I had decided to tell her after I got home. “We’ve been trying to contact this Andalusia for several days now. This could all be for nothing.”

   She hadn’t released my antennae, and gave them a squeeze. “Do you remember what I told you before we got married?”

   I shook my head.

   “I told you that one day you would have to stand up for the Queendom, and that when you did, you would make a mark that would never be erased.”

   “I thought you were just being romantic and inflating my ego.”

   “I was,” she responded, smiling. “But I was also being very serious.”

   We kissed again, and I turned to go. “I will try to be home by supper. If I don’t think I can make it, I will stay in Purple Rock.”

   “Go get ‘em,” she said, and waved.






We of the Queendom don’t own personal transportation vehicles—“cars”—like you humans do. We have an elaborate and well-maintained transportation system of our own, something like your trains. Or we walk. We love to walk.

   Besides walking, there were two ways to get to Purple Rock. The fastest would shoot me down there in about twenty-five minutes. The slowest would take three hours. I chose the slowest. It was the scenic route, and I wasn’t in a hurry—though I should have been, as you will soon read. I wanted to take the time to prepare myself for this Andalusia—“Crazy Andy”—and to do more homework on the oil derrick and the initial plans for how we could get to the impossibly distant human city of Brookings, Oregon. Several engineers had drawn up rough schematics for me to look over. As the head of the Central Scout Agency, I couldn’t damn their enthusiasm. I was probably, after all, the highest government official they had ever talked directly to. I went to their office after the meeting and told them of my research, and asked them to come up with something while swearing them to silence. I thought this “Crazy Andy” might find their creative doodlings interesting, if not ultimately helpful.

   The Seaview Trolley arrived ten minutes after I got to the terminal, which was just a twenty-minute walk or so from our home near Clifftop. The train slowed soundlessly to a stop, and the doors hissed open. Passengers got out. Most of them appeared to be tourists, but a few were workers.

   So let’s cover the notion of the “hive mind” of ants here. It’s true: we do possess a “hive mind.” But our “hive mind” compared to, say, the Tantur Legion, is much less pronounced and has a much smaller influence on individual Spaniards. Our evolution into sentience has brought, perhaps inevitably, individuality with it. Still, we can “feel” the overall “push” or “instinct” or “drive” of the overall Queendom. We can “feel” Queen Beatrice’s desires, but only when they become very strong, which, over the course of my life, I have felt distinctly only twice. We have individual consciousnesses that allow for free choice apart from her wishes or those of our neighbors. Generally speaking, those with whom we are in closest physical contact with are those we feel most pressingly the so-called “hive mind.”

   I’ll take our “hive mind” any day to what I call the “herd mind” of you humans. You believe yourself so superior to ants because you’re so convinced of your freedom. But most of you, as my extensive studies have shown time and time again, despise or deny that freedom and refuse to engage with it. As a result, you fall prey to the “herd mind” of your kind: to the trends of the moment, to conspicuous consumption, to the latest diet and clothing fads, to the latest political hacks and their hateful notions—including despoiling the earth. You bounce off each other like helpless grains of sand in a psychotic, polluted whirlwind.

   I’ll take our “hive mind” to your “herd mind” any day.

   Back to my trip.

   I boarded the trolley, grabbed a seat, and waited for the doors to close, which they did a few moments later. The conductor called out: “Green Root is the first stop, four minutes. Green Root in four minutes.”

   The train got underway. It was just past 2 p.m.; I figured I’d get to Purple Rock a little after 5. (I’m using human time measurements for your convenience throughout this tale.) I could’ve taken the 6 a.m. Seaview, that much is true, but I very much enjoy sleeping in, so I thought I’d take the afternoon jaunt down the cliff.

   The train wasn’t crowded, and unlike the Latedrone, Seaview meandered pleasantly. Still overwhelmed with the meeting with Mom and what I had potentially gotten myself into, I wanted to think. I relaxed in my seat and glanced out the window to my immediate right.

   The tunnels were well-lighted and exquisitely well-maintained, a point of pride for us ants, as you can imagine. We of the Queendom, perhaps against your preconceived notions of ants in general, like light. The ones illuminating Seaview’s journey were orange-yellow, like the light of the sun not too long before it sets. Pleasant and easy on the eyes. On the tunnel’s walls were murals ranging from the abstract and mesmerizing to pastoral or ocean scenes. These were more radical, for creativity is not our strong suit. Still, the artwork, such as it was, was pleasant and lovely to look at as well.

   The tunnel would occasionally disappear for a moment as the train emerged from inside the rock to ride alongside the edge of the cliff. Everyone’s stomach dropped, and we’d all gasp with awe and delight. The views were breathtaking. The tunnel would come back, and so too the art.

   “Green Root,” announced the conductor as the trolley began slowing. “Green Root. Be sure to collect all your belongings, and thanks for choosing Seaview Trolley today.”

   Green Root’s platform came into view, and the trolley stopped. The doors opened.

   Spain has villages, just as any human country does. You no longer call your towns and cities villages, I understand, but we still do. Green Root’s population, according to the sign I spied just before the train stopped, was a little over thirty thousand—the size of a small human city. It was mainly a village of government officials like me, and a larger number of surface farmers and sap miners—that is, ants who worked agricultural jobs at Clifftop or on the trees up there. They tended to be a wild bunch, those farmers and miners, which made for an interesting if not sometimes volatile mix with the more staid and conservative bureaucrats like myself.

   What did Green Root look like? Did it look like nothing more than a maze of tunnels and lavender-purple ants hurrying through them?

   Green Root was named because it was founded in and around the green surface roots of a very special tree for us, the Mom Tree, which was located directly above the Queendom. Several of Mom Tree’s surface roots, some of which were exposed, were pleasantly green from moss. Citizens carved out a nice, big (for us) communal space where they set up shops and civic edifices you humans might have trouble understanding as such, but were such regardless. The light of the interior portions of Green Root was artificial, yes, but closely mimicked the natural daylight of its exposed parts. Algae and fungi were cultivated and grown as food and in a similar fashion as trees and bushes would be utilized in human settlements. Green Root had (of course) indoor plumbing, restaurants, stores, even things like salons and newspapers.

   Humans are an inquisitive lot, and so there will be those among you wondering how it all works, what powers it, the design specifications, etcetera. There are those among you, almost certainly, thinking that there is no way such small creatures like ants could have anything remotely close to human intelligence. And there are those among you, surely, who think all of this is just pure silliness, that none of it is possible.

   Frankly, I worried about that a lot before choosing to write this story. It would be very easy to get sidetracked from the story I want to tell and instead get bogged down in all sorts of techno-engineering babble that would interest only a small percentage of you. That’s not what I intend to do.

   Humans like to pat themselves on the back for their imaginations, which they consider unique among all animals on Earth. The ants of the Queendom of Spain have learned much about you. I think I can safely speak for all my fellow citizens when I say that if your imaginations are unique, then they are also uniquely flawed and wanting. If your imaginations are so wonderful, so powerful, then why can’t you imagine a way to feed the starving billions of your lot or stop waging war against each other or power your civilization with sustainable, clean means? If your imaginations are so great, why did you elect the utterly unimaginative monster you did to the highest seat of power in the land?

   And so I shall address only those among you with the imaginations required for this tale. You’ve ostensibly got them, so use them. How would intelligent ants power little ant-trolleys and little ant-villages and be able to hack into your modern human technology while managing to stay hidden from you? How would intelligent ants develop language and individuality? How would intelligent ants engineer anything more complex than a desperate ant-bridge towards the picnickers’ peanut butter and jelly sandwiches lying in full view on the grass? If it helps you to “anthropomorphize” us, then by all means, do so!

   Use those lofty imaginations! If this tale ever reaches you, if I ever complete it, I’ll be quite interested in any responses that come my way. In the meantime, I’d like to proceed with the story.

   Speaking of our diets, we were very like our Tantur Legion brethren and probably every other ant species on Earth in that we loved sweets. Just thinking of that concoction you call jam was making my mouth water. I’d sampled it before, in my youth, when humans picnicking near Clifftop dropped half a “PB&J” on the ground and decided not to pick it up. I was vacationing up there with my parents and several other families and got to sample some of it at the urging of my folks. It was absolutely heavenly—to the point that I remember the taste to this day.

   Did your imaginations explode at the mention of parents? How could we ants have parents if Queen Beatrice gave birth to us all?

   Our entire society, to answer you, is based on adoption. Potential parents apply at the Central Adoption Office (CAO). No one of sufficient age can be denied the chance to apply. The decision to grant potential parents one or more of the Queen’s eggs comes down to the needs of the Queendom more than any other reason. If you’re a bureaucrat, for example, like I am, and there are already enough bureaucrats for the foreseeable future, it will be more difficult, though not impossible, to be granted parenthood privileges. Mariana and I have consistently decided not to apply, even during years when bureaucrats were being granted parenthood privileges over even the military and the explorers, the latter of which I head up.

   The entire process is vastly more complicated than I just explained, and our system is being constantly tweaked to maintain fairness and to keep up with the needs of the Queendom. Young Spaniards, after all, do not always wish to follow in their parents’ footsteps.

   Perhaps I’ll get a chance to talk more about it later. For now, I’d like to return to the trip to Purple Rock.

   Passengers boarded, the intercom came on with the conductor saying—“All aboard!”—and the doors, after giving warning beeps, closed. The trolley accelerated smoothly from the platform. He announced, “Wild Strawberry Junction, next stop. Wild Strawberry Junction, twenty-four minutes.” The intercom went quiet.

   Wild Strawberry Junction was more or less a tourist and newlywed destination, famous for its spectacular sea view and amenities. It was typically very crowded this time of year with the lessening of rain and gradually warming temperatures. The trolley meandered in several switchbacks down the cliff towards it. It slowed to a stop at the platform, which was disturbingly close to the edge. Passengers oohed and aahed, and several voiced gratitude when only the doors on the side of the trolley farthest from the edge opened. “Wild Strawberry Junction, folks. Please enjoy your stay.”

   Ants had fallen from such a terrifying height and survived. Our bodies are quite durable and flexible, and can handle the impact even from such a height, which proportionately for humans would be like falling fifty miles and walking away relatively unharmed. Earth’s gravity isn’t as harmful to us as it is to you.

   But where we pay is in the wind and air currents. We could fall and survive, yes. But almost certainly not here, right next to Earth’s greatest ocean. Coastal winds that often blow into the cliff would likely force the hapless ant up and over Clifftop. If the ant were extraordinarily lucky, the wind might deposit him or her on solid ground where, if he or she were smart, would immediately give great thanks to the Maker for sparing his or her life.

   But those who have lost their grip and fallen are rarely so lucky. The winds curl way up there, back over the water, and the ant is never heard from again. I can’t think of a single exception to that statistic. Very scary, sad, and tragic.

   All of these things were weighing on me as I thought again of the meeting with the Queen. If we built a vehicle that launched us up and away, how could we control and direct it against those coastal winds, which were often quite fierce? How could we protect ourselves against the significant chance of a splashdown and drowning? Water scared us Spaniards as much as fire did. Falling was a distant third. How could I engineer a solution that would protect us and get us to our destination safely and in a timely fashion?

   The train continued on. I had since lost myself in more of those “big ideas” my wife warned would get me into trouble one day. The seat next to me was empty, so I opened my pack on it (we don’t carry briefcases), selected several drawings the sworn-to-secrecy engineers had produced, and got to work as the villages passed.

   The villages: Forestmont, Delph, Tyom’s Fall, No Joke (a tiny village about halfway down situated just inside a portion of the cliff that angled inward, providing a clear and terrifying view almost straight down. While we Spaniards can walk on inverted surfaces, especially our engineers, scouts, and farmers, most of us prefer not to, especially in such perilous proximity to the sea), Therot, Wasp’s End (a large, long-abandoned yellow jacket nest: beautiful, unique homes and shops), Zizos (named after the previous Queen to Beatrice; and please be aware I’m being quite liberal in making some of these names up: I’m basically trying to sound out English equivalents to our ant language, an exercise in futility if ever there was one), Sayap (named after a famous military adventurer), Wormwood, Cottonwood, and, finally, Purple Rock. Cottonwood was a village located not in the cliff proper, but halfway up the broken, almost horizontal stump of a cottonwood tree that had since grown new branches.

   Cottonwood trees weren’t known to grow out of cliffsides, and certainly not above an ocean. The salt in the air should have killed it very dead before it could even sprout. But here it was, strong and healthy, against everything our science and yours told us (and you) was possible about cottonwood trees.

   Cottonwood, as to my intense dismay I was about to find out, was the terminus of both the Seaview Trolley and the Latedrone, which I only realized after I heard the conductor announce, “... and be sure to gather your belongings, folks. The train will be heading back up-cliff in an hour. Thank you for riding Seaview Trolley today, and have a great day.”

   I quickly pulled out the route map and looked it over, then cursed richly under my breath. Indeed, Seaview didn’t go all the way to Purple Rock. I’d have to walk the rest of the way down. From what I could tell, the walk would require another hour.

   My hope was to meet this Andalusia, get a feel for her personality and character, try to learn why she was known to several of the Queen’s advisors all the way up at Clifftop, perhaps learn why she was called “crazy,” inform her of what was going on, then hop back on the trolley for home.

   That wasn’t going to happen. It would take an hour to get down to Purple Rock, probably another two hours or so to interview her (assuming she was even there, which was not a given), and another hour’s walk back to the trolley, which would be gone by then. I knew the trip back would be the trolley’s last for the day. It looked like I was spending the night down here.

   “Damnit!” I muttered.

   We were pulling into Cottonwood.

   “Damnit!”






The village of Cottonwood was located about halfway up its broken trunk, which rose in a ten-degree slope over the water, which in human measurement was maybe thirty-five feet below. Purple rock, according to the map and my quick mental math, was ten feet below me. Ten feet—or slightly more than fourteen hundred quaooms. I caught up to the conductor as he was making his way towards the terminal office and asked for directions.

   “Purple Rock?” he said.

   “That’s the place.”

   “Take the trail along the tracks,” he pointed, “back into the tunnel. There’s a sign. You can’t miss it.”

   “Thank you.”

   He gave the equivalent of an ant smile (antennae wide and curving upward) and continued on his way to the terminal office. I glanced back at Cottonwood and, pack securely on my back, started for the tunnel.

   Cottonwood was a lovely place, with nice aged-bark accommodations, lots of beautiful trails, and many fine dining establishments, most of which only catered to summer visitors. This cottonwood produced wonderful sap, famous in the Queendom. I thought for a moment of stopping for a quick sapbeer (I’m sure you can imagine it), but vetoed the notion. My slow, meandering trip down here was now making me feel, well, antsy.

   Mariana and I had visited Cottonwood several times, and very much enjoyed the laid-back atmosphere, and the peace and quiet. The village’s population was just over a thousand, a size which appealed to both of us.

   The trail ended up going under the trunk in spots, and I found myself looking up (down) at the ocean and wandering yet again how to design a vehicle of some kind powerful enough to get us to Brookings but also safe enough to defeat not just the coastal winds, but this tremendous body of water.

   There were ant houses on the trunk’s underside. Some ants really liked living that way—almost permanently upside down, as it were. I smiled at those milling about and on one occasion waved. The couple watching the ocean as the sun made its way steadily towards the horizon waved back.

   What do our houses look like? Not too dissimilarly from yours, actually, though we certainly don’t build McCastles or trophy homes. We use a wide variety of materials in their construction, including bark, as most here did. Lights were going on inside many of them. The shadows of the day were deepening. I hurried up and pressed on.

   The trail came back up along the side of the trunk for a ways before summiting it once more. I walked under a great rock and found myself in the trolley tunnel. A sign was well up ahead, still unreadable from this distance. I was sure it was the one pointing to Purple Rock.

   It was. The tunnel opened to the right and I took it. Stairs led almost immediately down. Many were moss covered and poorly tended. The tunnel itself didn’t look all that great either. There were breaches in several spots; roots growing through in others; and in another spot a fairly large brown spider blocked almost all the space of the entrance to what looked like another tunnel, but was probably only a storage nook. Its eight gleaming-black eyes watched me from the gloom. I felt its stare along my body and did the equivalent of an ant-jog to get away.

   Spiders and flies and dragonflies and voracious insect-beasties of all kinds were always a concern to us Spaniards, yes. But we had long since developed a generic scent that warned them off and promised a very disgusting meal if they proceeded to eat us. My bigger concern was running into spider webs now that I’d spotted one. I had passed a sign not long before:

Tunnels Managed by the
National Exploratory Service.
Caution: Wildlife may be in the area!

The NES might analogously be thought of as your Park Service. There were ranger ants down here who kept the tunnels up and the spider webs minimally cleared, earwigs and wasps out, and the moss, mushrooms, and roots cut back, and who looked after travelers passing through. I was definitely in the country, so to speak.

   (Though the word “exploratory” was in the NES’s name, the NES was not part of the CSA, which I headed up.)

   The light was no longer ubiquitous, but came from regular posts much like your human lamp posts. One of them had a sign on it:

Purple Rock
616

   For you humans, six hundred sixteen quaooms would translate to roughly two-thirds of a mile. I was nearly there.

   The tunnel, increasingly wet, took a hard right. There was a craggy lamp post, and then I was suddenly out in the open again. The rock I was on was inundated with water, and water on the rocks directly above ran off them as though a wave had just washed clear up here. I added to my already hurried gait.

   Maddeningly, the trail didn’t go back inside the relative safety of a tunnel, but descended a series of stairs that took me closer and closer to the water. It was high tide, and the waves, partly shadowed by the far cliffs across the inlet, were terrifying to look at from this proximity. One rumbled into the closest sea stack just below and the spray skied high above me before raining down in a sudden saltwater deluge. I quickly found shelter on the underside of a nearby rock. The water, foamy and wild, nearly made it to my abdomen before washing away, exposing the trail once more. I gathered my fraying courage and continued on, this time at a near sprint.

   Why didn’t the damn trail go back inside the cliff? I saw the next wave looming up towards the sea stack a long time before it struck. It was huge, what you humans call a “sneaker wave.” It was certainly large enough to drag ones your size out to sea—imagine what it could’ve done to me!

   I couldn’t find a place to hide or grab until the very last second, and only by descending even farther down towards the water. The wave gathered and slammed with a hungry roar into the sea stack, and descending white water was suddenly the whole of the sky. I had grabbed six handfuls of a meager bit of moss under completely inadequate cover. There was an exquisite moment of peace, and then a tremendous WHOOOOOOOOOOSH! I was abruptly under a swirling, raging, ice-cold wall of whitewater and hanging on for all I was worth. I felt my clothing wash off, and felt my pack strip free of my back and away, and smelled the saltwater, and drank it involuntarily, and fought against the sting of it in my eyes.

   Somehow, I don’t know how, I held on. The water was suddenly gone. I glanced over my form. I was almost naked—not really a thing of shame for ants—and injured as well. In the rush I banged pretty hard against the rock the moss clung to. My right middle and back legs throbbed as though they had been broken.

   I didn’t bother looking at them. The ever-threatening sea didn’t allow me to. I got back on the trail, limping and hissing, where almost involuntarily I thought of Mariana and hoped I’d live long enough to see her again. I hurried down the trail, tripping and slipping all the way. Another big wave was coming in, and the sun had set.

   I went to hide, but then, out of nowhere, an ant appeared out of the dark of a large crevice in the cliff-face. “What, are you stupid?” she demanded. “Get in here! Get in here now!

   I climbed up as quickly as I could to the bottom of the crevice, where she waited. She hauled me up the final couple quaooms or so (her mandibles, both pierced, were quite strong), then stepped back and pushed a button on a device she produced from one of the many pockets on her work coveralls. A door slid up from the crevice’s bottom, following the jagged line of it up, very quickly and intriguingly. A moment later the thunder of the wave’s splash sounded out against it.

   I’d seen: there had been no moss to cling to. I would’ve been washed out to sea. I would’ve drowned.

   I was flat on my back. Astonished at how close to death I had just come, I struggled to right myself.

   “You must be from way up top,” she guessed as she looked me over with obvious disdain. “No one takes the seaward trail at high tide. Friggin’ stupid!”

   “There is no other trail,” I coughed, blinking. She appeared to be a young ant, with wild black eyes and oddly decorated or pierced antennae and other body parts (a new thing to do for our youth, and not approved of by the more conservative of us).

   “Of course there is!” she barked. She looked me over. I must have looked official, because she asked, “Are you from the government?”

   “Indeed,” I replied after coughing out more seawater while realizing that the spider was blocking the safer trail. “I am Bartholomew Dias from the Central Scout Agency.”

   She stared at me as one would stare at a naive child. “All right. Well, Bartholomew, I’m Andy.”

   I nodded, sighed, and coughed out more seawater. “Of course you are.”

Chapter Three


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