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Mile Markers

Monday, January 14, 2019

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

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

Chapter One
Chapter Two

Chapter Three

“So tell me, Bartholomew: have you suffered serious damage to your antennae or maybe your brain, because you’d have to be pretty damn stupid to take the seaward trail during high tide!”

   I heard her only vaguely, like she was talking from some unseen tunnel past these rocks. As for the rocks, they were indeed purple. Many had lovely gray-blue veins running through them, and large, colorful green-black lichen hanging here and there. I heard another big wave slam against the door separating us from the ocean and shook myself back to the present and her question. I fought with some effort to focus on her. “Sorry?”

   She stared incredulously at me for a moment longer, then reached down and grasped my foreleg and pulled me out of the puddle I was lying in while shaking her head. “You’re one crazy termite. What do you and the Central Scout Agency want with me?”

   Calling another Spaniard a termite could be considered either an insult or a compliment, depending on the context. I didn’t keep up with such social vagaries; they belonged to the young, of which I hadn’t been for a long time. I tested my dripping limbs and considered just how far from that blissful state I was. My right middle and back legs ached badly. When I was in my youth such injuries would’ve been ignored. Now ...

   I gazed at them.

   “Hey—Bartholomew. Did you hear me? What do you want with me? Are you all here? Hey—hey!

I woke with the regular sounds of rumbling and the smell of something delicious being cooked. I couldn’t identify it ... but I could identify the rumbles. Waves. Big ocean waves. Big ocean waves very close by.

   I was covered in a couple layers of quilts. Despite their warmth and coziness, I shuddered. I tried shifting and rising, but my injured legs flashed agony, and I groaned and collapsed back to my belly. I uncovered my right side to look at the damage.

   You might not think that ants bruise, but we do. At least our species does. My entire right side was one large green-black splotch that ran nearly the entire right side of my body. Its gruesome color actually matched the lichen I’d seen! My middle and back right legs had bandages on them, and the first joint up my middle leg had been wrapped. After another minute or so assessing the damage, I shook my head and gazed at my surroundings.

   It was a pleasant little bedroom, very cozy, with hand-made artwork covering the purple-stone walls, and a small heater in the corner that glowed a soft, nearly sightless orange. Despite its presence, it was still mildly cool. I could smell the sea much more prominently, a briney scent lingering just behind everything else. Feminine clothing hung in a partially open closet, and in loose scattered heaps here and there.

   I must have been in this “Crazy Andy’s” bedroom. She must have carried me here after I fainted.

   I’d never fainted before in my entire life. Very unpleasant. I felt like vomiting, the world suddenly lost all its color, and then ... nothing.

   I reached with my good legs—those on the left—and pulled the covers all the way off.

   Ant beds are a somewhat similar to human ones—soft and warm, with a pillow to lay our heads. We don’t sleep on our sides or our back; when we sleep we tuck our legs under our bodies and cross our antennae. Where humans have headboards, ants have padded slots in which to put them and keep them warm. The slots are made of cushions of various materials and expense, and are called polobs. One must push one’s antennae into a polob. For us, it’s a very pleasant thing to do. When Spaniards don’t get enough sleep we say, “He didn’t push the antennae” or “She was banging her antennae against a rock polob,” which sounds thoroughly disagreeable. I speak as one very much in love with the activity of sleeping.

   The polob on Andalusia’s bed was particularly pleasant and warm. I studied it. It too appeared to be hand-made, and had a cute design of flowers, wild strawberries, and honey bees, and had a slight feminine odor as well.

   I removed my antennae from it, quite regretfully, and pushed myself gingerly out of bed. The pain along my right side warned me to take things slowly, and to watch for corners and protrusions.

   I glanced down on my form. I was naked. Again, nakedness isn’t a thing of shame to ants, so I didn’t give it much thought as I crossed the room and opened the door. A short hall led to the left; directly in front was another door, closed; and to the immediate right was the bathroom. Its door was open.

   I stepped quickly inside it and closed the door behind me.

   Yes, ants poop and pee. It doesn’t happen often—either one—but we do, like all living beings, have to eliminate waste from our intake of food and drink.

   The bathroom was clean and subtilely unique. It had a pleasant odor, like incense, but one I couldn’t identify. The walls had been hand-painted, and a small, diamond-shaped high window looked out onto something gray, probably the sea. Its glass looked custom-crafted and was warped into patterns that kept me from making out what was out there. I tried lifting myself higher to see, but pain stopped me, so I went to the toilet and sat.

   (There was a picture window in her room, but drapes hung over it, and I didn’t think to look out them. As for the toilet and its design, I’ll let you use your imagination. You probably won’t be too far off. If it helps to anthropomorphize the imagery, go right ahead.)

   Spaniards bathe—actually, we shower. Our stalls look something like yours. Andalusia’s shower was small, the tub old and stained with age, but clean. I washed my hands in the basin and gazed in the mirror.

   I didn’t mind aging. Not really. But today I looked as old as I actually was, which was, thankfully, a rarity. Worse, I was feeling my age. My youth was far behind me.

   Andalusia was a pretty ant. When I was her age, she would have been just the type I’d have gone for. I can’t say the attraction ants feel is the same you humans feel; it almost certainly isn’t. You humans can reproduce; only our Queen can. But that doesn’t mean that we feel nothing when gazing at the opposite sex. We very much do.

   I gazed one more time at my tired reflection, thought ruefully of my beautiful bride and how close I came to never seeing her again, and opened the door.

“There you are! How are you feeling?”

   She turned from the stove (like everything else, a little different in design than human ones) and studied me. Her antennae were aligned in the unconscious way that signaled that she was genuinely interested, and she wore what looked like fashionable labor clothes, if “fashionable” and “labor clothes” can ever be put together.

   I motioned behind me with my left antenna. “Thank you for the use of your bed.”

   “Oh, no problem,” she said, turning back to the food. “I thought of calling the doctor after you passed out, but he’s kinda worthless. I’ve seen worse bruises, though I have to admit that yours looks pretty gruesome. You hungry?”

   “Yes, please. Very.”

   “A good sign,” she remarked. “Means your noggin didn’t get banged up too much.” She turned her head to regard me once more. “You really don’t know how lucky you are, do you?”

   “That the waves didn’t get me, or that you were there to rescue me?” I asked with an apologetic-but-grateful smile.

   “Both,” she said flatly. “Here. Sit down. Do you like kelpere?”

   “It smells delicious.”

   I sat down.

   What is kelpere, you ask? It is basically prepared dried kelp with a mix of sweet sauce and scrambled crab eggs. Up at Clifftop it’s a pricey dish; but down here it probably was a staple and very cheap. (Crab eggs transport very poorly, a problem the Queendom has yet to solve. They have to be super fresh for us to find them palatable. They lose their taste very quickly.)

   She served me a large, steaming heap of it, holding the frying pan in her mandibles and pushing it out with a wooden spoon held by her left foreleg.

   “Thank you,” I offered.

   She served herself, put the pan in the sink with some soapy water, and sat across from me.

   I sampled her cooking.

   Either I was starving, or she should’ve been working at one of those fancy Clifftop restaurants!

   “Excellent,” I said evenly, as my station demanded. But inside I was slobbering and wide-eyed and wanting to blurt, “Well now! This is fab-u-lous!”

   We ate in silence for a time. She finally looked up and said, “So ... Bartholomew ...”

   I waited.

   “From the Central Scout Agency ...”

   I swallowed. “I’m actually its head. I run it.”

   That held her up. “You run the CSA ...”

   “That’s me.”

   “Not a division chief, but the whole thing. All of it. As in more than two hundred thousand ants ...”

   “I’m afraid so.”

   She stared as though I’d lost my mind. She glanced around at her little home as though it were somehow an embarrassment, just uncovered as such, then back at me.

   “Geez ...” Her gaze sharpened. “The q of the CSA travels all the way down here ... to Purple Rock ... to ... see ... me?

   (The little q denotes queen, which is basically the same as the head or boss of an organization within our Queendom.)

   “I’m afraid so,” I repeated.

   “You’re afraid so?”


   Her head pulled sharply back, her antennae regarding me from multiple angles. “Am I in trouble or something?”

   “No,” I began. “No. Not at all—at least not legally. Spain, however, is in trouble—as in all of it, which includes you. I was sent by Mom to talk to you about helping us get out of trouble.”

   “What do you mean, ‘Spain is in trouble’? Like something is about to destroy us, a big tsunami, that sort of thing? And—Mom sent you? The Queen? She said, ‘Go see Andy in Purple Rock. Mom said that. The Queen.”

   I didn’t want to say “I’m afraid so” again, so just nodded gravely.

   Andalusia had an expression that was quite biting, I learned then. It said, You’re nuts. Please leave.

   I explained to her what was going on—the plans your human leader was making to build an ‘oil derrick’ offshore from our Queendom, and how the pollution from it would destroy Spain. I then explained how it was recommended in full court that I be charged with coming to see her, to recruit her for the mission to stop this leader and the humans ready to follow him to our destruction.

   “Mother knows about you,” I said needlessly. “Obviously. But it was another there who recommended you—Ryana?”

   Andalusia’s face darkened, her antennae drooping. “Damnit that little termite!”

   “Is there a problem? If you don’t mind, who is she to you?”

   She didn’t look too ready to share. She did, because she’s an intelligent ant (as I was already guessing, astonishingly intelligent), and she knew that as the q of the Central Scout Agency I could find out quite easily on my own, through the agency’s considerable resources.

   She shook her head and shrugged her antennae. “She ... was my lover. I mean, while we were both in school. A few years ago. She was always encouraging me to do this and do that. She thought I was something special.” Her gaze sharpened. “I’m here to tell you, though, Bartholomew, big, bad q of the Central Scout Agency, I’m not. Okay? There’s nothing I can do for you that the Queendom’s engineers couldn’t do much better.”

   I gave her a pained I’m so sorry you feel that way about yourself smile. “Well, then, I am very sorry to have taken so much of your time and put you through so much trouble. At least let me help you clean up before I go. It’s the least I can do.”

   She didn’t want to appear rude, so she smiled uneasily, avoiding my gaze, and stood. I could tell that she was surprised at how easily I gave up.

   “Sure. Sure. I’m sorry I can’t be of any help ...”

   At the sink I watched her out the side of my eyes as she washed the dishes. She handed them to me one at a time; I dried them and took some time to gaze around at her little home. I studied the various paintings on the walls—all original, I was sure—and the sayagh in the corner (think of something like a cello, and just as beautiful if competently played) with what appeared to be original sheet music sitting on a chair next to it, and the well-used books on the large bookshelf that took up most of the wall next to the front door. The books leaned haphazardly next to each other or piled on one another, as though in constant use, and then studied the walls themselves, which had been hand-carved in subtle, unique, and artfully pleasing patterns.

   As I’ve implied before, we ants aren’t very good at unique. Our homes are almost always built from no more than half a dozen designs, if that, all created exclusively for functional purposes, not artistic or esthetic concerns. Art, like that along the walls of the trolley, is a fairly new “thing” for us, and takes tremendous effort on our part. There are many within the Queendom who feel it is a total waste of time.

   She finally handed me the frying pan, the last dish, which I dried with a patient smile.

   “Turing,” I said without preamble.

   She gave me a quick scowl. “I’m sorry, what?”

   “Turing,” I repeated, the patient smile still on my face.

   “What’s a Turing?” she demanded.

   “Not a what, a who. A human. Alan Turing. Ever heard of him?”

   It is possible for the citizens of Spain to “keep up” with you humans. Most of them do. Sharing a planet with another intelligent species, as you humans ostensibly are, is a fascinating thing. You humans believe you are alone in that regard. You believe that no other species on the planet shares your level of intelligence. It is a point of great pride and arrogance to you, and it shows everywhere—in your various religions and philosophies, in your literature and films, in your music and your commerce. Most relevantly to us ants, though, is how that arrogance manifests in the cruel and thoughtless ways you behave towards this planet’s countless other species—which is why we never bothered (until now) revealing ourselves to you.

   “I really don’t keep up with what the apes are doing,” she said. “Every time I check, it’s always worse than the time before. And now you’re here trying to recruit me for yet something else they’re doing—or planning to do.”

   I lowered the frying pan to the counter and dried my hands. (Yes, my species has what can be called hands—three long “fingers” and two shorter opposable “thumbs.”) Andalusia was growing impatient for me to leave—I could see it in the way she held her head, and the rigid, quick manner in which her antennae shifted left, then right, as though mentally trying to push me out the door. But it was also clear—at least to me—that she didn’t want me to go just yet, though, admittedly, that urge was fading fast. I could see it in her endlessly inquisitive eyes, which refused to meet mine for any length of time. Part of her was fascinated by the possibilities of putting her mind to hard work on something other than kelpere or hand-crafted bathroom windows, or artfully carved walls.

   “Alan Turing was a great human,” I started. “A human genius. He gave the humans much, including new ways to compute data, encryption, new understandings of mathematics, and was the father of what humans call ‘artificial intelligence.’ Small wonder that he was treated abominably by members of his own species and died well before his time.”

   I dropped the towel on the pan and began a slow walk around the room. Andalusia watched me. I swallowed grunts of pain as I hobbled to the unique wall and gazed at the pattern on it for a while—a lovely Turing pattern—and glanced with a quick smile back at her.

   I went to the sayagh and looked down for a while at the music, all scrawled in pencil (we use various dried and powdered fungi as our “graphite”). I had some musical training, and so could read the work and imagine how it’d sound, which was beautiful (think Mozart melded with Mendelssohn melded with her own unique, somewhat melancholic flair). I read for a few measures, then glanced at her and gave her another quick smile.

   She watched me steadily, meeting my gaze for just a few seconds or two before shifting down and darkening a little more each time with my impertinence.

   I went to the painting next to the door—a sunset scene from Clifftop looking south over the great ocean. She had painted it from the perspective of one of the lower to middle branches of the Mom tree, probably near one of the higher bed and breakfasts up there. In the immediate foreground stood a single ant gazing out at the panorama, the perspective from just behind him a few quaooms; beyond were a couple more branches and their needles, darkened by the dimming orange light; beyond that a quiescent but smeared gray-blue sky that portended of incoming rain. And then, of course, below it spread the ocean and its dwindling sea stacks. All beautifully rendered, worthy of any art gallery, ant or human.

   I clasped my hands as I stared a few moments longer, then turned and gave her a quick smile.

   I went to her book collection and scanned the titles. Lots were fiction, but lots more were not: linguistics, engineering, mathematics, philosophy, aesthetics, even treatises on religion (of which there were probably a dozen in Spain). Some of the volumes were old and worn. I picked up a book on advanced engineering, noting how heavily it had been bookmarked, and opened to a page near the middle.

   I couldn’t begin to tell you what it said. The mathematics was immediately dense. I noted that multiple equations had been highlighted, as well as an odd hand-drawn diagram in the lower right hand corner. She watched me without comment.

   I closed the book and put it back where I found it, which was beneath a larger philosophy text on individuality and free will—and gave her a quick smile.

   I was surprised at her patience. She held off saying anything until I came back into the kitchen proper. I was being obvious enough, I should think.

   I could have ordered her to help; that much was true. And had I done so, I was certain she would have obeyed. That wasn’t what I was after. I knew she knew that.

   Her reputation had made it all the way up into the Royal Palace itself, and above and beyond the Queen’s own knowledge of her children. I now knew why. I gazed around myself again. This entire domicile was original right down to the faucet handles, window sills, and engraved door knobs.

   We ants, as I have already said, don’t really “do” original. I’m sure you humans have noticed. It is, in my opinion, one of our greatest weaknesses. Andalusia had built her home to look just like any other Spanish domicile—and I’m certain most Spaniards would have missed or discounted what I had spied. Most of the signs of her genius were quite subtle, and of those that weren’t, they would be considered inoffensive and safely uniform to any lay-ant’s eyes. She wasn’t just a genius; she was a genius capable of hiding such a fact, which requires even more genius.

   If this mission had any chance of success, that kind of genius—original, subtle, and functional—had to be baked into its very DNA.

   There was a reason I was picked to come down here and meet her, and the Queen knew it. The q of the Central Scout Agency, after all, couldn’t be anything other than piercingly observant.

   I gazed at her and gave her one more smile. “Would you mind accompanying me back to the proper trail so that I am not washed out to sea?”

   I could have done it myself, but wanted to see what she would say. She did, after all, have no further obligation to me, and I was certain wanted to see me gone sooner than later.

   She sighed a moment before forcing a smile to her mandibles. “Sure.”

It turned out that her home was a good five hundred quaooms downcliff from the quaint village of Purple Rock, which to that point I’d never visited. We left shortly after I gathered my belongings and contacted Mariana, who was very relieved to hear my voice, as I was hearing hers.

   Are you picturing two ants talking to each other on a human-shaped telephone or cell-phone? That’s fine. In reality our phones are twin adjustable clasps at the end of a “land-line,” as you humans call phones that aren’t “mobile” and which transmit via cell-phone towers and the like. You affix the clasps to your antennae, one each, and then speak into a receiver which is usually in a box on a wall or sitting on a table. Our voices and the movement of our antennae are converted into electricity and transmitted; they vibrate the clasps of the Spaniard at the other end, whose brain then interprets the vibrations as emotion. In this manner we can send our feelings as well as our words.

   “Are you all right?” my bride asked breathlessly. “When you didn’t come back last night, I got worried!”

   “The walk was longer than I anticipated,” I said, keeping my antennae quite rigid. She’d learn soon enough about my brush with death once I got home and she got a look at me. At least this way I’d spare the anguish and anger she’d express over my foolishness for a few hours. Just as importantly, I’d spare myself.

   “Both trolleys terminate at Cottonwood. I didn’t know that, and the maps didn’t make it all that clear. I’ll be taking the Latedrone back. It shouldn’t be too long—maybe three hours?”

   Mariana was no fool. “Okay,” she said, the tone of her voice telling me that she suspected that I wasn’t giving her the whole truth. She almost certainly felt it through the phone and the lack of any movement of my antennae. “Please be safe. Did you have any luck with this ‘Crazy Andy’?”

   Andalusia was standing within antennae-shot, so I said, “No. See you soon. Love you.”

   Purple Rock was located at the near-junction of four boulders seated somewhat precariously on a rock shelf, each the size of one of your cars, and at the bottom of where they almost met. Three of the boulders were granite; the fourth was igneous of some kind, pockmarked like shale. Scoria, I believe you humans call it. Ants lived in the natural scoria tunnels as well.

   All of it was way too close to the sea for my comfort.

   “How is this place not flooded out half the time?” I demanded as we walked (actually, I limped, though with less and less pain and I limbered up) along a saltwater tide-stream.

   “It used to be,” answered Andalusia. She didn’t appear eager to share more, but did when it became obvious that I was going to start asking the villagers. “I helped them glass those cracks over and establish a better gutter system. All right? Can we go now?”

   The villagers who passed us greeted her. They all seemed to know her. It made her increasingly uncomfortable, as noticed by her ever-faster gait towards the tunnel—the safe one—that would take me up to Cottonwood and the Latedrone trolley. Breathless and trailing her by several quaooms, my right side once again complaining most vehemently, I thought she’d say good-bye and walk off once she got to the entrance. Instead she accompanied me inside once I made it there.

   The spider that took up the whole of the other end wasn’t there. By then Andalusia had slowed back down and walked next to me. Only a few Spaniards were in here with us. Two of them were Park Service rangers. They had probably scooted the big bulbous, hairy mass on by the looks of the pokers they carried on their backs. We went through and were walking next to the tracks. We had spoken maybe ten words since Purple Rock.

   At the entrance to that tunnel, she said, “Well, I think I’ll leave you here, Bartholomew. You good to go?”

   I turned to look at her, gave her a bow of my head as is usually reserved for only those of my station or higher, and held out my hand. She took it.

   “Andalusia of Purple Rock,”  I said. “It was a distinct pleasure meeting you. Thank you for saving me and hearing me out. I wish your answer to the Queendom’s pressing need would have been yes, but I understand completely why it wasn’t. Like you, I deeply value my privacy and do not enjoy the crowd. I shall think of you often. You left a strong impression with me, and I shall give your best to the Queen Mother.”

   She gripped my hand unsurely and released it the moment I stopped speaking. That same uncertainty flashed in her eyes for that moment as well; then both were gone, and her defenses were once again firmly up and ready. My highly mannered speech had intimidated her. As I wanted it to.

   “No problem,” she said. “Take care of yourself.” She turned quickly—perhaps a little too quickly—and hurried back into the tunnel before she could give herself away further.

   I boarded the Latedrone half an hour later with a smile, however pained it may have been.

Mariana listened to my story with the same horror she reserved for my appearance. “And here I was going to tell you what a great night’s sleep I got last night with the whole bed to myself!”

   She pulled me into yet another hug (the first one came when she looked at me as I walked into our home) and murmured, “And all for nothing! What a waste!”

   I pulled back. I was grinning.

   Andalusia was smart—perhaps the smartest Spaniard I had ever met. But I was pretty smart too. I reflected on that unsure grip of my hand, and that uncertain glint in her eyes, both so fast that I believe most would have missed it. But I was Bartholomew Diaz, q of the Central Scout Agency, and was trained never to miss tiny details.

   “What?” demanded my bride. “What is that honey-eatin’ grin about?”

   “Not a waste,” I declared. “Not a waste at all.”

Chapter Four