Monday, March 4, 2019

Read Chapter Four 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

Chapter Four
Bruises and Frustration

So let’s start this chapter with an explanation of the Central Scout Agency and its role in the Queendom.

   It isn’t like your Central Intelligence Agency. Your CIA employs spies; the CSA, by contrast, employs scouts. These are Spaniards trained to be as observant as possible, and willing to explore in order to advance the Queendom’s interests. Some of them are “born that way,” if you will: they come into the world with many of the natural talents others have to work very hard for. I was one from the latter category. I wasn’t born with those talents. I studied and studied very hard, and learned to hone those instincts until they were as sharp as my blessed comrades. I learned to observe everything and to make connections and inferences.

   The CSA employs nearly two hundred thousand Spaniards. As such, we are one of the larger agencies within the Queendom. The Guardians, at almost a million serving, and the Drone Union, which boasts nearly two million workers, are the largest.

   The Queendom’s intrepid scouts are explorers, yes. We are sent to explore and map the immediate areas surrounding Spain and to report back our findings. We are a very cautious species; we don’t send scouts far if we can at all help it; and when we find a new place worth exploring for its resources or livability potential, we don’t push farther until we have thoroughly studied the one in question. If you’re wondering why the Queendom hasn’t spread out all over Hell’s creation, you’ve got your answer. Plus, in general (I’m thinking of Andalusia here), we very much like living closely together, and are quite content where we are. Our home is very precious to us, and we are to each other.

   But “scouts” also implies other types of explorers—like scientists. These are part of the Central Scout Agency as well. Almost half of the CSA, in fact, is made up of scientists—what you would call physicists, geologists, chemists, biologists, computer scientists ... and also philosophers and theologians.

   Did those last two make those odd eyelids of yours blink once or twice? Good.

   I was q of the entire agency. My job was to make the executive-level decisions that Mom would make should she be in my place. That’s almost what my job description reads word-for-word!

   Unlike human executives and agency heads, Spaniards in my position don’t really have a fancy office and a stable full of secretaries and interns and the like just slobbering with the desire to please the “top dog.” As q, my job is to be out and about checking on everyone within the agency, looking at their work, listening to their concerns and complaints, promoting those deserving, and, generally, to use another human idiom, “keeping my hands dirty.” Human executives, especially modern ones, seem to take great pride in how clean they keep theirs and how fat their duffs get sitting behind big monolithic desks in their enormous walled-off fortresses.

   It was with that thought that I sat at the dining room table and glanced over more projected environmental data regarding the effects of an oil derrick offshore from the Queendom. My injuries insisted on nothing less. I had woken excited and ready to report to Mom (and to talk to Ryana, whom I wanted to interview much more about Andalusia), but my right side had stiffened overnight to the point that Mariana had to help me out of bed. I phoned my second-in-command, a very affable ant by the name of Alicia, to give her an antennae’s-up, and went to work.

   We were a quiet, secretive species that had no real interest in the wider world. But now that wider world was forcing us to take an interest in it. The data was clear: the Queendom would not survive.

   I’m sure there are many of you humans out there all riled up about this. After all, you claim, oil derricks can be built without major environmental damage, and spills are infrequent. But you’re wrong. No oil derrick has ever been built without causing major environmental damage, and spills are far more frequent than you are told.

   You’re so gullible, you lot—do you know that? Gullible and short-sighted and greedy. This world isn’t yours—it’s all of ours, no matter how small we may be!

   The pain along my right side didn’t hesitate to make my grumpy thoughts even grumpier. Poring over the data, all of it doom-laden, I forced myself to stop reading and thought again of Andalusia.

   Perhaps Spain had been remiss in not declaring ourselves to you humans. Perhaps the more enlightened and merciful of you would have seen to it that we were not wiped out or harmed. Perhaps if you knew of us you would not even consider constructing an oil derrick so close to our Queendom.

   Andalusia flashed in my mind again. “You are one silly termite!”

   She was right. For you humans have no compunctions whatsoever in harming your own if it makes you rich or famous.

   That kind of thinking is utterly beyond us.

   Andalusia. If Mariana and I had raised a daughter, she’d be just about her age. Something twisted very unpleasantly in my gut, and I slammed my fists down on the data.

   Mariana heard, and came rushing in. “Are you all right? I thought you might have fallen!”

   I got hold of my temper and nodded. “Just ... frustrated.”

   She sat down next to me and stroked my face. She didn’t look fearful. “This is your time,” she said with a very determined look in her eyes. “This is when my Bartholomew Diaz shines the brightest.” She gazed down at the data. “This isn’t helping. You already know the truth. You went to see this ‘Crazy Andy,’ and you told me you’re confident she will be helping soon. I think what’s needed is for you to take a deep breath and let what’s going to unfold anyway unfold. Agree or disagree?”

   I leaned into her and wrapped my antennae around hers.

   “She reminds me of you back in the day,” I murmured. “Smart ... stubborn ... pretty.”

   “From what you’ve shared with me, she’s far smarter than me.”

   “I suspect that she’s smarter than anyone I’ve ever known,” I answered with a chuckle.

   “Even you?”

   I nodded without hesitation. “Even me.”

   “We’ll see about that,” declared my dear wife. “If she joins you and whatever mission is birthed from this emergency, I might begin to entertain the notion. But not till then.”

   It was part of my gambit—to leave Andalusia quickly (perhaps not as quickly as I did) to let that razor-sharp mind of hers take over and get to work on the problem I presented to her. Arguing with her would have dampened that urge. I wanted it to hit her like a bolt of lightning. I wanted her to go back home and maybe get to work on her music or start a new painting or maybe wander into Purple Rock to hang out with the villagers and watch the sea, so very close to that small hamlet, and I wanted that lightning bolt to settle into her abdomen and refuse to dissipate and churn everything up. I wanted it to continually interrupt her mundane thoughts, as I knew it had to given her smarts. I wanted her to think of the difference she could make to the Queendom. A real difference. A lasting difference.

I ended up spending the rest of the week at home. Mariana called our physician, a sprightly young ant named Arnoldo, midweek. (Physicians and healthgivers are part of the Scouts as well, as we consider them scientists seeking “new territories” of health.) He looked me over while I sat grumbling in my study. The pain had somehow gotten even worse.

   “Oftentimes bruises will feel progressively worse for a few days after the initial injury,” he explained. “But you’ve also managed to sprain your midleg, and that certainly can’t help.” He gave me a sympathetic stare. “You’re lucky to be alive, SeƱor Diaz.”

   (I had of course shared with him the story of how I acquired the injuries, without mentioning Andalusia and why I went to see her. It was the first thing he did after entering our home—listening to my woeful little tale of misadventure.)

   He gave me some pain medication, advised that I keep from being too sedentary, and also prescribed a combination of ice and heat applied to the worst parts of the bruise, which basically had turned me into a walking half-corpse by the looks of it.

   He left with a promise to revisit me during what you humans bemusingly call the weekend. Mariana closed the door and went to the refrigerator and came back with some ice, which she carefully applied to my sprain. Andalusia had wrapped it for me; the doctor earlier had taken the wrapping off. I found it quite telling that he said: “This was quite professionally done. Kudos to the physician who took such good care of you down there.”

   Amid the pain and the foul mood accompanying it, I couldn’t help but smile.

That Friday came, and with it a new visitor: Ryana. Mariana showed her into the dining room, where she found me considering, yet again, how we could get to Brookings to trump this Trump before it was too late. I had sketched very rough schematics of your sea vessels, from tall ships to aircraft carriers; I had researched various means of flight; I had even looked at designs for your submarines.

   All of it felt so alien, so ... odd. We didn’t sail the seas; we didn’t fly in planes; we didn’t travel underwater. The Queen Mom once had wings, as all starting queen ants do; our species was not different in that regard. The story is well known by all Spaniards: when asked where she came from, where she flew from, to discover the Mom Tree and Clifftop, where she settled to have the first citizens of our great nation, she does not remember. She remembers a “great darkness,” and then bright light, and then the sensation of flying, of dipping and diving, rising and falling as air currents pushed her this way and that. She tells how she landed very roughly and was nearly blown over the cliff by a wind gust that caught her the last second. She managed to hold on to the base of the Mom Tree and quickly find shelter, and Spain was born.

   “Flying is terrifying,” she is fond of telling her citizens the rare occasions she talks about The Beginning, as it’s known.

   When asked where she came from—what queendom, what land, wherever—she never answers. It was dark ... and then it was light.

Then God commanded, Let there by light—and light appeared.

   I had a translated copy (Spaniard-sized, of course) of one of your holy books, and whenever I thought of Mom, I thought of it.

   I greeted Ryana without rising. Mariana went into the kitchen to get us something to snack on and to drink. Ryana sat upon my insistence.

   “We’ve all been worried about you. We’d like more information on your trip to see Andy than you’ve given us. Mom sent me to talk to you, and to wish you a speedy recovery.”

   I gave her a quickly fading sideways smile. “Please let Mother know I appreciate her concern. There really isn’t much to share beyond what I already have.” I didn’t tell her that my intent, ironically, had been to find her and quiz her about Andalusia. For now, that could wait. “I’ll assess it as a qualified failure.”

   Ryana’s antennae jerked weirdly. “ ‘Qualified’? What does that mean?”

   “What he means is,” said Mariana, returning and setting down some honey crumbles and hot teras tea (I can’t think of a good human-type description of it, so I ‘sounded out’ the word for you instead and put that down) between us, “it’s a ‘failure’ only in that he didn’t get an immediate yes from this Andalusia.” Her antennae fixed more solidly on Ryana. “But you are one of her closest friends, aren’t you, Ryana, this ‘Crazy Andy’?”

   “Well, yeah, I suppose I am,” she answered unsurely after thanking Mariana for the snacks. “Andy is ... well, she’s a complex individual. She’s not crazy. She’s a fierce friend, don’t get me wrong; it’s just that she can’t stand the crowd. She’s got so many gifts, but she’s content to live a quiet, simple life clear down in Purple Rock.”

   “Not in Purple Rock,” I corrected. “Actually downcliff from there a ways. She’s living in managed parkland. I didn’t even see any Guardians down there. I counted only two tunnels anywhere near her home, and we didn’t encounter any ants until we were almost at Purple Rock. There was a big brown spider, though ...”

   Ryana, glancing at my bruise, looked guilty, as though she were responsible for my misadventure. “She’s an amazing ant.”

   “She’s a necessary ant,” I corrected again, and with more anger than I intended. I took firmer hold of my grumpiness and continued. “I’m quite convinced of it. Without her we don’t stand a chance to save the Queendom. She’s got the creativity and independence of thought that will be absolutely essential to come up with a plan original enough to give us even a chance to accomplish our mission. But—” I held up a stern finger—“I do not want that getting back to Mom.”

   Ryana appeared defiant for a moment, but then her antennae widened and dropped a little in understanding. “The Queen Mother will order her—that’s what you’re afraid of.” Her gaze sharpened to something like admiration. “You figured Andy out enough in just that short time to know ...”

   “... that she’ll grudgingly accede to that order, yes, but in doing so fail to give us her finest work? Yes, I did. And thank you. It’s my job. And we need her finest work.”

   “So ... you’re taking the chance that whatever you said to her will have some sort of effect?”

   I nodded.

   “She’s much smarter than that,” Ryana said flatly, and, I think, a little defensively.

   I nodded determinedly. “I’m counting on it.”

Ants are very social beings, especially Spaniards. We love being around each other. On any given day there are probably hundreds of thousands of social events taking place, and for every conceivable reason under the sun. You humans consider yourselves social animals, but you’ve got nothing on us.

   Ants, therefore, who display anti-social behaviors aren’t understood, and are sometimes thought “crazy.” It is an unfair label, one that in recent years has come, more and more, to be judged cruel and thoughtless. I called Acilino, a social scientist under my charge, and asked him to come up to our home for an interview. He arrived an hour later. It was getting later in the afternoon, and I was growing tired and, if it were possible, even grumpier. Ryana had left with many assurances that she would placate Mom, and offered the standard “get better” wishes that good manners, especially here in Spain, demand. Mariana saw her off while I went back to work.

   She brought Acilino in. “Not too long, okay? I want to eat dinner soon.”

   Acilino, looking uncomfortable as though he had intruded, glanced nervously around and then at me. “Sir ... what ... uh ... what can I do for you?”

   He couldn’t hide his reaction upon looking at my bruise. “Sit down,” I ordered. “I have some questions for you.”

   He nodded even more nervously, almost certainly detecting my foul mood, and quickly sat. Mariana, in the kitchen preparing dinner (a task I typically took care of), didn’t come to offer him snacks and tea as she had Ryana.

   “You’re the lead social scientist under my charge ...” I began.

   “I am, q,” he answered instantly. “Is there a problem?”

   I pushed the plans, schematics, and data out of the way and stared fixedly at him. “I want information regarding anti-social tendencies in ants. Are they in fact ‘crazy,’ as we have labeled them in the past, and continue to do today? What causes this tendency, and how many ants does it affect?”

   He tried answering to the best of his ability, but nothing he offered was satisfactory or ultimately helpful. I was hoping to gain another angle for when I spoke to Andalusia again, which I still felt was certain. “Anti-social” Spaniards, depending on one’s parameters of what that meant, accounted for anywhere from a hundredth of a percentage point to one out of every fifty ants.

   “They do tend to the further end of the scale,” Acilino offered, “when intelligence is measured.”

   “Which end?” I demanded.

   “Both,” he answered quickly.

   “Let’s deal with the high-intelligence end exclusively. What can you tell me about such ants? What makes them anti-social? Is it necessarily their smarts?”

   “I’m sorry, q,” he replied quietly. “We really don’t know.”

   “Upbringing? Capabilities? Siblings? Relationship to Mom? Chemical imbalances?”

   “Perhaps all of those, and a host of other factors we haven’t even thought of. It is a very difficult subject, q. Those factors, known and unknown, could all be responsible, and so could their mingled effects. There are simply too many permutations ...”

   “I see.”

   “May I ask, q, about the individual this concerns? Perhaps we have had some interaction in the past, and I can offer more concrete help.”

   I shook my head.

   “I’m sorry I can’t be of more service, q.”

So what was intelligence anyway? It seemed to me that it could be measured many ways. One form—say, analytical—wasn’t necessarily better, it seemed to me, than emotional or social or other forms I couldn’t think of just now but was sure existed. I ate dinner in silence as I mulled these questions over. My dear bride left me largely to my thoughts; for that I later apologized and offered to do the dishes. She agreed, and went to the living room to watch one of her favorite shows on the ant equivalent of your television (we Spaniards love our own stories and comedies and the like). I heard her turn the set on and get comfortable. I finished drying the dishes and hobbled back to the dining room table and plopped down with tired frustration in the dark.

   My injuries were healing. Some of the swelling had gone down, and my head felt clearer. All of this was true despite the fact that I had missed taking my pain medication before dinner. A good sign.

   I found myself after a time thinking of individuality, both in humans and in ants. I thought of the Tantur Legion: did those ants have any individuality among them, or were they entirely bound by the “hive mind”?

   We had performed studies on just this question before in the past. The results always came out inconclusive. In some there seemed to be some tiny spark of individuality in, say, a Tantur Legion drone—the way it went this way instead of that during its tasks, say; or the way it “chose” to interact with another ant. That kind of thing. But then another study would suggest just the opposite—that no individuality of any kind could be gleaned from the data.

   Mom was in darkness, she said; and then there was light. She literally “woke up” to full consciousness while in flight, if I was to understand her story correctly. And with that full consciousness came individuality—the ability to think and behave and act differently than the hive or herd or community. All this seemed to suggest that individuality was perhaps seeded or nascent in Tantur Legion ants, as well as all other ants on Earth. And with that individuality, perhaps, came free will—the notion that an individual could make choices that went above and beyond his or her conditioning and environment.

   Among the Scouts, this was fiercely debated. I encouraged such debate, because it made us better, smarter.

   I wondered: Did you humans have free will? If you did, was it more than ours, or less? You seem so proud of your ability to choose, but then align yourselves more tightly into herds and tribes or clans or whatever you call them than any ant I’ve ever seen or known! You stop thinking utterly once you do, which seems strongly to suggest that if you have free will, you are more than happy to toss it out of the tunnel. It’s a burden to you.

   Here was your leader, a grotesque orange ape; and here you lot were, ready to destroy without thought the world on his orders. It has, however, been your legacy since long before this Trump came to power. And now that legacy directly threatened our home.

   It was with that thought that I heard the commotion outside our front door, one that grew louder and louder, prompting Mariana to come in, turn on the light, and exclaim, “What in goodness’ name is going on out there?” She went to look; at that moment our front door chimed.

   Ignoring the pain of my injuries, I rose and followed her. She opened the door and quickly took four steps back.

   The Queen Mom gazed at my bride, then over her antennae at me. Her Guard stood ready, three to a side. My neighbors had all opened their doors and were gawking at us, many filling the tunnel.

   “Good evening, Mariana. Good evening, Bartholomew,” she said with impatient graciousness. “May I enter?”

   “Of course! Of course!” exclaimed Mariana, backing away. “Please, Mom, come in!”

   Spaniards’ homes are all built with the expectation that Mom will one day visit. To that end the doors are wider and slightly taller than needed, and the rooms inside are fashioned to one of her size. At least some of the furniture is expected to support her as well, and there should always be something ready for her to eat and drink.

   Mom entered. Her guards took position out in the tunnel after one smartly closed the door.

   It wasn’t something you saw every day—the Queen Mother wandering down the tunnels and entering into her citizens’ homes. But it also wasn’t as rare as you might think. Mom was a very involved and active Queen, and if it was an important matter, she would just as often as not travel to wherever she needed to in order to transact whatever business needed to be taken care of. That said, she didn’t travel unless such matters were vital and essential, which made my stomach drop upon seeing her. Something was up. Something that I’d missed today as I nursed my injuries.

   “Please, Mom—something to eat?” asked Mariana. I hadn’t even thought to ask, and once again was grateful for my level-headed wife. “Please sit!”

   “No, thank you,” replied Mom with a short smile. “I came to talk to you, Bartholomew. I could have sent Ryana or another aide, but I was too upset to remain in the Nursery.” She appraised my injuries silently, studying me for an uncomfortable moment, her face registering in that moment deep concern. “I take it you haven’t heard the news?”

   I had left strict instructions for no one to bother me, and now felt horrible for doing so.

   “Uh, no, Mom. Forgive me,” I offered, bowing my head.

   “He has not been well,” Mariana spoke up, obviously thinking the exact same thing I was.

   “Of course. I am not upset with you, Bartholomew,” Mom said simply. “Again, I could have sent an aide, and did with Ryana, as a matter of fact. I came because I needed to see the one face that might save us from extinction, and to deliver some terrible news.”

   I braced myself. If said “terrible news” was coming from the Queen herself, who had traveled to deliver it personally, you could rest assured that it was indeed very terrible. I felt the cold dread of horror touch my heart. Had Andalusia been swept out to sea? Was she injured or dead?

   “The human leader named Trump is not visiting the city of Brookings. To finalize the derricks’ construction—he’s not building one, but a dozen offshore—he will visit the other side of the world, in a hot land the humans have named Dubai. It will be there that the ink will dry on the contract that will destroy us and our home.”

Chapter Five