|Not the official title ... at least, I don't think it is.|
The Q of the Sapheads
In my many years of life, I never felt panic and despair quite like that night. As I stood there, riveted to the floor, Mom came to me and reached and placed her hand against my face and curled her antennae around mine in a way that only a mother could do. And then she said something that I had only ever heard from my wife.
“I believe in you, Bartholomew. This is your time to shine.”
“Yes, Mom,” I choked out, fighting furiously not to weep like a terrified child.
“I love my home,” she said. “I love my children. My faith and trust are in you, and in them. Let’s be audacious, shall we?”
Mariana had answered with me. Mom turned to her and held her the same way after releasing me. “Our holy book says it takes one to build a tunnel, but with two working together and with love an entire city can be hollowed in a day. You are the rock, Mariana, upon which my faith and hope is entrusted.”
She released my speechless wife, opened the door, and without another word left us. Her Guard closed it an instant later.
Mariana stared at me. I went to her and held her. Together we wept.
The human leader named Trump was going to this hot, sandy land (“
on the other side of the world in eight months. That was what your media announced
We had eight months to do something about it.
I didn’t sleep after Mom left. Mariana didn’t either. While she sat glumly in the living room watching television (re-runs of the comedy classic series Just Three Antennae came on after 1, which cheered her up a little), I put on the equivalent of a human coat and informed her that I was going to take a walk. My right side twinged with every movement, but I no longer cared. I was skating along the precipice of despondency and needed to think. She gave me a depressed nod and went back to her show.
The tunnels near our home are well-lighted and, at this hour, virtually abandoned. Many humans mistakenly believe that ants are blind, but that is not the case. Our species’ eyesight, as a matter of fact, is likely better than yours. We know our sense of touch is far superior—what to you humans might liken to having sonar on your hands.
We walk differently than most ants, who use all six legs to move. If we’re in a hurry we’ll use all six, yes; but when walking we use only four. Our mid-sections are jointed in the middle, allowing us to stand upright, freeing our forelimbs and our hands for other tasks. It’s an adaptation that I believe appears in no other ant species on Earth.
To that end, I was in no hurry, so I had put shoes on my mid- and back feet, grunting and groaning against the pain of doing it.
I walked and walked, eventually finding myself at Clifftop. The big glass double doors leading outside were still open, which meant that the weather wasn’t dangerous. A monitor greeted me: “How are you doing tonight, sir?” To which I nodded with a subdued smile before pushing on the left door handle and leaving him at his post.
A “monitor” really doesn’t have much of an equivalence among humans. I suppose the closest is police officer. The thing is, we don’t suffer crime among our people. Not in any real or pervasive sense, at least. Our senses of community and responsibility are far too strong. We don’t let our own starve—what you humans excuse as “capitalism.” Or “communism.” Or even “socialism.” Those are all just clever words that attempt to mask the reality of your unending greed and malice towards one another and the living world.
The floor of the lookout was rough, the railing too, in the event of “sneaker” wind gusts which could easily lift us off our feet and hurl us over the edge. The roughness allowed us to grab and hold on, if need be; it was a clever innovation by the engineers that tickled the back of my brain for a moment as I made for the railing.
The lookout was a wide space, and abandoned save for a young couple in the darkened far left corner, who were “necking” and completely oblivious to me. (How do ants “neck”? I’ll leave it to your imagination.) They looked very happy and were totally oblivious to my presence. I got to the railing and gazed out.
Picture a balcony fifty miles in the sky. That’s the perspective we’re working with here. Below me was the whole of the Queendom. We existed in the rock and soil of this wonderful cliff that bordered this magnificent ocean, the one you call Pacific.
The word pacific comes from one of your dead languages. Latin, if I am not mistaken. It means peace. But peace wasn’t what you had in mind for it, or for us, or for any living creature swimming beneath its mysterious depths. Conquest: that was a better word. Exploitation: that was an even better one.
I couldn’t see the dark waters far, far below. There was instead only the great ocean’s omnipresent bass roar, and a tremendous darkness, one greater than the starry night above.
The air was rich with brine and pine. I tried to savor it, but couldn’t. Everything in my being was fixated on the question: Could we save this little part of our world and ourselves in the process?
Mom had made it plain that she was counting on me to find a way. The pressure on me was of such an intense degree that, contradictorily, I no longer felt it, like its gravity had fed back in on itself and consumed itself, leaving me free in this airy space. I almost wished that moment that a sneaker gust would lift me off my feet and carry me down, down, down to that tremendous roaring darkness. It wasn’t a suicidal wish; not really. If anything it was an overpowering desire to plumb the darkness’ mysteries—
In the darkest of tunnels can sometimes be found the sweetest morsels.
So says our holy book.
Our species is deeply “religious,” if you can call it that. Perhaps “spiritual” is a closer approximation. We don’t have “churches,” so called. Our sense of community is so strong that “church” and “shopping” and “taking a walk” and “eating at a restaurant” and a million other activities are fairly melded together into one thing: being together. It is from there and only from there that our sense of the numinous or divine or holy arises.
Perhaps that was where you humans stumbled. Perhaps that was why you sought now to dominate one another and the earth. You had forgotten about the true meaning of community.
In eight months this Trump ape of yours was going to sign off on the leafwork that would decimate ours utterly.
I stayed there, at the railing, long after the young couple left. I got home in the small hours of the morning, disrobed, and crawled into bed next to my wife, who woke long enough to push her close antenna into my polob.
With the back of my brain still tickling, somehow I managed to fall asleep.
I woke mid-morning. I had resolved to get up at dawn, but my aching body must have really needed the rest, because I slept right through it. That was quite unusual for me: when I go to bed, I tell myself what time I want to wake up, and somehow I always do. I have never needed an alarm clock for that reason. (Yes, Spaniards have things like alarm clocks, too!)
Mariana had already gotten up. I listened for her milling about, or the steady hiss of the shower, but was greeted with silence. I pulled the covers from my body and glanced down at myself.
My bruises were finally fading a little. I tried moving my mid- and back legs on that side. They didn’t ache nearly to the degree they had just a few hours ago. Excellent.
I got out of bed and used the toilet, took a shower, and emerged with a new resolve. I was going to call on the engineers and have a frank discussion of our current dilemma. Given Mom’s actions in coming to see me last night, and her general mood, it was a sure bet that she had let many others not present in the Royal Court that day know what was going on. It was time to put the engineers to work, if they weren’t at work already, Andy or no Andy. That was the tickle in my brain; that was the plan.
The engineers weren’t part of the CSA, but were their own agency—“The Engineers.” They were headed up by a wise old ant by the name of Rudecindo Vicario, one of the Original 100. What is the Original 100? It is the exalted title given to one of the first hundred children the Queen gave birth to once she landed at Clifftop. Rudecindo was a born engineer, and had headed up the agency from
beginning. Neither he nor any of his member engineers had been present at the
meeting with the Queen. If I knew Mom’s thinking, it was probably because they
weren’t needed in that “phase of planning,” very charitably named, which in
reality was nothing more than a royal panic session.
With Mom’s appearance at our door last night, it was certain that we were in a new phase of planning—or, that is, panic.
“Mariana?” I called out once I made it to the living room. A large empty bowl sat on the “coffee” table—what you humans call a low table that is between a couch and a television, and usually holds drinks and snacks and whatnot.
(We ants don’t drink coffee, but I don’t have a better name for our version of the same, so I’ll just call it a coffee table too, if you don’t mind.)
The bowl was probably full of a tasty snack of some kind; an empty glass stood next to it, one that had likely been repeatedly filled with vintage iraksam, a favorite drink made from rare and expensive fermented honeys and saps. I picked the glass up and regarded it sadly.
“Sweetie? Where are you?”
Glass in hand, I went into the kitchen, where I put it in the sink. A note was taped to the refrigerator.
It’s my turn.
Going to Purple Rock.
Won’t return without
Going to Purple Rock.
Won’t return without
I used an expression then that I occasionally heard you humans use on your shows:
“Son of a bitch ...”
I tried not to worry about her as I ate breakfast. She had, after all, heard my woeful tale of my trip down there, and knew all about the hazards waiting along the seaward trail, having seen the evidence of those hazards all over my body. Another problem, however, concerned me, and that was rain. It was raining out.
I have tried many times picturing what a typical rainstorm for you humans might be like.
The drops falling from the sky wouldn’t appear as big as transparent boulders, each one capable of drowning you. The “rivulets” as you call them wouldn’t appear, each one, as a flash flood, eager to sweep you away. The rain would probably come as a nuisance. And what you call a flash flood wouldn’t look like a tremendous, foamy, black mountain range bearing down on you.
(Or maybe it would. Visualizing natural phenomena as one of you is extremely difficult.)
We had, of course, long ago met the various challenges posed by rain—from light drizzles, as you call them, to terrifying downpours. Our engineers were on constant alert for weather events and would certainly be out and about today checking on the various systems and technology that kept us safe, dry, and warm.
Still, I was worried. Purple Rock was a rustic little village. The Spaniards there liked to “rough it,” certainly more than those at Clifftop.
Did Mariana take the Latedrone? She must have. My guess was that the Seaview Trolley was offline. Or—I prayed that it was. Or perhaps I was just worrying too much. Mariana was a very strong, hardy ant. She was quite capable of taking care of herself, arguably more so than me. Mom really must have lit a fire beneath that abdomen of hers to get her to do something like this. It was definitely out of character.
“Q,” I said with a bow, “it is good to see you again.”
Señor Rudecindo Vicario grasped my lowered antennae. “Bartholomew, my good friend. What brings you down to the Garage?”
(The actual ant term for where the engineers worked is unspeakable to you humans. The closest equivalent I could find in English was “garage”—though ours has much more to do than store or repair vehicles, or to throw junk in you don’t use and will give to thrift stores a few years down the tunnel).
The Garage was a grand place, a great, airy space that housed our large machinery, yes, but also included many workspaces, both out in the open and tucked away in many lighted coves, for engineers to solve the various and sundry infrastructure, chemical, and electrical issues of Spain. I had taken the Latedrone here.
The place fairly bustled. Spaniards hurried here and there, rolled-up leafwork in hand (or sometimes in their mandibles or bouncing in packs on their backs as they ran), rows and rows of bright computer terminals everywhere, engineers busily working over and around them, drones and engineers discussing current projects, elevators constantly moving up or down. Ants worked on the ceiling high above; and hurried up the walls if they didn’t want to wait for an elevator. Balconies were here and there, in no seemingly ordered fashion. The low hum of activity and conversation was constant and in its own way quite soothing. Every time I had visited here, I enjoyed the sights and sounds. This time was no different.
He released my antennae as I rose. “Please. A quiet place where we can talk?”
“Certainly, certainly,” he answered; and together we made our way to his office, which was here on the ground floor. It was somewhat unusual for two q’s to meet in such a way, which probably explained the looks we got as we walked.
He closed the door once we got inside and turned to face me. “I already know about what’s going on,” he began, his mood suddenly very sober. “After Mom visited you last night, she came to see me. I met with my senior staff not an hour ago. We decided to call in our workers from remote tunnel and housing projects, but only in stages. A Frenzied Queendom will not help anyone, agreed?”
I nodded glumly. It was one of our greatest faults, in my opinion: our propensity to “go crazy” once threatened and Frenzy. It occurred to me as remarkable just then that it was such a feature of our psyches when so confronted that its word, even in our language, was capitalized! Until then I hadn’t even thought of it! It was a seriously dangerous state for us to be in, for the three times it had happened during the Queendom’s existence (and just once during mine, when I was very young) great destruction followed. The Queendom had to be, essentially, rebuilt each time.
“Ants are going to start noticing,” I responded. “They already have. I’m certain the gossip just in my neighborhood is already at a fever pitch! Mom herself was knocking on my door last night!”
“As well as mine,” replied Señor Vicario with a concerned nod. “And yes, our tunnel too was filled with gawking neighbors. You, the Central Scout Agency q; and I, q of the sapheads!”
“Saphead” was the slang term engineers were often called. Long ago it was rumored that sap from the Mom tree boosted the intelligence of the first engineers who worked on and under it. Many studies since have shown that such was not the case; but the moniker stuck.
A distinct sense of unease permeated everything. It was easy to trace. Call it our “hive mind.” The Queen was upset—we could all plainly feel it. As I had mentioned before, it wasn’t a common occurrence.
“We’ve got our best and brightest working on it,” Señor Vicario offered consolingly, reaching out to grasp my “shoulder” (just above my midleg).
He meant well, but I wasn’t in the mood to be placated, even by an ant of his elevated rank.
“With all respect, q, no, you don’t,” I replied quietly.
He gave me a quizzical look. “I am sorry, Bartholomew. I do not understand.”
I shook my head. “Again, with respect, Señor, this problem requires ... thinking and therefore solutions way beyond what your engineers can offer.” Before he could respond, I began pacing. “This is an engineering problem never before faced by the Queendom. Spaniards ... bless us ... we love our corners! We love our tunnels! We love our maps and our trails and our guidelines and our tight, secure spaces! And the engineers have served us spectacularly in these capacities. Unfortunately it is time to think beyond corners and tunnels, maps and trails and guidelines and tight spaces.”
The quizzical look came now with a tilt of his head. “It seems you have thought of someone who can help.”
I shook mine with great frustration. “I mean no insult to the engineers, q. Forgive me. This little trip, I fear, was inspired last night by desperation and can be nothing better than pointless.”
I went to leave. He came around the desk and cut me off. “I am not offended, Bartholomew. We do not have the luxury of offense at this time. Please,” he motioned for me to sit.
With reluctance, I did. He pressed his intercom button. “No visits or calls, please.”
The answering voice was male and slightly muffled, “Yes, q.”
Señor Vicario came around and sat next to me.
“Speak your mind, Bartholomew. You can entrust anything to me.”
The bruising along my right side was still there. I stood and motioned at it. “Did you not wonder what caused this?”
“Of course I did,” he answered. “I considered that it was part of a grand tale of misadventure. But good manners forbade me from mentioning it—at least among my subordinates. May I hear that tale now?”
“I was commissioned to go to Purple Rock to look for an ant who is known as ‘Crazy Andy.’ ”
Señor Vicario’s expression didn’t waver.
“You haven’t heard of her?”
He shook his head slowly. “Should I have?”
“Perhaps not,” I offered glumly.
“Or perhaps I should know this Spaniard. The Queen herself sent you to find this individual. That by itself makes him—? her—? noteworthy.”
“I see. ‘Crazy’?”
“Something of a loner.”
“That hardly seems important enough for the Queen’s attention ...”
“What is it about this ‘Crazy Andy’ then that got Mom’s attention? And how is she connected to the engineers?”
“How do you know she is?”
“Our earlier conversation, for one. But for another, I have known you your whole life, Bartholomew. You do nothing without a plan, even if that plan was concocted just last night. You wanted to tell me about how you got your injuries, which was the polite way of mentioning this ‘Crazy Andy.’ ”
I’d heard enough of that word and could hear no more. “She isn’t crazy. Her name is
Andalusia. I visited her home. I took the time to look
around it, to notice it, to notice her.”
His antennae widened to let me know he understood what was under my words. “She is no ordinary ant.”
I wanted to say something in response, but all that I had in me was a defeated nod.
“She is ... extraordinary,” he amended.
“Your engineers may have already worked with her and know her. Especially the ones you send to the Queendom’s sea-level frontiers and villages.”
“She has done engineering work for
Cottonwood? For Purple
“She’s not a selfish sort. If she had worked with engineers in the past, she would have told me. My guess is she ...” I didn’t want what I needed to say next to come out the wrong way. “My guess is ... uh ... she has improved on work your engineers have done down there to keep Purple Rock from being swept away by high tides and the like.”
Once again, if Señor Vicario was offended, he didn’t look it. “We send engineers to villages and the like largely though requests by their local councils.” He stood and went to the intercom and pressed it. “Paolo, bring me all work orders for Purple Rock dating back ...”
He glanced at me.
“She’s in her mid-twenties,” I guessed.
“Go back twenty-five years.”
“Yes, q,” responded Paolo.
The intercom clicked off.
Paolo came in much faster than I thought he would. I expected him to be burdened with boxes of files, but he held instead a small silver tube—the equivalent, I suppose, of what you humans call a “flash drive.” In truth, where we Spaniards lagged behind in technology in comparison to you humans, we struggled extra hard to catch up or even surpass you, which in several ways we had. The difference for us was that we did everything with making the lives of those who would follow us better and cleaner, as well as living sustainably with nature. If a bit of technology harmed either, or had the strong potential to, we refused to adopt it, no matter how much easier it would make our lives.
Paolo handed the info-tube to Señor Vicario, gave us both a quick bow, and quickly exited the office, closing the door behind him. Q took the tube and inserted it into the only computer in the office, one not on his desk, but on a side table. I stood next to him. He tapped on the keyboard and began reading, as I did.
I noticed nothing interesting in the information, which was basically pages and pages of summaries of work done in Purple Rock and surrounding areas, which dramatically tapered off some thirteen years ago, as though Purple Rock simply emptied of ants, or the ones there had all become engineers themselves and were fixing the problems themselves instead of sending for the real ones up-cliff.
He gave me a quizzical look and went back to reading.
“Ah,” he finally said, motioning at the screen, “this is interesting. We’ve got a work order here to clear and expand a tidewater drainage system, which was done some thirteen years ago.”
“I don’t follow,” I said. “How is that interesting?”
He grinned—just one mandible rising: “We didn’t construct this tidewater drainage system.”
He went back to reading. “A particularly powerful storm clogged it up. Says here the villagers said it ran perfectly until that point, and had helped immensely with keeping them dry.” He glanced at me. “Do you think this is the work of your Andy?”
I found myself smiling at that—my Andy. “Wouldn’t the villagers know who made it?”
“They wouldn’t if they thought this Andy was one of us, or if she told them the same ...”
He went back to scanning the screen. “Look here. Here’s another—a waste recycling system. The engineers didn’t know how to fix it because it ...” he laughed “... because it didn’t appear to be of any design they had ever seen before. They returned the next day to find it working perfectly. Villagers thanked the sapheads even while my team tried to explain that they had done nothing.”
We spent another half-hour searching for other disparities. We found only two—a lower tunnel excavation project, seemingly always being requested for a particular tunnel which seemed always in disrepair, was filed as “fixed” by a visiting engineer, who noted half a dozen changes in the tunnel’s basic architecture which ensured that it would stay fixed and working indefinitely. It came to me as I was gazing at the report that it was the very tunnel the spider had been blocking and which Andy led me through back to
The second disparity was the one we’d noticed first: the noticeable lack of work orders making it up to the engineers.
“Even in a village that small we should get several hundred a year.” He glanced up at me. “At least. Look at this, q: here’s the total for thirteen years.”
I looked. The list didn’t even fill the computer’s screen. I counted only eighteen requests. Eighteen requests—in thirteen years.
Someone had been taking care of Purple Rock above and beyond the engineers. Way above and beyond.
Señor Vicario stood after pulling the info-tube out of the computer and pocketing it. He went to his desk, unwrapped a sweet, offered me one, and chuckled. “Well, I can say this: I have never seen such an impressive resumé in my life.” As I unwrapped my candy and began sucking on it, he continued: “Though it mystifies me how a born engineer could escape detection by Maternity, or by the Queen herself for that matter.”
“That’s just the thing!” I said, tapping his desk emphatically. “That’s just the thing, q! She isn’t a born engineer! Or—more accurately: she is one; but she’s also a born artist; a born philosopher; a born chef; a born designer; a born writer; a born laborer! Hell, she’s probably also a born soldier and a born drone!”
Señor Vicario listened to my outburst, and began nodding slowly. “I see ... I see.” He offered me another sweet, took another for himself, and motioned for us to sit on the couch along the far wall, which we did.
“So I guess this leaves me with one more question. Why, Bartholomew, are you here? We both seem quite helpless in this moment. This
I have gathered, has no desire to help with our crisis? Did you expect me to
travel to see her, to perhaps convince her of our need? I wonder as well why
Mom didn’t visit her herself ... ”
“Mom’s presence is ... intimidating,” I offered. “It was clear that Andy was intimidated with just me.”
Unlike you humans, Spaniards do not draft or conscript our citizens. There has never been a need to. It isn’t because we are all of a “hive mind” and therefore have no free will; it is because we respect the right of the individual ant to say no. It’s really that simple; and it’s really that valued as a principle in our culture, even if by saying no an ant potentially condemns that culture to extinction.
“If by some miracle she chooses to help us, she will be working with you most directly, I should think,” I speculated. “Do you think you could work with an out-of-the-tunnel thinker like Andy?”
Perhaps that was why I was here. I was optimistically assuming Andy would help, and in doing so, projecting forward a little, perhaps trying to make her path a little easier. The Queendom’s sapheads were an impressive lot. But would they resent working with someone who, frankly, put their high intelligence to shame? I needed to know.
“If need be, I will give her the run of this entire Garage,” declared Señor Vicario with a sober chuckle. “You have given me some ideas today, q,” he went on. “I know of a small group of young ants about Andy’s age. They like to meet weekends—socially, that is. A couple of them are married, but the rest are not. One weekend I saw them at this little tavern and thought I’d drop in. They were engaged in a very animated discussion over some leafwork of some kind. As I got closer, I saw it wasn’t leafwork, but plans—what looked like drafting plans. By then they’d noticed me and tried to hide them. They were a bit daunted, I’m afraid, to see me outside of the Garage. I told them to show me what they were so animated about. With some reluctance, they did.”
“What was it?”
“Sketches of a seaworthy flotation rescue device of some kind, to rescue Spaniards swept into the water. Quite ingenious, really.”
I didn’t have to ask why such a device hadn’t been produced and put out into the water already; and that was what bothered me so much about Andy and more so, much more so, about us, her fellow citizens. We love our corners and our tunnels and our maps and our trails and our guidelines and our tight, secure spaces! But the rest of the world ... no thanks! Even something so common-sense as a rescue flotation boat of some kind intimidated us back into ourselves. It was a true wonder that we weren’t all packed together under a big boulder somewhere, huddling mindlessly in the dark!
We needed Andy. We had to get her help!
I thought of my lovely bride, and of her meeting Andy.
How would that go? Andy was quite stubborn. But so was Mariana. Mariana was brilliant, of course, but didn’t hesitate to resort to blunt headstrong measures, essentially cutting off quieter, more politic, more skillfully cunning means to get what she wanted, as I typically did.
I didn’t want to admit it to myself, but I couldn’t see how their meeting would be anything other than disastrous, even catastrophic. For that reason I struggled against anger towards my bride: her trip to Purple Rock may have ended up sealing our doom.
Señor Vicario was patiently watching me. I realized I had gone silent for longer than good manners allowed, and quickly brought myself back to the present.
“Forgive me, q.”
He shrugged his antennae. “It seems to me that we’re left with two options: attack or retreat. Do you agree?”
I had no idea what attacking the human named Trump looked like, no matter where in the world he ended up, so I went with: “What would retreating look like?”
“Moving the entire Queendom.”
“Moving it—where?” My mind cowered with the scale of such an endeavor!
“Across the human highway. Into the hills. Away from the coming despoilment.”
“The way I understand these oil derricks,” I answered unsurely, “they despoil everything around them for millions upon millions of square quaooms. The Trump ape wants to erect a dozen or more. What are our chances of success to move; and once we move everyone, what are our chances of surviving such a menace, not to mention hostile ants and a host of other predators that we can so easily guard against now?”
He nodded and held up a finger. “Exactly my thoughts. Exactly! But consider, Bartholomew: Wouldn’t choosing to attack involve no less a monumental diversion of resources, time, and effort; and wouldn’t it in the end total up to the same degree of danger?”
I couldn’t argue with him, so I said: “At least we know what retreat looks like. We have no clue whatsoever what an attack would look like. Agreed?”
“Attacking a human leader on the other side of the planet?” Señor Vicario laughed without humor. “I cannot even visualize it if he traveled to Clifftop and had a picnic!”
I laughed too. But my laugh was at least one that saw the humor in it, even over my clawing desperation.
“I would like to meet that team—the one that was brainstorming the rescue flotation device that never saw the light of day.”
“Tell you what,” said Señor Vicario, putting his hand on my shoulder again. “If this Andy decides to see reason and join us, if she decides to fight those loner instincts, that’s the team she will work with directly. She will lead them; and by doing so she will lead us all. They are all very brilliant young sapheads, the best of the best. Sound good?”
“Yes. Of course.”
“I would send for them, but I believe they are largely scattered throughout the Queendom, working here and there on other things. I apologize, my friend.”
Señor Vicario gripped both my hand and my antennae at the station, and said, very wisely, “Faith, Bartholomew, isn’t for larvae. We have mandibles, and we have eyes, and we have each other. That is where we must build from!”
The ride back home was ten minutes. I was still considering his words when I felt someone lovingly grasp my antennae from behind.
It was Mariana. Behind her, looking resentful and frightened, stood Andy.