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By Howie Snider
AuthorHouseCopyright © 2012 Howie Snider
All right reserved.
Chapter OneBad News
Thorna crawled across the sandy clearing, now and then standing erect to look around for any intruders. She studied the weeds to the north and the sandy expanse to the south, then proceeded to the thinly wooded area along the bank of the great river - the Magnaqua. She went to her favorite place, a large stone just the other side of the trees. She took a deep breath and climbed to the top of it. The early morning sun was beginning to silhouette the large crumbling ruins across the river. The slowly decaying ruins were all that remained of what was once a great city inhabited by huge two-legged creatures.
Dawn was Thorna's favorite time of the day. Few creatures were stirring, and those who were - mainly gnats, mites and flies - were not a threat. She usually was able to think without interruption. And think she did. Every morning. And always about the same subject: her own existence.
Thorna was what the large two-legged creatures had called an ant. She was dark red-brown and, though still very young, was fully developed, both physically and mentally. When standing erect, she was nearly six inches tall. Her thorax was firm; her pedicel was strong, but thin. Her military instructor called her a "slim-waisted fighter." Because of her training and careful eating, her abdomen was of moderate size.
Thorna's intelligence delighted her teachers and made her the envy of the other members of her species, which now was one of the dominant species on the planet. "We are survivors," one of her teachers had told her. "The two-legged ones tried to eliminate us with traps, poisons and mutation chemicals, but eventually succeeded only in eliminating themselves. We adapted, and we got stronger and bigger. We do have living enemies, but, so far, we have outsmarted and outfought them. We are survivors."
Adapters and survivors, Thorna thought, pondering her history teacher's words. It's hard to believe that we once could communicate in such limited ways. Or that we could not walk upright. Or that we could not wield weapons. She moved a claw and withdrew one of her four white daggers from its spider web sheath. She studied the dagger, admiring its beauty. Most of their weapons had been fashioned from a material found in an ancient landfill, and this one had been made by an expert. Thorna had become very proficient as a dagger warrior and was admired and envied by her fellow ants. She put the dagger back into its sheath and continued meditating. She was thinking about the ant's ability to speak. Thorna's language teacher had said - only half jokingly - that speech would eventually be the ants' downfall.
Thorna smiled as she continued to reflect on her teacher's words about insects, especially ants, being survivors. Just yesterday, she had been attacked near this very spot by a large hairy spider, a rarity in Eastern Hymenoptera. The spider had ballooned down from a nearby tree and tried to capture her in his web. He had worked feverishly to ensnare her, cursing the ant as she struggled to free herself from his web. Thorna had used all her strength to break the sturdy silken strands as they were encircling her. Then, the agile young ant darted beneath the spider and ripped open his underside with one skillful swipe of her dagger. Afterwards, she had lugged the animal home to the commissary.
Yes, Thorna thought, we are survivors, but that was a close call. I must exercise greater care.
The sun had risen above the crumbling skyline of the ancient city, and Thorna could hear the humming and buzzing of other small insects as they began their day. She looked around her to make sure she wasn't in danger. She spotted some large flies circling a short distance away and licked her lips, hoping one would get caught in the web strands left by the spider the day before. Suddenly, her antennae quivered. She heard the frightening sound of vibrating wings and spotted the swiftly moving shadow. She looked up in time to see a huge green dragonfly diving toward her.
Whoa! she thought as she quickly grabbed one of her daggers. That's a big one. I'd better not miss. She waited another second, then hurled the dagger with all of her strength. The dragonfly didn't have time to change his course, and the dagger struck him between the eyes, killing him instantly. Thorna watched the would-be predator plunge to the ground. Though quivering slightly in the aftermath of the nearly fatal encounter, she smiled as she again thought of her teacher's words about ants being survivors. Thorna was delighted that she would be able to drag some more meat to the castle, but she was puzzled. Dragonflies had not been seen in this area for ages. Where had this one come from? Was he a scout for an army, or just a lone wanderer? I'd better be wary, she thought. And I need to warn the others.
As she slowly dragged the dragonfly toward the hill, Thorna remembered an old major's stories of combat with other species. "It's a bug-eat-bug world," he said. "Don't ever forget it. Keep yourself in good shape, and always be vigilant." Unfortunately, the old ant, a hero of many battles and the captain of the elite Queen's Guard, had ignored his own advice. On a food-gathering trip, he had become careless and was attacked by a swarm of renegade wasps. They had proven to be too much for the elder ant, despite his strength and cunning. After his death, Thorna had become the leader of the Queen's Guard. Her appointment was resented by Lieutenant Durk, a handsome, personable veteran of several battles. Durk was older and bigger than Thorna, and he was highly respected by many of the colony. Durk was not as intelligent as Thorna, but he was stronger.
Shortly after Thorna's appointment, Durk had boldly challenged the captain to a private fight. Thorna was tempted to ignore the challenge, but realized that a refusal might be interpreted as cowardice. She reluctantly agreed to fight the stronger ant. Thorna lost the fight, but not until she used some clever moves and gave the lieutenant all he could handle.
"Where did you learn to fight like that?" Durk gasped.
"My military instructor," Thorna replied with a slight grin. "He thought I should be very strong. She bowed her head and said softly, "He told me I would be a leader some day."
"I have to give you credit," Durk said, nodding his head. "Brawn may not be as important as brains. I am glad to have you as my leader."
The lieutenant's words were not sheer flattery. He never told anyone about the fight, something that gained Thorna's further respect. The only time the subject ever came up was when he wanted to tease the captain, something that only happened out of the earshot of others.
As Thorna now neared the colony's huge hill, she could see the feverish activity of the worker ants. Some were bringing food, and others were expanding the size of the surface of the castle. She spotted Durk. The warrior was standing on his two hind legs watching the activity around him and frequently checking the tall weed line to the north. North was the most likely direction from which an attack would occur. To the east was the wide river, its slowly moving waters beginning to sparkle in the morning sun. To the south and west were expansive barren stretches where the approach of an enemy would be detected early enough to prepare for battle. Durk spotted Thorna dragging the dragonfly and saluted casually.
Not much of a salute, Thorna thought with a slight frown. Maybe too much fraternization isn't a good thing. But I know he respects me, and that's what's important. She quit frowning and continued lugging the dragonfly to the edge of the hill where Kul, the obese commissary chief, awaited the arriving food bearers. Kul had a huge thorax; bipeds would have said he was "barrel-chested." And his abdomen was enormous.
"Excellent," Kul said. "It's not often that we get meat, and you bring it to us two days in a row."
"It was my good fortune to be attacked two days in a row," Thorna replied, touching her daggers and smiling at the irony of the statement.
Kul caught the humor of the remark, nodding as he returned her smile. He turned toward a group of young workers and told them where to take the dead insect. As the workers began hauling the carcass off, Kul spotted the gaping wound in the dragonfly's head. "Oho!" he said. "Your aim was perfect. I dare say you threw at the last second."
Thorna nodded. She was starting to describe what had happened when Durk came over, his eyes staring at the corpse.
"Good job, Captain," he said. "No wonder you were appointed to take the major's place. Where did you learn to throw like that?" He glanced around to make sure no one could hear. "Or was he asleep?"
Thorna started to reply to the teasing, but at that moment there was a disturbance in the weeds to the north. A few seconds later, a group of warriors raced into the clearing, one of whom was the center of attention. It was Huk, the best military scout in the colony. He headed straight to Durk and Thorna.
"What is it, Huk?" Durk asked when the excited warrior drew near.
"Bad news," Huk replied. "A large scouting party of fire ants - maybe three thousand - heading our way."
"How close are they?" Thorna asked. She felt the slight tingle she always felt when danger was at hand. The tingle wasn't so much out of fear as out of excitement. Like Durk, Thorna was a natural warrior.
"Maybe a day. Maybe two. Depends on how often they stop. They didn't seem to be in a hurry. They are presently encamped about a quarter of a mile north of where the Magnaqua flows due east."
Thorna glanced toward the weeds, half expecting some fire ants to appear. She was recalling the major's stories of combat with those ferocious insects. "You have to outsmart them," the major had told her. "They're vicious, and too strong for direct confrontation."
"What are your plans, Captain?" Durk asked, now all serious.
"First, I must report to the queen," Thorna replied. "Then we shall talk strategy."
Chapter TwoA Daring Plan
Thorna was admitted to the throne room, where she was welcomed by Luiz, Queen En's senior attendant. Luiz had attended the queen for most of his long life. Short and somewhat plump, he reminded Thorna of a misshapen blackberry. Despite his plumpness, however, he was quite agile, and his long antennae were as sensitive as those of younger ants, a useful trait his queen valued.
Thorna waited while Luiz went down to the nursery to inform the queen that she had a visitor. The throne room was a spacious chamber located in the top level of the surface castle. In the ceiling were four two-inch square skylights that had been constructed from pieces of a clear material mined by pillbugs from an ancient landfill in Coleoptera. At one end of the room was the throne, which had been fashioned from the soft, dark green outer shell of a walnut. In front of the throne was a long bark bench where visitors could sit while having an audience with the queen. It was nearly ten minutes before the queen mother appeared, during which time Thorna continued to ponder the problem of the fire ants. Thousands of them, Huk had reported. If indeed they were headed this way, there were things to worry about and work to be done.
"Good morning, Thorna," Queen En said cheerfully as she entered the room, walking almost as gracefully as she had in her younger years. At nearly five inches tall she was quite imposing. She wore a long robe made of white silk imported from a land far east of the Magnaqua. A gray sash made from choice Aranean web strands gathered the robe at the queen's pedicel. From there, the robe flared out to drape her large abdomen.
"Good morning, Your Highness," Thorna replied as she bowed. She noticed once again how good the queen looked. Only the old ant's badly sagging antennae evidenced her age.
Queen En was nearly nine years old and, despite her advanced years and the millions of eggs she had produced, she still had a youthful, supple body. Her eyes were failing and her antennae were no longer able to sense danger, but her mind was still as sharp as a thistle thorn. She was happy being a queen ant, even with all its heavy responsibilities, but she occasionally remembered, with slight nostalgia, her mating flight. It had been exciting to fly, but afterwards she and the male both lost their wings. And he died soon after the flight. The queen even envied the overweight bumblebees who inhabited her kingdom; despite their obesity, they were able to fly, and they seemed so carefree and happy.
Though the queen's eyes were failing, they still had a youthful, engaging gleam, and her warm smile was disarming. She did, however, sigh deeply as she slowly sat down on the throne. Thorna noticed her highness was toying with the pink gem suspended from her slender neck. The gem was actually a plastic globule from the Coleopteran landfill. Its cost had been four drops of honey, something which was very plentiful in Eastern Hymenoptera.
"Luiz said you have something to report," the queen said. "I do hope it's good news. Please sit down."
"It's not good news, Your Highness," Thorna said. She noticed only the slightest change in her majesty's expression.
Queen En accepted the whole report with outward calm. "Are you certain the fire ants' intentions are conquest?" she asked, fidgeting with the pendant. "Why would they do harm to their own kind?"
"I don't know why, Your Highness. But I do know that their intentions can't be harmless. They wouldn't send a scouting party that size for peaceful purposes."
"So what are we to do, Thorna?" the queen asked with another long sigh.
"I have an idea," Thorna replied. "But it depends on how fast the fire ants move, and whether we can determine if indeed their mission is a hostile one. If they're hostile, we might be able to lead them astray, and our kingdom will be spared a battle that would cost many lives."
Queen En squinted. "Lead them astray?"
"Yes, Your Highness. No one can recall fire ants ever coming south of Northern Hymenoptera. I'm assuming they know very little about this area."
The queen cocked her head and touched her brow. "I believe Thundar once fought them," she said. Thundar's name was well known in the colony. He was a warrior of great renown.
Thorna nodded. "He and a small band of rangers were reconnoitering the southern part of their country. They were ambushed by a small group whose mission he never learned. Within minutes, the fire ants were all dead. Thundar later wished he had taken at least one prisoner for interrogation, but the fighting was too fierce."
"Ah, yes," the queen said. "Thundar told me about that battle. But tell me, where would you try to lead them?"
"To the mounds."
The answer caused the queen to shiver momentarily. She remembered the final days at the huge hills that had been above their home for centuries. She could vividly picture the two enormous anteaters, one of the few larger animal species still existing on earth, who suddenly appeared, destroying some of the hills and devouring many of her children. And she recalled how difficult it was to flee from that home, not knowing what was happening to the others, not knowing if she would ever return.
"Thundar," she said softly. "Had it not been for Thundar, I wouldn't be alive today."
Thorna nodded. "Thundar was a smart warrior. He also knew when to run away. Ants are no match for anteaters."
The queen nodded and sighed. "So you think those hungry beasts are still in the vicinity of the mounds?"
"I've had reports that they go there from time to time. Thundar once told me they had a strong territorial imperative that kept them in that general area."
Queen En recalled her mother speaking of that territorial imperative and of how the anteaters apparently survived the dark ages. It was thought to be a combination of their human-made habitat, an evolutionary low level of metabolism, and their diet of ants. As ants became scarce, the anteaters became herbivores, but they still experienced a hereditary hunger for ants and would often search for them.
"And so, Thorna," the queen said softly, "you're planning to lead the fire ants to their death?"
"Yes, Your Highness, unless they prove to be on a friendly mission, which I think is very unlikely."
The queen thought for a few minutes before replying. "It just might work. I foresee many problems, however. Who, for example, will command the unit responsible for carrying out this mission? General Lo's army is in the desert for training exercises, and our reserves are hardly prepared for such a dangerous mission. And how do we determine the fire ants' intentions?"
"I will lead the mission," Thorna replied without hesitation. "With your permission, I'll take Durk's battalion. I believe the rest of the guard will be enough to ensure your safety until our return."
"You have my permission," the queen said, nodding slowly. "And I'm glad you're taking Durk. He is an excellent warrior." She had almost appointed the older ant Captain of the Guard, but she had been dissuaded by council members who thought Thorna the better choice. "She has Thundar's wiliness and battle sense," they had said. Yes, the queen thought, Thorna learned well from Thundar, but she's not as strong as Durk. I'd hate to lose either of them. Another thought occurred to her and she frowned deeply, again toying with her pendant.
Thorna saw that something was bothering the queen. "Is something wrong, Your Highness?"
Queen En nodded. "I wish we could provide you with air support, but the bumblebee squadrons are deployed to the northeast, and all of the combat-trained yellow jackets mysteriously vanished two weeks ago. And I've been told that the hornets and wasps left two days ago. Intelligence says they all went north. Do you have any idea what is happening?"
Thorna slowly shook her head. She was well aware of the vanishing squadrons. Indeed, it was the talk of the colony. Most of the ants hoped the disappearances were permanent. The yellow jackets were always very nasty, and the wasps and hornets were often angry, so the ants stayed away from all of them. Thorna did miss the bumblebees, especially the squadron whose pilots wore silk scarves. Some ants in the colony thought they were a bunch of ne'er-do-wells, but Thorna admired their spirit and camaraderie.
Excerpted from SURVIVORS by Howie Snider Copyright © 2012 by Howie Snider. Excerpted by permission of AuthorHouse. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
1 Bad News....................1
2 A Daring Plan....................6
3 The Golden Bums....................12
4 A Dark Show of Force....................16
5 A Question of Trust....................24
6 Fire Ants on the Move....................28
7 The Plot Thickens....................32
8 To the Cave....................36
9 To the Mounds....................41
10 Word at Last....................45
11 Tension in the Conference Room....................49
12 The Spiders Prepare for War....................54
13 Time to Move Out....................57
14 At the Mounds....................60
15 Out of the Frying Pan into the Fire....................65
16 The Show Must Go On....................70
17 Switching Sides....................72
18 A Frightful Welcome....................76
19 Dume's Day Approaches....................80
20 A Mixed Welcome....................84
21 Things Get Hopping in Orthoptera....................88
22 Stormy Weather....................92
23 The Missing Spy....................95
24 No Guts, No Glory....................98
25 The Big Surprise....................101
26 Showdown in Aranea....................105
27 Hero for a Day....................111
28 A State of Denial....................116
29 A Report about Anteaters....................119
30 Falling Apart....................122
31 A Traitor's Reward....................126
32 After the Battle....................128
34 A Hero's Reward....................138
35 All's Well that Ends....................141