By Crispin Hull.
The creek had not flowed for months. Its dry bed cut through the flat heat of the plain. Nearby, an isolated eucalypt struggled for water and life, shedding leaves and bark in a mess beneath. There was no wind in this semi-silent world, just the shimmer of heat. Another leaf dropped noiselessly to the ground and landed with its end turned upwards, stopping Thoran in his tracks. Thoran moved forward. He gripped the edge of the leaf and scrambled with desperation to climb over it, but the leaf fell back on him. He scrambled up again in vain and then gave up.
I hate these leaves, Thoran thought, they hide the path, block the view and are dangerously unstable.
He thought of the welcoming solid clay at the top of the nest and wondered how long it would take to return to it. If only he knew his way. By now he had lost the others; their scent had disappeared. He had been warned so often to stay in file and of the danger of getting lost, but how could he help a leaf falling in his way? Merewright would understand. He had defended and helped him so often in the past. One leaf was not his fault, and why had the others marched on without waiting? It was as much their fault as his. Who would care anyway if he got lost and never returned? Merewright might be sad for a day, but Bujax and the others would not care. Thoran cursed his luck and that one eucalypt leaf. Which way did the others go? Thoran walked on rehearsing the conversation he would have with Bujax. “Why didn’t you wait, you bully Bujax?” No; he wouldn’t call Bujax a bully. He would like to, but he was too small. “I’m sorry Bujax, a leaf fell in the path.”
“A leaf, you idiot,” Bujax would say. “Why don’t you keep up?”
“I can’t help it. Ask Merewright, I try I really try . . . .”
And Thoran trailed off into thoughts of justification of his own helplessness. He continued to walk. He climbed over another leaf; this one was easier because it lay flat. He came to a long piece of bark and clambered over it with difficulty. Which way did they turn? Why didn’t they leave some markings, or some scent? He crossed spots of sunlight and spots of shade and now bigger patches of sun. The leaves and the bark were thinning out and he could see further. But he could not see the others. The sun was now in front of him, causing him great confusion. Had he been walking so long that it was afternoon, or had he just changed direction? The land was getting more unfamiliar. He stopped rehearsing the conversations with Bujax and Merewright about how he got lost. Instead he began to imagine them thankful and relieved at his return to the nest. How they would surround him to apologise for leaving him behind and to promise to look after him in the future. He would take some blame himself, of course, but they would deny it was his fault. He would be pampered and they would be sorry they lost him. Bujax wasn’t such a bad ant after all. He had his good points. Tough, but fair, was the way to describe Bujax. Merewright was gentler; he could always be relied upon to see the other point of view. Thoran walked dreamily on, thinking of his reception back at the nest, not knowing that he was walking further and further away from his goal.
He came out into the sun again; a good sign, he thought. He should be at the nest quite soon. But was his timing out, or his direction? No; he had just walked in a circle. The ground was right, just hard clay and occasional stems of thin yellow grass. The yellow was richer on the shaded side and almost white where the sun struck it. Thoran marvelled at the stems and remembered how long ago they were soft, edible and green. Would they turn green again, he thought. He remembered them being green the first time he left the nest. It was one of his first memories. How the world had changed since then. Then he remembered how weeks ago Merewright said the stems would not turn green again. Rather new green ones would appear quickly after rain and then slowly turn yellow. Thoran had asked, “What’s rain?”, but Merewright had scoffed impatiently and said wisely, “I will tell you, Thoran, I will tell you.” And Merewright told him about rain that night.
The sun made Thoran’s small black-and-brown body gleam, and he walked faster. His staccato steps were rhythmically dancing over the clay. He must be getting closer to the nest; but perhaps he had come too far. He was getting hungry now; he had walked so long. The grass thinned further and Thoran came across large, red stones. Some were ten times the size of his body. He walked around them wondering at their smooth surface and the heat they reflected on to his body. This was now a strange land; but there was still hope. He came across a track and he thought he smelt the others. He was saved. All he had to do was follow the track and smell and he would reach the safety of the nest. It was odd, though, that he had never been on this track before. He had never seen such stones. The smell of the others was being overtaken by the much more pungent and welcoming odour of death and he followed it even though it took him off the path because the death odour meant food. He weaved in and out among the stones. This was a fabulous land. Thoran forgot he was lost as he walked along the flat clay with huge stones scattered to the left and right. The smell was getting stronger and Thoran’s appetite grew. It smelt like a dead grasshopper. Perhaps he would find the others there and he could join them in a quick feed before taking the rest of the carcass back to the nest. The smell was getting overpowering and Thoran was approaching a frenzy of excitement. His legs went faster and his head moved up and down in eagerness to get food. He passed several more stones, rounded a corner and saw the dead grasshopper. Alas, the others were not in sight. That was strange because the grasshopper had been dead for hours and it was rare for a dead insect to last long within a day’s forage from the nest. How sadly mistaken Thoran was. The ants of his nest foraged each day, walking at maximum half a day out and half a day back. That way they cleared only food within half a day’s radius from the nest. Thoran by now had gone well beyond the half day radius. He had walked in almost a straight line and as the sun was low now, he had no chance of getting back to the nest before nightfall. The falling of one leaf in his path at the wrong time now threatened his very life, but he was blissfully unaware and about to tear into the grasshopper’s dead flesh.
Thoran forgot his guilt as he fed handsomely on the flesh. Bujax usually allowed the ants only enough food to cut the edge of their hunger and give them strength to carry as much as possible back to the nest. No matter how big the find, he never allowed gorging. Food was to be conserved, he told Thoran. Enough had to be taken back to the nest for larvae and the young to make sure the nest was sustained. There was a delicate balance between food supply and ant numbers. One day it might be Thoran’s task to lead foraging and he would be answerable to the soldiers for food supply. But these thoughts did not worry Thoran now. His mandibles tore into the grasshopper. He was desperately hungry and wondered where and when his next food supply would be. He ate his fill and moved away from the carcass carefully noting the shapes of nearby stones and the direction of the sun so he could find it again later. After a while he rested briefly to digest the food and then walked on, confident that it would not be long before he found the nest or the others so he could boast about his find. Well done, Bujax would say. Merewright would be pleased for him. Thoran held his head high and his step lightened as he walked further and further from the nest.
He hardly noticed the shadows from the red stones growing longer and that they no longer generated much heat. Surely he should find the others soon or come across the nest. He had never been out so long without returning to the nest, so it must be found soon, he reasoned. But Bujax was not navigating. Thoran was on his own. Nagging doubts came to him as the heat dropped and the self-satisfaction gained from his grasshopper meal slowly waned. Thoran was not only on his own, but he was lost and for the first time since the fateful leaf fell in his path he knew it. He knew there was no guarantee he would ever get back to the nest. He pictured Bujax and Merewright finding his dead body. Poor Thoran, they would say. We should have taken better care of him. Merewright would be sad, but Bujax would say, “He’s just another worker.”
Thoran was too tired to go on. He had never walked so long or so far. The day was almost done. Thoran had never been out in the dark before; the only dark he had ever known was inside the nest. What joy it was to step jauntily into the tunnel leading safely underground to hours of rest, free from fear. Would he ever feel it again? Thoran was alone in the dusk, exposed and endangered. He found a large stone with an overhang, scrapped some dirt toward him to form a wall, bent his six tired legs and fell to the ground asleep.
* * * *
The grotesque shapes of red desert stones haunted Thoran’s dream. They rolled upon him, they bounced in front of him causing great craters in the clay. Bujax laughed a great cackling laugh: “Die, Thoran, die. You stupid ant.” Merewright joined in: “Silly Thoran; silly Thoran; got lost; got lost; is going to die; is going die. I’m not your friend, Thoran. no one can save you.” The torment went on and on and leaves fell on him and he tried to clamber over them but they collapsed under his weight and he fell, fell, fell into the blackness of the dead grasshopper. Tumbling with the red stones he fell. He fell through the entrance of the nest where dead grasshoppers laughed at him. Great shoots of rich green grass grew around him. He was lost in a sea of green. Then it turned into yellow spears which rained down upon him and pushed him back outside the nest. Thoran called out: “Merewright, Bujax, where are you?”
“We are lost Thoran, we are lost. Only you are found.” And Merewright and Bujax laughed at him till they faded and fell through the entrance of the nest to safety while Thoran looked on. He walked faster and faster to the entrance of the nest, but it got further and further away until it disappeared.
* * * *
Thoran awoke to find a cold desert morning. He suddenly remembered the previous day and wondered if he could ever find his way back to the nest. What would the others think? He was hungry and his thoughts went back to the dead grasshopper. It reminded him of his nightmare with its obtuse meaning. Merewright and Bujax were selfish. They had made it to the nest while he had failed. They had left him alone and unprotected. Was the dream right, or was it the result of his being lost and scared?
I must stop asking myself questions, Thoran thought, I must find the grasshopper, eat and get back to the nest. Surely I will find a foraging party.
Thoran retraced his steps. The direction of the sun and his memory of the stones did not fail him. He remembered each turn and each major stone. It is just round the corner, he thought. He came to a familiar stone and walked around it. Then he saw the remains of the grasshopper. But hardly anything was left, certainly nothing edible. Something had been at the carcass since he had left it the night before. Whatever it was had done a quick job. The sun was not long up and Thoran had not walked far. Unfed, Thoran’s urgent task was to get back home. He reasoned he had walked in the wrong direction the previous day. He must retrace his steps to get back within foraging range of his nest to have any chance of finding the others. He walked awhile, thinking he recognised some stones, but they were all so similar.
Then he smelt what he thought were the others, but it was not quite right. He felt the familiar acidic smell in the air, but it had an alien element, a deeper harsher bite than the smell of his fellows. He moved quickly off the path on the upwind side, though there were only occasional tiny wafts of breeze. It was an instinctive move, which Thoran instantly regretted. His foraging parties rarely took live food, but if it were there and easy to take, they did so. This made Thoran think, “If instinct is always right then no creature would get caught and die. They could all follow their instinct and avoid capture. I have followed instinct by jumping this side of the path, and I could be wrong.”
He reasoned further: what if instinct is always right, but creatures only get caught when they disobey instinct and think too much for themselves? Bujax would like that. He always said Thoran thought too much and it would get him into trouble one day. What would Merewright think? There it was again, “Think”. In the past day and night, thinking, instinct and survival had replaced blind obedience and reliance on Bujax. What would Bujax do now if he were hidden behind a stone near a path with air filled with a strange but familiar smell?
Then Thoran heard them – a fast babble of clicks he could not understand. He had never heard such a sound; it was like the smell, strange but familiar. Thoran was locked in fear and wonderment. What creatures were creating this smell and noise? He peeped from behind his stone and saw them: ants, just like him but slightly smaller and purple all over, not black and brown like himself.
Thoran’s immediate thought was that they could help him get back to his own nest. He was sure he could talk to them and ask them the way. After all, they were ants like him. They had nothing to fear from him; they might like to talk to a different sort of ant. He was about to rush forward when he remembered his thoughts about instinct. Was it instinctive to rush forward, or was it reason? How could he tell the difference? What would Bujax or Merewright do? The harsher element of the smell was stronger now and the familiar part receded. Their alien noise grew more threatening; Thoran could not make out a single word. He watched from behind his stone as the purple ants marched past in single file. The alien babble, though loud, came only from the first five ants; the rest marched in silence.
This was very different from Thoran’s foraging parties: Merewright joking and helping, Bujax encouraging and the others helping. These ants were marching with fixed determination, and they kept marching, so many of them. The biggest foraging party from Thoran’s nest was twenty; but at least thirty had already passed and they were still coming. Thoran started to count them. Another thirty had passed before the line ended. Not only was their colour different. Their legs were thicker and their mandibles much longer and wider. Oh what terrible damage they could do, thought Thoran. Their abdomens and heads were smaller, but they had a meanness and toughness about them that Thoran did not like. He was glad he had not rushed out to seek help from these purple workers. There was no help to be had among this determined army; they might have torn him to pieces. After the last ant passed, Thoran stepped gingerly on to the path. Should he follow them to see where they were going, or go in the other direction to find out where they came from? He was scared; he wanted to get home, but knew he should find out more about the purple ants and where they came from. Was that instinct, or reason? Thoran figured he would have enough warning if another party came along; there were so many of them that their smell would reach him before his reached them.
As he walked Thoran noticed the path was more well-worn and it got wider. It was unlike any path he had seen before. If only the paths from his own nest had been so grand he would not have got lost just because of a falling leaf. Many ants had walked over this path, he thought. He noticed also that the path no longer weaved in and out of the stones. The red stones, at which he had marvelled before, had been pushed out of the way, at least all but the very largest. Some large stones had been moved to create this path, he thought, much bigger than even Bujax could push. These purple ants must be very powerful. He expected to meet more ants on the path any minute, but none came. Instead he had an easy walk, though he was getting hungry. His thoughts drifted off to food and then to Bujax and Merewright. He almost forgot where he was going and why till the ground got steeper and he felt the strain of walking uphill. Each time he came to what he thought was the top, another rise stretched before him. There was nothing to do but keep going. Eventually he came to the last rise. He walked slowly to the top, wondering what might be on the other side. More stones and a wider path, he thought. Perhaps he might recognise something that might help him get back home, or find something to eat. He took the last few steps, unprepared for the sight that was to spread before him. His eyes peered over the horizon and his legs froze in fear and amazement.
Never in his short life had he seen or expected to see such a sight. He could see down into a valley which contained a mighty mound of hard-baked light pink clay covered with tiny pebbles of uniform size. Upon the mound fifty or sixty purple ants were patrolling. They were larger than the ants on the path; they must be soldiers. He could see at least eight entrances into the mound. Thoran had heard of such things in stories told at night in his own nest, but they were just stories. This was real. It must be, thought Thoran, the biggest nest in the world. And it had taken only one and a half days to walk here. Thoran dared walk no further. He stepped from the path and hid behind a stone. He had to think.
He could not just walk up to one of those soldiers and ask for help. She could do anything. She might sound the alarm and call other soldiers. Thoran would be carried deep inside that huge nest, never to be seen again. Besides, he could not speak their language. He could not understand the purple workers on the path; these soldiers would be no different. They probably did not know where his nest was anyway. The best he could hope for would be some food and to be sent on his way. More likely he would be put to death. Thoran shuddered, and he thought again of their strange but familiar smell and their weird language, more similar than a cricket’s or a grasshopper’s but just as incomprehensible. He must get back to his nest to tell Bujax and Merewright and all the others. But how? Which direction was his nest? And where could he get some food? If only Bujax had taught him about directions and getting food and getting back to the nest instead of always hurrying him along. If only Merewright had not spent all his time telling stories but taught him how to survive. Though, Thoran reflected, Merewright’s stories were delightful. Would he ever hear another, he thought wistfully. Merewright’s stories delighted the whole nest. He once told a fantastic tale of a nest in ancient times and Thoran remembered it as if Merewright were before him now.
* * * *
“It began with the rain,” Merewright said. “I have seen rain only twice, but it was not as heavy as in these ancient times. It rained for three days non-stop. No ant from this ancient nest could go out for food, and eventually the water entered the nest, flowing slowly to the bottom chamber and rising up toward the entrance of the Queen’s chamber.”
The other ants gasped. How could such a thing be? The Queen was in the safest chamber. Water sometimes entered the bottom chamber, the Sump Chamber which was put there for that very purpose, but the Queen’s chamber was always safe. It was deep in the nest so it could be well-guarded, but was always high enough to be away from water. And the mound at the top of the nest was designed to keep water out. For these desert ants, there had been no flood in living memory. Thoran had been told of the Sump Chamber and its purpose, but it seemed unnecessary to him.
“The Queen could not move,” Merewright continued. “She was laden with eggs. Soldiers and workers widened the entrance to her chamber and widened a passage to a higher chamber. They worked frantically and with great purpose. The Queen was calm, knowing her workers and soldiers would save her. The water level rose and was about to reach the entrance to her chamber by the time the passage had been widened enough for her to squeeze through. Twenty workers and soldiers entered her chamber to lift her through the passage to safety. But they could not lift her and other workers were called. All the while the Queen continued to lay eggs which were carried from her chamber by the workers. Even soldiers helped lift eggs to safety. The heroic workers and soldiers continued to fight for their Queen. They moved her toward the entrance of her chamber but could not get her through. Finally, the water entered the chamber. The Queen and many workers and soldiers drowned.”
At this a hush came over the nest and many ants silently cried. Merewright lowered his voice.
“With the Queen lost,” he continued, “the nest was finished. There could be no more eggs, no more ants to replace those killed. The water slowly filled the rest of the nest, driving all the soldiers and workers to the surface. It was the time of the Great Flood. And still it rained. Many ants drowned. Others died for want of food. And then a miraculous thing happened: some of the soldiers grew wings and when the rain stopped and sun came out one early morning they flew away. They flew away from the flood, away from the danger, death and decay and some of the winged soldiers became Queens and built new nests just like ours.”
And the ants of Thoran’s nest rubbed their feelers in glee and talked among themselves in speculation over Merewright’s story. What a wonderful story, they said. But how could it be true and who told Merewright about it? Why was Merewright so gifted with such knowledge among all the ants of the nest, and yet he was only a worker?
* * * *
Thoran knew now that Merewright’s story was true. Having seen the nest of the purple ants, he would now believe all of Merewright’s stories. It was then that he remembered how, in another of Merewright’s stories, the first ants positioned their nests according to the sun and the shade. And how every nest opening was positioned in the same way: sun in the morning; shade in the evening. This could help him get home. The nest of the purple ants was so big its entrances could be in the sun or shade at any time, but his own nest entrance would now be in the sun; in the afternoon it would be in the shade. If he walked as fast and hard as yesterday he could reach it; he would walk with the sun in front of him until it was overhead and then he would walk with the sun behind him. Thoran set out with great confidence back down the path he had walked up. The sun was on his left, but this did not worry him because he would walk back to the dead grasshopper and then turn to walk into the sun. Thoran’s confidence grew for such a young ant. He thought how he could lead foraging parties, guiding them to food and back to the nest. He thought about how the sun rose and set and how any ant could be guided by it. He imagined himself, older and wiser, teaching younger ants the art of navigation and telling them of the occasion when he saw the nest of the purple ants. His confidence was further boosted by his finding of the site of the dead grasshopper. Virtually nothing was left. He turned to walk into the sun, which by now was getting quite high in the sky. Of course, he would have to ask Bujax for more formal lessons in navigation, but by the time he got back to the nest, Bujax would be so impressed that he would see Thoran should be nurtured as a potential leader among the workers of the nest. He would one day take Bujax’s place. After all, he deserved it for being so clever in discovering the nest of the purple ants and getting back home to tell the others. And as these thoughts of cleverness and invincibility flashed through Thoran’s mind he became oblivious to his real plight, until a sound brought him rudely back to earth: it was the ominous babble of the purple ants. Thoran looked around for a place to hide. While day-dreaming of his future as a leader of foraging parties he had not noticed that the path had become less defined and the stones fewer and further between. He raced backwards as the babble got louder and the odour stronger. At last he found a leaf to hide behind and he watched and listened for the second time as the purple ants marched past.
This time he was closer – closer than he would like, but at least he had a better view than the first time he had seen these ants. The first time everything happened so suddenly he did not take much in. This time Thoran looked more carefully. Each ant was carrying a huge load, more than three times his own weight, which was about twice what Thoran could carry. Their loads varied from bits of insects to bits of flowers and leaves. Some carried a strange white fibrous material that Thoran had never seen before and others carried more familiar food. Thoran guessed they were the same party he had seen earlier, now returning with the fruits of their day’s forage. What surprised him was every worker carried something. This was a very efficient foraging party, Thoran thought. It could feed all the ants of his nest for a year with just one day’s forage. The first five soldiers carried nothing and were babbling their strange language the whole time. The other ants, perhaps sixty or more marched by in silence, their sullen heads bowed under the weight of their loads, their legs moving with staccato strength, chewing the ground from under them with each step. He peered closely at each ant as it passed. The gleaming purple bodies and grotesque mandibles fascinated Thoran, but he was more shocked by the eyes: not because they were smaller than his, but because they lacked expression, they lacked life. Each ant’s lifeless eyes were focused on the ant in front, half-hypnotised by the syncopatic beat of three hundred staccato steps. Thoran never forgot that view of the purple ants’ eyes.
Just as the last ten ants approached Thoran’s hiding place, one stumbled and dropped his load. The one behind had no time to come out of his hypnotic trance before crashing into the first, dropping his load, too. Thoran stopped himself from laughing out loud. He thought how cross Bujax would be if he dropped his load and how the party would have to stop so he could be helped to get it back. For the purple ants, however, it was quite different. Two ants from the back, who were larger than the others, put down their loads and marched purposefully toward the first ant. His legs were spread wide and his body cowered close to the ground. Thoran looked aghast as one of the back ants opened his huge mandibles, twisted his head and pushed his head toward the middle of the cowering ant’s body, and snapped it in two. Thoran was sickened with fear as he saw the two parts of the body twitch violently for thirty seconds or more before slowing to slight spasms then falling silently still. The two back ants, feelers twiddling excitedly, barked orders in their strange language. Eight ants ahead stopped and turned around. They dumped their loads near the two halves of the body. Two ants each picked up a half and marched on. The other six split up the eight loads plus the loads of the two fallen ants. The second fallen ant, meanwhile, had got away. He had run past Thoran’s leaf, out of sight. The two rear ants gave chase, running either side of Thoran’s leaf. They had very different eyes – burning with sadistic determination. Thoran crouched lower and waited. He knew what to expect and he pictured it in his mind’s eye: they would inevitably catch the fleeing ant and on their return the two large purple ants would each be carrying half a twitching body. Thoran shuddered at his naivete: to think that earlier in the day he was going to ask these purple monsters for directions back to his nest. If they could snap one of the their own kind in two for merely stumbling with a load of food, what would they have done to a stranger like himself? Oh, where were Bujax and Merewright? Would he ever get back alive? He crouched lower in fear beneath his leaf and waited. He dared not move. He would have to wait until the rear ants returned and went on their way or stay out overnight again. He was getting desperately hungry.
As he crouched he lost all thought of being the clever navigator, the ant to replace Bujax as foraging leader. Instead, he thought how vulnerable he was, and worse, how vulnerable all the ants of his small nest were against these fearsome purple intruders. The sixty ants he saw today were not like an affable group of foraging ants from his nest, but a single machine designed for the carriage of food. It was now necessary to get home, not just to save himself but to save the whole nest and warn them of the dangers of the purple ants. It was his mission.
Just then the two purple ants returned. Thoran heard them first, coming closer and closer. Thoran began to gain at least some recognition of a rhythm in their language; it was no longer a senseless babble. As they walked past his leaf, one after the other, Thoran was relieved to see that they did not carry halves of the body of their quarry. He must have got away. Thoran felt pleased for him for a while, then his feeling was more confused: why should he feel pleased for one of these purple ants, no matter how victimised? Surely each of them was a threat to him. But the escaping ant was a fugitive from cruel masters who meted out grim punishment for trivial crime. He must sympathise with that. What would become of the escaping ant? He could not go back to his nest; those purple monsters would cut him in two. So Thoran had an idea. He would seek out the escaping ant, and coax him back to his own nest. Then Bujax and Merewright would believe his story and might find the escaping ant useful in finding out more about the purple ants. Thoran tossed the idea about in his head. The purple ant might not trust him. He might fight and injure him with his large mandibles. Thoran did not understand his language, nor he Thoran’s and why would he return to Thoran’s nest voluntarily (and Thoran certainly had no means of forcing him). But the escaping ant would be alone with nowhere to go. He faced certain death. Thoran felt that if he could approach visibly from a distance without surprise, he might get the purple ant to trust him. And what of those dead half-hypnotised eyes. Maybe this ant had no will to live anyway and would accept his fate. But he had the will to escape. It was all too confusing. What should he do? Thoran’s hunger and loneliness returned as he felt a great onus to struggle on to save himself and his nest. He must act with care, intelligence and great inner strength. But did he have those qualties to call upon?
“Where on earth did Thoran get to?” Bujax asked Merewright.
“He was here a moment ago,” Merewright responded. “He can’t be far away.”
Bujax led the daily food foray as usual. Of his fifteen ants, Thoran was the youngest and most vulnerable. He had asked Merewright to keep an eye on him and so was angry at Merewright for allowing him to get lost.
“Spread out, everyone,” Bujax ordered.
The fifteen ants spread out and walked in a row in search of Thoran. Stretched in a row like that it would be only a matter of time before they found him, if only they had walked in the right direction. But, obliviously, they went in the opposite direction under the command, or more like loose instruction, of Bujax. After an hour of walking in the wrong direction and not finding Thoran, Bujax turned to Merewright: “Not a trace of him; and we have covered every square node of territory.”
“Perhaps a bird took him,” Merewright offered.
“Oh, don’t be silly, Merewright. When was the last time a bird took an ant?”
“Well, where else could he have gone?”
“We’ll have to keep searching,” Bujax said, ordering his ants to change direction.
They walked for two hours and still no trace. By this time of course, Thoran had walked more than a hour beyond them.
Merewright asked, “What if Thoran had been walking for two hours in one direction?”
“Oh, use your head,” Bujax chided. “If Thoran got lost he would have walked in circles.”
Merewright stood cheerfully rebuked. There was no point trying to persuade anyone they are wrong; they only get more convinced. They have to realise their mistake themselves; and even then they will rarely acknowledge it those who had been right all along.
So Merewright took the intelligent ant’s retreat into a silent superciliousness, without a trace of guilt that his charge and young friend might be imperilled by his unwillingness to shake some sense into the obstinate Bujax.
“We haven’t got anywhere near enough food,” Bujax moaned. “When I find Thoran, he’ll get a piece of my mind. What a stupid, brainless, idiotic, dumb, exasperating young ant he is. Let him spend a night out; he’ll never do this again.”
Merewright nodded agreement, but in his mind he knew Thoran did not get lost voluntarily; so he could not be blamed. In fact, Bujax was more to blame. He always strode off ahead assuming everyone would keep up. He was an arrogant foraging-party leader, Merewright thought, but who else was there? At least Bujax could navigate and provided everyone kept up, Bujax always got the party back to the nest.
The loss of Thoran was more than inconvenient; it was worrying. Merewright thought nest life comfortable, and though he knew from the stories passed to him that it was not always so, the ants lived a blissful existence. Food was sometimes hard to get, but it was never scarce. There was always enough to feed the Queen and the larvae, and enough eggs were laid to hatch enough ants to replace those who died or were lost. It was a small nest, and in its way a small paradise. The most any worker suffered was a rebuke from Bujax or one of the other foraging leaders. And the soldiers had it easy: only one entrance to guard and only forty chambers to tend to. Every ant knew nearly all the others, many of them closely. So Thoran’s fate was important and Merewright hoped they would find him soon. He called to Bujax: “We must continue searching, Bujax.”
But Bujax was not so sure: “He could not have come this far. He’s probably got back to the nest by now. We can’t risk the whole party just for Thoran. Besides, we have to build up food stocks.”
Merewright knew Bujax was right. Though they were all fond of Thoran, he would have to be left to find his own way back. Others got lost and returned within a day or two. Merewright tried to justify his unwillingness to argue with Bujax more forcefully on Thoran’s behalf. Thoran was an intelligent ant; he would find his way home.
And Merewright wondered what was right: to search until night fell risking their own lives and food supply, or was their duty to the whole nest much greater than their duty to their one friend? What would Thoran think, lonely and frightened and lost? Or was he waiting back at the nest by now anyway. He envied Bujax’s certainty. Bujax was so self-assured and decisive, always knowing what he should do and that doing it was right. But in this crisis Bujax’s exterior self-assurance deserted him. He came beside Merewright and said: “Merewright, I wonder if it is right to abandon Thoran so soon.”
Merewright was relieved to find some self-doubt in his friend.
“Let’s look for another hour,” Merewright suggested.
Under Bujax’s orders, the ants fanned out again, turning right and then left, but they found not a trace nor a smell of their small friend. They returned glumly to the nest with less than half the food they should have collected. Some were angry at Thoran’s stupidity; others felt fearful for him and others still felt a little of each.
* * * *
At the nest entrance Bujax was greeted by Majorim, one of the soldiers. “How was your forage?” she asked. “It doesn’t look too impressive.”
“We lost Thoran,” Bujax pleaded. “And we wasted three hours looking for him. Is he back here by any chance?”
“Shall we go back? How about some soldiers going out?”
“Look here, Bujax,” Majorim chided, “if you can’t look after your foraging party, you can’t expect soldiers to go out chasing the stragglers. He’ll turn up, don’t you worry.”
Bujax was worried. He had hoped to find Thoran back at the nest. Sure, he would have been very angry; but he would have been relieved. Now he was just worried and guilty. He sought some comfort from Merewright.
“Merewright, old friend,” he said, “why don’t you try to persuade Majorim to send out some soldiers to look for Thoran?”
Merewright hesitated. He did not want to confront Majorim, she was too abrupt and harboured grudges for a long time. If he persuaded her to send some soldiers out and something happened to them, he would never hear the end of it. “No, Bujax, you decided to stop the search. You thought Thoran would be back at the nest, so it’s no good passing the blame to me or the soldiers. Thoran was your responsibility.”
Bujax knew Merewright was correct. It was up to him.
“Majorim,” Bujax said, “can I go out to find Thoran? I’ll only take three workers with me.”
One of the good things about the nest, Bujax thought, was that he could argue the point with the soldiers, just as he allowed workers to argue with him. Snapped orders would always be obeyed, and were necessary in an emergency, but better decisions were made when every ant at least had a chance to have a say.
Majorim thought for a while. “I don’t know, Bujax. I understand your fears for Thoran, but you have only got half a day’s food. Who will lead your foraging party tomorrow? What if you, too, get lost? No. Thoran will have to find his own way back.”
“But think of Thoran, out there lonely and lost. He might not be far away. It would be sad if we found him dead just a short way from the nest.”
Majorim relented. “There is no point going now, Bujax. You may go in the morning; but you must spend only half a day. Do you understand?”
“Yes, Majorim,” Bujax said gratefully.
Bujax spent a restless night hoping Thoran was safe and perhaps would arrive home before he set out. He felt less guilty now, but still wished he had searched on during the afternoon. He would chose his three workers in the morning. Merewright would have to lead the food forage, under strict instructions not to go too far from the nest.
* * * *
Bujax set out early. Majorim told him he could not take any workers because Merewright would need all the help he could get to catch up with the food supply. She urged him not to go too far. “If Thoran is lost, there is no point in losing you, too,” she said. “Do you understand, Bujax?”
He walked quickly, arriving at the place where they discovered Thoran missing. Bujax thought Thoran must have walked in one direction to have missed him the day before. All smell of him had gone. “This is a hopeless and silly venture,” Bujax muttered to himself. “I only did it because of guilt feelings and to please Merewright. Why didn’t Merewright do it, if he felt so strongly about it? What is one ant anyway? Thoran would be missed for a short time and then he wouldn’t matter. Which way did he go?”
Bujax guessed, quite rightly, that Thoran had walked directly away from the nest. Maybe he had turned around by now and he would meet him on his return. Bujax walked and walked wondering whether it was all in vain and asking himself at virtually every step whether he should turn around and give up. He walked well beyond Majorim’s edict and had no hope of getting back to the nest within half a day. Doubts came upon him. The others would worry if he did not get back by midday. The soldiers would be cross. But he went on, telling himself he would get back, with Thoran, by nightfall. He would be a hero and his disobedience would be forgiven. By midday, unencumbered by a foraging party, he had walked further from the nest than ever before. Leaves and bark were sparser now and the ground became flat, hard clay with large stones scattered about. Bujax kept walking. He thought of Majorim and the other soldiers, wondering why, with their larger bodies and mandibles, they didn’t just insist on their own way. Majorim could have insisted he leave Thoran to his fate. She could have told him to go foraging instead, and he would have had to obey. She was a good soldier, Majorim. She could be reasoned with. She was often right, but sometimes wrong. Bujax felt great respect for her strength of body and mind and then cursed himself for not obeying her word. She would have every right to be cross. Then Bujax realised that Majorim probably suspected he would go past her time limit. She had set a half-day limit so at least he would obey a one-day limit. If she had allowed him a full day he might have stayed out overnight – a great risk for a single ant.
Bujax was beginning to despair of ever finding Thoran alive. What a waste. And Merewright would be hopeless leading a foraging party. He imagined them stopping while Merewright told stories of ancient times. They would be excited and have a great time, but they would not get much food. Merewright was not a practical ant. He kept spirits up with his stories, but they were of no practical use; they didn’t mean anything now.
Majorim would take it out on him. He must turn back soon. “These individual follies can get out of hand,” he muttered. “One folly can compound another until the whole nest is threatened. Thoran’s folly, my folly, Merewright’s folly. Whatever next.”
He dimly remembered a story Merewright told about a nest destroyed because individual ants did silly things, but he could not remember the details. But it did not matter because, after all, it was only a story. And he kept on walking.
Thoran pondered. He might never find the purple ant; and every minute he spent looking would be precious time wasted. He must get back to his own nest. The purple ant was not his business. He carefully emerged from under his leaf and walked slowly to the path, intensely alert to any slight sound or smell. His feelers were up and his eyes darting in every direction as he stepped on to the path. He walked a few steps and came across a large piece of strange white fibrous material. The purple ants had left it behind. Thoran walked around it gingerly. He had never seen such a substance: all the same colour. He pushed at it suspiciously with his front legs; it was soft and light. He tasted it; it was virtually tasteless with none of the aromatic flavour of grasshopper, the tang of grass-seed or the sweetness of acacia sap. But it was filling so he ate it all and his hunger left him. As his abdomen filled his senses dulled and he wanted to rest. He walked back to his leaf, crawled under it and fell into a deep sleep.
* * * *
Bujax and Merewright, he dreamed, were looking over him.
“Ah, sweet Thoran is here,” Merewright whispered. “Don’t wake him up, Bujax. I shall make a story of his adventure with the purple ants. Poor Thoran has been dreaming of purple ants”
“Yes,” replied Thoran in his dream. “I will save the nest from the purple ants.”
“But they are our friends, Thoran,” Bujax said. “They will teach us how to get food more quickly. We can have so much food that our nest can be twice as big. The purple ants will show me how to lead a foraging party of sixty or seventy ants. The purple ants know so much. We must make friends with them, Thoran.”
“No, Bujax, no,” Thoran protested. “They are cruel. And they have lifeless eyes.”
And Thoran dreamt of the lifeless eyes. His feelers touched an eye and penetrated it. His whole head disappeared into the eye and he looked into the void.
The purple ant then spoke: “Your eyes are evil, Thoran. They see too much, they think too much.”
Thoran jolted in his sleep. How can he understand what the purple ant is saying? He must be dreaming. Are the purple ants just a dream? I feel warm and I will wake up safe in the nest at home, Thoran thought.
* * * *
And he awoke with a start. A touch of breeze had blown the leaf away exposing him to the sun. He looked up and there less than two body-lengths away, staring at him with mandibles open was a purple ant. It must be the escaping ant, Thoran thought.
He called out and waved his feelers frantically. The purple ant backed away a little, but continued to move his mandibles threateningly. Thoran then stood motionless, thinking the purple ant was as scared as he was, though perhaps better equipped in a one-to-one fight. Thoran allowed the purple ant to thrash about with his mandibles and feelers for a long time. Finally, he became exhausted and stopped. The two stood there motionless, looking at each other with fear and curiosity, slowly realising each other’s vulnerability and disinclination to fight.
Thoran wondered how he could tell the purple ant he meant no harm, but realised he had already done that by just standing passively. This was a rare time for both. For once each was alone, without the help of others in a foraging party and without the comfort and security of the nest. The purple ant, though stronger, was more vulnerable. He had lived a life of subjugation, always being told what to do and when to do it. He was now faced with making decisions for himself. Thoran had at least taken part in decisions.
Thoran spoke, “I mean no harm to you Purple Ant, I just want to get home to my nest.”
The purple ant replied, but Thoran could not understand. He then tried the tortuous process of sign language and using single nouns. After much waving of feelers and repetition, Thoran made it clear that his name was Thoran and that the purple ant’s name was something like “Minion-Minor”.
Thoran and Minion-Minor slowly learnt more of each other’s language, and Thoran found it less alien than when he first saw the purple ants. He lead Minion-Minor back along the path, hoping to find more food. And Minion-Minor followed obediently. Thoran was pleased at his ability to take leadership over a stronger ant. The others at the nest would marvel at his ability. They would ask how did he take control, how did he learn to talk with this ant, and why did the ant follow? But Bujax and Merewright had not seen the ghastly execution of the stumbling ant; they did not know of the lifeless eyes and how Minion-Minor, with his stronger legs and bigger mandibles, had lived all his life so bowed that he assumed his natural position as underling at the slightest sign of another’s leadership. Thoran thought how clever he was to subdue this ant and make him follow. How clearly he had communicated to this stranger from another nest; how naturally it had come to him to take control. When he got back to his nest, the soldiers would inevitably make him leader of a foraging party. He led Minion-Minor back to the path, oblivious of any possibility that he might, perhaps, attack from behind or somehow summon other purple ants to help kill Thoran. Imbued with a sense of power over Minion-Minor he was blinded to any danger, and he began to treat Minion-Minor as one of his own, as if he were on a foraging party from his own nest and had never seen the purple ants.
“Food. We get food,” Thoran explained in painful simplicity. Minion-Minor’s understandable inability to understand the full complexities of Thoran’s language in a few hours had led Thoran to treat him as a newly hatched ant, as a less intelligent creature.
But Thoran was dangerously wrong. Minion-Minor had picked up more of Thoran’s language than Thoran had of the purple ant’s language. Their search for food was not very successful. But after a long walk they came across a tiny piece of the strange white food. Thoran divided it and ate his half and signalled Minion-Minor to do the same thing. Thoran looked at him, and signalled again, but still the purple ant would not eat. He stood silently and motionless and Thoran saw his eyes had changed; the frightening lifeless eyes had returned and then the purple ant turned his head slowly and peered at Thoran: his eyes transformed from lifelessness, to a painful incomprehension and then to a burning fear. Thoran pitied Minion-Minor as he shook his head slowly and moved deliberately backwards from the tiny white speck of food.
This is strange, indeed, Thoran thought, why won’t he eat?
“Eat, eat,” Thoran ordered, shaking his head and pointing his feelers toward the white crumb, but his order went unheeded. He moved slowly toward Minion-Minor, who shook his head in silence. In instinctive pity Thoran reached out with his feeler to comfort the other ant. Before he had known it, he had touched him, and then shrank back in sudden realisation that this was a different ant. He would never have dared to touch the purple body deliberately, but what was done impulsively could not be undone. His feeler did not burn, the purple surface was not repulsive, or slimy or abrasive. It felt, it felt, it felt . . . dare he admit it, even to himself . . . just like his own.
* * * *
Thoran pointed to the food speck and then to himself. He tried to make Minion-Minor realise that it was good food, if somewhat tasteless, and no harm had come to him. Thoran wondered why Minion-Minor was so adamant at not eating it. A slight shudder came over him as he thought it might have some longer term ill-effect. Would he be poisoned later, like the time Bujax led them to bad food and the whole nest was sick for days? He remembered those awful days with dread and then thought how foolish he had been to eat the white food. Why did he rush in to eat the white food? Oh why didn’t he take precautions? Bujax was always careful about new foods. They were to be tasted in tiny pieces by one ant. Thoran remembered he had gorged himself on quite a large piece before his sleep. And now he had just eaten another piece. He would surely die. Oh why hadn’t he met Minion-Minor before eating so much? He felt grateful to him for warning him, but the warning had come too late. Then his gratefulness turned to suspicion. Had the sly purple ant watched him eat the poison deliberately and then cunningly disobeyed his suggestion to eat?
What an ungrateful ant, Thoran thought, never trust a purple ant. I’ll never trust a purple ant again.
He looked spitefully toward Minion-Minor.
“Why didn’t you warn me this food is no good?” Thoran demanded. “You could have warned me.”
But the meaning was lost on Minion-Minor, who stood confused and fearful.
Well, thought Thoran, it is too late. If I get sick, I get sick. If I die, I die.
And he took some comfort from the knowledge that if his body was laced with poison, this purple ant would not be tempted to kill and eat him. Whatever Minion-Minor’s fear of the white food, it must now pass to him. Thoran felt smugly, though ironically, safe. He wondered whether he should eat the piece that Minion-Minor was refusing. If it were poison, it would make no difference; if not, he would have extra food in his body to sustain him on the difficult journey home.
He pushed the speck gradually toward Minion-Minor, who backed away, but not so fearfully as before. He looked around inquiringly at Thoran, and his eyes became more lively. Thoran wondered what troubled thoughts were going through this ant’s head. Perhaps he was waiting for Thoran to fall over and die.
Unbeknown to Thoran, Minion-Minor’s fear was justified. He and all the other workers of his nest were under orders never to eat on foraging parties and that the white food was for soldiers only. A purple worker ant only disobeyed once. The white food contained a death sentence, but not because it was poisonous to Thoran or indeed any ant, but because it was so nutritious that the purple ants had reserved it for soldiers and the Queen only, forbidding workers to eat it at their peril. And now Minion-Minor had seen a worker, albeit a brown-and-black one with spindly legs and tiny mandibles, eat the white food with impunity. He thought Thoran was either a very brave or very foolish ant; that Thoran was merely ignorant didn’t enter Minion-Minor’s head.
Minion-Minor wondered whether he, too, should now eat the forbidden white food. What had he got to lose? If the soldiers found him he would be killed anyway for stumbling on the foraging party, for running away and now for talking to this alien ant. Adding one more crime would make no difference. Besides, if he were to escape the soldiers altogether he must eat.
Minion-Minor thought he must be a very special ant. How many times had he seen soldiers execute workers; how many times had he seen the condemned workers submit with no fight? Yet he alone had the courage (or was it the fear?) to run away. He alone of all the purple workers had broken free. And what extra danger was there in eating the white food; he was dead in any event. So, now, living on borrowed time, Minion-Minor thought the borrowed time might as well be as comfortable and as free from hunger as possible. He had been well-rewarded for his courage: despite the danger, for the first time in his life he felt he could choose. He could decide whether or not to eat the white food. There was no word in his language to describe this abstract concept of being able to choose. He decided to eat.
When he had finished, he thought he was doubly, trebly rewarded: he could choose to eat or not; having chosen he found the food better than anything he had been given before; and he had been given something even rarer, something he was sure that no purple ant had ever had before: he had met and befriended a strange black-and-brown ant. He looked at Thoran with great gratitude and thought he should follow this rogue ant; it was his best chance for life and besides he was enjoying himself. More importantly he knew that he could change his mind any time: his mandibles were bigger and his legs stronger than Thoran’s.
* * * *
Thoran and Minion-Minor walked for a long time. Eventually they came into the shade, a merciful release from the afternoon sun. Crackling-dry eucalypt leaves and dried twigs covered much of the ground. Long shreds of bark blocked their way. Dead leaves, dead twigs, dead bark and dead stalks of yellow grass. But there was life: the eggs of tiny parasites clung with glue to the leaves; tiny black ants walked precariously along the dead twigs; mites crawled within the bark and larger creatures, too, inhabited the land. But it did not teem with life; there was not the bright green of young shoots or succulent leaves of a well-watered land, just the grey-green leaves of sparse trees in a sparse land. In this grey-brown, dry land creatures lived and died depending on the fine balance between food supply and famine and upon the skills of their predators to catch them or upon their skills to elude their predators. In this land, death and life were dependent upon the luck or fate of place and time: and how vastly different events would be if luck, fate, place and time were in the tiniest way changed.
The timing of a leaf fall could mean so much. It was one link in a great chain of fate. Without that link, would events be so markedly different, or was fate more like a rope, requiring many strands to support an outcome, the presence or absence of one strand not making much difference in the great scheme of things, but rather requiring a collation of a large number of similar strands before a general direction of fate could be determined? Who bound this rope of fate; or did it bind itself? Was it possible that one act of self-will by a purple ant from a nest of organised automatons could make so much difference? Was it possible that a predetermined fall of a leaf upon a black-and-brown ant could divert the channel of history? And if predetermined, could it be a diversion at all; how can one divert from the pre-determined? Under a huge blue sky in an arid, large land, two ants, Thoran and Minion-Minor, were but two creatures in the wider drama of life. Neither knew it, but their chance meeting was to change the fate of each of their nests. Thoran and Minion-Minor walked onwards. Minion-Minor newly possessed of a power unknown to worker ants of his kind, and Thoran thrown by a fallen leaf into an adventure undreamt of by even Merewright, the greatest story-teller of his nest.
* * * *
Minion-Minor wondered where Thoran was leading him. Would this small ant be able to find them food? He wanted to tell him about his nest, the drudgery, the work and the cruelty of the soldiers; but language forbade it. Instead they walked in silence. Minion-Minor felt sure they were now further from his nest than he had ever been before. And the further they got, the safer he felt. He knew the soldiers would come chasing him. He would not be allowed to escape so easily because if he could do it, any worker could do it and the cohesion of the nest would be lost. Soldiers could walk very quickly, almost twice as fast as he could. At this thought, he signalled to Thoran suggesting they should walk faster. Minion-Minor figured that even by the time the rest of the workers got back to his nest and the alarm raised, it would not be long before the soldiers arrived.
In fact, ten soldiers were only a thousand body lengths behind. They marched with sadistic determination, knowing one worker had no chance against ten soldiers – it was only a matter of time.
“Minion-Minor must be taken alive back to the nest,” the leading soldier said. “We have to make an example of him. If others think one can get away; we will lose workers every day. We will not have enough to eat. Our Queen will go hungry and not lay any more eggs. Our nest will stop growing. And we will lose our power.”
At this they marched faster.
“I think I can smell him,” the leader said with relish. The leader was called Gohunt. It was the name always taken by the soldier who led the fourth soldiers’ group in the purple ants’ nest. Gohunt got her position by luck when the previous Gohunt did not return from a scouting party. The mystery was never solved, but the new Gohunt proved capable and, when necessary, ruthless in pursuit of her ambition to be the leading soldier of the first group with much more important tasks. She would work on it once this troublesome Minion-Minor was put to his richly deserved slow death.
“But the smell is not quite right,” Gohunt said to her nearest soldier. “I cannot work it out. We must tread cautiously.”
She ordered the ten to spread out, and they fanned across two hundred body lengths. Each large purple soldier gleamed as she walked through sunny spots, the lustre fading as they walked in the shade. Each moved with forceful elegance. The two at the edge of the row, moving almost twice as fast as those at the centre. It was a fairly rare exercise to hunt such a quarry, but they all knew what to do. Once the leader had smelled Minion-Minor, she knew it was all over. He would be caught very soon and she would march him back to the nest. She had never led a tracking party before, but she knew what to do when her quarry was caught and taken back to the nest. Other soldiers had done it when a worker had escaped. She would place him at the highest point on the entrance mound and cut off his legs. He would be left overnight and in the morning every worker in every foraging party would be led past the legless body before going out for food. In the evening the body would no longer be there. It was quite simple. And effective. If these measures were not adopted, she thought, her position and the position of all the soldiers would be imperilled. They would no longer have workers to get their food, wash their bodies, tend to the Queen or tend to the eggs. The quiet good order of the nest would break down if individual ants were allowed to do what Minion-Minor had done and get away with it. There would be plenty more where he came from. He was expendable for the good of the nest. She felt no pity or sadness, just a self-justified desire to ensure good order prevailed and some satisfaction that that was precisely what was going to happen.
The smell grew fainter as the soldiers had wasted time by fanning out. But it was only a question of time before they would march quickly forward and overtake Minion-Minor. Gohunt stopped again. She was troubled by the impurity of the smell.
“There is another creature with him,” she said to the others. “Be careful.”
She ordered them into a pincer movement. No other creature could be a match for ten purple soldiers, especially if surrounded. Who could run faster? Who could fight better, the leader thought. She would take a quiet satisfaction in meeting this challenge.
As they moved forward, the smell got stronger. There could be no doubt now; there were two distinct smells: one was that of a purple worker, the other unknown. It was similar to that of a purple worker, but different. For the first time in her life Gohunt was frightened. She passed an order along both sides of the pincer for her soldiers to stop. She would like to see this creature that gave off the ant-like smell, before it saw her or any of her soldiers. Had some large strong ant captured Minion-Minor? If so it would suit her purposes much better than dragging him back to the nest to make an example of him. The fear of a large creature would keep the workers in line. Better the known death from the purple soldiers than the hideous fate of falling captive to a strange creature. Her other soldiers had also smelt the other ant. That alone would be enough to conjure up a frightening story. Moreover, an outside threat would be of great use to her own position among the soldiers, especially if she were the only one to know of it.
She passed a message to her stationary soldiers: “You are to spread out wider. Two hundred body lengths between you and we will move forward. I fear our little Minion-Minor has been captured alive by some creature. You can smell it, can’t you? I do not want to risk any of your lives. We must see this creature first before deciding whether we can kill it and take Minion-Minor alive. It might be too big for us. In which case, we will retreat.”
The other soldiers were amazed. Retreat was unheard of. Purple soldiers always conquered. Nothing stood in their way.
“It is better to be safe than killed,” Gohunt said. “I have your interests at heart. You must trust me.”
This was even more unusual.
What did we matter? thought Longfeel, one of the soldiers. Why does she want to protect us? The nest must come first. The creature must be killed and Minion-Minor brought back alive no matter what the cost.
Longfeel was confused, and Gohunt sensed it.
“I know best, Longfeel,” Gohunt said with some affection. “I know you think the nest must come first and I agree, but the interests of the nest are best served if all my soldiers are kept alive, even if I were to be killed first. Remember this when you serve with me, and you will be rewarded. You are a good soldier.”
Longfeel warmed to Gohunt. She looked to her now with awe. She was a different leader from the others. Her appeal was to command loyalty to herself, not to instil general loyalty to the nest. At an earlier time Longfeel would have reported this conversation to another leader sure in the knowledge that Gohunt was transgressing the nest-first code, but now she thought Gohunt knew how to put the interests of the nest and her soldiers together. Gohunt was right, thought Longfeel, and she must be followed. Her doubts evaporated.
“You see, Longfeel,” said Gohunt, “I have served the nest like you, and we have profited well. We have an exciting life and an easy one. Imagine being a worker: every day going out under the command of a leading worker. Those workers’ leaders are more brutal than us, you know. We are only violent for the good of the nest, Longfeel. This Minion-Minor will have to die; you see that don’t you? We may have to kill the creature he is with, if we can. I do it for the good of the nest. But I feel responsible for my soldiers, and you are one of my soldiers, Longfeel. I feel responsible for you and I will protect. Aren’t you lucky you are not a worker? Every day the same. No white food. No comforts. Have you seen their eyes, when they get back to the nest: they are lifeless eyes. I pity them, you know, Longfeel, I pity them, but I realise we must have them to make our lives better.”
“Oh, you mustn’t pity them, Gohunt,” Longfeel said. “They enjoy it. They like being like that. The leader of Number Five Group told me. She said not to worry about them; they liked being miserable and doing the drudge work, or if they didn’t, they didn’t know any better so it didn’t matter.”
“Did she tell you that? Well, she doesn’t know much. Why did this Minion-Minor escape? He must know we are after him. He must be scared.”
“Well why are we chasing him. Why don’t we let him go? He will probably die anyway.”
“No, the workers dream, Longfeel. They think they can escape and live away from a nest where food is easy. They think they can be like the soldiers. That is why we must not let any escape. We cannot let them move from the nest using up food we need for our Queen, our eggs and, of course, us. And who would provide our food, if we allowed workers to escape?”
Longfeel worried awhile, but Gohunt’s conversation comforted her. If workers did think, and did long for an easier life then they had to be subdued. If they were just automaton then it did not matter if they were kept subjugated. Either way what they were doing was right. Longfeel felt very pleased with her reasoning and told Gohunt about it.
“You are a very intelligent soldier, Longfeel, I’m so glad you are with me,” Gohunt said aloud. But to herself she thought, this one could be a valuable ally or a dangerous foe. She must be watched carefully.
“Longfeel,” Gohunt said smilingly, “it would be best not to mention our conversation to the others; they are not as understanding and intelligent as you, and they might look at things the wrong way.”
Longfeel was overwhelmed with conspiratorial pride. How could she share the secrets of Leader Gohunt with any ordinary soldier.
“And now,” said Gohunt, “we must find this insolent worker and assess the power of the creature he is with.”
Despite her bravado Gohunt was still scared. This second smell was a worry. She must refine her plan so it worked to her advantage no matter what. She must find the creature and Minion-Minor first. If the creature were too big for the ten of them to overwhelm, she would ensure the others saw it too and they would retreat. If, however, the creature’s size was inconsequential, she would move away quickly, round up her nine soldiers without letting them see the creature, tell them an exaggerated story of the creature’s size and retreat to the nest where she would be the centre of attention and feted for her leadership. The nest’s interest would be served by having the workers fearful of a marauding creature and her interests would be served certainly in the short term and no doubt in the long term she could gain great advantage from the bogey of a fearsome creature that only she knew to be a myth.
How could anything go wrong?
Merewright was troubled. Every morning before the foraging parties set out Merewright supervised the milking of the aphids. He had done this for as long as he could remember. It was an easy and routine task which gave him time to think. In his time of reflection he rehearsed the telling of stories. Now he sensed he would soon become part of making a story, not just telling it: the loss of Thoran, brave worker ant. Why or how he knew was impossible to say, but he sensed this was no ordinary case of a lost worker.
Merewright, though only a worker, was entrusted with knowledge from every significant ant in the nest. Changes within and without the nest were told to him and he interpreted them and advised action for the whole nest. His specialities were advising on herding aphids and farming fungus.
Merewright herded perhaps a hundred aphids for the nest. He milked one fifth of them every morning, so each was milked every five days. That morning he called the aphids in as usual, with the help of twenty workers. Twenty tiny green insects came down from the grasses and walked obediently to the nest, their abdomens bursting with fluid. Only the ants could give relief to the aphids from this accursed side-effect of eating enough leaf to survive. The twenty workers gently stroked the aphids, massaging the fluid out of their bodies. Workers and soldiers formed queues to drink from the massaged aphids. The languid aphids energised as the fluid was milked and then left the nest slimmer, ready for another five days’ eating.
Without the ants, many aphids would die and all would suffer great discomfort, their bodies bloated with too much fluid. The ants could survive without the aphids, but their life would be deprived of one of its luxuries. For most ants, the aphid milk was just a pleasant addition to their diet. Merewright and a couple of the soldiers alone knew how it could be a vital supplement in times of shortage. The aphids were Merewright’s exclusive province. He and he alone appeared to have the ability to control them. He knew where to find them and where to take them after they were milked. They responded to his directions, ignoring the calls of other ants. Merewright enjoyed his power which gave him a status equivalent to the highest soldier.
“We should herd and milk the aphids more often,” one worker said suddenly to Merewright.
This was unheard of insolence. It added to Merewright’s unease. The soldiers trusted him implicitly to herd exactly enough aphids. No ant had ever questioned him, let alone a humble aphid-milking worker ant. Here was the lowest ant questioning what had been done for as long as Merewright could remember. It would come to no good. In all the myths and stories of the past stored in his great memory, trouble began with questioning and change. They always went together. Merewright wondered whether the questioning caused the change which then caused the trouble, or whether they were all part of a simultaneous process. And now Merewright had a deep sense of foreboding. It could not be shaken by any thought that he was exaggerating the significance of one worker merely asking one question. Bujax had questioned Majorim, and changed her mind, probably for the worse. Thoran was missing. The combination of these unusual events troubled Merewright, minor as they were. Merewright, the repository of history and knowledge of the nest, thought only bad could come of them and wondered if he could do anything to stop it.
“Get on with your work,” he snapped. And then regretted it. He must be more patient. He must find out why this ant dared to question things.
“Why do you ask?” Merewright said.
“Well,” said the worker timidly, “If we herded more aphids more often, we would not have to forage so much for food. We could have more aphid milk in the nest. Maybe Thoran would not have gone missing if we had more aphids; there must be plenty more out there. We could even have a bigger nest with more ants if we farmed more aphids.”
Some soldiers overheard the small worker. None said anything, but they looked toward Merewright for his reply.
“Look here, young worker,” Merewright said. “You know nothing of the nest and the world outside. You know nothing of food supply and the needs of eggs and larvae. Just remember the soldiers have entrusted me with the task of herding aphids, not you. I know what is best for the nest. What you say makes no sense; I know from my stories and knowledge of the past.”
It was not an impressive reply, the soldiers thought. Some more aphids might be a good thing.
Merewright knew what he said was correct. He did not know why; it just was.
“And what about the fungus?” once of the soldiers asked. “Why don’t we farm more fungus?”
“For the same reason,” Merewright said.
Merewright left the workers to finish milking the aphids and went below to his fungus farm.
Here Merewright was at peace. He surveyed his small farm. He had collected exactly enough spores to grow exactly enough fungus for the nest. There was exactly enough aphid milk, too. Why were they clamouring for more? Didn’t they know that ants and larvae need more than milk and fungus? That ignorant worker got sympathy from the soldiers, too. They should know better, but they rarely went on foraging parties and did nothing to hatch the eggs and raise the larvae. He must talk to Majorim and convince her. And Merewright wondered what was the point of being wise and correct if nobody listened.
Merewright walked over his globules of fungus, feeling the puffy flesh. His legs sensed the delicacy as he walked. He walked around the edge of its growth and then over the top, gauging its depth at the centre. Merewright knew his job: he balanced the growth of the fungus with the needs of the nest, harvesting fungus each day and planting more spores only when necessary. If he allowed too much to grow, it could take over the nest, or, just as bad, the ants would eat the excess growth. Workers would become indolent and soldiers would be off their guard. The Queen would be fed too much and lay too many eggs. A small amount of fungus was good for each ant. Too much would lead to a nest out of control. That was why Merewright worried about soldiers’ demands to grow more fungus. They did not understand. He must resist their desires. He walked again over his fungus, with no purpose but pleasure. He bounced on it, felt it and allowed its smell to over-power him.
“I am Merewright, the keeper of the nest’s fungus,” he said to himself. “The fate of the whole nest depends on me.”
He knew that power was not in the control of those who had only physical strength, like the soldiers. Nor did power reside in those with formal positions. Bujax, after all, was the leader of the foraging party he was in, but Merewright knew who had the power. He thought it fortunate for the nest that the power was his, because he was intelligent enough and knowledgeable enough to use it for the benefit of the whole nest. But on further thought, this reasoning troubled Merewright.
Ants with power got it from intelligence and knowledge, he thought, so all those with power should have the intelligence and knowledge to use it well. But this does not happen, as I know from the stories passed to me about the past.”
He was interrupted by Majorim.
“What are you muttering to yourself about, Merewright?” she asked.
“Your fungus feels good. Some soldiers have told me you want to grow much more of it, and to herd more aphids.”
“No, no,” Merewright replied. “They are mischievous soldiers if they said that. It is the soldiers who want me to grow more and herd so they can have more food. You must persuade them that it cannot be so, Majorim.”
“And why not?” she asked. “More fungus and aphid milk would make us a stronger nest. We would not have to forage as much.”
What was the use, thought Merewright. It was so hard to explain to ants who would think only for the present. He would not argue, but just continue the way he had always done.
Majorim left, and Merewright returned to his beloved fungus, drinking in its luscious smell and dancing on its delicate surface. The fungus gave him more joy than the aphids. Because the aphids were creatures like ants, with legs and feelers, and he knew they had an independent existence, so the milk he got from them was more their creation than his. The fungus was different. He created the fungus himself from the spores. It was his planting of the spores that caused the fungus. The fungus was his creation: it had no existence of its own. It could not walk like the aphids. It could not leave the nest. It was his.
But the comfort he got from the fungus was short-lived. He remembered the lost Thoran and wondered whether Bujax would find him or whether, more likely, they would both perish in the harsh environment outside the nest.
* * * *
Bujax walked fast and in one direction. He was well beyond the foraging range of the nest and entered the stone country, like Thoran before him. He, too, marvelled at the smooth, red stones, their elegance and beauty. But it was harsh country, he thought. There was no food. It was as if he had come to an abrupt line, beyond which every scrap of food had been taken; nothing had been left. Bujax shuddered as he surveyed the lifeless scene: just a flat bed of clay and smooth red stones. Not a dead insect or the remains of leaf, not even a blade of grass broke the eerie lifelessness. It was a silent, oppressively hot world. No breeze stirred to create noise or take away the radiated heat from the red stones. As Bujax walked further into this world he was entranced by its beauty and danger. He almost felt guilty at allowing his mind to wander to the extent of marvelling at the stark beauty around him when it should have been concentrating solely on rescuing Thoran. Getting Thoran back from such a desolate place would be bravery indeed; the whole nest would acknowledge it and he would be excused from Majorim’s wrath for staying out beyond her curfew.
Having come thus far, it would be silly to return without finding Thoran. He must walk on. Perhaps he should change direction. He was intently alert, looking at the ground and from side to side for any sign of Thoran. His smell, the best in the nest, was primed. Soon he came across a path and started to walk along it. He had never seen such a path before and he began to wonder who had made it. Unlike Thoran whose naivete had almost cost him his life, Bujax was a more wary ant. As leader of a foraging party he was ever alert to danger. He began to feel uneasy, and then quite scared.
His fear was the greater because he was alone. A companion would have laughed off his worst imaginings. Alone, they were magnified. A companion would have distracted him, or they would have talked of other things, so the fear might never have arisen. More likely, he and a companion would have pretended to each other that they were not scared. Bujax had almost convinced himself to turn back and run as fast as he could – away from the unknown peril. Then the smell came. It was faint at first and only slowly entered Bujax’s consciousness. As it did it momentarily shut out his desire to flee. He stopped to absorb the smell and its familiarity overcame him. The smell was unmistakable. It had taken a fraction of a second for him to recognise it: it was Thoran. Instinctively he ran in the direction of the smell. He must be quite close. But as he ran, he detected another smell. What was this, he wondered. Some other creature must be with Thoran. His curiosity was mixed with fear. Now came a true test of Bujax’s courage: would his friendship with Thoran, his fellowship with him as another worker ant and his duty to him as an ant in his nest overcome his fear? Bujax knew he must run to Thoran’s aid. He did so, but with caution, knowing he would be of no use to Thoran if he rushed stupidly into the same peril from which he was supposed to be rescuing him.
Gohunt was delighted at her cunning. The more she thought about her plan, the more elegant she thought its simplicity. In a nest where little changed it would be an easy task to take the position as leading soldier. One great act of bravery would be enough. It would not matter whether she actually committed it, provided she was thought to have committed it. The nest was so organised and so steeped in routine that it would not be able to resist one soldier – her – acting with daring initiative to take over leadership. All she needed was to establish one great act of bravery in the face of a danger that threatened the nest, and the leadership would be hers. Now was a great opportunity. She would seize it and succeed.
The other nine purple soldiers spread out in a wider pincer movement, each getting further and further from Minion-Minor and the creature with him. All were under Gohunt’s orders to stay low: less for their own protection than to ensure success for Gohunt’s plan. As the pincer moved forward, she at its base would meet them first. The smell got stronger. Excitement tingled in her brain. She wanted to move quickly, to run, to dance, to call out. The excitement of uncertainty almost overcame her. The joyous anticipation of a swiftly and triumphantly executed plan was better than its actual doing. Oh sweet and intensely gleeful plan, she thought. She was almost swept up and carried away with the racing of her thoughts, until she slowed herself. This was the difference between the merely cunning and the great strategist, she thought: self-control. She must now be calm, stolid, thoughtful and deliberate. She slowed her march, knowing the forward arms of the pincer would go beyond their quarry and she alone would face this creature and Minion-Minor. Alone, she could control the outcome.
As the smell strengthened, it slowly altered. Gohunt’s intense concentration made her alert to the slightest change. The smell of the alien creature was getting stronger far more quickly than that of Minion-Minor. Gohunt raised her head again. The smell of the creature was nearly double the strength of Minion-Minor’s smell. What did this mean? Was the creature twice as big? She thought for a while. No; many small creatures had intense smells. Why did the creature’s smell get stronger at a faster rate. Had it perhaps sensed her soldiers surrounding it and was it putting out an extra-threatening smell? If so, thought Gohunt, the plan is even better. Big threatening smells are a substitute for bodily strength in many creatures, she thought. But the other soldiers do not know that. If they sense a big smell, my story of a big creature will work better.
She surmised she was dealing with a small, weak creature (but not so weak that Minion-Minor could have killed it). She would execute her plan, seeing the creature and Minion-Minor without them seeing her, then ordering a retreat. She enjoyed the uncertainty. She liked to cover every possibility, to plot and plan so she could come out best, and indirectly so the nest would benefit, too.
The ten purple soldiers marched on, all but the two either side of Gohunt, were now past Minion-Minor and Thoran, but only Gohunt was walking in a direct line to them. A gradual awareness came over Gohunt that not all was what it seemed. As the smells got stronger she became puzzled and then the truth dawned upon her. There were three distinct smells: Minion-Minor’s and TWO very similar but quite distinct other creatures. No matter what the risk, she must climb on to a large stone to see these creatures.
* * * *
Bujax was so far from the nest now that he wondered if he could ever get back by nightfall. But he could not desert Thoran now. One smell was clearly Thoran’s; the other hovered on familiarity, but he had never experienced it before, and it appeared to be stronger than Thoran’s. He was intently alert now. It seemed that the second smell had changed slightly. He continued to approach slowly, then stopped. He must see the source of the second smell before it saw him. He looked quickly round for a large stone to climb. He pulled himself up with dexterity, aware that he might expose himself, but knowing there was no other way.
What is it about fear, he thought, that sometimes causes us to freeze and other times to spring into action to flee or fight?
He was responsible for Thoran and he was his friend, so he could not flee or freeze. He knew he must help. If he faced only the uncertainty of this creature with the half-familiar smell it would be different: he might freeze or he might flee. Untainted with thoughts of others, instinct would take over. There would be no thought; he would react instantaneously to preserve himself, and that could be his downfall. Rather, he was thinking fast and carefully about how to save his friend. Was he doing this for Thoran’s sake, or his own? If for himself, was it to be welcomed as a hero back at the nest, or was it to regain his reputation as a worthy leader of foraging parties who looked after his charges no matter what? These were dangerous questions. The distracting thoughts of heroism could cloud his judgment and send him to catastrophe. No; he must do his best to help Thoran, but not at any price, nor at any risk. This was the best way for Thoran, himself and his nest. His nest needed him.
Bujax’s head edged over the top of the stone, as his back legs pushed the rest of his body upwards. He was concentrating so much on getting to the top of the stone that he was distracted from the reason for climbing there in the first place. His head was so close to the smooth surface of the red stone that he was seen before he could see who was watching him. He finally reached the top of the stone and looked around.
The sight was a blessed relief. The first living creature he saw was Thoran. He looked down at his friend in great joy. Thoran was just thirty bodylengths away. He would reach him in no time and escort him home, his responsibility to his charge and friend fulfilled. His guilt at allowing Thoran to get lost in the first place was now expunged and he vowed to be more careful during future foraging parties. As he looked down he felt his great affection for Thoran and realised not all the ants of his nest were the same. It was not just a matter of waiting for a new egg to hatch to replace an ant who was lost, killed or died. The well-being of the nest now and in the future relied upon the bond between all the ants to look after each other. What was the point of having a nest otherwise? Atop the red stone he realised this was a great moment in his life when he could see things so clearly. He had risked much to find Thoran – perhaps his own life because even now there was no guarantee of getting back alive. He had risked the wrath of Majorim, who would condemn him for not following orders. But what value were orders? Majorim did not know when she gave them the circumstances that would arise as Bujax continued his search. Besides, he was justified in disobeying orders because he had found his friend. He was right; Majorim was wrong. She would surely realise that. But maybe not. These soldiers do not understand, thought Bujax. they think orders are self-justifying, because without them the nest cannot function. If one ant broke orders and got away with it, no matter to what successful end, others would be able to justify breaking orders, too, and the nest would break down.” But they were wrong, the exhausted Bujax thought, looking down affectionately at his friend.
He was so intent on looking at Thoran, that he failed to take in the wider scene. The stones went without break to the distant horizon. In the foreground their outlines were sharp and clear against the flat orange clay, each stone defined and isolated from those near it. No stone touched another. A mighty force must have showered those stones across the claypan, but it was a delicate and meticulous force that arranged them afterward. Millions of stones stretched to the horizon, but not one touched another. In the mid-ground the colour of the stones and clay melded to a single orange which brightened as it panned to the horizon – a distinct flat line where rich orange met dark blue. Only a dry, pure air produces an horizon with such stark clarity. In the other direction the monotony of the stones was broken by undulations through which ran a dry creek bed. At the side of the creek bed stood a lone, gnarled eucalypt, dying in the dry heat. Its huge dark-grey trunk and lower limbs supported a disproportionately small amount of foliage. Dead leaves and bark were scattered on the ground around it. Its roots spread wide into the barren soil searching for any drop of moisture in the creek bed. The tree was engaged in a silent struggle of time: would it die before there was rain? Its size and solitude gave it a passive dignity in the still, desert air. Yet beneath its bark it supported a frenzy of activity: insects, grubs and mites each absorbed in their miniature arena within the web of life. Were this tree to die, it would not be long before the desert would claim another living patch to be replaced by the encroachment of the smooth red stones standing on lifeless clay.
Physically, Bujax could see a long way, but chose not to. He was looking at the close ground where Thoran stood. Metaphysically, he could not see very far at all, but he thought he could. Indeed, Bujax thought that at this moment in his life he could see his future purpose more clearly than ever before, but events would quickly overtake that. The irony was lost on him now; it could only be found much later, after his experience with the purple ants.
At last Bujax looked up and gazed at the horizon, and as his eyes moved back toward Thoran he saw for the first time in his life a striking purple ant – Minion-Minor next to Thoran. He was intrigued and fearful and stood in silent amazement and he scrutinised this new creature in his universe. He gazed at the purple ant’s large mandibles and thick legs. This was a powerful ant, perhaps a soldier, he thought. Confusing questions bounced through Bujax’s mind. Did other purple ants lurk about, ready to kill and eat him? Where was its nest? Or was it a lone ant, or a rogue ant? Such an ant could not live on its own, Bujax thought. How could it get enough food on its own? He was about to rush down and help Thoran escape from the clutches of the creature when he saw that Thoran seemed to be talking to it. He seemed to be leading it. What did this mean? Control and purpose left him. Seconds ago he was the proud protector filled with goodness and selfless devotion to the good of the nest and his charge Thoran. Now the entry of the alien purple ant into the domain of his mind changed all that. He was suspicious of the ant. And that suspicion infected his good feeling to Thoran. Was Thoran merely a fool talking to this ant, or was there something deeper? Was Thoran conspiring with these purple ants, betraying his nest? Was that why he got “lost” so easily? He wasn’t lost at all. He had deliberately left the foraging party to meet this ant. It all fitted. How else could he be talking to such a creature? It could not have been a chance meeting while Thoran was lost or this purple ant would have killed Thoran. She (she was obviously a soldier) would have torn him apart with her large mandibles. No; Thoran must be in league with this purple ant. “Is that how my loyalty is to be repaid? I have risked my life for Thoran and here he is betraying the whole nest. What a fickle ant.”
Bujax thought he should go down now and kill them both, before his beloved nest could be taken over. But what hope would he have? He could be torn apart, too. Perhaps he could go down as Thoran’s friend and pretend to join the conspiracy. That way at least he would have some chance of warning his nest later, or perhaps tricking the purple ant into a trap. That is what he would do. But they still had not seen him so perhaps he could sneak up to hear what they were saying.
His plan was not to be so easily executed. As he turned to climb off his red stone, he was overpowered by a strong smell and he raised his head. There, not ten body lengths away, his eyes met the fierce purple head of Gohunt, leader of the fourth group of soldiers of the nest of the purple ants.
* * * *
All thoughts drained from Bujax’s jumbled mind. A day ago his life was one of routine joys and hardships: foraging, working with aphids and fungus, tending larvae and the Queen, listening to Merewright’s stories and teaching other ants how to look for food and navigating to and from the nest. These things happened every day, day after day. Now in a single day he had the trauma of losing one of his charges, finding him and seeing him turn traitor. He had been dumbfounded by the majesty of the plain of red stones. To cap it he had discovered a strange purple ant in league with Thoran and was now faced with a giant purple soldier with mandibles that could snap him in half in a single grab.
The huge head looked at him inquisitively with discerning eyes. Bujax was locked in fascination and fear. He tensed his legs waiting for the attack. He was ready to fight, no matter how bad the odds. Aggression filled his body and he strutted his head forward. Gohunt just stood watching patiently. The big and physically strong do not require aggression; their mere presence is enough. Thus smaller creatures can behave more nastily than larger ones, and are sometimes a greater threat.
Gohunt knew this, so she called out, “I will not harm you.”
But Bujax did not understand.
Gohunt did not want to kill this harmless black-and-brown ant. She just wanted the successful execution of her plan. She asked, “Do you have Minion-Minor? If you both hide, no harm will come to you.”
Still Bujax did not understand. But at least this awesome creature was not attacking. She wanted to communicate.
“I am a friend of Thoran’s,” Bujax said, hoping that the use of the name of Thoran (who was in league with these purple ants) would stop an attack. He wanted to preserve himself to preserve the nest, as well as for his own sake.
Gohunt did not understand.
She signalled him to get down from his red stone. Bujax trembled. He would lose any advantage of height by getting down, but if he stayed put he might arouse the purple soldier’s anger. Reluctantly he climbed down. Gohunt watched him and signalled him to stay still. She climbed from her own vantage point, gripping the sides of the smooth stone with dexterity and strength. She walked along the clay ground toward Bujax in high spirits. All was going according to plan.
“Where is Minion-Minor?” she demanded.
She was exasperated by the idiocy of the black-and-brown ant. She waved her feelers and mandibles in anger, and signalled him to lead on.
“What do you want?” Bujax asked, to no avail.
Gohunt started to hear some rhythm in his voice and acknowledged to herself that the black-and-brown ant had an intelligent language. Like beetles, but more familiar, she thought. Again she signalled him to lead on, and Bujax appeared to understand. He started walking.
Where does she want me to go, wondered Bujax. Is she taking me back to her nest? The thought terrified him. Should he make a run for it. But what hope would he have? Then it dawned on him that she wanted him to take her to the smaller purple ant and Thoran. She obviously hadn’t seen them from her stone.
He walked in Thoran’s direction, calling out to warn him. It was an act of great bravery that came almost unwittingly to Bujax. The warning angered Gohunt, who marched beside him and flashed her mandibles threateningly. She demanded silence and signalled it with her feelers. Bujax’s courage was undaunted. He called out again.
“Silence, you,” Gohunt ordered, “or you will never speak again. I will cut every leg from you and leave you to die a painful death. That’s what we do at our nest to those who disobey and that is what I will do to you. Do you understand?”
Perhaps she should just kill this ant and abandon her plan. The longer it took to find Minion-Minor the greater the risk her plan would fail.
Bujax understood the sadistic menace in Gohunt’s eyes, if not the precise meaning of her words. He felt silent and his bravery went unsung. It was not just facing danger, but his willingness to face it alone, that made his effort to save Thoran that much more courageous. The fear of facing a predicament alone is often greater than the fear of the predicament itself. It was a commendable action, the more so because Bujax still harboured a suspicion that Thoran was a traitor. Bujax had risked his life on the remote chance that his friend was not one. But now he fell silent. In the face of overwhelming odds and the certainty of death it was not merely futile to cry out to warn Thoran, but stupid. Moreover, a foolish sacrifice of himself now would deny them any chance of escape later on. Bujax walked forward, more subdued and oppressed than frightened.
It was not long before they came across Thoran and his purple friend.
“Run for it,” cried Minion-Minor. “The soldiers have come to kill us.”
“Bujax,” cried Thoran. “Oh Bujax, you have come to rescue me.”
“Silence,” cried Gohunt. “Silence.”
Minion-Minor translated, but it was not needed.
“So, there are two of you black-and-brown creatures,” mused Gohunt. “As for you Minion-Minor, you should be taken back to the nest for the usual treatment – for your legs to be cut off as an example to others as to what happens to those who run away. But I have a better fate for you. I will turn you over to these black-and-brown ants. They will make you die a worse death. The three of you will lie low here until I and my soldiers leave. Do you understand? I have my reasons.”
Minion-Minor was dumb-founded. Once again he was to escape death. He knew he was a special ant, and though only a worker, he knew great things were expected of him, or at least he was to play a significant part in some great unfolding drama. Such thoughts can come to the most insignificant ant, even though they are just an accidental part of great events. His shrivelling fear had quickly turned into a self-centred sense of destiny.
* * * *
Before they could follow Gohunt’s orders, they were interrupted. One of Gohunt’s soldiers came upon them. She was slightly smaller than Gohunt and walked without a great sense of purpose. She was never destined for leadership, just an easy-going soldier happy to carry out orders without questioning why or to what end. Life as a soldier in the purple ants’ nest was quite comfortable; there was no need to upset things with questions or plots among friends.
“You have found Minion-Minor, Gohunt,” she said. “You are so clever. We can take him back to the nest now for the usual treatment. Well done.”
“Come here,” said Gohunt. “I want you to help me.”
“Certainly,” said the willing soldier. “What would you like me to do?”
“I want to look at your neck,” Gohunt said pleasantly. “Your neck is important for what I want to do.”
“Oh, no problem,” said the soldier. She was slightly mystified, but soldiers’ leaders often gave orders for reasons only they knew. But they usually turned out for the best for the soldiers and therefore for the whole nest. She walked over to Gohunt.
“A little closer, please,” said Gohunt, “There’s a good soldier.”
And the soldier moved closer.
“Good,” said Gohunt edging close to the soldier’s neck. “Let me see now.”
The movement was too quick for the soldier or the others to see. With a sharp twist of her head Gohunt’s mandibles snapped through the soldier’s neck. Her head dropped like a stone to the ground and her headless body writhed and danced. The legs twitched and jerked suddenly in the clay accusingly, as if to show to the world that the body was in vigorous health and death so cruel and unwarranted.
Gohunt glared calmly at the other three mesmerised ants and said quietly: “You will do as I say, won’t you?”
Minion-Minor said yes; he had seen such things before. Bujax was sickened to weakness; there was no choice but obedience.
“You will walk quietly from here a hundred body lengths,” Gohunt ordered. “Then you will hide until it is nearly dark. After that you are on your own. Now go.”
* * * *
Gohunt looked down at the beheaded body of her soldier and she was overcome with remorse. “Oh what have I done,” she moaned. “That was not part of the plan. I am not thinking straight. I have allowed a plan to take control of events. And now I have killed one of my soldiers for a plan that might not come to much anyway. Why didn’t I revert to the ordinary task of killing the black-and-brown ants and retrieving Minion-Minor?”
But her remorse was short-lived and her strength of purpose returned.
“Because I am not ordinary,” she answered herself. “And now I must regain my composure and think quickly.”
Gohunt refined her plan. She must call the other soldiers to see the dead body. She would announce that a great black-and-brown creature did it as she tried to capture Minion-Minor from its clutches. Yes, she would say she did her best to save her soldier and capture Minion-Minor, but the creature was too strong. She ran to her left, calling after her first soldier. Then to the right. It took some time to find them and to get them to pass the message on to come back. One by one they trekked back and looked at the dead soldier, aghast. As each asked insistent questions, Gohunt said she would wait until all had arrived. This gave her more time to compose her story.
The last soldier back was Longfeel who, oddly, had been quite close by. Unlike the others, she had seen Bujax, but had been too fascinated to raise the alarm. She had also seen Gohunt approach him. She had seen Thoran and Minion-Minor, too, but by then it was obvious Gohunt had rounded up Bujax and had everything under control. She was about to join her now-dead colleague in running down to join them, but stayed on a high stone watching because all was under control. And that was how Longfeel came to witness Gohunt commit murder, and now she wondered what to do. She must wait before saying anything. What would Gohunt say? How would she justify the killing? Longfeel walked to the scene with great foreboding. She looked at the body and then at Gohunt, inquiringly, as if to say: “How will you explain this one?” As all the soldiers were inquisitive, Longfeel was not out of place. So she quietly joined the others to hear what Gohunt had to say.
“Soldiers,” said Gohunt, “this has been a calamitous day.”
And Longfeel listened to Gohunt’s lies, wondering if she would ever get the chance to expose her without ending up like her dead colleague. These were no ordinary times. And what sort of creatures, she wondered, were those black-and-brown ants?
A lone crow circled the eucalypt beyond. Its black feathers gleamed in the evening sun as it glided around the tree. It was searching for death. It circled again, catching a thermal updraught. It needed no wing beat to move higher, the hot air coming off the desert provided all the energy needed. The crow widened its circle peering down at any creature driven by thirst to the edge of death and defencelessness. The crow could wait. The desert would yield victims enough to ensure its feathers remained shiny and sleek. It glided around yet another time emitting its piteous cry: aaaggghh, aaaggghh, ah-aaaggghh. The soulful cry complemented the stark landscape, but there was no pity here on the edges of life, just relentless sun. The sun defined the crow: from below, with the sun behind it, it was opaque black, from the side or above, the sun reflected on the crow’s feathers giving them a rich glossiness so they shone yellow. The crow continued to survey the desert and its dryness but found nothing so it dipped one wing gracefully and glided effortlessly toward the top of the eucalypt. A minute lifting of both wings allowed the air from under them to escape so the crow dropped with both feet outstretched on to the uppermost branch. It was supreme. Its adaptation to the desert perfect: the very heat which provided its effortless uplift provided also the hand of waterless death on the creatures that comprised its diet. These were good times for the crow. It needed no water and grew plump on the death of those that did.
Bujax, Thoran and Minion-Minor heard the crow’s ominous cry and wondered was it crying for itself or for those it fed on? They had hidden, as instructed by Gohunt, till dusk. They stayed under a large stone overnight and then, the next morning, led by Bujax, began the walk back to the black-and-brown nest. As they went Thoran told his story to Bujax: getting lost, seeing the nest of the purple ants, watching Minion-Minor escape, learning to talk with him, and their encounter with Gohunt.
Bujax was mightily troubled.
“What do you mean you just came across the purple ants?” he asked. “Why did you walk in that direction? How long have you really known about the purple ants?”
“Bujax, what do you mean?” Thoran replied. “I have told you exactly what happened. I am as scared of them as you are. We must go back and warn our nest.”
Bujax thought that Thoran seemed so small and helpless, even against Bujax himself, let alone against the purple soldiers. And that is what troubled him. Surely, this Minion-Minor would have eaten him. And why didn’t Gohunt kill this Minion-Minor if that’s what their nest does with workers that step out of line? Bujax kept these questions to himself. If Thoran thought him too suspicious and really was a traitor, then Thoran would be extra careful and be less likely to expose himself. It would be best to go along with things to see how they turned out. His doubt about Thoran troubled him, too. This was his friend. He had been ready to risk his life for him; he could not be a traitor. Yet, his story did not add up. He had been in conversation with this Minion-Minor and was getting along well with him. He had learnt some of his language after such a short time. Bujax mulled over these facts and tested them against his experience of calmer times before he knew about the existence of the purple ants. Was it more likely Thoran was a traitor than not? Bujax pondered the nature of his doubt. It was not just a question of whether it was more likely Thoran was a traitor than not. With such grave consequences, Bujax had to be absolutely sure. He could not have a percentage of doubt. And what was a percentage of doubt anyway? The tiniest doubt is still doubt. Bujax continued walking. One of the pleasures and pains of walking was the way the mind was able to wander. It pried and questioned in dark corners; it analysed mean motives and forecast the dangers of the future. Yet it also shone light upon life’s joys; recalled the purity and generosity of others and invented future delights. And the mind continues to race down these two paths, jumping from one to the other and back, until it suddenly and inevitably comes to rest by turning inward to the discovery of yet another small exposure of self. Bujax had realised by now that exposure of himself to himself could never be complete until the day he ceased to experience the world and its creatures. For it was upon that experience that his self was built.
He realised that the obverse of doubt was trust. Did he trust Thoran? Could he trust Thoran? Both doubt and trust came from within and were directed at another, but they were founded on experience, the experience of the other’s actions and character. What was this mixture of mind and experience that gave rise to the emotions of doubt and trust? Bujax had no answer and he longed for a return to a simpler time, a time when there were no purple ants.
* * * *
“Well, Minion-Minor,” said Bujax, using Thoran as a translator and using some sign language. “Your soldier has left your fate with us. What should we do with you?”
“I would rather be with you than her,” Minion-Minor said gratefully. “What will you do with me?”
“I think you should come back to our nest. We want to learn about your nest. The soldiers will decide what to do with you, but I think they will let you live with us.”
The more Bujax and Thoran spoke with Minion-Minor the more they realised their languages had great similarities. Spoken slowly enough, they could get their meaning across. When spoken quickly, though, the purple ant’s speech was incomprehensible.
“Hmm,” said Minion-Minor, “I cannot go back to my own nest, I will die if I stay out here alone, so I may as well come with you.”
The three walked on and under Bujax’s polite interrogation, Minion-Minor told them about the nest of the purple ants, with eager interruptions by Thoran who wanted to boast slightly to Bujax of his scant, though greater, knowledge of the purple ants through the experience of his own eyes.
“The nest gets bigger all the time,” Minion-Minor said. “We have to build new entrances and more and bigger chambers for more ants as they hatch.”
Bujax and Thoran were astounded at the size of the Queen and the number of eggs she laid.
“Why don’t you feed her less, so she lays fewer eggs?” Bujax asked. “Why don’t you let some eggs dry out?”
“No,” replied Minion-Minor, “we are under strict orders to take care of every egg. We have elaborate work patterns to bring them to the top chambers or even to the surface in the day, and to take them below when it gets cold at night. We nurture and feed every one. The soldiers say they are more important than anything else. We workers will go without food rather than see eggs die.”
“But how do you feed all your eggs and soldiers and workers?” Bujax asked.
“Oh, the more ants you have in the nest, the more there are to forage and the more food you can get. It is more efficient to forage with lots of workers than just a few.”
Minion-Minor was puzzled at the questioning. How could it be any other way, he thought.
“Tell me about this mound on the top of the nest that Thoran saw.”
“It marks the domain of the nest. It is easily seen. And it is a clever way to build a nest. The more dirt you take from underground the bigger the mound gets and the mound can be used for chambers too, mainly to hatch eggs. It’s the best way to do it, to make a big nest.”
Minion-Minor was proud of his description. He was only a worker with a life of predictable drudgery. Until the day before, his life was mapped out: to forage each day under the guard of soldiers like Gohunt. It was rigid, but safe, provided you did your work. He rarely went without food and knew nothing would attack the foraging party while under the guard of soldiers like Gohunt. Despite the sameness of his existence, Minion-Minor had observed the workings of the nest and learnt as much as he could. It was as if he were destined for something different than a worker’s life, and now that destiny was unfolding. He knew he was special. It was not by chance that he was here. No other purple worker would have had the wit to escape.
Minion-Minor got bolder. His natural inquisitiveness led him to ask about the nest of the black-and-brown ants. How did Thoran and Bujax live? How big was their nest? He thought they lived a precarious existence. Their tiny foraging parties amused him. He could not see how such a small nest could last for long. But he looked forward to seeing it and delighted at his good fortune: instead of being just another numberless death in the huge, relentless entity of the purple ants’ nest, here he was in an exciting adventure with two pleasant companions about to see something that no other ant of his kind would see. He reflected that in the brief time he had known Thoran and Bujax, he had had more conversation with them than he would have had for many days with his own kind. And this was despite the language barrier. These black-and-brown ants might not have large mandibles or powerful legs, but they had a way about them that made them good to be with that no purple ant possessed. Yet, wrenched from the certainty and familiarity of his own nest he wondered about those back there and had a tinge of longing, before realising that it was never to be anyway: from the moment he crashed into the worker in front and dropped his load, his fate was sealed. It was to be death or this adventure, and he knew fate had given him the better alternative. He must make the best of it.
As they walked, Minion-Minor, noticed changes in the land. The horrible monotony of the stones on flat clay gave way to a scruffier, more varied ground. Leaves, bark, twigs and bits of brown soil in an abundance he had never seen before lay on the ground. Many of the leaves had galls which Minion-Minor knew contained food. Such food had been a rare delicacy at his nest, but here it lay in abundance.
“Shouldn’t we pick up the food?” Minion-Minor asked. “We cannot go back to your nest without anything, and we should not let this chance of getting such good food go wasted.”
“Our aim is to get back to the nest,” Bujax said. “There is plenty of food, closer to the nest and no need for us to gather any now.”
As they walked, Bujax reflected upon the huge purple soldier and her devious eyes. She seemed to have some inner knowledge, as if she had a plan. Perhaps she had let them go for the sole purpose of getting them to lead her to their nest. He had to know why Gohunt had let them go before he could allow this purple ant and the perhaps-traitorous Thoran back to the nest. He asked Minion-Minor what he thought.
“I have no idea,” Minion-Minor said, “though I’m glad she did.”
Bujax looked carefully into his eyes as he spoke. There was not a hint of concealment or treachery. He was either telling the truth, or was a very accomplished liar. It was too much to risk to head straight for the nest, and there were too many unanswered questions.
Bujax looked around. The ground was becoming more familiar. Bujax welcomed the leaves and twigs and thought how fortunate he was to live in a nest in such a place. He shuddered at the thought of the huge nest of the purple ants dominating the Desert of Stones, and was glad he could put it out of his mind. He and Thoran were nearly home. At least one purple ant would be with them for some time, but the experience with the huge violent soldiers was now behind them, even if they could never forget it. Bujax and Thoran hoped that upon their return to the nest, the incident of the purple ants would fade as they returned to normal life. Perhaps it would become one of Merewright’s stories: told with great menace and feeling, but essentially harmless and irrelevant to real life – just like the story of the flood.
* * * *
Unlike Minion-minor, Gohunt was an accomplished liar. She had learnt from an early age the ingredients of a successful lie. For a start, she had to believe it herself. She had to act it out in her mind. To do that she had to make it as close to the truth as possible. She had learnt it was necessary to control the lie. She had discovered long ago that the defensive lie was fatal; only an aggressive lie could succeed, and even that was not foolproof.
Thus she called her soldiers around her and pointed to the dead body of the soldier she had just killed. When she had said: “Soldiers it has been a calamitous day”, she had meant it. Her plan had unexpectedly gone awry, so truth, concern and sadness burned in her eyes as she looked upon the soldiers and then down upon their dead companion.
“We came to chase Minion-Minor and I found him here,” she said. “He was in the clutches of an awesome creature – a huge black-and-brown thing, three times as large as you or me. Our companion tried valiantly to attack, to retrieve Minion-Minor so he could face his punishment. I rushed forward to help, but the great creature was too quick. It held Minion-Minor down with one leg and turned its head and in a mighty snap of its mandibles cut our companion’s head off in one blow. Minion-Minor was shocked. I saw his terrified face. I, too, was shocked. The creature has fled with Minion-Minor.”
“We must chase them; we must chase them,” called the soldiers.
“No,” warned Gohunt, aligning her lies as far as possible with the true situation. “It is too dangerous. Another ant could be killed. It is not worth it. Minion-Minor will meet a more terrible end than at our nest and once the workers know of his fate, they will not be tempted to follow his example of attempting to escape. We must return to our nest, and to its safety.”
Gohunt was pleased. She had acted for the best of her nest, she thought. It was important for workers to be kept in line, and what better way than have them fear a great black-and-brown creature. It was important that she be in a position to use the threat of the creature to pull her own soldiers into line. She could use it as a way of rallying all the ants in her nest to build a stronger nest, one more capable of surviving in a harsh world. Indeed, without such a threat the nest would have become weak. She had to do what she did. The nest was fortunate it had someone of her ability to lead it away from collapse to expansion and strength.
* * * *
Longfeel marched despondently. She brooded over the terrible sight she had witnessed. What should she do? To confront Gohunt would be madness. Gohunt would kill her, silently and surely as she had seen her companion murdered that day. She could not tell the other soldiers; they would not believe her. Besides, they would tell Gohunt and she would be punished for false accusations. Gohunt would see her executed for such a crime, just to get her out of the way. Longfeel wished she had never seen the murder. She now carried a great burden. It was her duty to her dead companion, to her other companions and to the nest at large to expose the truth, but she feared for her own life. Despite her fear, she resolved that she would wait and she would meet cunning with intelligent strategy, and despite her weakness and lowly position she would ensure Gohunt did not profit from her crime nor go unpunished, but she would not carry out the revenge herself; the whole nest must see Gohunt’s wickedness. There must be a better way for the nest to work than the way used by Gohunt. As she thought this another soldier saw her deep in thought and approached her saying: “It’s all right, Longfeel, soldiers often get killed. You cannot worry about it.”
“I know, I know,” Longfeel replied.
“Are you worried we did not achieve our aim?”
“Yes, that’s it,” said Longfeel feigning loyalty to the soldiers’ mission.
“Gohunt is a great leader, isn’t she?” the soldier said. “She has saved us from the black-and-brown creature. Any other leader could have got us killed and not cared at all for us. I wish I could be like her; loyal to her group, concerned for us and so good at knowing what to do, how to navigate and lead a mission. You know, Gohunt once told me I was special to her and she would always protect me. Isn’t that a wonderful thing to say?”
Longfeel was angered at Gohunt’s lies and hypocrisy. Gohunt had told this soldier exactly what Gohunt had said to her. How then she had worshipped Gohunt! She seemed so sincere; yet it was all lies. What should she say to this pathetic soldier who had swallowed the lies just as she had earlier that day? If only she could expose Gohunt.
“Yes, she is a marvellous leader,” Longfeel said lamely. “She knows how to treat us well and how to look after us.”
Longfeel spoke without conviction and the other soldier sensed it, but dismissed it as a reaction to the death of their companion.
* * * *
On their return to the nest, Longfeel brooded for days. She felt the weight of her responsibility as heavily as her helplessness to do anything about it. On several occasions she attempted to tell some other soldiers, individually or in a group. But each time she came to the precipice, she held back. Carriage of the burden changed her, and her companions noted it. The burden absorbed her, rarely an hour passed without her mind reflecting on her secret. Every action, every order, every conversation was related to it. Her future and the future of the nest were at stake. The oppression of the secret dulled her survival instinct: she no longer cared for herself as an end in itself, but only so she could live to expose Gohunt. It became the reason for her whole being and she related every thing she did to that sole purpose. She knew that she could never think this way about a selfish end, but because her aim was for all the other ants, she did not regret how her life had become subsumed.
The other soldiers started talking. “Isn’t Longfeel behaving strangely,” they said. “She won’t pay attention. Her mind wanders. It’s ever since that Minion-Minor trip. I think the black-and-brown creature must have got to her.
“Hey, Longfeel,” they asked, “what’s the matter? Snap out of it, will you? Gohunt is worried about you.”
At the mention of Gohunt’s name, Longfeel’s anger welled. She felt her powerlessness, but hoped something would happen to help her.
Shortly after their return to the nest, Longfeel had to listen while Gohunt told virtually every ant in the nest, assembled in the Great Chamber, about the great black-and-brown creature.
“Ants,” Gohunt began, “today we faced great danger. The soldiers of my group (how possessive she has become, thought Longfeel) set out to bring back the escaping Minion-Minor. We walked long and fast, as our duty demanded. Before long we caught up, and smelled Minion-Minor. But a far more powerful and sinister smell reached us as well. We moved up in a pincer movement, and then I saw it: an evil monster three times as large as me. It was black and brown with giant mandibles. A brave soldier attacked but the Evil Thing killed her. She died instantly and bravely. I ordered a retreat to save the other soldiers. Minion-Minor was carried away by the Evil Thing. His end will be far more gruesome than anything that could have happened to him at this nest. Let this be a lesson to any worker who does not do his job. And now let us pay tribute to our dead companion.”
The ants were hushed and then nodded their heads and buzzed in approval. Gohunt had them enraptured, and she saw it. She seized her moment of triumph and pushed it home to advantage. She lifted her head high and waited for silence.
“Ants!” she said commandingly. “Today, Ik-Rass, the leader of the Number One Group of Soldiers has agreed that I should take her place and be Leader of All the Soldiers. I have thought about it and agreed to accept. I will protect this nest from the Evil One.”
The ants buzzed with great approval and the former leader of the Number One Group, who knew nothing of Gohunt’s plan, could do nothing but join in.
“Gohunt, Leader of All the Soldiers, protect us from the Evil One,” they cried.
Ik-Rass wondered what was this title, Leader of All the Soldiers? Where had the massed ants got it from? Gohunt had put some of them up to it, Ik-Rass concluded. Longfeel watched the adoration and felt desperately alone.
* * * *
Gohunt became more arrogant as the days passed. She ordered faster expansion of the nest. Many workers were assigned away from food parties to digging new chambers and entrances. Soldiers were ordered to watch over the workers to make sure they dug quickly.
“We are not digging fast enough,” she said one day. “We must have extra deep chambers and secret exits in case the Evil One attacks. From tomorrow, soldiers will help dig. All but the leaders of soldier groups and their deputies will help workers dig the new chambers. Soldiers are strong and will help us make progress to build our defences against the Evil One.”
The workers were delighted. They would get help digging. And the leaders and deputies were pleased, too. They had escaped being dragged into the horrible chore of digging. Gohunt was pleased with the tactic: she had got praise and support from two groups without having to give them anything. She drew the leaders and deputies closer around her.
“It is up to you to protect the nest,” she said. “I am entrusting to you the task of expanding the nest to protect us against the Evil One. No task is more important and no group of ants is more important than you. I know I can rely on you.”
The leaders and deputies nodded in agreement. Gohunt never imagined her plan could have gone so smoothly and easily. She congratulated herself and felt only she could ensure the security of the nest. Even if she knew there was no black-and-brown Evil One, she was convinced there were evil forces out there that could destroy the nest. She had begun to believe her own lie. The only way to garner the necessary support to make the nest strong, she thought, was to instill fear. She knew the best way to do that was to use and exaggerate an image in her mind’s eye of the strange black-and-brown ants. The existence of the black-and-brown menace was true and the exaggeration of it was justified. It had not taken long, she was now convinced of the truth of her own lie.
The digging went on. The leaders and deputies demanded faster work. At Gohunt’s insistence, they demanded soldiers carry twice as much as workers. Gohunt inspected the new tunnels and chambers, stopping to praise individual workers.
“What did she say? What did she say?” workers demanded to know after she passed. The lucky ones who were spoken to were instantly the centre of attention. Gohunt enthused the whole nest with the great project of protection against the Evil One.
Longfeel was amazed at how workers and soldiers joined in, working harder than they had ever done before. Soldiers, who until then had led an easy life, enjoyed their new work. They loved the sense of purpose it brought, and they felt they were part of a great worthwhile project to ensure the protection of the nest.
“When the Evil One comes, we will survive because of your great work,” Gohunt told them. “Everyone must join in, including you, Longfeel.”
“Yes, Longfeel,” the others said, “Why don’t you work harder? Why are you always brooding? Come on, cheer up.”
But Longfeel was silent. She now knew she would have to wait a long time. But she knew something that none of the others knew: there was no Evil One, and all this work was unnecessary. So how could she work like the others?
One day Longfeel was working on a new entrance and she came across Ik-Rass, now demoted to a working soldier.
“Ik-Rass what are you doing moving clay?” she asked.
“I have to work for the good of the nest, as directed by Gohunt,” she replied.
Longfeel was despondent at the answer. Gohunt’s strength of will had overtaken even the former Number One soldier. But perhaps she was disguising her feelings. After all, it was a dangerous thing to say anything against Gohunt in these times. Until now Longfeel had kept her silence. Dare she break it? It was her only chance.
“Ik-Rass,” she said, “You don’t have to say those things to me. You can be yourself.”
“What do you mean? I shall report you to Gohunt,” Ik-Rass replied, suspecting a trap.
Longfeel was about to give way to despair and walk away, but again she told herself that this could be her only chance. She knew Ik-Rass had been a good leader before Gohunt. She must allow trust to overcome doubt.
“Ik-Rass, I know something that you ought to know,” she said. “I must tell you.”
But before Ik-Rass could respond they were interrupted.
“Get on with your work,” a soldier leader ordered. “Just because you were once Number One, it does not mean you can idle around the nest.”
And to Longfeel: “Go back to your own group. I don’t want to see you near her again. We have work to do to protect the nest from the Evil One.”
* * * *
The food gatherers from the purple nest were always sent out in the opposite direction to the Evil One, on the orders of Gohunt. No ant was to head in the way of the Evil One because of the danger.
“I want to protect you all,” Gohunt said.
“But food is getting scarce,” a soldier leader said.
It was at a meeting of all the ants. Gohunt held many of these meetings. She told of the threat of the Evil One and for soldiers and workers to guard against it. They must ensure work on the expansion of the nest went ahead as fast as possible. They must report idleness to their soldier leaders.
Usually only soldier leaders spoke at the meetings, but Longfeel seized her chance. If only ants were allowed out in the other direction, they would see for themselves that there was no Evil One.
“Why don’t we search out this Evil One, hunt it down and kill it,” she said, cunningly. “Then we wouldn’t have to expand the nest so quickly. We would not have to work so hard and we could gather food in all directions.”
“Don’t be silly,” Gohunt said. “What if there are many Evil Ones. What then? Our nest will be attacked. We will all perish. That is the last I want to hear of that idea.”
Gohunt had spoken. Further dissent was not possible. But at the back of the meeting Ik-Rass recalled Longfeel’s earlier conversation. She was on the mission when the Evil One was discovered, she thought. She must seek out Longfeel and find out what she had to say.
Gohunt had less frequent meetings after that. But expansion work went on apace. As the size of the nest grew, so did the number of ants. Gohunt was pleased at the expansion and told the soldiers and workers so as she walked about inspecting the work on the nest.
“We will be able to repel the Evil Ones now,” she said. “Good work, good work. Keep it up.”
She started to refer to the Evil Ones in the plural. Having raised the extra fear at the meeting, she might as well continue with it.
“When will the Evil Ones attack?” she was asked.
“It could be soon, or even never in our lifetime,” she replied mystically. “It is our duty to be ready.”
One day she came out to greet a returning food party.
“Well done, good soldiers and workers,” she cried automatically.
But the workers had not gathered much food. Inwardly Gohunt was worried, the more so when the soldier leader said: “Food is very short out there, Gohunt. We must go in the other direction if we are to get enough to feed this large nest.”
It was as direct as the soldier leader dared be. Gohunt sensed an accusation in the words “this large nest”.
“Never mind,” she said. “You’ll do better tomorrow.”
And the group marched on.
As Bujax got closer to home, he questioned Minion-Minor and Thoran more intently. If he were to let this purple ant into his nest, he must be sure. Perhaps it would be safer to kill him and be done with it.
“Thoran,” Bujax began, “how do we know Minion-Minor is what he says he is? What if he has been sent by this Gohunt to spy on us? I am very worried about what Majorim will say when we arrive with a strange purple ant. Do you see the difficulty? The arrival of a purple ant will change everything at our nest. You have seen the difference it has made to us.”
“No I don’t understand, Bujax,” Thoran replied. “He is just another ant. Why can’t he join us?”
“He is not ‘just another ant’. That is the whole point. He is a purple ant. Can’t you understand the difference? No; perhaps you are too young. Let me explain. We have lived our lives in the knowledge that ants are black-and-brown creatures that think like us, that are us. We know there are other creatures. There are grasshoppers and beetles and galls and caterpillars and so on. We see them, smell them and eat them. But they are not us. They are not ants. These purple creatures are not like the grasshoppers and beetles. They are like us. But then they are not like us. Oh, Thoran, this is so hard to explain. The trouble is this. It doesn’t matter if beetles behave completely differently from us and if they are awful, because they are beetles and not us. We can explain it and shrug it off because they are beetles. It matters if we see ants that are awful and cruel and we must do our best to stop them. We try in our nest to help each other and make things good for the nest. If ants are awful and cruel we do not and cannot say it doesn’t matter, because they are us. As we see them do terrible things we say it is us doing them and we take responsibility for it. Now we have purple ants. Are they us, or are they like the beetles and grasshoppers? Should we feel for them and be responsible for them and their actions, or pretend they are like beetles? They are not like beetles. Minion-Minor in such a short time has spoken to you and you have seen his nest. He is so much like us, yet so different. So he could come to our nest and cause great trouble.”
“No, no, Bujax,” Thoran pleaded. “you have it all wrong. I was there. I saw it with my own eyes. Minion-Minor would have been killed if he had not escaped. They killed the other worker. He has escaped bravely and will die if we do not let him come back to our nest. Please believe me, Bujax.”
Only when he said that did he realise that maybe Bujax did not believe him.
“I’m sorry, Thoran, but it goes against my instinct to allow this ant into our nest. We must be careful.”
At this Minion-Minor spoke out: “I could have killed you two many times in the past day. Look at me. I am stronger than the two of you together. It would take at least four of you to kill me. But I have not harmed you because if I do I will be alone. Thoran has helped me and you have helped me, Bujax. You and your nest are my only hope.”
Bujax was not convinced. He thought this ant was as good as dead anyway, so it would make no difference to him if he was killed, and he was sure two black-and-brown ants could do that. We saved him; we can kill him. That would be the safest and best thing for the nest. And no ant would know the difference. Bujax knew his responsibility was to the nest. This purple ant presented a danger to the nest. So it was simple. He would like to explain more to Thoran, but it was not possible. Either Thoran did not understand or he was not making himself clear.
Bujax pictured the arrival of the purple ant at the nest: the surprise and wonder. What would Majorim do, he thought. Then he realised the solution. He need not make a decision himself. Perhaps that was the answer: Majorim would make the decision and the whole nest would support it. That was safer, too. Maybe he and Thoran together might not be strong enough to kill Minion-Minor but the whole nest would be able to. He knew the ants of his nest, especially Majorim, would want the purple ant dead. One look at those threatening mandibles would be enough. No black-and-brown ant would want this purple ant in the nest; he could rely on their instant adverse reaction. And when the ant was killed the nest could return to normal as if nothing had happened.
Bujax thought the purple ant was so disquieting because he would change the normal pattern of things. He would change the way the ants of his nest saw their place in the world. They would no longer be ants, but just one of two kinds of ants. They would be lesser creatures in the universe; their uniqueness gone.
Thoran was worried about the time Bujax was spending in silent thought. “What are you thinking, Bujax?” he asked.
“Oh, nothing,” Bujax replied. “I just wonder what Majorim and the others will think of Minion-Minor.”
“One of us should warn them first, then. I could go ahead when we get close to the nest and tell them about Minion-Minor so the shock is not so great when they see him.”
“You’d only get lost,” Bujax said sarcastically, thinking that it would be better for the ants to share the same horror that he and Thoran had upon the first sight of a purple ant. They would be more likely to kill Minion-Minor without question because he was so different and such a threat to the way they saw themselves. Once the purple ant was dead, Bujax thought, he would not have to worry so much whether Thoran was a traitor. Thoran would either settle back into the nest and be like he was before or he would seek further contact with purple ants. If he did the latter, that would be proof enough that he was a traitor. But to have Thoran and Minion-Minor in the nest was too dangerous. Bujax thought he must ask Majorim or perhaps Merewright what was best. He speculated that Majorim would say the nest had a right to protect itself and could kill the purple ant and Thoran on suspicion alone. Merewright would want something more than mere suspicion. Merewright usually thought the best of ants. Certainly Merewright would want proof rather than just suspicion before killing Thoran. Bujax pondered these difficult questions and why there was one rule for ants of his nest and a different one for creatures from outside. He knew the others would ask him, and what he said would carry great weight, even though he was just a worker. After all, he found the lost Thoran and was about to bring him and the purple ant back to the nest. He had a powerful position. What if, however, the ants at the nest thought all three of them should be killed on suspicion, just as he had suspected Thoran? He must be on his guard.
“Thoran,” he asked at last, “what will happen when Minion-Minor gets to our nest?”
Thoran thought for a while and said: “He can join us and work with us and we can learn about the purple ants. If you are worried about them, it is best to find out about them, and Minion-Minor is the best way of doing that.”
“Yes,” said Bujax, “you have a point there.”
And indeed he had. It set Bujax to thinking some more.
“What do we know now?” he asked. “How good are they at foraging? Why haven’t we seen them before, and will we ever see them again?”
“They are good at foraging,” Thoran said. “They collect a food I have never seen before.”
“What’s this?” asked Bujax.
“It’s a white fibrous food, with little taste but very filling. Only the soldiers eat it, but we had some. Minion-Minor was too scared to eat it at first, but when he saw I had eaten it, he joined in.”
Thoran described the food in detail: how it was the same white colour throughout, different from anything he had seen before. He described how easy it was to digest and how the workers carried it, but were not allowed to eat it.
The freshness of Thoran’s description convinced Bujax. His nest must find more about this white food, and about the purple ants. He hoped the nest would see it his way.
* * * *
Bujax knew they were very close to the nest. The ground was familiar and then he noticed a pile of about fifty eggs. They had been in the sun all day and had dried out.
“We are very close now,” Bujax said. “Look at those eggs from our nest.”
“Those eggs have dried out,” cried a shocked Minion-Minor. “Why did your ants let that happen? What will happen to the ants responsible? This is a terrible calamity for you to lose so many eggs”
“What do you mean?,” Bujax said. “There were just too many eggs so some workers must have been told to take them out of the nest.”
“But you have lost fifty ants. They can never be replaced. How could your workers do such a thing? Don’t the soldiers tell them how to look after eggs and that every egg must be cared for? This is terrible.”
Minion-Minor looked at the dried eggs in horror. He had never seen such a thing. It would never happen in his nest. He wondered whether these black-and-brown ants were such good companions after all. If they could not look after their eggs, how would they treat their workers. It must be worse than his own nest. Perhaps he had put too much faith in Thoran. He should never have come here; he would have been better off on his own. Now he would become a slave in the black-and-brown nest. Perhaps he should have remained silent at the horror he saw around him. His protests might make them think he was ungrateful for his rescue and the invitation to stay at their nest. But it was too horrible to stay silent. It went against everything he had been taught: eggs came first. Without caring for each and every egg, the nest was doomed. Didn’t these black-and-brown ants know what they were doing?
“I don’t understand what you are saying,” Bujax said. “There are simply too many eggs for the nest, so some have to be taken away.”
“You must build a bigger nest, then,” Minion-Minor said. “It’s simple. I can help you. I have seen how we purple ants do it. Do you want me to help you?”
“You should speak to Merewright about it,” Bujax said. And he thought there was only a short time to change his mind. Until now his nest had lived in happiness and contentment as the only ants. To introduce this purple ant to the nest with his strange ideas could only lead to trouble. But if he did not, the purple ants might come en masse anyway and they would be less prepared.
Minion-Minor walked over to the dried eggs, shaking his head ruefully. He asked himself, what sort of nest is this?
Bujax looked at him curiously. Maybe Thoran would understand now. A simple thing like putting unwanted eggs out to dry had caused Minion-Minor great upset. What beetles and grasshoppers did and think was of no concern because they were beetles and grasshoppers. However, what Minion-Minor thought was of great importance because he was an ant. Purple and different in many ways, to be sure. But he was still an ant. Bujax was aware of the irony. It was because Minion-Minor was so like them, that the differences between them were so marked and so troublesome, whereas the difference between an ant and a beetle was so huge as to be beyond comparison and therefore beyond significance.
* * * *
“Thoran,” Bujax instructed. “Go forward to the nest. It is straight ahead and only two hundred body lengths away. When you get there, find Majorim. Prepare her, in the best way you can, to meet Minion-Minor and then bring her back here.”
Thoran set off and Bujax remained with Minion-Minor.
“Who is Majorim?” Minion-Minor asked politely.
“Our chief soldier,” Bujax replied.
Minion-Minor imagined a fierce soldier like Gohunt, her jagged mandibles a forceful symbol of power. They were a symbol of meaning, too. On each occasion Gohunt used them, those around were astounded at the ease with which Gohunt physically shredded food or cut some unfortunate worker in half. She was reputed to be able to cut a soldier in half with the same ease a soldier could halve a worker. Minion-Minor imagined being once again the oppressed subject of a soldier’s passionless scrutiny, of an inordinately suspicious mind and of a friendless disposition. The words “chief soldier” could only stir foreboding and dread in the mind of Minion-Minor.
Should he run? He escaped last time. He could quickly over-power Bujax and go. He could hide, no doubt, and though the thought disgusted him, he could live off the dead eggs until he found a better food supply. It was good land here; there seemed to be much more food about than near his own nest. But he would live alone with no help, with no nest and no purpose. This thought evoked more dread than the thought of confronting a chief soldier. No; he must take his chance with these black-and-brown ants. He would live in their nest, if they let him. His was an unenviable plight: life alone or life with alien ants. In despair Minion-Minor thought that perhaps his escape was not for the best after all, and he would have been better off if he had shared the fate of his stumbling purple worker companion: the end would have been quick; he would have felt nothing and he would not have had the agony of making his own choices. Yet just a day ago he was basking in the good fortune of precisely having the ability to choose, of being different from the rest. What was the difference: then he had just escaped the infliction upon him of a demonstrably nasty fate; now that very possibility was just before him. Whatever the uncertainties then, they appeared insignificant compared to the fate escaped from. But the elation of escape and the recognition of being on borrowed time anyway had not lasted long. He had to prepare now for what the future might bring.
* * * *
Majorim approached. She was certainly bigger than Thoran and Bujax, but she did not cut an imposing or powerful figure. Minion-Minor’s fears and doubts dissipated. This was no Gohunt, he thought. How should such frail legs and tiny mandibles command power or respect, he wondered? There was an answer to that question, but it was not within Minion-Minor’s grasp. Bullying, subjugation and rote work had been the ingredients of his life in the purple nest. His activity had been grounded in fear. He recalled the grinding days on foraging parties, the endless search for food, the tending of eggs, all under the direction and control of larger soldier ants, who could punish him quickly and brutally. There was no choice. Physical strength was power. There was no willingness in the workers’ work, and without the incessant cajoling by strong soldiers, there would be no work; the nest would collapse. Its efficiency as a food-gathering entity was unequalled, but it was dependent upon a unilateral direction of will that made it far more vulnerable than outward appearances would suggest. Minion-Minor’s life, at least until two days ago, blinded him to Majorim’s strength and power which had nothing to do with jagged mandibles and girth of leg, as he would later learn.
Minion-Minor laughed at his earlier foreboding and greeted Majorim with undeserved nonchalance. “So you are the soldier leader of this nest,” he said.
“And you are the single purple ant,” Majorim retorted quickly. She had difficulty repressing her amazement and curiosity. She had hardly believed Thoran earlier as he had blurted out his story. But here before her was, as Thoran had told her, a purple ant. And what large mandibles and legs. She looked him up and down. He was a lone ant, and she had the comfort of being near her own nest and many of her own kind, but, she thought ominously, there must be more where this one came from. More frighteningly, Thoran had told her that he was a worker. Larger soldiers with more vicious mandibles must exist. Majorim absorbed the moment. Her life and world were indelibly changed. The moment was a cleavage: before was the time of no purple ants; after was the time of them. The instant of attaining knowledge of the purple ants would divide her life and the life of all the ants in her nest. Her curiosity turned into disbelief and the disbelief to anger. Why should their beautiful life be disturbed thus? And the anger turned to reluctant acceptance. The purple ant was there. His existence could not be denied. Majorim converted her reluctant acceptance into resolve. She must ensure the nest of the black-and-brown ants survived this most ominous threat. Her preliminary actions were to her self-evident.
Therein lay Majorim’s strength. The speed with which her emotions travelled from the futility of disbelief and anger to the salvation of acceptance and resolve set her above the ordinary and made her just as powerful as the purple soldiers whom Minion-Minor thought so strong. But at that stage he did not see it, neither did Bujax or Thoran.
Majorim issued her orders: “Bujax, not far from here is an old nest. It was abandoned long ago. Do you know it?”
“Yes,” said Bujax, “we often passed it on our way to foraging parties. I think I can find it without any difficulty.”
“Good. Take Thoran and Minion-Minor there. I will send some food soon.”
Then she turned to Minion-Minor: “Thoran has told me a lot about you. We have much in common; even our languages are similar and you have learned to speak in ours very quickly. But it would be a mistake to allow you into our nest immediately. The other ants would reject you and there would be nothing I could do to stop it. We must introduce you gradually to our nest. You will meet our ants gradually, one or two at a time. Then the word will spread that you are not so strange after all, that you are just like us and you can join our nest. Do you understand?”
Minion-Minor nodded. He was glad he would be allowed to join their nest; he had no other refuge. The delay did not matter; at least he would have his new friends with him. How lucky he had been. He had run when he should have run; he stayed when he should have stayed and he trusted, despite many doubts, when he should have trusted. Each time he had made the right choice. He had no cause to say “if only this”, or “if only that”. On the dangerous edge of life he had been living, “if onlys” were meaningless luxuries. He was lucky to be alive and to have refuge; and he knew it.
Majorim took Bujax aside: “You have done well, Bujax. You have found Thoran and brought back this purple ant. You might have been tempted to kill him or to let him go. I’m glad you didn’t. We must watch Minion-Minor and find out as much as possible about these purple ants. You realise their nest is not far away. Thoran walked there in a day. I know foraging parties can only walk out half a day and then back again, but this huge nest is too close for my liking. And remember they know about us now. Their purple soldier saw you and Thoran. Minion-Minor can join our nest, but not just to help him or provide him a refuge, but so we can learn about him. But we must be careful. He must never leave this nest; he must never be allowed to go home. Do you understand?”
“Yes,” said Bujax quietly.
“And one more thing. Be careful with Thoran. He does silly things too often, like getting lost in the first place. He listens too much to Merewright’s stories and takes them too seriously. Now go. I will send some food later.”
And Bujax took his charges to the disused nest.
* * * *
It had been a long day. On their arrival at the old nest, Thoran and Minion-Minor began excited conversation about Minion-Minor joining the nest, while Bujax half-listened. Thoran told Minion-Minor about Merewright and his stories, but Minion-Minor could not understand.
“What happened long ago, doesn’t matter,” he said. “What’s gone is gone and cannot be undone.”
Minion-Minor’s view was reinforced by his own predicament.
“Why do you worry about these stories?” he asked. “Who cares about them?”
“All the ants love the stories,” Thoran replied. “They are exciting stories and Merewright tells them so well.”
“But how do you know if they are true?” Minion-Minor rejoined. “How do you know he is not making it up?”
“That’s the point,” Thoran said exasperated. “Some of the stories are made up. Merewright changes them from time to time to keep them interesting.”
Minion-Minor was shocked: “He lies to you, and you like it?”
“But we all know it is not true. But it seems true.”
Minion-Minor was more mystified than before. “He should be out getting food not wasting time telling stories. In our nest he would be killed for making up stories. Why don’t your soldiers kill him for telling lies? The lies can only lead to trouble?”
“No, our soldiers love the stories. They could never kill Merewright for doing something of such great value.”
Minion-Minor knew there was no point in getting into an argument when he knew he was right, so he changed the subject.
“But tell me about your soldiers and foraging parties,” he asked. “Do you have to work hard?”
Thoran prattled on about the ease of collecting food and the richness of the area around the nest. Despite his long day he answered all Minion-Minor’s questions in great detail. Bujax had heard it all before and knew it all anyway. His day was just as arduous, but whereas Thoran was home and relaxed, Bujax felt the weight of the responsibility Majorim had passed to him. He kept his guard on Thoran and Minion-Minor as they spoke, but slowly he tired and their conversation melded into his dream.
In the dream, Thoran was talking to him. “Look,” he whispered, “Minion-Minor has lent me his purpleness.” Bujax could make no sense of the dream. He half-knew he was dreaming and had half-control over where it was going. Nonetheless, the dream had half-control, too, and led Bujax into bizarre unreality. Lending another ant’s purpleness could not be real. But the dream said it was true. Yes, Thoran had borrowed Minion-Minor’s purpleness; he was purple all over and talking softly. “Bujax, why don’t you borrow Minion-Minor’s purpleness for a while. He will let you. Purpleness feels strange, but beautiful. Look at Minion-Minor, Bujax, what colour is he.” And Bujax looked slowly up. Minion-Minor was still purple, with an iridescent purple glow. Bujax walked toward him, drawn by the beauty of the purple glow. Minion-Minor was twice his size. The attraction of the purple glow was over-powering. He had to walk toward it. He walked into the glow and touched Minion-Minor, who nodded benignly. He walked beyond the glow and saw that he, too, was purple. Thoran was politely asking Minion-Minor whether he wanted his purpleness back. “No, Thoran,” Minion-Minor intoned. I have given it to you, not lent it to you. It is yours forever. You must not be ungrateful. I have given you the greatest gift an ant can have: purpleness. Look at Bujax, he is grateful for his purpleness. And Bujax saw Thoran’s eyes turn to him, questioning. Thoran’s legs were twitching and his head nodding. His legs and feelers rubbed his body in futile violence. He was trying to shake off the purpleness. He was a translucent purple now and growing larger. Bujax saw the black-and-brown ants from his nest walking toward Thoran in a long line. The first reached him and walked straight through him. The ant came out the other side and Bujax saw the ant was purple. All the ants of the nest were following. There was Merewright. There was Majorim. They were all purple. Then they turned around and walked through Minion-Minor. When they came out the other side each ant was still purple, but carrying a large piece of the white food Thoran had described. And they kept coming – hundreds of them, far more than in his nest. Each carried the white food.
* * * *
Bujax was woken by a scratching. It was a soldier with food. He looked around and saw Minion-Minor and Thoran asleep. Oh blessed relief, he thought, Thoran was his usual black-and-brown self. Nonetheless, he looked uncertainly at himself. He, too, was normal. It was just a dream; there was no need to take any notice of it. Just a dream, nothing to worry about. But the dream nagged him and he knew he would recall it often. It was the sort of dream, so profoundly related to waking life, that would recur until its meaning became clear by unfolding events or until unfolding events made it irrelevant.
“Can I come in?” asked the soldier. “I have brought you food.”
“No, wait,” cried Bujax. “I will come out. Any other ants there?”
“Yes, Merewright is here.”
Good, thought Bujax. Of all the ants in the nest to next see the purple ant, Merewright would be best. It was ironic that Merewright the story-teller, the one who Minion-Minor said had told lies, was the ant he could trust and believe the most. And other ants felt the same way. Perhaps it was because he told so many stories that he always ensured in real life that fact was fact and not to be played with.
“Has Majorim told you why we are here?” Bujax asked.
“Yes,” replied Merewright. “I am intrigued. I would like to meet Minion-Minor.”
Just like Merewright, thought Bujax. He does not say he wants to see the “purple ant”, but he wants to meet “Minion-Minor”. It would be good to have Merewright’s perspective on things. He had a way of seeing things other ants missed.
“How much did Majorim tell you?”
“She gave me a very confused summary of what happened to young Thoran, and relayed his story of the purple ants’ nest. It is a shame they are not a little further away,” Merewright said casually. “Please, take me to him.”
“Before we go in,” Bujax said. “I must tell you about my dream.”
And Bujax relayed his dream.
“Never mind,” said Merewright, “it’s only a dream.” But the images of the dream, recreated in Merewright’s mind, were to stay with Merewright till the end of his days. The dream, compounded almost instantly with the real sight of his first purple ant, produced a more powerful effect on Merewright than to any of the other many black-and-brown ants who were to meet Minion-Minor in the next few days. Minion-Minor was no curiosity, Merewright thought. He was not a one-day novelty. His presence at the black-and-brown nest was a stark line in the nest’s history which was now divided into that before the purple ants and that after them. Merewright knew no ants could be the same after seeing Minion-Minor. The nest would ultimately settle back to normalcy, but it would be a new normalcy, a new way the black-and-brown ants saw themselves and their world.
“These are difficult times,” Gohunt said to her soldiers. “Difficult times require difficult measures. Soldiers must work. I cannot help the arrival of the Evil Ones. We must live with less food. We must search longer and harder for food. I am sorry, but it is not my doing; it is not my fault.”
Gohunt’s lectures became more strident as time went on. When questioned she became more intransigent.
“What are you asking?” she said. “We dare not search for food in the direction of the Evil Ones. Do you want to bring death and destruction to the whole nest? My soldier leaders are behind me on this. They also agree with me that the expansion of the nest must continue; it is the only way to survive. The workers are with me, too. They know that I will protect them and that I am the only one with the strength of purpose to ensure this nest survives. There will be no more talk of searching for food in the direction of the Evil Ones. And there will be no more talk of stopping the expansion of the nest. A small group of soldiers are only saying this because they are afraid of some hard work for the good of the nest.”
Gohunt knew she was right. She had some loyal soldiers at her side and workers with great collective strength. But she knew a few soldiers did not care about their nest and were determined to change things in a way that would ensure its destruction. If only they understood. How could she show them she was right?
“I have made great sacrifices for this nest,” she said. “I know not everything has gone exactly to plan, but we have been hindered by unexpected forces. The absence of food in the Desert of Stones is not my doing. But we will overcome it. We will send out bigger foraging parties for a longer time, which means we need more ants. So the expansion of the nest must continue. Tomorrow, despite my many other duties, I will work on construction and the next day I will go on a foraging party further than we have ever been before, into the Desert of Stones.”
Gohunt said to herself, I will show them. I will move more dirt in a day than four of them. I will get more food in a day than ten of them. They don’t know how to dig and they don’t know how to find food; that is their trouble.
The next day Gohunt was good to her word. She joined a workers’ group and dug prodigiously. The workers admired the way her powerful mandibles tore into the dirt. Her head darted and turned. Her legs pulled and pushed. Gohunt picked up large stones that would take three workers to move and tossed them effortlessly behind her. She cut through leaves and sliced through clay. She called to workers to clear away the dirt she had cut out. Gohunt was at her best. She was leading from the front. Her determination and dogmatic belief in herself made her work harder than any ant had ever worked in that nest. The intensity of her work and the extraordinary results it achieved blinded the other ants from the purpose of it. The workers and her soldier leaders saw the work and marvelled. They began to worship her. The other soldiers, some begrudgingly, acknowledged her strength. Her personal achievement at moving more dirt than any other ant could put her above reproach or question. No ant asked whether the capacity to move dirt at a greater rate than any other ant made Gohunt the best ant to control the destiny of the nest. Their admiration of her strength and stamina extended, quite irrationally, to a general belief that she was the best leader.
That evening at the nest, she was a hero. The workers cheered her and the soldier leaders enjoyed the reflected glory. There was no dissent. Gohunt amazed herself yet again on how easy it was to command.
The next day she led a foraging party. She struck out in exactly the opposite direction from the Evil Ones. The others could barely keep up.
“Come on, you lot,” she said. “If we are to get food we must march for it.”
They walked for two hours through the stones. There was hardly a blade of grass. Gohunt began to worry. Surely, there must be something out here. She remembered the days when she led foraging parties and the efficiency with which a large group could cull the ground of any food, taking the lot back to the nest. The stones radiated the heat. It became oppressive, but Gohunt kept walking. The others staggered behind. On and on they marched. Gohunt led with single-minded determination. They were a long way out for a foraging party, and many wondered if they would get back before nightfall. Then Gohunt mercifully stopped. She raised her head imperiously.
“Can you smell it?” she asked.
Gohunt was excited.
“Come on,” she cried. “Faster, faster. There is food. I can smell it.”
The others smelt it too. It wasn’t grasshopper or cicada, but something sweeter. The smell got richer, and the purple ants began to march to its source in a frenzy.
“Slow, now,” Gohunt called. “There might be danger. Spread out.”
No other soldier ever did this. They always walked in line. But Gohunt was different from the others. She occasionally used the tactic of spreading out quite effectively. She recalled the time of the encounter with the black-and-brown ants, and was about to mention it boastfully to one of her companions, but caught herself just in time.
“What’s the matter, Gohunt?” the companion inquired. “You suddenly look weak. You have been working too hard. You must rest.”
“No, no. It is nothing. We must press on.”
At her command the ants spread out. Gohunt knew the power of high drama. She wanted the party to see the food source together, not one at a time. Then she would receive recognition from all of them together. It had a multiplier effect and created great cohesion under her leadership. Like most of these things, it was an elementary tactic, and few of the ants had the intelligence to see through it. It was pleasurable to have them under her command, and necessary. She knew, and they, too, were beginning to acknowledge that the nest could not survive unless she led it. The Queen would become sterile, the Evil Ones would attack. Yes; they had a lot to be grateful to her for. And they were. The events with the black-and-brown ants were an inevitable part of her destiny, she thought. They were there so she could become leader. And how she had strengthened the nest! It was larger than ever before. They were foraging over a wider area than ever before. There were more ants than ever before. She must mention these things more often to the ants to make them acknowledge her greatness.
It was not long before her pincer movement had the food surrounded. She ordered the ants to advance toward it. The sweet smell drowned the tiredness of the morning’s walk. It massaged the ants’ bodies from within, making them feel safe and fulfilled. As one, they came across the food. It was nearly two hundred body lengths long and nearly a hundred wide: an enormous pile of meat, bone and fur, such as the nest had not seen for a long, long time.
They cheered Gohunt. And she thanked them. But there was no time for complacency. Just as Gohunt would not rest with the glory of the previous day’s dig, she would not rest on the glory of merely finding food. It had to be transported back to the nest. Gohunt had long known of food disappearing quickly. Gohunt’s genius for organisation came to the fore. She dashed out orders to several soldiers and they left. She ordered some other workers to station themselves along the way back to the nest. Her plan was decisive. She ordered that every ant in the nest not looking after eggs or larvae to join her food column. They would remove all the food back to the nest, working all night and all the next night if necessary until it was done. The ants of the purple nest slaved. They carried great chunks of meat back in cleverly arranged relays. Gohunt organised the carving of carcass with efficiency and aplomb. No ant had an idle moment, soldier and worker alike.
It was a triumph for Gohunt. Not only had she found the food, but organised its transport back to the nest without wastage or loss. Surely, all the ants would acknowledge her undoubted leadership and skill. None could dissent. The nest was now stocked with more food than any ant could remember. Every ant in the nest was exhausted with the effort but shared in the achievement, and, though of lesser importance, fed upon it.
“In the past,” she said at a meeting of the ants a few days later, “We had a weak nest, vulnerable to starvation and unable to grow. I have reversed that, as you can see, despite the threat of the Evil Ones. The nest will continue to expand and we will get better at collecting food. It can be done as I have shown.”
Gohunt talked about her great achievements while the ants listened patiently. She returned again and again to her feats of digging tunnels and finding food and urged all the ants to follow her example. But she overdid it. Her actions had spoken; there was no need for talk. Some quiet under-statement would have been more effective. As it was, her boastfulness negated part of the gains made by her physical prowess.
Longfeel sensed the slight restlessness among some of the soldiers. She was sickened by Gohunt’s boastfulness, but was at first unsure if any of the others shared her feeling because none knew about her dreadful secret. Gohunt was becoming more invincible. She must do something. If only they could search for food in the direction of the Evil Ones, they would see that the Evil Ones were pathetic little black-and-brown ants who would hurt no one. How could she force Gohunt into allowing soldiers to go in that direction?
Gohunt rambled on, but no matter how grateful the ants were for the food or impressed by her prodigious digging, they became more repelled by the boastfulness. However warranted, no ant would accept it. It caused a seed of disrespect to be sown within them that would slowly grow into jealousy, resentment and finally hostility. Longfeel was right to sense it, but she moved too soon. She did not allow the seed to germinate and flourish. She garnered her courage and spoke out: “Gohunt, you are stronger than all of us, so your digging was bound to be more than anything any ant has ever seen. But we cannot all dig like you.”
“Silence,” Gohunt exclaimed in anger. “How dare you say these things, you ungrateful soldier, when I have worked tirelessly for you and the whole nest. I cannot believe a soldier would say such things.”
The ants hushed, but Longfeel continued bravely, sensing she had some support even if none dared express it: “Your finding of food was just lucky. Other foraging parties had searched for days and come back with little. It could just as easily have happened to you.”
Some ants nodded slightly at this, but Gohunt’s attention was riveted upon Longfeel and she missed it. Gohunt’s anger clouded her perceptions, but outwardly she was calm. She recalled that Longfeel had expressed a desire to hunt for food in the direction of the Evil Ones and that she was on the expedition to find Minion-Minor. Longfeel was a dangerous ant.
“Longfeel, you are an idle chatterer,” Gohunt said. “While I work for the good of the nest and strive to make great achievements, you try to undermine them. You have failed to learn obedience and loyalty. Come over here.”
No ant moved as Longfeel walked forward. They were mesmerised. What was Gohunt going to do? Should they interfere? Longfeel went cold with fear. What was to happen to her? Surely, the other soldiers would not permit a soldier like her to be mistreated. Such things had never happened in the nest. A worker might be killed, but that was only a worker. Soldiers had comfortable lives and could do and say much as they pleased. Gohunt was changing that, and no ant was stopping her. Longfeel continued to walk slowly forward, staring at Gohunt’s determined eyes. Longfeel had seen those eyes look like that once before. She remembered them indelibly: Gohunt’s murderous eyes. She must act quickly. She must make her secret known, but if she blurted it out now no one would believe her. She must not let Gohunt kill her and let her secret die with her.
“I’m sorry, Gohunt,” she said quickly. “I have been an ungrateful soldier. You are the greatest leader this nest has known and you have worked unselfishly for it. I was wrong. Completely. Utterly. I can see that now. We have never had so much food, such expansion.”
Longfeel was almost incoherent with fear, but she saw it was having an effect on Gohunt whose eyes mellowed. But Longfeel misread the picture. Gohunt was mellowing at seeing the other ants, watching their helpless fascination at Gohunt’s total control. Gohunt’s eyes twinkled with power.
“Longfeel,” she said with slow deliberation. “Keep walking. It’s all right, I accept your apology. But what is that on your neck? Come closer. I want to look at your neck.”
* * * *
Minion-Minor looked in fascination as Merewright herded ten aphids into the nest.
“Come on,” said Merewright, “follow me.”
“Why are you allowing them into the nest?” Minion-Minor asked.
Merewright took the aphids into a large chamber. One by one he rubbed his front legs over their abdomens until the white milk oozed out on to some leaf.
“Go on, taste it,” Merewright said enthusiastically.
Minion-Minor tasted the milk. It was the best thing he had tasted in his life. And how easy to obtain.
Merewright herded the aphids out of the nest and let them go.
“Don’t do that,” Minion-Minor said. “We should keep them. We could milk them all the time. Why don’t we get more aphids, then we wouldn’t need so much other food.”
“No, no,” said Merewright, “the aphids must only be milked occasionally. I’m surprised your nest does not milk aphids and you know nothing about them.”
Minion-Minor imagined what his nest could do with aphids. They could have hundreds of them being milked every day. These aphids could feed a lot of ants. They should all be herded into nests. These black-and-brown ants knew nothing about doing things on a big scale. With more ants it would be so easy to have a big herd of aphids and a guaranteed supply of food. There would be no need to chase them up; they could be forced to live in the nest with lots of workers to look after them. Minion-Minor pictured himself showing the ants of the purple nest how to milk aphids. He would be put in charge of a huge aphid-milking scheme. He looked over at Merewright with a mixture of admiration and contempt. How could such an ant know so much and do so little with it, he thought. He must follow Merewright and learn more from him.
Gradually Minion-Minor got to know every ant in the nest. They treated him as one of themselves and his purpleness soon became a familiarity rather than a curiosity. Bujax and Thoran were his most constant companions, but he never felt unsafe no matter which ants he was with. He even listened to Merewright’s stories and sometimes enjoyed them. He thought someone in the purple nest should learn to tell stories.
However, no matter how comfortable he felt, his reference point was always the purple nest. He wondered what his companions there would think of this small nest of black-and-brown ants.
Merewright showed him the fungus farm deep in the nest. This caused him to marvel, though Merewright’s careful collection of spores and husbanding of the fungus frustrated him. The fungus was almost as good to taste as the aphid milk, but Merewright would not permit him to eat much and he strictly controlled how much was grown. He imagined what the purple ants could do with it: huge chambers of wonderful fungus with hundreds of workers tending it. With the aphids and the fungus they would not need to go on the long and incessant foraging parties.
Minion-Minor longed to tell his old companions of his discoveries.
* * * *
Longfeel had heard the words once before: “I want to look at your neck”. There was no escape. She looked plaintively at Ik-Rass whose eyes showed helpless sympathy. An inner calm came over her as she accepted in sadness that her secret would die with her and her nest would remain under Gohunt’s tyranny indefinitely. She waited in silence for the mandibles to strike.
At once Gohunt realised her power. She was about to execute a soldier. No ant challenged it. This was unlike the last time when the killing was done in secret, aside from the black-and-brown ants and a banished worker. This time Gohunt would execute her victim in front of all the ants in the nest. It was necessary for the good of the nest, she said to herself in justification. She could have no dissent if the nest were to survive. Longfeel had brought it upon herself and deserved to die. Gohunt looked at Longfeel. There she was, a soldier ant in her prime. Her body without flaw: feelers, legs, thorax, head all functioning. Her eyes seeing. Her nerves waiting ready and able to send the messages of her senses to her brain. This was a living ant, a healthy ant, yet this ant was about to die. She was not a dying ant, but she was about to die, not by some accident that might or might not happen, not by some illness from which she might or might not recover, but by the deliberate action of Gohunt. That action, Gohunt thought, was to be taken on behalf of all the ants to protect their nest. They would understand. In fact they would enjoy it, getting satisfaction from the unity it would bring the nest against dissent. They would all gain satisfaction and relief that they were not the victim. Gohunt pictured her last killing. It had been so easy. In just a few seconds Longfeel’s head would fall severed to the ground, her body would writhe and her head would twitch. And the ants of the nest would know her power and respect it. In future they would obey.
But in the moment that Gohunt thought these things, Longfeel made a last desperate appeal: “You said you would protect me,” she cried.
Gohunt was shaken. She remembered the incident clearly. It was on the mission to pursue Minion-Minor. Now before the assembled ants Gohunt’s role as a protector was under challenge. She had created the role herself. She had used it with great effect to gain and exercise power. If she killed Longfeel now, she would lose trust. These ants saw her as their protector. She must respond to Longfeel’s challenge in another way. She must change her response. And she did.
“It’s nothing,” Gohunt said aloud. “Nothing at all; your neck is all right.”
Longfeel was exhausted with relief.
“Yes I promised to protect you,” Gohunt continued, “but you have reneged. You must protect yourself now. You have questioned what happens at this nest. You do not like it here so you must go. You have said we must forage in the direction of the Evil Ones, well go and forage there and take any others that want to go with you.”
Gohunt admired her own cleverness. These ants could not survive. Their inevitable death would increase the fear in the nest of the Evil Ones, enabling her grip on power to be tighter so she could do those things for the nest that needed to be done. Yes, this was a good plan.
The next day Longfeel left the nest. Ik-Rass and seven other dissatisfied soldiers joined her.
“Why are we heading straight into danger?” one of the soldiers asked Longfeel. “If we walk this way the Evil Ones will surely kill us. Why don’t we loop around in a circle and go in the other direction?”
The nine had marched half a day and all but Longfeel felt uneasy. At any step they expected to come across a huge black-and-brown monster. They waited for a change in direction in vain.
“No,” Longfeel replied, “that way lies certain death. Every day the foraging parties go out. We would be found and killed. Besides there is not enough food out there. The nest is struggling now to get enough. What hope would we nine have?”
“But the Evil Ones will get us this way. Whichever way we go we are doomed. I should not have come with you. I would have been better back at the nest.”
“No you were right to come with us. Didn’t you see how Gohunt was ready to kill me? She had isolated us in the nest anyway, so it was just a question of time before she found some excuse to kill us or banish us anyway. We were a threat to her.”
Longfeel had assumed the leadership of the group. Ik-Rass allowed it to happen. After all, it was only Longfeel who had the courage to stand up to Gohunt.
“Look at all the food around here,” Longfeel said to the others. “This is the way we will go. This way lies food and no danger of being caught by soldiers from the nest. The other way lies either certain capture or death from starvation. The choice is obvious.”
“But what about the Evil Ones?” Ik-Rass asked.
“Have you ever seen an Evil One?” Longfeel asked rhetorically. “If you haven’t seen one, why are you so scared of them?”
“Because they are larger than us and can kill us,” a soldier replied.
Longfeel thought it better not to tell the tale baldly, but to sow the doubts first. “How do you know they are bigger than us? How do you know they can kill us?”
“Because Gohunt told us,” the soldier said smugly.
“Exactly,” Longfeel said sarcastically. “Because Gohunt told us. Now I ask you, has any ant in the nest other than Gohunt seen an Evil One?”
“But Gohunt saw one with her own eyes,” Ik-Rass said. “She described it vividly. She was there. What are you saying?”
“Ik-Rass, you were duped. Remember one day when I saw you digging and I tried to tell you something important, but you threatened to report me to Gohunt?”
“Yes, yes, I remember. But I wasn’t going to report you. I was just worried that you were setting up a trap. You used to be in Gohunt’s foraging party and I thought you were one of her cohorts. How wrong I was. I only found out later, when it was too late. And I had to protect myself. I couldn’t trust you then.”
“Do you trust me now?”
“Yes, you have done your best to stop Gohunt’s excesses and risked your life doing so.”
“Well, I will tell you all now what I tried to tell Ik-Rass on that day.”
Longfeel gathered the eight around her. They were still nervous. The danger of being in the Evil Ones’ territory worried them, and it was compounded by the uncertainty of exile. But the power of learning a secret was greater. The thought that one ant knew something about another aroused immense curiosity. The desire to know burned in them. Though she did not understand why, it was this secret knowledge which projected her to lead the exiles. Longfeel knew that she must share her knowledge if the exiles were to survive. She must be honest with them. She could not hold back, or rely on uncertainty and doubt to enable her to lead the exiles. She would rely on the truth. It did not matter that she had only eight followers and Gohunt had an immense nest, she hoped Gohunt’s lies and murder would ultimately be exposed. She had to make a start, something she had been unable to do back at the nest. “Remember the day we set out to chase Minion-Minor,” she began. “It was a simple task. He was just a worker. We were to overtake him and bring him back. Gohunt revelled in the chase. She always played exactly by the rules, but she enjoyed keeping the workers in line. We smelt Minion-Minor and Gohunt ordered us into a pincer movement. I ended up on a high stone with a good view. And I saw a strange sight. An ant just like us appeared. But it was smaller than us and had tiny mandibles. Parts of it were black and other parts brown. Then I saw Minion-Minor with another of these black-and-brown creatures. I was about to raise the alarm, but I saw Gohunt approaching and everything was under control. There was no way these pathetic black-and-brown creatures would pose any threat to Gohunt. She had them cornered. Then one of our soldiers arrived on the scene so there was no need for me to go down.”
By now the eight ants were fascinated by Longfeel’s story. They had never heard this version of the Minion-Minor incident before.
“When did the Evil Ones arrive?” one soldier interrupted. “Did you see them? What did they do? How did you escape?”
“Patience,” Longfeel ordered. “All will be revealed and your questions answered. Anyway, I stood there watching. Gohunt ordered our soldier to come very close and then in one quick move turned her head sideways, opened her mandibles and snapped her head off.”
“No,” cried the soldiers at once. And one continued: “Gohunt would not murder one of her own. We know she is manic and boastful and everything else, but she would not do a thing like that”
“Well, she did,” Longfeel insisted. “I saw it. And worse than that she just let Minion-Minor and the two black-and-brown ants walk away.”
“What about the Evil Ones?” a soldier asked.
“Don’t you see!” Longfeel replied, “There are no Evil Ones. I went down to them and Gohunt said the soldier had been killed by a giant black-and-brown ant with huge mandibles. She had fought as best she could to save our soldier and recapture Minion-Minor but it was hopeless. The creature had run off with Minion-Minor. I was amazed. It was just lies. But the horror of seeing our beheaded soldier caused the others to suspend belief. They just swallowed everything Gohunt told them. They would not have believed me. And she has been playing on it ever since.”
The eight were astonished at Longfeel’s tale. Ik-Rass shook her head. She could believe Longfeel’s story. On reflection it seemed more likely than ants four times their own size. But Gohunt’s ability to keep up the lie for so long was incredible.
“How did Gohunt get away with it?” she asked, shaking her head. “She was so passionate about the Evil Ones and their risk to the nest. Everything was based upon them. Everything the nest did was because of the Evil Ones. How could she do such a thing? Why didn’t you say something earlier?”
“Well,” said Longfeel, “I had to watch the whole time knowing it was a lie and knowing I could not expose her. I guessed she began to believe her own lie. It is the only explanation. And as she believed it, every other ant believed it. There was nothing I could do. No ant would believe me. Unless the lie is exposed early, it becomes the truth and the real truth cannot emerge because it is denounced by all as a lie.”
The eight ants shook their heads in disbelief. A silence came over the group as the truth slowly dawned upon them. They had been duped. They had been exiled. They were now without a nest. But a great calm passed over them. Simultaneously each realised that for the first time since Gohunt had returned from the Minion-Minor expedition their minds were at rest: they were living without the pervading force of fear. There were no Evil Ones and no Gohunt.
* * * *
Upon the exile of Longfeel, Gohunt’s power became unquestioned. As the days went by she built up a triangle of power: the threat of the Evil Ones, the viciousness of her cohorts in driving the ants to work harder and her personal strength. Upon these she based her program to expand both the physical size of the nest and the number of ants in it. The larger her domain, the more she liked it.
“I deserve my success,” Gohunt thought to herself. “I have organised this nest very well.”
Her greatest achievement was in the gathering of food. “We are to change the way we forage for food,” she told her soldier leaders one day. “I want you to conduct some selection trials for smell. We must find the ants, whether soldiers or workers who have the best smell.”
She told them in great detail how to do the tests. She supervised the tests and encouraged those taking them. Each ant was made to feel special. She and her soldier leaders trained those with the good smell to walk fast. They were to carry nothing. Then she reorganised the foraging teams. She organised teams to start systematic foraging in lines like spokes from the nest, except in the direction of the Evil Ones. The good smellers were to walk all day and stay out overnight. Whenever a big food mass was found, the whole nest was swung into action to bring it back to the nest before it disappeared. The new method increased food gathering fivefold. There was far more food in the nest now than in the days before the Evil Ones came, though it was a far bigger nest.
Gohunt addressed the ants: “We have achieved much. We are now gathering food at seven times the previous rate. This could only be achieved by a nest as large as ours. A smaller nest could never bring in food the way we do. It vindicates what I said after the Evils Ones first came. It is good that those who doubted the ability of this nest to survive and grow have been banished. They might have frustrated our efforts.”
Gohunt talked on. The ants listened more out of politeness than interest. Gohunt, it was true had enabled them to get much more food. But did she know how boring her self-congratulating tirades were becoming? Gohunt continued: “We can expand still further. Our Queen, greatly ennourished by our efforts is producing more eggs than ever before.”
She quoted in vast detail the length of tunnels they had constructed and the number and size of chambers and the calculation of the number of workers and soldiers now in the nest. Her achievements seemed endless and she was sure the ants in the nest appreciated them all.
Longfeel’s group walked further from their nest. As they walked there were fewer stones. They walked into a speckled world of sun and shade. The more they walked the more grass stems they saw: long, thin yellow grass. Ik-Rass climbed a stem and it bowed under her weight falling gracefully to the ground with Ik-Rass riding on it. The others did the same thing. At the top of the bowed stems they found seed which they broke open. Food was bountiful. At night they found dead leaves or sticks to rest under. And when day came they walked on, meandering around, playing on the stems of the grass, feeding and resting. It was an easy time, far from Gohunt’s nest with its relentless schedule of foraging and building, far from the brutality of her soldiers and the dogmatism of her meetings. Longfeel no longer led the group; no one led it. The nine ants just ate and walked.
“Another joyous day,” Ik-Rass said, riding gracefully down a grass stem. “What shall we eat today? Some more seed, or perhaps break open some galls on the many leaves. Ah, Gohunt is silly not to permit her ants to forage on this side of the nest. But her prohibition was of her own making.”
“That’s right. It’s her look-out if she won’t allow her ants into this paradise,” Longfeel said. “And isn’t that good for us? We don’t have to worry about being chased by her soldiers.”
“She’s too clever for her own good,” said Ik-Rass. “She won’t let her foraging parties here because they will see the Evil Ones do not exist, and then her mania for building an ever bigger nest would be ridiculed. It’s a pity the other ants can’t see through her.”
“Ah well, too bad,” Longfeel replied. “It’s not our worry now. We can do what we like.”
They roamed around, backwards and forwards, always turning around when they came to too many stones. That way they were assured of not returning to the nest and certain death.
“I wonder how big the nest is now?” Longfeel speculated one day. “Pity we can’t go and look.”
“Who cares now?” Ik-Rass said. “Anyway it is not worth the risk.”
“What does she hope to achieve?” Longfeel asked.
“Who cares?” Ik-Rass said again. “We cannot go back, so it doesn’t matter.”
“But it does,” Longfeel said thoughtfully, more to herself than in reply, “It does.”
Most of their days passed amiably. As food was easy to come by, even in that rainless place, and they had no eggs to care for or nest to dig, they had plenty of idle time. One day one of the soldiers asked Longfeel: “What are we going to do?”
“What, today?” Longfeel asked.
“No. What are we going to do? When we were in the nest it was easy. We knew each day what we were supposed to do. Every ant had a task to do. We knew why we were doing it. We dug tunnels and made new chambers for eggs and larvae. We knew where and how to search for food. And we did things in large groups with purpose and direction. Now we are just wandering around aimlessly. That’s why I ask what are we going to do?”
“But we have everything we need. We have food and our own company. We are not being bullied by Gohunt and her cohorts. And you do not live in fear of the Evil Ones attacking and killing you. You don’t want to go back to the nest, do you?”
“No; we can’t, you know that.”
“Well, what do you want? You are not trying to say that life in the nest was better than this. You can say what you like and do what you like in exile. In the nest if you dared dissent like you are now, you would be killed or exiled, just as happened to us.”
“Well, I wasn’t exiled. Only you were exiled, Longfeel. I could go back to the nest.”
“Well go then, if that’s the way you feel, but you won’t last long. You don’t think Gohunt will allow you to live long after you have been out here. The other ants will want to know why you weren’t killed by the Evil Ones.”
Longfeel rebuked herself for that remark. Here she was threatening and using fear, the very thing she detested about Gohunt.
“I’m sorry,” she said. “Please stay with us. We will help you. Going back to the nest is not an option. Surely, you can see that.”
“Yes,” the soldier said. “That is why exile and death are the same thing.”
Longfeel felt for her. She now realised why she could not have exposed Gohunt. Ants like this one actually liked the routine. They might complain and they might not know it at the time, but being told what to do was essential for their well-being. Here they are in a paradise of freedom and ease, and this soldier cannot cope with it. Small wonder it was so easy for Gohunt to get her own way. Longfeel was inadequate to the task. She could not provide what Gohunt provided: security through fear, and a sense of purpose through monotonous routine. Longfeel, caring about individual ants, did not have the strength that Gohunt had: an ability to pursue a great common aim at the expense of one or two individuals. She wondered if, after all, Gohunt was right: that without being driven every day with routine tasks a nest would collapse into dissension and disorganisation. Must she provide a substitute so the nine of them can survive? How was she to answer this soldier? And she decided silence was the only answer.
* * * *
The next day’s events provided an answer for Longfeel and her soldier. She was climbing a stem when she saw them. They were walking toward her: five black-and-brown workers. She climbed down quickly to warn the others.
“Now you will see all I have said is true. Quick, five black-and-brown ants are heading this way. Hide. Stay silent. There may be many more of them.”
The nine purple ants looked on with fascination as the five black-and-brown ants passed.
“It’s just as you said, Longfeel,” Ik-Rass whispered. “What tiny mandibles. How do they survive? Evil Ones, indeed. They are pathetic.”
The nine purple ants waited a while and then relaxed.
“We must form a plan,” Longfeel said. “We must work out what we are going to do. There is probably a whole nest of them near here. Nine of us against five would be easy. With our size and strength we could defend ourselves against many of them, but we cannot attack a whole nest. We will have to leave this place.”
“But it is a good area,” Ik-Rass protested. “There is a lot of food about.”
“Yes; that means it cannot be a very big nest, otherwise all the food would be gone,” one of the soldiers said.
“Good point,” said Longfeel. “Perhaps we should try to find their nest.”
At first they thought only two or three should follow, but Longfeel thought it better to stay together. It would need a lot of black-and-brown ants to take on nine purple soldiers. If they stuck together they would have a fair chance of escape no matter what. So they followed the black-and-brown ants, Longfeel leading. They had to keep their distance. There was no wind, but their smell would still carry.
Longfeel thought an instant sighting would not be immediately dangerous. These five could do nothing against nine purple soldiers. But the risk was alerting the whole nest. Then the nine would have to flee. They could never defend themselves against a whole nest. She knew that purple soldiers would fight any threat to the nest so no doubt the black-and-brown ants would do the same. One-to-one the purples would win but if fifty black-and-brown ants acted in concert, they would be overwhelmed. And an attack by fifty would be the inevitable result of the nest learning of their presence. They would then have to flee. The trouble with fleeing was they would become exhausted. They might have to walk for two or more days without food. Moreover, they had no refuge. They had no nest to return to. No home to go to. No safe haven where others would not dare to attack. The nature of exile dawned upon Longfeel and her friends. No home meant no refuge and no help to repel attack. Longfeel did not need routine and purpose like her dissenting soldier, but she did need the basic security provided by the collective strength of a nest. Even she would admit that now. Her individual strength was not enough. The self-assurance of the past few days was now dissipating in the face of danger. She wondered whether Gohunt was not right after all: that the building of a large, strong nest was of utmost importance, no matter what the cost to individuals, no matter how much work was required. She reflected on her own inconsistency: one time rebelling and now longing for the security of the nest. She compared it with Gohunt’s absolute certainty of purpose and resolute determination and despaired that security for her and contentment for her dissenting soldier could only come at the price of lies, murder and tyranny.
As she quietly followed the brown-and-black ants, she wondered whether there was another way.
* * * *
Thoran was comfortable. Indeed, he felt better now than ever before. The finding of Minion-Minor and the incident with the purple ants had made him the centre of attention in the nest. Most ants could understand Minion-Minor if he spoke slowly enough, but Thoran was Minion-Minor’s unofficial guide and confidant. At first Minion-Minor was a purple curiosity for most of the ants in the black-and-brown nest. Knowledge of him and talks with him were invariably conducted through Thoran. Whenever Minion-Minor went on a foraging trip, Thoran went too.
“Do the purple ants forage like us?” a worker asked.
Thoran replied, easily interrupting Minion-Minor’s slow attempt to describe his own nest.
“They have huge foraging parties,” Thoran said. “I counted sixty ants in one. And they have soldiers to lead them, not workers like us. The soldiers are large and terrifying. Any worker that steps out of line is killed. Simple as that. The workers are bullied into working the whole day without a stop and have to carry huge loads. That’s why Minion-Minor is glad he is with us. Aren’t you Minion-Minor.”
Minion-Minor began to resent Thoran telling the others about his nest. After all he knew more about it than Thoran and was in the best position to tell it accurately. He resented Thoran making things seem worse than they really were.
“Our foraging parties were very efficient,” he said defensively. “We gathered a lot of food very quickly. It gave us all a sense of security. We always knew that with that many ants we would never run out of food because we could collect it so easily.”
“But Thoran told us that you could be killed if you dropped your food,” the worker said. “That is not what I call security.”
“Ah, but it didn’t happen very often; we made sure of that,” replied Minion-Minor with grisly humour.
Thoran chipped in: “You were almost killed yourself and it wasn’t your fault.”
Minion-Minor: “But it had to be like that. Every worker had to know that the collection of food came first. The soldiers made sure of that. And because they made sure of it, our nest was very good at foraging and we never went hungry.”
And he added to himself: “. . . unlike this disorganised rabble here.”
He continued aloud, “Merewright has all these splendid aphids and fungus but doesn’t use them properly. If we had them at the purple nest we would have huge aphid and fungus farms, enough to feed every ant.”
Thoran rushed to Merewright’s rescue: “He knows we cannot do that. It is not as simple as that. Anyway if your nest is so good, why doesn’t it have aphids and fungus? Because we are clever enough to have aphids and fungus we do not have to worry about food collection like you and bully workers into working all day every day carrying huge loads.”
Minion-Minor could see the point. He could even see that at the purple nest a relaxed talk like this would not be allowed. Nonetheless he resented it. He didn’t know why.
He defended himself bravely: “We have the white fibre. It’s as good as your fungus. But we don’t restrict it like Merewright. We collect every piece we can get. Remember, Thoran, you had some and it saved your life. Because we are a big nest we can collect all the white fibre there is to feed our soldiers. A big nest is better. You never have to kill eggs, like you do because there is always enough food to go around. And everyone knows what they have to do.”
“We don’t ‘kill’ eggs,” Thoran said. “They are not alive in the first place until they are hatched. And what is the point of hatching eggs that cannot be fed? It is better just to hatch enough to keep the nest the same size, a size you know can be supported. If the Queen lays too many, they can be just left in the sun.”
Minion-Minor could not suppress his horror, not only at the eggs being left in the sun, but the casual way the black-and-brown ants talked about it.
“Who chooses which eggs get put in the sun and which are hatched?” he asked.
“What does it matter?” Thoran replied casually. “They are all the same until they are hatched.”
Minion-Minor shuddered. His only consolation was the eggs left in the sun would have become black-and brown ants, not purple ones. That was some comfort.
* * * *
Minion-Minor’s initial fascination with the aphids and fungus faded. So did his admiration for Merewright’s cleverness in herding and farming them. It grew into disdain for a resource poorly used. Other things began to worry him.
“Why does your nest only have one entrance?” he asked.
“We have never thought of having any more,” Thoran replied. “Why does a nest need any more?”
Thoran thought back to the day when he saw the purple nest. Then its huge mound and multiple entrances over-awed him. But it was more awe than envy. It was a case of the nests being different; not that one was better than the other. Now, however, Minion-Minor’s attitude began to grate on him. He had saved this purple ant and brought him to refuge in the black-and-brown nest. Minion-Minor would be dead but for him and Bujax. Yet he was so ungrateful, carping at differences in the nests and saying the black-and-brown ants should do things the way the purple ants did things. He got angry.
“You always find things wrong with our nest,” he snapped. “If you don’t like it why don’t you leave and see how long you last?”
Minion-Minor instinctively opened his mandibles at the first sign of aggression. They were much bigger than Thoran’s. His head stabbed a little way forward in aggression. In that tiny movement Thoran suddenly saw how different they were. And he was scared. It was the first time he had experienced fear since Gohunt had menaced him and Bujax. He reflected that the only times he had felt fear in his life was when near the purple ants.
“You ungrateful ant,” he cried. “We have saved you and helped you. And now you threaten me.”
Minion-Minor saw Thoran was right. “I’m sorry,” he said. “It was just another instinctive action. I promise it will not happen again.”
If that was his instinct, thought Thoran, then these purple ants are very different from us. He must help Minion-Minor become more like a black-and-brown ant and help him learn to forget the purple nest.
The task was made more difficult by Thoran’s companions who kept asking about the purple nest. This placed Thoran in a difficult position. If he wanted Minion-Minor to forget about the purple nest he would have to discourage these questions. But the questions enabled him to be important in the nest because he was Minion-Minor’s constant companion despite their earlier dispute.
As time went on the novelty of Minion-Minor’s purpleness and his large mandibles subsided. As it did, the black-and-brown ants became much more fascinated in the nature of the purple nest and its differences with their own. As they did so they relied less on Thoran and spoke with Minion-Minor directly, the more so as Thoran attempted to curb the discussion.
“Why do you keep interrupting and changing the subject when we talk to Minion-Minor?” a soldier asked Thoran.
“I don’t. I’m just bored with all this purple nest stuff all the time,” he replied. “We have our own nest to worry about. Besides, Merewright’s stories are better than all this talk about the purple nest.”
“No, they’re not. Merewright’s stories are all made up. At least the stories about the purple nest are true, and we have proof because Minion-Minor is here.”
Thoran tried to convince himself that he was diverting talk of the purple nest for the good of his own nest, but there could be little doubt, even in his own mind, that he was getting jealous of Minion-Minor being the centre of attention.
Gradually Minion-Minor’s tales of the purple nest – its rapid growth, its huge incubation chambers, its respect for eggs, its many entrances and large entrance mound – became the talk of the whole black-and-brown nest. But the soldiers became most interested not so much in Minion-Minor’s descriptions, but his attitudes, more especially his questioning of Merewright’s herding of the aphids and farming of the fungus. Several of them decided Minion-Minor should be enlisted in their challenge to Merewright.
One day they gathered around Merewright with Minion-Minor and Thoran.
“Merewright,” a soldier said, “why don’t you grow more fungus for us to eat? Minion-Minor here says that if we have more fungus we would not have to forage so much for other food. It seems to make sense to us.”
“You do not understand,” Merewright replied. “I look after the fungus. Majorim has given me that task. I will continue to grow exactly enough for the nest. No more. No less.”
“But Merewright, don’t you see that we could save ourselves a lot of effort if we grew more fungus. It would be very easy to do. Minion-Minor says that at his nest they brought in as much white fibre as they could find. We should do the same with our fungus. We should grow as much as we can.”
“Minion-Minor this, and Minion-Minor that. If you want to join the purple nest, why not go there?”
“No we don’t want to join the purple nest, but if they do some good things we should copy them to make our nest better.”
Another soldier chimed in: “Even Thoran was saved by the white fibre. It’s the same as our fungus. We should have more.”
And another: “More fungus means less foraging. And we could have a bigger nest because we would have more food.”
“Yes,” said another. “It seems a pity to kill all those eggs.”
Merewright was under severe challenge. He had a special position in the nest. He was selected very young, when he was not called Merewright, but Jupe. He spent long hours in a chamber with a worker ant called Old Merewright who taught him how to farm fungus and herd aphids and how to instruct workers in their care. Old Merewright taught him every story he knew. And when Old Merewright died, he became Merewright. Merewright knew that a time would come when he would select a worker to learn all he knew and he would then be called Old Merewright. And when he died the selected ant would change his name to Merewright. Very few ants knew this. They knew only that Merewright was special, and accepted it. He rarely had to argue for long to win his way. And if that didn’t work, which was rare, he appealed to his superior knowledge. He, Merewright, knew so much about so many things that he might be right in this instance. That was always enough.
The soldiers got more persistent. Each sided against Merewright and piled objection upon objection as he tried to argue his way clear.
Finally, he said: “I know best. I always know best. I have never failed this nest in supplying aphid milk and fungus. There has always been exactly enough.”
“Enough is not enough,” the soldiers said. “We want more. We want more than enough.”
Merewright sensed being more than special, but the special of specials. No ant in his position had had to face such an onslaught and such a disrespect for his learning. It was all the doing of the purple ant. And he cursed the day that Thoran got lost. He pondered a while, and then said: “Have you thought that we never had unrest and unease in this nest until the arrival of Minion-Minor? Have you thought that he might deliberately be causing us to change our ways, to upset us, for some benefit of the purple nest. For all we know, his soldiers might have deliberately sent him here. Remember how Bujax and Thoran told how the huge purple soldier let them go. That seems very suspicious to me. Surely, any soldier chasing a runaway ant would have taken him. Or if the soldier saw Minion-Minor as one of her own, surely she would have rescued him from Bujax and Thoran. Why don’t you think about that instead of stirring up trouble over aphids and fungus?”
“Enough,” cried Majorim, entering the fray decisively. “Merewright controls the aphids and the fungus and not even I can change that. Minion-Minor has been granted refuge in this nest, Merewright. There will be no further such talk. Back to work all of you.”
Majorim could not allow a group of dissenting soldiers to challenge Merewright. Her power relied just as much on him as his did upon her, she thought, though there might be something in what the purple ant said. A bigger nest could be of great value to the nest as a whole, but it must be handled carefully. I must not reject these new ideas out of hand, she thought to herself, but when in doubt, nothing must change.
The soldiers dispersed one way and Minion-Minor and Thoran went the other.
“All I did was try to help your nest,” Minion-Minor said to Thoran bitterly. “And all I get is abuse. My ideas are good ones. We have done good things at the purple nest, we should do them here.”
But Thoran thought there was much more in what Merewright said. He would use those arguments if he ever felt it necessary.
“We can’t do everything the way it is done at the purple nest,” he told Minion-Minor. “We are not purple ants.”
* * * *
One day out foraging Thoran got a chance to talk to Bujax alone and told him of the dissenting soldiers’ talk with Merewright. “Oh Bujax, why did I ever get lost that day?” he lamented. “Life would be so much simpler without Minion-Minor. It is so unfair that one purple ant can cause so much trouble. Why can’t he just fit in, instead of stirring up so much trouble? You’d think he would be grateful.”
“He should be,” said Bujax thoughtfully.
“What if Merewright is correct and he has been sent here by the purple soldiers?” he asked. “Remember the purple soldier. She just let him go.”
“It’s possible,” said Bujax non-committedly. “It’s possible.”
“I liked Minion-Minor at first, but now I’m not so sure. He has sided with those soldiers against Merewright to change things in our nest. It’s not good Bujax. What should we do?”
At this Bujax was greatly relieved and then felt guilty. “Thoran,” he said humbly, “I must tell you something. When we were travelling back to the nest, that first time with Minion-Minor, for a time I thought dreadful things about you. . . .” “What things . . . “
“Please don’t interrupt. Let me finish. I thought you were a spy for the purple ants. I couldn’t believe your story. It seemed inconsistent that this Gohunt would kill with such ease and yet let you and Minion-Minor go. I thought the three of you might have planned to dupe me into leading her to our nest. I’m sorry I doubted you. I was wrong. I can see that now by your suspicion of Minion-Minor and agreement with Merewright.”
Thoran said nothing. He had been suspected by his best friend. Even if Bujax had admitted the suspicion, said he was wrong and said he was sorry, it made no difference. His best friend suspected him. There was nothing to say, but hope time might heal the wound, though it never does.
Then Bujax said reflectively: “Isn’t it odd that it took one suspicion to prove another suspicion wrong.”
Thoran wondered why his friend pushed this almost-fatal incident in their friendship into the realm of the hypothetical. Perhaps there was no other defence.
“Can we ever go back to the way we were before the day I got lost,” Thoran mused, “and before I set eyes on the purple ants?”
“No we can’t,” Bujax said, “though I wish it more than anything else.”
Thoran fell into speculation. What would have happened if he had not been lost? Minion-Minor would have been caught, or even if let go for whatever peculiar reason Gohunt had, he would have died alone. The black-and-brown ants would never have known about the purple ones and their strange ways. Or perhaps they would have had a more sudden and catastrophic introduction to the purple ants, such as a hundred soldiers like Gohunt attacking. But why would they do such a thing? Thoran’s nest was not harming the purple ants. They had presumably lived close together for a long time in peace without knowing of each other’s existence. Knowledge. That was it. It was knowledge that changed things. He called out to Bujax in fearful inspiration: “That is what changed it all, Bujax. That is what changed it.”
“What, what do you mean?” Bujax asked.
“Don’t you see? It’s not the existence of the purple ants that matters, but our knowledge of it, and their knowledge of ours. And it’s all my fault. It’s all my fault.”
* * * *
Thoran fell into a long silence. He forgot the presence of Bujax, and began to think. A flood of questions bombarded his mind and he tried to put them into order. The worst thought was that it was his fault. As he had said to Bujax, “It is all my fault”. His discovery of the purple ants caused the change in the lives of all the ants at his nest. But wasn’t he being too hard on himself? Wasn’t he taking responsibility because the outcome of his actions was so catastrophic? The worse the outcome, the more blame had to be accepted. If exactly the same conduct, getting lost, had only led to a trivial inconvenience, such as the waste of a few soldiers’ time, he would not have felt such blame. So the degree of culpability depended on the consequences of his action, not on the action itself. Wasn’t that a silly way to look at blame? But, silly or not, this is what happened in the world.
Thoran wondered what would have happened if he had never lived. He imagined his life being extracted from the history of the black-and-brown nest: all his dealings with other ants, everything he ever did everything he ever said. Would it have made any difference? Are events destined to go in a general direction, anyway, and that a few different ants doing different things at different times are of no consequence to that general direction? Or could one tiny event set in train a great chain of events that lead to a totally different history? What of his befriending Minion-Minor? Was his choice in that insignificant, too?
This fatalism comforted Thoran. The discovery of the purple ants and the consequences that flowed from it were not his fault. They would have happened anyway as part of the general, inevitable progress of events. At this he relieved himself of blame by crying out aloud: “I did not create the purple ants!”
Then Thoran turned his thoughts the other way. He, Thoran, a small worker ant in a small nest of black-and-brown ants, by accidentally tripping over a leaf, was to have a profound effect on the huge nest of large purple ants. The chain of events from the time he first tripped over the leaf would have a more powerful effect on the life of the purple nest, than on his own. And it would, ironically, have a far more powerful effect than any action taken by any of the purple ants themselves.
He didn’t know how he knew this, or how it would come about. But he was greatly relieved, and felt he no longer had to carry the responsibility for the fate of his own nest. He was tempted to tell Bujax, but thought it better to stay silent and let events, as they happened, speak for themselves.
* * * *
Longfeel, Ik-Rass and the seven others followed quietly. Suddenly the five black-and-brown ants disappeared. It amazed them – gone, completely gone. Longfeel suspected an ambush and ordered the others to stay still.
“Perhaps they have hidden, or raced ahead to their nest,” she said.
“Perhaps they spotted us and ran away in fear,” Ik-Rass said. “What shall we do now.”
Longfeel did not want to spread out. It would be too dangerous if one of them was caught alone against five or more black-and-brown ants. But they must have gone somewhere. She walked a little further on and then called the others.
“Look at this,” she said. “A hole in the ground. They must have gone down there.”
“Let’s follow them,” said Ik-Rass.
“No; there might be more of them down there. We cannot afford to fight, unless we are sure. Let’s stand back and wait.”
“Better still,” said Ik-Rass, “let’s climb stems so we get a better view.”
The nine climbed stems and waited. The five ants did not reappear. But others arrived and went down the hole. Then another group. And another.
It dawned on Longfeel slowly. “It’s their nest,” she said quietly. And she beckoned the others to climb down. “We’ll hide tonight and come back in the day,” she said. “What a tiny nest, only one entrance and no mound. It would be so easy to miss.”
“Perhaps that’s why it’s like that,” Ik-Rass said wisely. “If you are large you show it to every creature to frighten them off. If you are small you hide your smallness, so no creature can get you. Even so, they could have at least a hundred ants for a nest with one entrance. We must be careful. I agree with Longfeel we should hide through the night and watch tomorrow.”
“What a silly little nest,” one of the soldiers said contemptuously. “And these black-and-brown ants have no mandibles to speak of. They are no match for us. Why do they bother with such a small nest.”
The nine walked away from the nest entrance, but they didn’t go far before one of the soldiers cried out: “Quick, come and look at this.”
The nine glared down. There on the ground was a pile of fifty dried eggs.
“Oh how terrible,” Longfeel cried. “How could these eggs have been left to dry out and die. What sort of nest is this? Haven’t they been taught that looking after eggs is the most important thing a nest does. They are dead, quite dead.”
“We must be very careful of such a nest,” Ik-Rass said. “If it can neglect its eggs, it could be capable of anything.”
They slept a troubled night, two at a time standing guard.
* * * *
Longfeel dreamed. She was the leader soldier in her own nest ordering all the soldiers and workers to prepare for an expedition. “Gohunt is the Evil One,” she told them. “She cannot be leader soldier of a nest.” Her soldiers and workers cried: “Gohunt is the Evil One.” Longfeel was marching. All her soldiers and workers were following. They marched around Gohunt’s great nest, the line twisting and looping over the top of the mound. They marched unchallenged. And then Gohunt’s soldiers joined Longfeel’s line. Hundreds of workers emerged from the nest carrying eggs. They, too, joined Longfeel’s line. The line stretched thousands and thousands of body lengths looping up and down from the edge of the nest mound to its apex and back many times around the nest. At the highest entrance stood Gohunt. Urging the workers to put the eggs back, then threatening them and the soldiers. The Queen emerged and stood next to Gohunt. Her abdomen shrivelled and her body bowed. Longfeel led the line away. She looked back as the last ant left the perimeter of the nest to see Gohunt and the Queen alone atop their sterile nest.
* * * *
“Wake up, Longfeel, wake up. It’s light.” It was Ik-Rass.
“We must move quickly,” Longfeel said. “We must get to a vantage point to see how big this nest of black-and-brown ants really is.”
She was buoyed by her dream. It gave her great hope until she remembered her nightmares about Gohunt. Which would come true, she wondered? Did her dreams reflect her hopes or fears, or were they a wasted jumble of fantasy of no moment to her real life? But they must get on. They must assess this strange nest of black-and-brown ants.
It was a lazy nest, they surmised. It had been light for some time, yet no ants had emerged. At last, five or six soldiers came out and walked without purpose about the entrance. Then eight workers emerged and walked in a line away from the nest.
“They must be on a foraging party,” Longfeel said. “Perhaps we should not have stayed so close to their nest. It is threatening and asking for trouble.”
“No,” said a soldier, the one that earlier wondered where they were going, “this is exciting. I’m glad I’m here. No other ants have seen what we have seen. No other ants from our nest know that Gohunt’s Evil Ones are these weak-looking black-and-brown ants. Wait till we get back and tell them.”
“Don’t be silly,” Longfeel said. “Don’t you understand that we can never go back. Never. Don’t ever think like that again.”
And Longfeel wistfully remembered her dream and wondered could it ever come true. The nine purple ants remained for a long time in silence, watching groups of workers emerge from the one entrance to the nest. Longfeel was doing a rough count. She compared it to her own nest. Fewer than sixty ants had emerged in the first hour; in her nest twenty times that would have emerged. “Her nest”. She pulled her thoughts up quickly. “Gohunt’s nest”, more likely. It could never be her nest again.
* * * *
Ik-Rass climbed a stem and watched the black-and-brown ants. Then he saw something vaguely familiar. He couldn’t believe it at first. He looked and looked again. He was stunned. It was true. There could now be no doubt. He called to his companions as loud as he dare: “Look, look there,” he said. “It’s Minion-Minor. He is in that foraging party. He must have joined this nest.”
“I don’t believe it,” Longfeel said. “Where?”
“There,” Ik-Rass said, pointing with his feelers.
“It is, too. Those two black-and-brown ants I saw that day must have brought him here. These ants must be good to rescue him from Gohunt and give him refuge in their own nest. We have nothing to fear here. We must follow him.”
Minion-Minor stood out among his black-and-brown companions. His legs were stronger and his mandibles much bigger. But he was joining in as an equal. From where Longfeel stood, those were the only differences: body shape and colour. Minion-Minor seemed to be talking to his companions and they to him. Who would have thought such a thing. She wanted to rush down and ask a thousand questions.
Ik-Rass, however, urged caution: “It is one thing for this small nest to give one purple worker refuge, but they will be more wary of nine purple soldiers. We must go carefully. We must try to get Minion-Minor alone and tell him what has happened. Remember he knows nothing of Gohunt’s Evil Ones and his last memory of soldiers is when they threatened to kill him.”
Longfeel reluctantly agreed. “Yes; maybe I should go alone and establish some trust.”
“Too dangerous. Best three go down. One could be overcome, even by these ants. Three would have a chance of fighting them off and escaping, if it came to that, but would not be threatening. The other six could hide nearby in case of strife.”
“Well, you and I, Ik-Rass, and our friend here. Your presence will prove what Gohunt has done. Let’s follow them and wait for a chance to get him alone.”
* * * *
Longfeel, Ik-Rass and their soldier friend walked quickly and silently. This was a different land from that around their nest. They thought back to the days of long searches through the Desert of Stones to find food. The ground was flat clay. Here leaves, twigs and bark were scattered over the ground. Food was more abundant and more scattered. There were no great lumps of fur and meat requiring strong mandibles to tear apart. Food came in small pieces: galls on fallen leaves containing tiny eggs or larvae of insects never fated to fly, succulent seeds atop long stems of grass, tiny beetles that made tracks in the fallen eucalypt bark and the soft sap that oozed from fallen sticks. These were rare indeed in the Desert of Stones, and Longfeel looked with delight at this abundance. If the purple ants moved here, she thought, they, too, could move lethargically after sunrise. They would not need to labour all day with their large legs and large mandibles. They would not need their large foraging parties. Was this the message of her dream – to lead the purple ants to this more generous place of light and shade, away from the glare of the constant sun in the Desert of Stones? How could it be possible for her to achieve such a thing? And what would happen to these black-and-brown ants?
“Ik-Rass,” she said at last. “Are we to join this nest, like Minion-Minor has done?”
“It is a good place here. There seems to be lots of easy food. What choice do we have? We can wander aimlessly till we die or get killed, one by one. One of us would be the last. Imagine the terror of that. These ants are nearly the same as us. It would be an easy thing to join them. And we would have a top place in the nest because we are bigger and stronger. Yes; we should end our exile here. What do you think?”
“I’m glad you said that,” said Longfeel. “We must end our exile. I know that sometime in the future we must confront Gohunt again. We cannot do it as nine ants in exile.”
At this their soldier companion was glad, and she knew the others would be glad. The black-and-brown nest could be their home-away-from-home. They could live a life of ease and peace. Gohunt’s tyranny could be put aside forever. It would never be their worry again.
They followed Minion-Minor’s group nearly all day. He was never alone. The group wandered about, stopping here and there. They had little purpose and only occasionally took food back to the nest before wandering back out again into the speckled shade. They never went far from the nest and they never split up. As the afternoon wore on, Longfeel made a decision.
“There are only six of them,” she said. “We must confront them all at once. They will be too scared to attack, so we will be able to talk to Minion-Minor and get him to talk to his black-and-brown companions.”
They moved into the open. Thoran saw them and cried a warning: “Minion-Minor, look out. Run. The purple soldiers have come to get you.”
Minion-Minor looked up and froze. There was no point in running. These soldiers would hunt him down quickly and easily. He was doomed. He tried to escape before but was eventually caught by Gohunt. Then he had been let go for a reason he had long puzzled but never worked out. He must deal with these soldiers. He must buy time. Then he noticed Ik-Rass. Things must be serious indeed if the leader soldier herself had come for him. What could it mean?
“What do you want?” Minion-Minor cried. “I have many friends here. We may be small but there are a lot of us and we can over-power you. Why don’t you leave me in peace?”
“Have no fear Minion-Minor,” Longfeel said. “We do not mean to harm you.”
Why was Longfeel talking instead of her leader Ik-Rass? This was strange.
“If you mean no harm leave me in peace.”
The black-and-brown ants were terrified. Minion-Minor, a worker, was one thing, but these soldiers were quite another. Thoran and Bujax had seen purple soldiers before, but that did not lessen the terror. Their menacing mandibles and powerful legs were no match for as many ten black-and-brown ants that wanted to attack, workers or soldiers. These three could do as they liked. It would take half the nest to subdue them, and half the nest was not available.
“We must talk to you Minion-Minor,” Longfeel said. “We must tell you things that have happened at the nest. We need your help.”
Minion-Minor exclaimed to himself: “They need my help. Little me helping them. I must hear what they have to say.”
“All right,” he said aloud, “I will listen to you, but there must be no tricks. I want you to move to the entrance of the nest, so I can call help if I need it.”
“No,” said Ik-Rass, cautious as usual. “If we go to the entrance of the nest, your soldiers could drag us inside and we would be trapped.”
Minion-Minor felt uneasy, not at the threat these soldiers produced, but at Ik-Rass referring to the black-and-brown soldiers as his soldiers. Have I become a black-and-brown ant, he wondered. But I am purple. I am a purple ant. Yet he knew that, like it or not, he belonged to the black-and-brown nest. It was his nest. They were his soldiers. And he was one of their workers, despite all his misgivings about the things they did. They. They. They. Not We. We. We. Minion-Minor was in a twilight world, the speckled world of shade and sun, where the purple ants thought he was black-and-brown, and the black-and-brown ones thought he was purple; where purple ants thought he was one of them, yet he did not think himself as one of them. The black-and-brown ants were still “them” to him, not “us”. It was not colour or body size that mattered, but the nest. It was not what the individual ant thought, but what others thought and said. But what was the choice: to join the black-and-brown nest, or to stay in exile alone with no identity?
* * * *
Longfeel tried to break the impasse. “I will come alone to the edge of the nest, and you two (pointing to two workers) will stay with Ik-Rass. If I don’t return. They die.”
Minion-Minor turned to Thoran and said: “I must hear what they have to say. I want to know what has happened. We will have to trust them.”
Thoran was not so sure. He did not have Minion-Minor’s curiosity for the purple nest, and he remembered what Merewright said. Since then he had never fully trusted Minion-Minor. Now he was being asked to trust the purple soldiers. It was not fair to the two workers. Why should they be held hostage. There were too many unanswered questions to trust these soldiers.
“Tell them this,” Thoran said bravely to Minion-Minor: “You three might be large, but you cannot threaten our nest. There are only three of you and you cannot come here threatening our workers’ lives. Tell us what you have to say here and now and then we will take you to our leader soldier and she will decide.”
There was a long interchange between Minion-Minor and the three purple soldiers. They spoke very quickly and it was hard for Thoran to pick up more than a few words here and there. They chattered on and on. Thoran and Bujax looked at the earnestness of the soldiers and the surprise in Minion-Minor’s face. It changed from horror to relief to foreboding. They told of Gohunt’s coup against Ik-Rass, how she built up the myth of the Evil Ones, her individual feats of tunnelling and foraging, how she was insisting on expanding the nest despite the shortage of food, how they had been exiled for dissent and how they had walked for days until finding the black-and-brown nest. When they finished, Minion-Minor stood in silence absorbing all that he had been told. It was clear to him that these three soldiers were now in the same position as he was: exiled and dependent upon the black-and-brown ants for a home.
Minion-Minor repeated the story to Thoran and Bujax, while the three purple soldiers got their first language lesson. They were relieved that it was not to be as difficult as it first seemed, the differences dissipating the more slowly they spoke. nonetheless, it was bliss for Minion-Minor to talk to his own purple ants again. Until then he had not realised how much he had missed listening to his own kind. Even though such a short time ago Longfeel was in a party of soldiers out to capture and execute him, he felt kinship with her. Despite all Thoran’s kindness, all Merewright’s teaching and all Bujax’s understanding, they were not his kind. He owed his life to them many times over. Yet he now yearned to be with and talk with Ik-Rass and Longfeel than with Thoran and Longfeel.
At last Bujax said: “We must take you to Majorim, our leader soldier. She will decide what to do.”
The breeze was stronger than usual. A large preying mantis flew up in search of food. The breeze took it much higher and further than it desired. It could see below but it had little control over its direction. It was blown over a dry creek bed toward a single large gnarled eucalypt. It tried to land in the tree, but without success. Every time it opened its wings the wind lifted it higher or blew it faster out of control. It was at the mercy of the wind, blown away from its normal grasslands to the very edge of a Desert of Stones. There was little food here. Then suddenly the wind dropped and the preying mantis drifted slowly to ground, landing on a large pink-orange mound covered in tiny pebbles. Its wings were damaged, but other than that it was uninjured. It was more in shock from the sudden fall than suffering any injury to tissue. Under the mound the thud of the landing reverberated. It was a clear message to the soldier ants of the purple nest to get moving. They came up in their hundreds to see what had caused it. They looked up in awe at the preying mantis which towered over them, twenty times their height or more.
The ants frenzied, rushing about in fear crying, “Quick, what shall we do. It’s an Evil One,” they cried. “Quick, find Gohunt, tell her an Evil One is at the nest.”
Some were mesmerised with fear, as if dead. They stood looking wondering what it would do. But the preying mantis just stared with its huge black eyes. Its head, like an inverted triangle, was high above the soldiers. Its short muscular front legs were poised. The soldiers looked at its back legs in wonder: elegant green and long they towered to a huge segmented abdomen. From underneath, it was an awesome sight. The mantis stared some more. Its wings were too tattered for it to fly away, so with a sudden jerk it reached down, grabbed a soldier ant in its front paws and lifted it to its mouth. The soldier’s legs kicked futilely in the air as it stared loathsomely at a head larger than his whole body. The great green jaws opened. The soldier thrashed his mandibles open and closed, mandibles that would have struck fear in every worker in the nest. But the mantis was oblivious to them. His front paws relentlessly pulled the ant closer to the black hole between the jaws, stuffing its head inside. The mantis felt a slight tickle in the mouth as the mandibles twitched on the headless body before the reflexive nervous action ceased. By the time the head was swallowed the legs on the body stopped kicking.
So this was an Evil One, the ants thought. How brave Gohunt was to tackle such a creature. They recalled her story and how the Evil One had cut an ant in half, and reflected now how her dire warnings of the Evil Ones had been so prescient. But though brave enough to attack one before, she had still failed to destroy it. So how were they to beat this Evil One at their very own nest? News of the Evil One spread rapidly through the nest. Many came to the surface to see for themselves, then scurried underground in fear. The mesmerised ones continued to watch passively. The mantis stared down with emotionless eyes. It stood, front paws together, in still prayer. Its effect was hypnotic. The transfixed ants formed a semi-circle around the mantis. Its eyes then fixed upon the closest soldier.
The movement was too quick for any ant to see. All they saw was the result. The jaws of the Evil One missed the head of the unfortunate soldier, but closed upon its abdomen, leaving head, legs and thorax to wiggle helplessly in the great paws. The Evil One’s great neck moved up and down slowly as it swallowed the abdomen, while gazing with detached interest at the struggling remains in the paws. The soldier was still alive. As she struggled, the semi-circle grew quietly wider. Terror welled within each ant juxtaposed by a bizarre fascination and the extreme superciliousness that arises from survival. It was not me, each thought. As if any of them had done anything to deserve congratulation for surviving the randomness of the mantis’s selection.
Still the soldier struggled: all six legs now twitching in futility. The more futile the gesture the more violent the action. The mantis allowed the abdomenless soldier to drop, and resumed its silent glaring. No ant in the semi-circle came to help as the mortally wounded soldier gradually moved closer. She died before reaching them.
The Evil One moved with a speed unseen by any ant. It lunged again, taking a whole head in its mouth and slowly swallowing the rest. Still the mesmerised ants stayed, though the semi-circle got wider again, in a bizarre stand-off of chance, death and spectacle.
Without Gohunt, the ants were directionless. In the weeks before her individual strength had driven the nest. Her organisational ability and attention to detail had made it an efficient food-gathering entity. Each day, every ant knew what to do, where to go, what tunnel to dig, what food to bring back to the nest. She had organised her nest upon routine and compliance. Dissent from her ways was not permitted. Eventually, all the ants saw Gohunt’s way was right. Since the expulsion of Longfeel and her malcontents, the nest had run well. It ran on endless work. There was no time or cause to question. Dissent meant death or exile. Compliance meant comfort, identity and belonging. They all belonged to Gohunt’s nest.
“Has any ant found Gohunt?” a soldier asked with urgency in her voice. But the question was directed nowhere. Each ant thought another had searched out Gohunt. The landing of the Evil One had not been planned. No ant had been assigned the task to deal with it. Without Gohunt, nothing could be done.
* * * *
Gohunt almost exposed herself. A soldier eventually found her and blurted out: “Come, come quickly. An Evil One is at the nest.”
“Don’t be silly,” she replied. “There are no Evil Ones.”
She paused. It was the second time she had let herself down, had not lived up to her great lie. She quickly added: “. . . around our nest.”
She looked contemptuously at the messenger soldier: “Our nest is too big now. The Evil Ones would not dare to come. This is what all my work has been for. This is why every ant in the nest has had to obey me. . . . “
The soldier interrupted: “Nonetheless an Evil One has landed on the nest. I saw it. It is killing soldiers and workers, by eating their abdomens. It is just as you always said Gohunt, except this Evil One is green not black-and-brown.”
Gohunt was incredulous. Had the creation of her mind become reality? What was this Evil One. There was danger here. She must be careful.
“I will come at once.”
* * * *
Gohunt tried to hide her apprehension. This was worse than the Evil Ones she had imagined in her mind’s eye when creating the terror to launch her coup against Ik-Rass. The ants looked at her in expectation.
Gohunt the protector was now on trial. She looked at the ground beneath the mantis and saw the writhing remnants of eight or nine ants. For her there was only one issue: how could her leadership be strengthened. Her leadership was the best for the whole nest; it must be strengthened, she thought. The proof of that faced her now. She had expanded the nest greatly. Because of that, and only because of that, it was capable of beating this creature. The irony was lost on her that the mantis might have missed a tiny nest, and that the expansion of the nest was the very cause of the mantis landing on it.
Should she wait until the mantis had had its fill and flew off, or should she organise an attack? Gohunt was decisive to the point of being impetuous. Other soldiers were either inspired by her or thought her reckless. There was no middle view. Workers worshipped her. They saw her vision. They saw her as a protector, a fountain of strength. They would work for her without dissent. She gave cohesion, purpose and direction to their nest and their lives. They always knew what to do and why they were doing it: they were building a great nest to protect all against the Evil Ones. There was no choice for Gohunt. She had created the Evil Ones out of a lie. She had used the fabrication to inspire the ants of the purple nest. Her leadership was founded on the Evil Ones. Indirectly, she knew that it was therefore indirectly founded on a lie. But it had worked. And now the lie was to be expunged. The reality of the Evil Ones was before her and before all those who she aspired to lead. If she could drive away this Evil One, rather than let it come and go as it pleased, her leadership would be confirmed forever. Her ambitious program of nest expansion would be vindicated and her hopes and plans be enshrined as the hopes and plans of all. There was only one choice: to attack the Evil One.
Gohunt moved to the edge of the semi-circle and ordered three of her best soldiers to come to her. Her plan was simple. She never doubted its effectiveness. Her only doubt was whether she would survive its execution.
“I want each of you,” she said, “to select five soldiers. I, too, will select five soldiers, so we have four groups of six. Each group will attack one of the four rear legs of the Evil One. They are its weakest part.”
She assigned each group to a leg.
“We will attack together. Two soldiers will stand either side of each leg. A soldier will climb on top of them and bite through the leg. The Evil One will defend itself, no doubt. But it cannot move all of us from all its legs at the same time. At least one, if not two groups will sever a leg.”
The mantis was digesting its food, oblivious to the plans for attack. Gohunt’s units moved behind it, and on her command marched. They worked in unison. Two ants bit into each leg simultaneously. The effect was immediate. The mantis attempted to lift each leg in turn to shake the ants off, but their mandibles had grasped the flesh so powerfully no amount of shaking would flick them off. Then the mantis attempted to leap up. It spread its huge wings, to the amazement of the watching ants. But without the push off, its wings buzzed ineffectually. Besides they had been damaged in the breeze that bought her there.
The mantis paddled her front paws in rage and reached down to tear the ants off. Gohunt ordered reinforcements to join the assault groups. She snapped her orders. Despite the danger the soldiers obeyed her instinctively. It was a tribute to her leadership. Gohunt was leading from the front and the others were glad to follow. The Evil One’s paws reached down to her middle leg and clawed at the ants, but she could not get both paws to them. As one was brushed away another joined the fray and still the jaws of the ants biting into the legs stayed locked. The mantis reached around to her other middle leg, but it was too late: both her back legs were severed. It tried to walk on the stumps but the units on the middle legs held it down. Gohunt ordered more ants forward. They climbed up the mantis’s legs. Hundreds of them swarmed all over it. The mantis struggled. It spread its wings, but more ants latched on to them. It folded them back, crushing twenty or more. It attempted a last heave of effort to get away from the nest, lost balance and toppled over. Its jaw snapped as it fell and continued snapping on the ground, but Gohunt was too quick. She ran along the neck and over the back of its head and with two deft movements of her mandibles gouged the mantis’s eyes out in triumph.
“The Evil One is dead,” she cried.
* * * *
Gohunt seized upon her opportunity. Having conquered the Evil One, she was in danger of losing the very myth that had enabled her to lead the nest’s expansion. How intelligent of her, those weeks ago, to allow the fear of an Evil One to distend to a fear of Evil Ones, she thought. The soldiers, under her command, had defeated one Evil One. But there could be others. The nest might not survive a further onslaught, unless it were bigger with more soldiers to call upon. She must not allow the myth of the Evil Ones to die with this mantis. The first thing was to clear away the body. It could not be eaten by ants in the nest, or they would soon know it was nothing special, just a large grasshopper.
“The flesh of the Evil One cannot be eaten,” she announced. “Ants who eat it are likely to die. The flesh of the Evil One is poisonous. We must carry the body away quickly before other Evils Ones discover what we have done and come to seek revenge.”
In a prodigious effort of organisation, Gohunt got the body carved up and carted more than a day’s walk from the nest within three days.
She was feted by the nest. She was lauded as its saviour. All the soldiers pledged their commitment to her ideals. The workers, who already held her in admiration, now held her in adulation. That day every ant in the purple nest felt special. Each was a part of a cohesive whole which had worked long and hard to defend itself against the Evil Ones and when called upon to meet the challenge had done so with diligence and courage. It was Gohunt’s triumph.
She reflected upon it and basked in it. The nest without her was paralysed. The mantis would have sat on top of it and ate until bloated. It would have flown away and come back for more whenever it wanted. The strength, the power and the numbers were there, but they were useless without Gohunt to galvanise them. Faced with such a threat reliance upon cooperation was futile. The ants required direction, which meant orders, which in turn required authority. That was power. “I deserved it,” Gohunt thought to herself, “because I was the only one to foresee the need to expand the nest. And now the ants of my nest have confirmed my power and authority by following my orders to fend off the Evil One. Destiny and fate have elevated me.”
She could not, of course, discuss her position with any other ant. They would not understand. Only she could see the necessity for all her actions and how they had been vindicated by fate. She did not entertain for a moment the possibility that her power was founded upon a lie and solidified through chance.
* * * *
It was not long before Gohunt got restless again. She was still not satisfied with the size of the nest or the number of ants in it. She wanted more. She demanded more entrances and bigger chambers for storing food. She pressed home her advantage. The soldiers and workers rallied behind her. She put soldiers in charge of tasks. If they succeeded on time, they were put in charge of bigger tasks. If they failed, they were made to work on tunnels.
“Soldiers,” she said, “the Evil Ones are at hand. They might come any day to revenge the Evil One we killed. Through your bravery and skill our losses were small, but in another attack it could be different. What if four or five Evil Ones attacked at once? What then? We must have a bigger nest to sustain such an attack.”
Outwardly the soldiers agreed. They urged their workers to dig deeper, to take charge of more eggs and to carry more food back to the nest. On Gohunt’s orders, the workers fed the Queen massively and she in turn produced hundreds of eggs.
Gohunt was incessantly on the move. She had no time for reflection or planning. She expected of her soldiers the same effort and dedication she gave herself. But it was an impossible demand. If all were as capable as her, all would be leader. But every time a new passage was dug or great food storage finished, the soldiers gathered around her. “Magnificent, Gohunt,” they said. “You are a great leader and we are proud to serve you.”
Individual soldiers sought her out, boasting of their achievements in her name. “I have created a new way to look after eggs,” one said, while deriding the idleness of others. “I have hauled in two hundred body weights of food,” said another, while criticising her colleagues for lack of imagination and disloyalty. “I have dug three connecting passages,” said yet another. “You have inspired us to work harder. Your ability to organise has produced a nest large enough to ensure our security against the Evil Ones.” And Gohunt admired their work. She was less familiar with the work of some soldiers. These soldiers did not tell her of their deeds, their hard work in the Desert of Stones, their toil in the deeper passages, their heroic efforts with workers to get more food. Gohunt mentioned the silent soldiers to the soldiers who sought audiences with her. “They do not seem to be doing enough,” she said. “How can we make them work harder.” The other soldiers suggested they be put to toil as workers if they did not meet Gohunt’s rightful standards. Gohunt was thus reassured by the loyalty of her soldiers. And she knew the nest was running smoothly under her command, expanding in area and numbers to meet the inevitable return of the Evil Ones.
* * * *
One day a silent soldier sought an audience with Gohunt. She was surprised, but agreed. “I would like your advice,” the soldier said.
“Yes, of course,” Gohunt said. This was a good start; Gohunt liked her soldiers seeking advice. It enabled her to direct them in the way she wanted.
“Where should we place our priority,” the soldier asked, “in looking after eggs, or collecting food.”
“What do you mean,” Gohunt said angrily. “My instructions have always been clear. Every egg must be hatched. Every egg must be cared for: taken to the mound in the day and deep at night. It is simple. There is no need for priorities. As for food we just collect enough to feed the nest with some extra for storage. My other soldiers do not have any difficulty with this. Why cannot you understand it?”
“But, Gohunt . . . . “
“I don’t want any buts, just go and do it, like the others, or I will make you do workers’ toil.”
“Yes, Gohunt,” the soldier said. And she left.
The idiot cannot understand simple instructions, Gohunt thought. Hadn’t she expanded the nest precisely so that there would be enough workers to tend to the eggs and collect food. Perhaps she should watch this soldier and give her some odious and humiliating task of tunnelling unless she behaved. She must deal severely with soldiers who questioned what she was doing. It had worked with Longfeel. It was the best for the security of the nest. She must keep them occupied, all the time.
Gohunt ordered a new project. She sought out her leading soldiers. “I want ten new entrances at the base of the mound with passages leading straight to the food storage chambers,” she demanded. “This way food can be brought into the nest more efficiently. Workers will not have to drag it to the top of the mound and then down vertical passages.”
“Brilliant, Gohunt,” the soldiers said. “We will be able to get more food more quickly.”
The dissenting soldier thought it was not such a good plan. She had grave reservations, but she dare not tell Gohunt. She would only be dismissed or humiliated in some other way. So she remained silent.
Gohunt continued: “I also want the area around the new entrances to be cleared of stones. I want flat clay surrounds to allow more workers to get to the entrances. And I want the entrances to be large so several workers can get into the nest with large loads at the same time.”
“Excellent, Gohunt,” the soldiers said. And they went away to follow the orders.
Gohunt was right. Work on the ten new entrances concentrated the efforts of the nest. There was no more idle talk, just work. Gohunt was well pleased with her idea.
Life was easy for Longfeel, Ik-Rass and their seven companions. They were permanent guests in the black-and-brown nest. Compared to the manic hustle of the purple nest, it was bliss. In their quiet bumbling way the black-and-brown ants managed to secure enough food for every ant in the nest; not that it was a hard task. Under the great eucalypt, even in that dry time, food was abundant for such a small nest. There was always more than could be collected. It meant there was time for reflection, discovery and learning.
At first Majorim was reluctant to allow the nine purple soldiers to stay. But she realised she had little choice. If they were determined to stay there was little the black-and-brown ants could do to stop them. It would take nearly the whole nest acting in concert to overpower them, and then only at great cost. She hoped they would take Minion-Minor away, leaving them in peace, but it was not to be.
“We have nowhere to go,” Longfeel said. “We have wandered aimlessly for too long and we are tired. Besides we are too vulnerable on our own. We want the security of a nest. We will obey all your commands and help in whatever way we can.”
“We do not need your help,” Majorim said proudly. “Our nest is self-sufficient, but you may stay.”
Merewright was uneasy. Later he said to Majorim: “You should have told them to go. They have no place here. Look how just one purple worker caused so much trouble. Now we will have nine soldiers as well. I don’t like it. They will attempt to interfere with the aphids and fungus for sure.”
“I had no choice,” Majorim replied. “Have no fear. They can do no harm here. There are only ten of them against all of us.”
“Well, you will have to make them agree not to interfere with the aphids or fungus.”
“Yes, of course, Merewright, but you are making a big issue out of nothing, I assure you.”
For a long time the purple ants were keen not to upset any black-and-brown ant. They went out of their way to use their greater strength to help.
“Look at the ease with which they lift up great sticks and leaves,” Thoran said as one of the purple soldiers moved in to help. They made ease of tasks that strained the black-and-brown ants.
“It’s not fair,” Thoran said, “that they should have such power and we should have to struggle to move things.”
“Ah yes,” replied Merewright, “but we have other things that they do not. We have a nest to call home and our Queen lays eggs that hatch into black-and-brown ants. They are just living here until they die.”
“But it would still be nice to have their strength,” Thoran said.
“You were quite content with your own strength before we saw the purple ants. Just pretend you never came across them.”
“But I can’t. They are here. They are so big they make us look small. They are so strong they make us look weak. Their nest is so big it makes ours look small. Majorim looks so feeble compared to them.”
Merewright tried to comfort him.
“Power is not measured by physical strength alone. And a good nest to live in is not measured by the size and number of ants in it.”
But Thoran was not satisfied. “They are words, Merewright, just words. Look with your eyes and what do you see: strength. It is a wonder they haven’t pushed Majorim out of the way and taken over the nest.”
“Don’t say such things. Even if they did, no ant would obey them, because they are not us. Now here comes Minion-Minor, so no more talk like that.”
“All right,” said Thoran unconvinced.
They greeted Minion-Minor.
“How are you,” they asked.
“Excellent. Never better since I escaped. It is good to have ants from my old nest here, even if they are soldiers. I was getting lonely before.”
“Good. That’s good,” Merewright replied. “Now I must tend to the aphids.”
“Can I come?” Minion-Minor asked.
“Yes, of course.”
“Oh good, I’ll bring Longfeel and Ik-Rass, too. They’ll be fascinated.”
Merewright was instantly uneasy. The casual way Minion-Minor included the two purple soldiers without being invited offended him. It was as if an invitation to one purple ant was an invitation to the lot. He did not know whether to refuse and cause ill-feeling, or allow them to come and risk their interfering or making suggestions he did not want. But the choice was made for him: Minion-Minor had gone off to find his compatriots.
* * * *
Merewright gently stroked the aphids. The milk oozed out and Longfeel and Ik-Rass tasted it. Like Minion-Minor before them, they thought it was the best thing they had ever tasted, far better than the white fibrous food that was the pride and joy of the purple nest.
“The taste and quality of food is as important as the quantity,” Merewright said. “Thoran told me about your white food. From what he tells me it is just tasteless stodge. You have elevated it to a delicacy not because of its flavour or smell, but because you restrict it to soldiers. The soldiers think they are eating something special because the workers cannot have it, but in fact it is stodge.
Merewright lectured on, oblivious to the physical power of Longfeel and Ik-Rass. He was the centre of attention and was enjoying it. He rebuked his guests for their handling of food. At the purple nest no worker would have dared.
“If your white food is so good you should give it to workers as well. And if there is not enough, it should be rationed. But your bland white food is made exclusive to soldiers, not for its food value, but for its value in creating a distinction between workers and soldiers. But aren’t you all from the same nest? No matter. No matter. You are here now and will have to do things our way. We share our aphid milk and fungus and we are careful not to produce too much. It is best that way. We have lots of different foods. We have great variety. It makes life in our nest so good.”
Longfeel thought of the purple nest with its endless supply of meat and white food and virtually nothing else, but it was not possible to have it any other way. The nest was so large it had to have efficient food gathering, which meant food of the same sort. It could not be otherwise, she thought. Unless . . . unless . . . No, she must put such thoughts out of her head. All she could do is enjoy the black-and-brown ants’ hospitality for as long as it lasted. That was the fate of an exile. Thoughts of home must be put aside because at home lay certain death under the orders of Gohunt. All she could do now was to make her living death as comfortable as possible.
Minion-Minor asked, “Why don’t you herd more aphids so you can have lots of milk? You could have a bigger nest that way.”
Longfeel interrupted him: “Silence, Minion-Minor. Merewright has been gracious enough to let us see his aphids. You must not ask him such questions.
Merewright was grateful to Longfeel. He thought if Minion-Minor ever questioned his herding of the aphids again, it would be the last time he would taste aphid milk.
But Merewright’s gratitude was sadly misplaced.
* * * *
Some days later one of the purple soldiers came to Longfeel and Ik-Rass. With some pride she said, “Come and see what we have done.” The soldier led Longfeel to the disused nest where Bujax and Thoran first led Minion-Minor.
“What’s this?” Longfeel asked.
“It’s an unused nest,” the soldier replied. “Minion-Minor showed it to us. He was brought here when he first arrived.”
“It is strange to have an unused nest,” Longfeel said. “It should be used. It should be connected to the main nest so it could be bigger and contain more ants. It is such a waste being unused.”
“Well, we are going to use it,” the soldier said. “Early today we were walking with Minion-Minor when we came across some eggs in the sun. You remember how we saw some when we first arrived, but they had dried out. It was disgusting. But these eggs were new; they had not dried out yet. We could not just leave them there, so we have brought them here. We are troubled, Longfeel. Why do these black-and-brown ants put eggs out to die in the sun when they have an unused nest to put them in? There is something wrong with these black-and-brown ants that they cannot look after their eggs, so we must do it for them.”
“You can’t do that,” Ik-Rass said. “How will we feed the larvae? What happens when they become full ants?”
“We have to do something,” Longfeel replied. “We cannot just watch eggs dry up and die.”
“What if we had never come here? What if Gohunt had not banished us? Then the eggs would have dried up. This nest would have gone along the way it always had. Why not pretend we had never come and leave well alone? We didn’t put the eggs out in the sun in first place, so it is not our concern. Besides, the eggs will only hatch into black-and-brown ants.”
“But we are here and it is our choice. If Thoran or Bujax needed help, we would help them, whether they are black-and-brown or purple. So we must protect these eggs, whether they hatch to purple ants or not. When they hatch they can just join the nest. No ant will know the difference. And we can feed the larvae with ease.”
Ik-Rass had already surrendered her position of leadership to Longfeel. She could not attempt to resume it now. She could not stop them if they transferred eggs to the unused nest.
It was hard work. Ik-Rass did nothing, so there were only eight soldiers and one worker to look after fifty eggs. They had to be carried to the top of the nest in the morning and deep down in the evening. And as the eggs changed to larvae they had to be fed. The purple ants did not go on foraging parties and were rarely around to help at the main nest. After a time, their absence was noticed.
“Your purple friends are not here as usual,” Majorim said to Bujax. “They are never here for help when they are needed. All they do is eat our food. I don’t expect the soldiers to do much, but the worker should go on foraging parties. The soldiers are so strong and can do so much so easily, yet they never help any more. We should do something about it.”
“What can we do? They are so much bigger. They can just take whatever food they want and there is nothing we can do.”
“You wanted them to stay. Look what trouble it has caused.”
“Thoran was the one who wanted them to stay. Maybe he should talk to them about helping more.”
So Majorim sent Thoran to talk to the purple ants, but he couldn’t find them anywhere.
* * * *
Merewright was annoyed. More than half his aphids had run off. Ungrateful aphids, he thought. He had looked after them, nurtured them and fed them. Now they had run off. He would have to try to find them or get some replacements. But they were becoming harder to find these days. It was the dryness, he was sure. He must find the aphids or the milk supply would be halved and the soldiers would be very angry. He would have to tell Majorim about the loss.
“Majorim,” he said lamely. “half the aphids have run off. We will have to organise a search. I cannot supply the same amount of milk without getting the aphids back.”
“Where did they go?” Majorim asked.
“If I knew that, I would not come to you to help,” Merewright said sarcastically.
“Very well, then. We’ll organise a search.”
“It’s important. We should get the whole nest out. Without those aphids, I will have to cut the supply of milk by half. We cannot over-milk the aphids, or they will all run off.”
Majorim called in the soldiers.
The black-and-brown nest rarely engaged in great acts of organisation because foraging was so easy and Merewright herded the aphids and farmed the fungus without difficulty. The small nest was easily kept in good repair by a few workers. There was no need for great digging or foraging programs. Soldiers had an easy time; workers less so, but it was not a strenuous existence. So the search was half-hearted, the more so because none of the searchers thought they were getting anywhere or achieving anything. In an organised search, such as a search for food at the purple nest, leading soldiers assigned certain areas to certain groups of ants. When an area is covered the ants get at least a mild sense of achievement and accomplishment, even if they find nothing: at least an area has been covered. Majorim’s disorganised search was dispiriting for the whole nest. None of the ants got any sense of getting anywhere. There could be only two states: the aphids not found or the aphids found. There was nothing in between. When the aphids remained unfound all the ants thought they were getting nowhere. If Majorim had organised the search the ants would know when they had searched a quarter or a half of the search area. Instead no ant knew how much had been searched, how much was going to be searched or when the search would be abandoned. They did not even know if the search was to be based on area or time. So they wandered half-aimlessly in the area around the nest, running into each other often and exclaiming the fruitlessness of their search.
“Have you found anything?” Merewright asked Thoran.
“No, we haven’t seen a sign of them,” Thoran replied.
“”Where did you look?”
“We went in the middle of the sun side of the nest.”
“Yes,” replied Merewright in exasperation, “we tried there earlier, but found nothing.”
Merewright began to lose confidence in Majorim’s ability to lead the search. She had no idea what was needed and no idea how important it was to find the aphids. He gave up looking for the aphids and instead searched out Majorim.
“We’re going nowhere,” Merewright said. “The aphids could be anywhere. We have no idea what areas have been searched and what we are going over twice.”
Then Thoran spoke: “I have an idea. Why don’t we get the purple ants to help. They know a lot about how to organise searches. I saw their soldiers organise huge searches for food. They seemed to have a good sense of direction and an ability to find things.”
Majorim was worried. To allow the purple ants to control the search would be a surrender of some of her authority. She wondered where it might end. But to veto the idea could be just as bad. The black-and-brown ants, egged on by Merewright, might say aloud they had no confidence in her . No; she must allow the purple ants to join the search and she must seek the advice of Longfeel, Ik-Rass and the others and pass the advice along as orders. At least that way she would be seen to be in control by the black-and-brown soldiers and workers.
“Go and find the purple ants,” she said reluctantly to Thoran.
But they were not to be found. Nor were the aphids. And Merewright thought once again that the arrival of the purple ants had caused things to go wrong in his nest. He could not say how, but the nest was not the same.
* * * *
The missing aphids caused complaints among the soldiers. Though they could not organise an effective search, they still demanded the same amount of aphid milk. The workers would have to miss out, they argued. Then one said to Majorim, “Why not get Merewright to grow more fungus as a substitute for the workers’ aphid milk?”
Majorim was feeling the pressure. Her soldiers were demanding more fungus be grown. Merewright was objecting, and the purple ants were doing nothing to help. She longed for the time before the purple ants came, when the nest was normal and every ant knew what to do. Why had the purple ants come? Why was she being tested thus? The only solution was to reduce the size of the nest. More eggs would have to be put out in the sun. The Queen would be fed less. Or maybe Merewright should be forced to grow more fungus. He could be helped by more workers. Oh what to do, what to do, she lamented. She best talk to Merewright.
“How can more fungus be grown?” he asked. “Where will we grow it? We have no chamber.”
“We should get the purple ants to dig a new chamber. It won’t take them very long.”
But Merewright was jealous of his fungus. He did not want the purple soldiers to even find out about his fungus farm, let alone construct a new chamber for it to expand. But he knew they would find out soon enough. It was only a question of time before Minion-Minor would tell them, and like the aphids he would have to show them. He cursed the day he allowed Minion-Minor near the aphids or the fungus. Merewright wanted Majorim to resist the pressure from the soldiers to increase fungus production to make up for the lost aphids. It was a poor substitute because he knew variety and balance were essential. Either too much fungus or too much aphid milk was unsatisfactory.
He turned to Thoran in desperation. In a way Thoran had got the nest into this strife in the first place. He got lost and he brought the first purple ant to the nest. If only he had stayed with his foraging party none of this would have happened. The nest would be happy and peaceful and he would still have control over the aphids and the fungus — well at least over those aphids that had not run off. The nest was not able to absorb this turmoil, he thought.
“Well, Thoran, what shall we do?” he asked.
“We should grow more fungus, otherwise we will go hungry. We should get the purple ants to help us build a bigger chamber in which to grow the fungus. After all, they eat enough around here and have not foraged or helped in any way.”
“That’s what Majorim says, but I don’t like it. I don’t like the purple ants having anything to do with the fungus or the aphids. But I don’t want to have to dig a new chamber myself.”
“I’ve got a better idea,” Thoran said. “When Bujax and I came back to the nest with Minion-Minor, Bujax took us to a disused nest. It is quite close. Bujax said it was abandoned because it was too damp, but that makes it ideal to grow fungus. I’ll take you there.”
“Excellent, Thoran, I had put that old nest out of my mind,” Merewright said. “Of course we can use it, and we won’t need the purple ants. Let’s take some spores to the disused nest.”
A purple soldier trudged slowly back to the purple nest. She was followed by fifty workers. Some carried nearly twice their own weight. Others carried nothing.
“How far, now, U-Nash,” one of the workers said to the soldier.
“Not far, not far,” U-Nash replied encouragingly. “We have done well today in the circumstances.”
She looked back at the charges. It was pointless taking half of them out, she thought. They were getting too weak to carry much and just held the others up. If the other parties were like hers, the nest must run out of food before long. Her party had not got enough food for itself for many days now, let alone feed the workers who tended the eggs and larvae and the workers and soldiers digging new passages and chambers. They must find more food.
“We haven’t done well, U-Nash,” another worker said struggling under twice his weight. “Half of these workers are so young they are useless. We don’t get enough to eat and we are getting weaker all the time. There’s no food out there. We walk thousands of body lengths in the Dessert of Stones and find very little.”
U-Nash knew the worker was right, but could not admit it. In earlier days she would not have tolerated it. She would have chopped the worker in half. But now she needed every good worker she could get. This one was still carrying more than his own weight. She simply could not afford to kill him, and he knew it. That was why he could speak his mind.
“Things will get better,” U-Nash said. “They always do.”
“Why should things get better,” the worker replied. “They usually get worse. Unless we get more food, some of these workers will die. Look at them. Some are almost too feeble to walk, let alone carry anything. It’s up to you U-Nash. You will have to talk to Gohunt.”
U-Nash thought for awhile. It would be risky talking to Gohunt. She could be killed or exiled. But her workers were in danger of dying and she must do something. She was paralysed by the fear Gohunt had instilled. She could not talk to other soldiers, because they would report her. She could not talk directly to Gohunt because she would refuse to listen. Gohunt had created a network of fear to keep herself in power, but it isolated her from knowing what was happening to the nest.
“I must show her,” U-Nash said aloud. “Yes; that is the answer. Not to talk to her, but show her.”
U-Nash thought Gohunt was a good leader. She had created a large nest and was brave beyond compare. U-Nash was in the fight against the Evil One and saw Gohunt’s ability to organise and inspire. U-Nash knew that only she could show Gohunt hungry workers, only she could explain that there was not enough food to be gathered. She felt sure Gohunt would understand. She rehearsed what she would do and say and anticipated what Gohunt would say and her response to it. Yes, it would work. Gohunt would starve the Queen. There would be fewer eggs and more workers could search for food. The nest would slowly get smaller. Gohunt would see this. U-Nash’s courage in showing her would save her workers and the nest. Gohunt would praise her and the nest would be a better place to live.
* * * *
“I am sick of your false alarms about food shortages,” Gohunt told a gathering of her soldiers. “There are no shortages. Every minor decline in food supply can be overcome if the nest has enough soldiers and workers.”
Gohunt spoke on and on about the need to build a bigger nest to protect against the Evil Ones. As she did so U-Nash became dispirited. How could she now approach Gohunt? Her mind was made up. Gohunt continued, “When we lost supply because of the Evil Ones you predicted doom, but I showed you how to overcome. I banished Longfeel and Ik-Rass for being doomsayers and I organised a better food collection system.”
Gohunt stopped using “we”. Instead she said “I”. The achievements of the nest were hers, she thought, and she deserved credit for them. While every ant was talking doom, she got the nest going. She did the work and had the foresight to ensure the growth of the nest.
“Again the doomsayers said the nest was not getting enough food. But I dug the extra tunnels. We now move more food into the nest than ever before. The new tunnels we dug at the base of the nest’s mound are magnificent. Foraging parties walk straight into the food chambers without having to climb up the mound, and each passage is wide enough for four ants. These are marvellous entrances. Despite all this, there are more doomsayers.”
U-Nash knew it would be hopeless to say anything. She would be condemned as a doomsayer. But another soldier did. “Gohunt,” she said timidly, “we acknowledge your wonderful and successful efforts to get more food. Each time you have saved the nest. That is why we come to you now. The nest is gigantic. Eggs and larvae are hatching at a huge rate. We cannot feed all the ants as well as we could a short time ago. The storages are emptying faster than they can be filled.”
“Nonsense,” said Gohunt. “The storages are big enough for the whole nest. It is true we have more ants, but that means it is easier to gather more food. And gather more food we shall.”
“But how, Gohunt, how? We gather every scrap of food from the Desert of Stones. Nearer the nest, every scrap is taken daily. As soon as a beetle or fly dies it is carried to the nest. We just have too many ants to feed.”
“Soldiers, I am glad you have come to me,” Gohunt said with some arrogance. “I, as usual, will ensure the nest has enough food and all the ants are protected. But first, let me emphasise, we do not have too many ants. A large nest is our only protection against the Evil Ones. It is the only way to survive. The eggs are sacred. Every single one of them will be tended to and cared for, at the expense of every thing else. If soldiers and workers have to suffer discomfort so the eggs and larvae can survive, so be it.”
U-Nash knew it was more than discomfort. It was life-threatening. Then she had an inspiration. She must go along with Gohunt’s delusions. She must persuade Gohunt by sight, not words.
“Gohunt,” U-Nash said firmly. “you are right. We will follow you.”
A sulky silence came over the soldiers. None could trust another, but they all knew each had reservations about Gohunt. Sycophancy was not unusual among soldiers, but it was unusual for U-Nash. It caused a fatalistic despondency among them.
“Perhaps you could come and show my group of soldiers some of your excellent food-gathering techniques. We would be honoured. And it would benefit us all.”
It was ironic that Gohunt could not distinguish between flattery and manipulation, because she used them both herself all the time. She agreed: “U-Nash it is marvellous to see a dedicated soldier, one who has the interests of the whole nest at heart, one who puts aside selfish promotion. If only all the soldiers could be like you. Yes; I will come with your group tomorrow.”
The other soldiers were sickened by what they thought was U-Nash’s self-promoting ploy. After Gohunt had gone they accused her openly of flattery and self-abasement, but U-Nash said nothing. The slightest hint at her real motive would have been conveyed to Gohunt and she would be exposed and punished. It would have been natural to defend herself and explain her purpose so her companions understood her, but it was not possible. She had to bear the ignominy of their taunts in silence.
* * * *
Early next day Gohunt joined U-Nash’s foraging party. She was saddened and appalled by what she saw. This was not the nest she had built up. This was not the efficient food-gathering system she had created. This was a rag-tail of pathetic workers. And yesterday she had thought U-Nash a good soldier. This foraging party must be put into shape, Gohunt thought as they continued into the Desert of Stones. The best smeller had gone out first. Gohunt anticipated a good find. She pictured how she would inspire this group into bringing a huge amount of food back to the nest. They could stay out several days if necessary.
The hours passed. They found nothing. They stayed out over night. The next day they continued further into the Desert of Stones. Still the smeller found nothing substantial.
“We must think about turning back,” U-Nash said.
“No,” said Gohunt. “We will go on. We must find something big.”
“But we often find nothing big. We often have to come back with a few small pickings. There is not much food here as you can see.”
“Nonsense. There is plenty of food. Your smeller is not going the right way.”
“Would you like to lead, Gohunt,” U-Nash said cunningly.
“Don’t be silly. I am not a specialist smeller. You should have trained the smeller better. You should have trained these workers better so they could walk faster. We have been dawdling. No wonder we have not found much food, we have not covered enough ground.”
“Very well, Gohunt.”
U-Nash fantasised that in a moment of heroic self-sacrifice she could lead Gohunt so far into the Desert of Stones that none of them would get back. But she saw that such a plan was bound to fail. Gohunt was in the best physical condition of all of them. She would make it back to the nest and U-Nash and her workers would perish.
“This is a shambles,” Gohunt said at last. “You cannot organise a proper food forage. We shall return to the nest and you, U-Nash, will no longer go on foraging parties. Instead you will work underground.”
U-Nash stood humiliated. She had caused her own undoing. She had misunderstood Gohunt. She thought that Gohunt was merely misguided, that as soon as she saw the truth about the food position she would recognise it. But she had not. There was only one thing left to do – rebel.
* * * *
At the next soldiers’ meeting, Gohunt was angered to see U-Nash was present. “What are you doing here?” Gohunt asked aggressively. “I thought I sent you underground. Leave at once.”
U-Nash turned to leave the soldiers’ gathering, but Gohunt interrupted.
“No; stop right there,” she said maliciously. “Let me explain to the other soldiers about you. I’m sure they can learn from it.”
U-Nash was in the centre of a semicircle of soldiers facing Gohunt.
“This soldier,” Gohunt began, “invited me to go on her foraging party. It was the worst-led foraging party I have ever been on. The smeller had not been trained. The workers were weak. U-Nash fumbled along. We covered little ground and went in the wrong direction. Small wonder we found so little food.”
“But, Gohunt,” U-Nash began, “the workers . . . “
“Silence,” Gohunt commanded.
“But Gohunt,” U-Nash insisted, “we tried . . . “
“Silence, I say. You have already been sent underground. One more word and I will banish you and you can go into the land of the Evil Ones and meet a horrible end.”
U-Nash was defiant: “Gohunt, the workers do not have enough food.”
“You are banished, U-Nash. You will leave this nest now and never return upon pain of death. Do you understand?”
U-Nash stood her ground. She had nothing to lose. Everything now depended on the other soldiers.
“Banishing me will not feed the workers,” U-Nash said. “You can banish me, and the next soldier and the next, but you still will not feed all the workers of the nest. There is not enough food.”
“Stop it, stop it,” Gohunt said. “Exile is too good for you. You must die.”
U-Nash saw her only chance. She rushed forward at Gohunt, mandibles snapping. Gohunt deftly stepped aside, but U-Nash turned quickly and attacked again. This time her mandibles struck. Her mandibles locked against Gohunt’s. They pushed against each other with all their strength. Gohunt’s powerful legs locked into the ground. Her body pushed forward. U-Nash was gaining ground slowly. She was the weaker ant.
“Help me you fools,” Gohunt cried. But the other soldiers stood motionless. One or two thought they should help U-Nash to rid the nest of this tyrant. That would be the right thing to do, but it was too risky. Failure meant death. They did nothing. Each could see the other was doing nothing so there was safety in the group. Would any soldier rush to help? Would any soldier seize the opportunity for future favouritism and advancement? They knew Gohunt too well. No single helper would be rewarded, that would be an acknowledgment by Gohunt that she needed the help. No; a single helper would more likely be resented rather than rewarded.
“Help me you fools. Do I have to do everything myself?”
Just then, U-Nash stepped quickly backwards. Gohunt was surprised by the move and stumbled forward, her mandibles losing their grip. U-Nash lunged forward to capitalise on her advantage, but Gohunt stepped aside. U-Nash now stumbled. Gohunt quickly stepped on top of her, pressing her hard and helpless into the ground. At once the other soldiers saw Gohunt had conquered U-Nash. They rushed forward as one to help.
“Don’t hurt her,” Gohunt cried.
Ten soldiers pinned her to the ground. She could not struggle, she could not move. Gohunt prised herself free and walked round in front of U-Nash.
* * * *
U-Nash hoped her death would at least be quick. Perhaps as soon as she got the chance she should struggle and fight. That way they would have to kill her quickly. There was no question of exile now. The fight had weakened her, not only physically. She was so weakened now she could not feel fear. She was mute and exhausted . . . finished, waiting for the end.
Gohunt saw U-Nash’s state. There would be no further resistance, she thought. She ordered the soldiers away. U-Nash saw her chance for a quick death, but did not take it. No matter how obvious one’s fate, hope, however slim, remains till the end. Hope is more eternal than life, U-Nash thought. She was detached from the reality of her position: she was not viewing it as if she were the victim, as if her life were about to end. She was at peace. Vanquished, she did not rush to death. She did not want to cause her own death. Let Gohunt do it, so they could see her true character.
“Get up,” Gohunt said quietly.
U-Nash rose up from her prone position and stared into Gohunt’s eyes.
“You are a courageous soldier,” Gohunt said. “You fought bravely and with great strength and intelligence. You are not a weak ant, just a mistaken one. You should be put to death, or exiled, but you are a special soldier. You have courage and ability far beyond the ordinary. You will remain at my side as my special guard and adviser.”
Then she turned to the other soldiers: “But any ant who ever attacks my person again dies. U-Nash acted for the best possible motives, for what she mistakenly thought was the good of the nest. No soldier would be able to come near her for strength and courage; she would be cut in two before she knew it. Now let us turn to the question of food.”
* * * *
The soldiers were stunned. Gohunt was impossible, they thought. She was so unpredictable. Why did she allow U-Nash to get away with open insurrection? Why did she let her go unpunished for a physical attack.
U-Nash realised why, but she kept it to herself. She owed her life to Gohunt’s ego, nothing else. It was Gohunt being a skilful manipulator again. Gohunt could not allow a soldier who had stood up to her and come close to winning a battle of physical strength to be banished or executed. No; U-Nash who had come close to beating Gohunt, had to be trumpeted as a special soldier. She could not be treated as a common criminal. Gohunt could not be seen as the leader who struggled to beat a common traitorous criminal; she had to be seen as the conqueror of some special soldier. U-Nash would never say this to another ant, least of all Gohunt. For now she was caught up in Gohunt’s tyranny. She would have to be part of it and be seen to be part of it, at least for now.
“What should we do to get more food?” Gohunt asked.
U-Nash newly confident and wishing to be part of Gohunt’s leadership said, “Gohunt is right. We must continue to increase the size of the nest. Every egg must be cared for and we must make sacrifices. But we can get more food, and Gohunt has shown us how. When the Evil One arrived at our nest Gohunt led us to a great victory. We killed the Evil One and no more have come back. We can deal with the Evil Ones now our nest under Gohunt’s great leadership has grown to the size it has. So let us be brave. Let us search for food in the direction of the Evil Ones. Let them dare attack us. We will find food in abundance there and our nest can grow bigger and we need never worry about the Evil Ones again.”
Gohunt was pleased with her new ally, though perhaps less pleased with her new idea. Gohunt thought she still needed the fear of the Evil Ones to keep order in the nest. But she was a pragmatic leader. The shortage of food had caused the greatest threat to her position. Retaining the fear of the Evil Ones might be self-defeating. The Evil Ones had been a good idea till then, but better to risk the absence of that cohesive fear than to risk further food shortages.
“We will forage in the direction of the Evil Ones,” she announced boldly. “And we will do so in great strength.”
Food was more abundant in the direction of the Evil Ones. In the area close to the nest a great variety and quantity of food was to be found. At first, the purple ants trod with trepidation. Would an Evil One swoop down upon them? On the first day the fear was so great that the ants foraged with constant look-outs. Thoughts of the Evil Ones dominated every moment. As the days went by, the business of food collection caused them to concentrate on other things. And apprehension gave way to complacency as the purple ants filled their storage chambers. It was easy work compared to the rigours of the Desert of Stones.
Gohunt was delighted. The nest revelled in its prosperity. Dissent ceased. The bitter back-biting among the soldiers was no more. Workers ceased to grumble.
“Once again I have saved the nest,” Gohunt said standing on top of the mound one day. “Having built up the nest to this great size, I knew we could ultimately tackle the Evil Ones on their own ground. We have not even seen one. They must be very scared of us. Well done, workers. Well done soldiers.”
Gohunt had resumed her old habit of giving praise all around. It made the ants feel good after the earlier days of fruitless work.
U-Nash, however, wondered why they had got no praise when they had worked themselves almost to death in the Desert of Stones, just derision. Now, when they had to do hardly any work, Gohunt praised them extravagantly. U-Nash was also resentful of Gohunt appropriating her idea as her own. She thought of foraging in the direction of the Evil Ones, yet Gohunt was claiming she had saved the nest. But U-Nash maintained her silence. In good times, no ant wanted to hear complaints or petty jealousy. Who cared whose idea it was, as long as food was abundant?
Gohunt ordered the Queen to be fed more and for more chambers to be dug. She was in total control again. She could determine the fate of the nest. The abundance was an opportunity to increase the size of the nest and the number of ants in it. This would be an impregnable nest, Gohunt told her soldiers. It would be so large no Evil Ones, no matter how many, would dare come near it again.
“We control all who come and go,” she said. “How food is collected. How much is collected. How it is stored and how much the Queen is fed. We have the power to be in control.”
Every now and then a soldier would wonder why things were so easy. It was too good to be true. Something bad must happen soon. But U-Nash and other soldiers told the workers not to worry. No Evil Ones had come. Food was abundant. There was nothing to worry about. The ants kept gathering. Unlike the desert side, this side had no well-worn tracks. No ants had traversed these parts for a long time.
But the purple nest was huge. Soon all the food near the nest was gone and they had to forage further away. As they foraged further from the nest, U-Nash noticed more dead leaves and sticks. She noticed, too, a speckled landscape of light and shade. It was more pleasant than the other side. But each time she went out, food near the nest was scarcer. The nest was pulling in the food rapidly. As with their experience with the Desert of Stones, they were having to go further and further to get food. This time, however, U-Nash noticed it was happening more quickly, even though there seemed to be more food.
* * * *
The grass was long and yellow. No water or chlorophyll coloured the thin stems that poked through the clay. As the days went by there were fewer and fewer stems. The mammals that fed on the grasses died first, providing a feeding frenzy for the foxes, flies, crows and ants. The insects that fed on the grass died, too. There was more food for the flies, crows and ants. Still there was no water. As the desert edge expanded and lifeless heat overtook great stretches of land, it was ironically a time of abundance for the remaining flies, crows and ants. Even as the flies died in the absence of mammalian meat, the ants had further abundance. But without water eventually all life will expire. And water was a rarity on the perimeter of the Desert of Stones. The abundance of dead things for the ants in the heart of a drought was for them a fool’s paradise. As Gohunt harvested the dead fruits of the desert of death a greater and grimmer reaper was at hand. The drought which gave the purple ants so much dead food could not supply forever. If it is not replenished by rain and rebirth, there can be no life, of any kind. Still Gohunt’s soldiers beckoned their workers out to collect the abundant toll of heat and water exhaustion. Still Gohunt’s Queen lay the eggs that were the seeds of the forthcoming calamity. And still Gohunt herself, wrapped in a great self-delusion of destiny, was oblivious that the very forces which drove her so compulsively to power and achievement were capable of stripping it away so suddenly and so conclusively. There would be no dreams for Gohunt; just reality.
* * * *
Thoran admired Merewright’s attention to detail. He watched as Merewright carefully gathered fungus spores into a pile.
“Left here, few if any of these spores would sprout,” Merewright said. “Usually I stack them together so only the best survive. But I also take spores from the best-tasting fungus and use that to grow more. That way we get better fungus, but not always. Sometimes spore from tasty fungus grows into horrible fungus. A lot of it is chance.”
“Which sort shall we take to the old nest?” Thoran asked.
“Of course, nothing might grow there,” Merewright replied. “It depends on dampness and soil and so on. It’s all very well Majorim and others ordering me to grow more fungus, but I don’t make it grow. I can only plant the spores.”
Thoran recognised his own helplessness, and the helplessness of all the ants in his nest. The aphids ran off and they could not find them. They could plant the spores and they might not grow. The purple soldiers just arrived at their nest and took up residence and they could do nothing. They searched for food and sometimes found a lot and sometimes a little. Thoran expressed his feelings to Merewright: “We have no control over what we do, do we? As you say, you only plant the spores; you cannot make the fungus grow.”
“That’s true Thoran,” Merewright said. “It may seem that way and it is good to recognise it. There are many things we have no control over. But do not be despondent. It is a good start to know what you have control over and what you do not. I cannot make the spores grow into fungus. But I can make sure it does not grow. I cannot ensure all the aphids are herded, but I can one day decide not to herd them at all.”
“Yes but the control is a negative one. Sure, you can control not getting food, but what good does that do?”
“A lot, Thoran. Why do you think I resist these foolish soldiers who want me to herd more aphids and grow more fungus? If I did that before long the nest would be dependent upon them. And then what would happen if half the aphids ran away. We would not be facing a mild inconvenience for a few soldiers, but starvation for half the nest and misery for the rest. It has happened before, and more than once. Old Merewright told me.”
Thoran absorbed Merewright’s wisdom.
“And if you think about it, Thoran, you will understand that we control more than the aphids we don’t herd and the fungus we don’t grow and you will understand the reason for it. Moreover, you will understand more about power and control as time goes on. You will notice Majorim does not control me, nor I her. We work in spirit together and we know why we do so. And you will, too.”
Thoran was puzzled at first and then thought of the eggs they did not let hatch.
* * * *
It was Longfeel’s idea but Ik-Rass was dead against it. He was worried when the soldiers brought the eggs to the disused nest in the first place, but this new idea was out of the question.
“We have to feed the larvae,” Longfeel said.
“There is plenty of food,” Ik-Rass said.
“But there are only ten of us, and soldiers should not have to work gathering food the whole time. My idea is excellent. It will save us an enormous amount of work. And we will be able to save even more eggs.”
“No, Longfeel, you simply cannot do it. It would be unfair to the black-and-brown ants. It would be stealing from them after they have given us refuge here.”
“No it would not. They do not own the aphids; they just herd them up whenever they want milk. We are entitled to do the same thing. We could just herd all the aphids up and bring them here. We could milk them and feed the larvae with the milk. It is very simple. And remember we are looking after eggs they abandoned. They should have allowed them to hatch and they should have fed the larvae. We are only doing their work for them, work they should have done anyway. Why shouldn’t we use their aphids to do it? That is, if you accept that they own the aphids in the first place.”
“It is wrong and it is stealing,” Ik-Rass insisted.
“No; the black-and-brown ants do not own the aphids. The aphids are wild and they are living things. no one owns them. We can use them, too.”
Ik-Rass saw he was losing ground. It was hopeless arguing with Longfeel. When she was set upon something she continued no matter what the danger. That is why she got exiled in the first place. Ik-Rass thought Longfeel’s headstrong idea would put them all at risk, but realised that she would not be easily stopped.
“Very well,” Ik-Rass said, “let us feed the larvae with aphid milk. But we must not take all the aphids. The black-and-brown ants will be very angry if we take them all. They will think us very ungrateful.”
“The black-and-brown ants are lazy and disorganised. They refuse to hatch all their eggs. They leave them out to dry up. It is awful. They spend their time talking and wondering, instead of working.”
“I still think half is enough, and even that is stealing. ” Ik-Rass said. “I don’t know what is worse: ungrateful stealing or killing these eggs. After all, the eggs will only become black-and-brown ants, not purple ones like us. But we are only stealing from black-and-brown ants anyway. Oh Longfeel, how you test us all with your insistence.”
“All right, Ik-Rass, we will take only half, but if we need the rest later we will take them.”
Thus, very early one morning the purple ants rounded up half of Merewright’s aphid herd and took them to the disused nest. There the ten purple ants fed on the milk and fed the larvae that hatched from the eggs they had rescued from the sun.
Merewright rounded up six workers, including Thoran, to help take the spores to the disused nest. Thoran accompanied Merewright everywhere now. He saw much less of Minion-Minor. In fact, Thoran rarely saw the purple ants at the nest. That was no bad thing, he thought. They were interesting at first, and he enjoyed vicarious notoriety as the ant that discovered them. But as they became more quarrelsome and as their differences with the black-and-brown ants became more noticeable, Thoran liked his association with them less. He was happier in the company of Merewright. And Merewright seemed to like him more. He seemed trusting and caring, whereas before he was just tolerant but kind. Merewright was especially pleased when Thoran suggested wrapping the spores in eucalypt sap to take them to the disused nest. By using the sap they could take a great many more spores in one trip.
The six workers, Merewright and Thoran broke into a large sap ball. They grabbed the hardened end with their mandibles, leaving the sticky end exposed.
“This is quite clever, Thoran,” Merewright said. And then to the workers: “Careful not to get dirt on the sticky end; we want that to collect the spores.”
“What will we do when we get to the unused nest?” one of the workers asked.
“Just take the spores to the bottom chamber and leave them there,” Merewright replied. “Nothing will happen for several days. We can come back later to see if they have sprouted, though the whole thing seems unnecessary to me. We would be better off finding more aphids.”
As they approached the disused nest, Thoran became puzzled. There were tracks everywhere.
“This is odd,” he said. “When we were here last, there were hardly any tracks. The nest had not been used for a long, long time. This looks used to me.”
“I don’t know,” Merewright said. “We haven’t seen any sign of anything unusual. Majorim wants more fungus and it must be grown somewhere. Let’s just put the spores in the bottom chamber and see what happens.”
They descended into the nest and went straight to the bottom chamber and dumped their loads. In every nest the bottom chamber is unused. It acts as a damp sump. As Merewright, Thoran and their soldiers had no cause to go into any other chamber they missed the dozens of eggs and larvae being tended to by the purple ants. The nest had a general ant smell, but that was to be expected. Thoran was uneasy, but the reason lay in his sub-conscience. He knew the nest was different from the last time he had been there, but there was no evidence of anything untoward, so the eight black-and-brown workers headed home.
“We’ll check the spores in a few days to see if they have sprouted,” Merewright said. “I do hope so, I don’t want to have to dig a new chamber in our nest.”
* * * *
The fuss of the missing aphids died down. The soldiers thought Merewright would find them again or provide more fungus. It was not a problem. Even those soldiers who had criticised him earlier for not growing more could see his point: the nest would not want to rely on a whole lot of aphid milk if the aphids kept running away. And they saw less of the purple ants, so things were returning to normal. Or at least that’s what Majorim thought. But Merewright and Thoran were finding out to the contrary.
They went together to check their fungus spores. On their way they met Minion-Minor.
“Hello,” they said, “we haven’t seen you for a while. Where are you off to?”
“Oh just back to the nest. And where are you going?”
“We’re off to the disused nest,” Thoran said. “We planted some fungus spores in the lower chamber and we want to see if they’ve sprouted. Do you want to come?”
Minion-Minor was greatly distressed.
“Yes, I mean, no,” he said. “Why did you plant them there? I thought you didn’t want more fungus”
“Haven’t you heard,” Merewright said. “We lost half our aphids, so the soldiers want us to plant more fungus to make up.”
“Oh,” said Minion-Minor suddenly, thinking Ik-Rass was right after all. They never should have taken the aphids. He attempted to stall them: “Why don’t you check the spores later? I have something to show you.”
He hadn’t the faintest idea what he could show them, but he had to stall for time.
“What do you want to show us?” Thoran said.
“If I could tell you, I wouldn’t have to show you,” Minion-Minor said cleverly.
“All right then, why don’t you come with us to check the spores and then we’ll come with you?”
“No, no, I’ll check the spores for you,” Minion-Minor said desperately. “I’ll check them, I’ll check them.”
And he turned and ran as fast as he could to warn the others. Merewright and Thoran gave chase, but Minion-Minor was much quicker. He got to the disused nest well before them. But he was not quick enough. Merewright and Thoran arrived to see the last purple soldier hurriedly leave the nest, herding the aphids before her. They looked at each other in puzzlement and entered the disused nest hoping to find Minion-Minor and an explanation. Minion-Minor, however, had fled with his companions.
* * * *
“Now what do we do?” Ik-Rass said angrily. “I knew we shouldn’t have taken those aphids. “If we hadn’t taken the aphids they would not have needed the old nest to grow more fungus.”
“Great,” said Longfeel. “And the eggs and larvae would have died. You wouldn’t care, would you?”
“It would be better than this. They will find the eggs and larvae for sure.”
“No, not for sure. They didn’t find them when they planted the fungus.”
“But they’ll look all around now, for sure. They were talking to Minion-Minor. They’ll be suspicious.”
“How do you know? They are lazy. They allow anything to happen. They won’t even care. Anyway what can they do?”
“They gave us refuge,” said Ik-Rass, trying to calm down. “We should have left it alone. We had no right to interfere. If we had done nothing, everything would have been all right. Now we are in a mess. We should have just joined their nest and left well alone.”
“And we would have become just like them: lazy, static and not in control of their own nest. And all the eggs would have died.”
“They would have died anyway if we hadn’t come.”
“We’ve been through that before.”
Minion-Minor remained silent through the argument. He normally did whatever the soldiers asked, but he had become braver since he was just one of ten in exile. He felt more like them than when he worked back at the purple nest. He felt he could make suggestions, and often did so. After all it was he that suggested they bring the eggs to the disused nest. At the impasse, Minion-Minor spoke out: “Arguing will not get us anywhere. What are we to do? Do we just run away into exile again, or go back?”
“We can’t go back,” Ik-Rass said, getting angry again. “Longfeel’s stupidity has wrecked all chance of that.”
“We can go back,” Longfeel countered. “We can say we are going to set up our own nest. And there’s nothing they can do about it.”
“Longfeel, your idiotic ideas will be the end of us all. I don’t know why I followed you into exile.”
“Well go back to Gohunt and see how long you last.”
At that Ik-Rass became subdued. She had allowed Longfeel to assume the leadership of the exiles. She had surrendered it without protest. So she could not now take over the group. Anyway they would not follow her. The other exiles were grateful to Longfeel. She had led them from Gohunt’s terror to another nest and had given them a sense of purpose in rescuing the abandoned eggs. Ik-Rass wondered at the changes in Longfeel since exile. She must temper her headstrong views, lest she turn into a Gohunt. She thought wistfully of the black-and-brown nest and how Majorim was not like Longfeel or Gohunt. Why was that?
“I’ve got a better idea,” Longfeel announced. “Two of us will guard over the disused nest with Merewright and Thoran inside. The rest of us will go to Majorim and tell her we are setting up our own nest. I don’t think she will object. With Thoran and Merewright held hostage she would agree to anything. She has a special liking for Merewright. I don’t know what it is but they always seem to talk a lot together before anything gets done in that nest.”
“Exactly,” Ik-Rass said to herself, “exactly”.
* * * *
“What were they doing here?” Thoran asked Merewright at the entrance of the disused nest.
“I don’t know,” he replied. “But I like the fact that you asked. It is important to ask questions, Thoran. Do not go through life just doing what you are told. You have to find things out.”
“Well let’s find out what they were doing here.”
“Careful, Thoran,” Merewright said as he entered the nest.
It was not long before they entered a newly widened chamber. And there before them were more than a dozen larvae and about thirty eggs on the verge of hatching.
“What is the meaning of this?” Thoran asked.
“Good, Thoran, more questions. But there are some questions even I cannot answer.”
“They are building their own nest,” Thoran said. “There must be a Queen here.”
“I don’t think so. Look. Look carefully. These eggs are ours. So are the larvae. I don’t think the purple ants would have exactly the same eggs and larvae. It’s possible, but I don’t think so. But let’s search for a queen just in case.”
They searched every passage and chamber, but there was no queen.
“I didn’t think so,” Merewright said. “Anyway there was no sign of a queen when the purple ants first arrived at our nest. This is most mysterious. But there is one mystery we have cleared up: we now know where the missing aphids are. We must go quickly to tell Majorim.”
As they left the disused nest, they were watched from a safe distance by the purple ants, who then returned to tend to their rescued eggs and larvae.
* * * *
Majorim’s worries had only just begun. Just after Merewright and Thoran told her of their mysterious find at the disused nest, Bujax arrived from a foraging party.
“I have seen nothing like it,” he said. “Nothing. Not a seed, not a dead beetle, not a shoot. No food at all.”
“Start again, Bujax,” Majorim insisted. “What do you mean, no food?”
“We set out today in the usual way. We walked for two hours, picking up bits and pieces. . . .”
“So there was food,” Majorim interrupted.
“Yes, there was food close to the nest, but let me finish. After walking two hours we came to what is best described as a line beyond which there was no food. Nothing at all. This side of the line, there was the usual amount. We walked along the line for a long time. One side, food; the other side nothing. I have never seen anything like it. What does it mean?”
“I don’t know, Bujax, I don’t know. If only I did,” Majorim said thoughtfully. “What do you think, Merewright?”
“I cannot work out what Thoran and I saw today, let alone Bujax’s report,” he replied.
“Do you think they are connected?”
“Maybe. Maybe, yes. It’s the purple ants. Ever since they came here this nest has not been the same.”
“But how can ten purple ants do what I saw,” Bujax said. “What have ten purple ants to do with it?”
“Plenty,” said Thoran. “I remember a huge nest and a foraging party of sixty ants. The ten purple ants came from a big nest. Maybe they have taken all the food.”
“No,” said Bujax, “there was no sign of any purple ants.”
Majorim interrupted: “Tomorrow, Merewright and I will look at Bujax’s line and the disused nest.”
* * * *
Next day, Longfeel was determined. “We must go to Majorim and tell her we intend to set up a new nest and rescue all the eggs they put into the sun,” she told the others. “There’s nothing she can do about it. We can . . . .”
One of the other purple soldiers interrupted: “There’s no need to go to her. She’s coming to us.”
And they saw Majorim, Merewright, Thoran and some black-and-brown soldiers heading toward them.
“Merewright tells me he found eggs and larvae in this nest,” Majorim said to Longfeel. “Do you know anything about them.”
“Yes,” said Longfeel defiantly. “We are hatching them. And we intend to set up a new nest here.”
“Why do you want to do that? Haven’t we given you refuge in our nest? Don’t we provide you with ample food? Why do you want your own nest?”
“We want to save the eggs you leave to die in the sun.”
“You cannot do that,” Merewright said.
“Why not?” said Longfeel. “We cannot allow you to kill these eggs.”
“Whether you like it or not, you will not be able to raise young ants in this nest,” Merewright said emphatically.
“You can’t stop us.”
“No, I can’t stop you. Nor can all of the ants in the black-and-brown nest. But you will be stopped.”
“But . . . . “
“Don’t interrupt,” Merewright said with determination. “You should listen to what I say. It is important. I first want to ask you: why do you think this nest was abandoned? Why do you think no ants lived here until you so foolishly put the eggs here?”
There was silence.
“You do not have an answer, do you? Well I do. Old Merewright told me. Stay here if you like. But you will not stay long. And don’t think you are rescuing eggs. There can be no rescue of eggs in this nest.”
Then Majorim said: “You are welcome to come back to the main nest, but you must return the aphids and not attempt to rescue eggs we put into the sun.
Longfeel turned to Ik-Rass and they engaged in agitated conversation. Meanwhile, Thoran asked Merewright: “If there is something wrong with this nest, why did we put the spores here? And who is Old Merewright.”
“It is a question of wetness, Thoran. It does not matter if some spores or fungus are lost, and they like wetness anyway.”
Merewright left the other question unanswered.
“What do you mean wetness?”
“Too many questions, Thoran. Too many questions. I don’t know exactly myself.”
Then Longfeel came forward and said: “We are staying here and we are keeping the aphids. If you cannot look after your own eggs, we will have to do it for you.”
“Very well,” said Majorim. “There is nothing we can do about it.”
And they left.
Longfeel turned to Ik-Rass in glee: “I told you. I told you. They cannot do anything. All that mumbo-jumbo from Merewright means nothing. Nothing at all.”
Ik-Rass wondered silently at Merewright’s all-knowing self-confidence and asked herself: why was this nest disused?
It was a disturbing report for Gohunt. But it was inevitable and she knew how to deal with it. Gohunt always anticipated. She worked out solutions for every possibility. That way she remained one step ahead. “What if?” was her favourite question. What some of her soldiers mistook for quick thinking was in fact anticipation. Her earlier removal of Ik-Rass and her self-promotion to Leader of All the Soldiers was so easy. She had anticipated that the ants would accept it, but she had carefully prepared a back-down if they had not.
But Gohunt had a blindness. She could get other ants to do her bidding. She could anticipate what ants would do and prepare accordingly. But there was a wider world. Unlike Merewright and Majorim, she had no understanding of it. Everything centred around her leadership of the ants of the nest and her maintaining an ability to order them to do her bidding. Nothing else mattered. She was blinded to what her bidding was leading to.
So when a soldier reported the sighting of some black-and-brown ants, her sole concern was to ensure that no ant in her nest made any connection between them and the Evil Ones. The one defect in portraying the mantis as an Evil One was that it was green and her description of the Evil Ones had them as black-and-brown. She hoped they had all forgotten, but was prepared in case they had not. Since the slaying of the mantis she had substituted its picture in the minds of her ants for the previous picture of large black-and-brown ant-like creatures. Now she was finding her new half-truth catching up on her original lie. The first lie required a foundation of truth to gain credibility. She had merely exaggerated the size and ferocity of the timid little black-and-brown ants. After the convenient arrival of the mantis she had substituted the foundation of truth upon which she based the Evil Ones. Now the original foundation of truth re-emerged, threatening to bring the great lie tumbling down: there were no Evil Ones. There never had been any.
“Interesting,” Gohunt said. “Tell me about them.”
The soldier described the black-and-brown ants, how small their mandibles and how few there were.
“Did you find a nest?” Gohunt asked.
“No, just ten ants. Nothing else.”
“Then there is nothing to worry about, is there?” Gohunt asked.
“No, but what should we do if we come across more of them?”
“We will stop foraging on that side of the nest for several days. I will send U-Nash and some other soldiers to find out more about these creatures.”
Gohunt called her soldiers together. She described what the soldier had told her and said: “These are harmless creatures. They have not the strength to harm any of us. We can just ignore them.”
Gohunt, unlike the other purple ants, had known of the black-and-brown ants for a long time. They had not expanded their foraging territory at all since she first saw them on the expedition to find Minion-Minor. It must be a small and weak nest. They would be easy to deal with. There must be no stand-up fight. If any of her soldiers were killed she would be blamed. The easier way was to just take all their food and they would starve themselves out of existence. And then the purple nest could take over all their territory (or what little of it there was) and continue to strengthen and expand. In the meantime she must stop talk of the Evil Ones. They had served their purpose and her power no longer relied upon them. She had U-Nash, ever grateful for her reprieve, and other trusty soldiers to ensure her position.
* * * *
U-Nash’s instructions were simple: find out if the black-and-brown ants had a nest and its size, see how many ants it had, see if there are any soldiers and bring back a description of them. She was not to make contact with them; just observe.
The descriptions of the workers and their small mandibles gave U-Nash some confidence, but she was going into the unknown. What if it were a huge nest with large, ferocious soldiers? She must be careful.
As she crossed the foraging line she felt a tinge of sad guilt. The line showed the voraciousness of her own nest. It was a clear line. On one side everything was gone. There was no food of any kind. On the other was speckled country, of leaves and twigs with scattered food still available. The foraging parties from her nest chomped through the land leaving nothing in their wake. As she crossed the line she left behind a stripped land, a dead land. And she entered a place of life. Oddly a sense of peace came over her. Here, she was no longer part of the voracious entity of the purple nest, but one creature in a balance of variety. However feeble she may find these black-and-brown ants, they had great strength if they could live in such a pleasant place without taking everything from it for themselves. The place seemed too benign to present any danger, which was just as well because she had brought only four soldiers with her. There was less chance of being seen that way.
It wasn’t long before they came across a small foraging party of black-and-brown workers. Keeping their distance they followed them. They seemed so weak and ineffectual, carrying such a small amount of food. Suddenly they disappeared.
“Curses,” said U-Nash. “We have lost them. Gohunt will be very angry. Where could they have gone. Hunt around you lot, but be careful not to be seen.”
“Look here,” cried a soldier at last. “Look at this hole. I think they went down there.”
“That’s not a hole. That’s their nest,” U-Nash said. “Quick. Move back.”
They moved back and waited. A few soldiers lazed in and out of the nest. Another foraging party came home, but there was none of the frenzy of the purple nest.
“They’re an idle lot,” said U-Nash. “And this is the busiest time of the day. Those big ones must be the soldiers. Their mandibles don’t seem very big.”
They waited and counted and became convinced that this nest presented no threat.
“We will stay tonight and watch in the morning,” U-Nash said. “Gohunt wants to know exactly how big this nest is. We must check for other entrances.”
* * * *
The speckled look of the day before had gone. It was all shade now. The gleam of sun upon purple bodies was no more. The bright colours were subdued. And it was cooler. U-Nash was not concerned. She expected things to be different. She had a simple task and went about completing it. One of his soldiers reported another entrance to the nest, but it was some distance off.
“Come and see, U-Nash,” she said.
“Yes, I’m coming.”
They walked toward the other opening in the grey light. There were no shadows because it was all shadow. This made the ants emerging from the other entrance harder to see at first. And what were these little creatures with the ants? U-Nash was intrigued. She moved closer to get a better view, careful to make no sound and not to be seen herself.
“It’s all right,” said the other soldier, “It’s some ants from our nest. They must be searching too. Gohunt must have sent another search party. Let’s join them.”
“Stop,” ordered U-Nash. “Look more carefully. That’s Longfeel . . . and Ik-Rass . . . and . . . is it? . . . I can’t quite see. . . Yes; it’s Minion-Minor.”
U-Nash had always wondered how Longfeel and others had managed in exile. Here was her answer.
“Wait here, I’ll go down alone,” she said. “They won’t run or fight if only one of us goes.”
It was a good excuse, but U-Nash wanted to talk to Longfeel alone for other reasons. She did not want everything reported back to Gohunt.
“Well, well, look who’s here,” said Longfeel. “Has Gohunt exiled you, too, U-Nash. You are welcome to join us.”
Seeing U-Nash alone, Longfeel had jumped to the wrong conclusion and was alarmed when U-Nash said: “No, I have not been exiled.”
“Are you alone?” Longfeel asked quickly.
“Yes, but I have four soldiers with me beyond. They have seen you. But don’t be alarmed. Tell me about your exile. And what is Minion-Minor doing here?”
“How can we trust you? You will just tell Gohunt where we are and she will send soldiers to drive us out or kill us.”
“No, it’s not like that, I promise. This is why I came down here alone.”
U-Nash related her story of arguing with Gohunt over food supply, how she was about to be exiled and her attack on Gohunt. She told of her position as adviser and why she got it.
“But I still hate Gohunt,” U-Nash said. “I have had to keep it all to myself. At last I can tell another ant. Gohunt will destroy the nest. We lurch from crisis to crisis. Every time by some lucky chance Gohunt overcomes it. But the nest is running out of food again. This time I cannot see a solution. It is just too big to feed every ant. The foraging parties are not far from here. They will clean out everything. You will have nothing to feed on, Longfeel. You must take your exiles and leave before you starve.”
“We will not starve,” Longfeel said confidently. “We have a way of feeding ourselves and the new members of our new nest.”
“What do you mean? What are you talking about?” U-Nash asked.
“These black-and-brown ants are not as feeble as you think,” Longfeel replied. “They have taught us a few things. They showed us how to get a liquid food from small creatures they call aphids and they have found a new food they call fungus which they can make appear in their nest. Come, I’ll show you.”
U-Nash drank the milk and was overcome by the sweetness of its taste. This was too good for Gohunt and the other purple ants, she thought. So she said to Longfeel: “Take these aphids and your exiles and flee. Gohunt’s foraging parties are getting closer.”
“We could do a deal with Gohunt,” Longfeel said. “We could show her the aphids and fungus in return for being allowed to go back to the nest.”
“Don’t be silly,” U-Nash replied. “You cannot do a deal with Gohunt. She will learn about your aphids and fungus, take them from you and kill you. You must flee.”
“Yes,” said Longfeel on reflection. “You cannot trust Gohunt.”
On seeing U-Nash, Longfeel mellowed. The strain of leading the exiles had forced her to become domineering. She was in danger of becoming like Gohunt herself. U-Nash’s presence made that clear. U-Nash, like herself, had stood up to Gohunt for good reason. She was grateful U-Nash was here to prevent her from sliding beyond redemption to Gohunt’s depths. Gohunt was a murderer and liar. Longfeel knew that as fact and yet was on the verge of believing she could make a deal with her. U-Nash did not know the fact of her lie or murder, but knew her character better than Longfeel did.
“You are right, U-Nash,” Longfeel said. “I know you are right. Let me tell you. Remember the day I went with Gohunt on an expedition to find Minion-Minor, before Gohunt appointed herself Leader of All the Soldiers? She came back with a story about an Evil One that killed one of our soldiers. She said she had tried to help, but it was hopeless. That day I saw all that happened. There was no Evil One. Minion-Minor was with two black-and-brown ants. Gohunt approached them, but when our soldier arrived Gohunt beckoned her over and snapped off her head.”
“What!” said U-Nash. “She killed one of her own soldiers, for nothing?”
“Exactly!” continued Longfeel. “I, too, could not believe it. But I saw it with my own eyes. She made up the story of the Evil Ones so she could assume leadership of the nest.”
“Why didn’t you say something before?”
“I tried. I tried to tell the others on the way back to the nest but they were so taken with Gohunt’s story I thought they would not believe me, so I said nothing. Gohunt was the hero. They wanted to believe the hero, not the accuser. It was the same back at the nest. I was about to say something when I was exiled, but it was hopeless. By then she had the whole nest in a trance over the Evil Ones. The only ants who know are the exiles and you.”
U-Nash believed her but was puzzled. “There is only one snag in your story, Longfeel. An Evil One landed on the nest.”
“No,” Longfeel replied. “There are no such things. What do you mean an Evil One landed on the nest?”
“One day a huge creature landed on the nest. It killed and ate many ants before we finally overcame it. I must admit Gohunt was magnificent that day. She saved the nest.”
“Describe this creature,” Longfeel said. And she listened intently while U-Nash told of the slaying of the mantis.
“Ah, ah, you see,” said Longfeel excitedly. “The creature was green, not black-and-brown as Gohunt said. It was just a giant grasshopper, not an Evil One. Were there any more of them?”
“No,” U-Nash replied lamely.
“You see she just described a huge black-and-brown ant as an Evil One because that was at hand. The lie was good because it was close to the truth.”
“We were all fooled, weren’t we?”
“Yes. And now we must do something about it.”
As she spoke her resolution, the sky darkened and the hot, dry desert breeze gave way to a cool change. The distant horizon of the Desert of Stones closed in. The bold blue of yesterday’s enormous sky was gone. Its rich, monochromatic flatness had turned to a wild, cumulonimbus variation of greys. And the distant dryness of yesterday had turned to clammy damp.
Longfeel wondered if this was a portent or a coincidence.
* * * *
Majorim and Merewright were appalled at the destruction. Bujax had described it well. On one side of the line there was nothing. On this side it was as it had been for as long as they could remember: a variety of food in good quantities. They walked along the line shaking their heads in disbelief.
“You know what this means, don’t you?” Merewright asked rhetorically. “If this line comes much closer, it will be the end of our nest. Our foraging ground will be destroyed. We have already lost half our aphids.”
Merewright was melancholic in the face of the incomprehensible. Old Merewright had not prepared him for such events. He was supposed to be adviser to Majorim. But what could he say? Do they wait for doom to overwhelm them? Or do they flee in the face of the onslaught into an uncertain land and an uncertain future?
“Look here!” Merewright said suddenly. “Tracks.”
They hadn’t noticed them before, but now they saw them all around.
“These are not our tracks,” Merewright said.
“No, they are tracks of purple ants,” said Thoran. “And look at the paths. They are exactly like the ones I saw when I first met Minion-Minor.”
“I’m afraid you are right, Thoran,” said Merewright. “The food is being taken by the purple ants.”
Merewright was impressed by Thoran’s deductions. He was impressed by Thoran in many ways. And he wondered how Thoran would cope against the coming onslaught. Majorim was unperturbed: “We’ll just have to produce more fungus.”
Again Thoran summed up the position more accurately: “How will we overcome them? How will we defeat them?”
“Why do we need to?” Majorim asked. “We shall just ignore them.”
“We can neither ignore them, nor overcome them,” Merewright said looking across the line into the wasteland created by the purple ants.
“What news of U-Nash?” Gohunt asked in desperation. “She should be back by now.”
“No, she’s not back yet,” a soldier said.
“I want to see her as soon as she arrives.”
“Yes, of course, Gohunt.”
“Don’t call me ‘Gohunt’. I am to be called Great Leader of All the Soldiers. And tell that to the others.”
“Yes, Go . . . . my Great Leader of All the Soldiers.”
Several days had passed since Gohunt issued the instructions not to forage in the direction of the black-and-brown ants. The nest was so large, that all food held in storage was gone. The soldiers knew it would take some time to build them up again.
“Oh Great Leader of All the Soldiers, when can we resume foraging in the direction of the Evil Ones?”, a soldier said. “Our storage is running low.”
“When U-Nash returns, and not before.”
“The other side is not yielding much, we must forage on both sides, my leader.”
” ‘Must, must’! I decide what we must and must not do. There is plenty of food for now.”
The soldier sulked away. There was no point telling Gohunt anything. She was too consumed in her own self-importance. The soldier was saddened. The more Gohunt trumped herself up, the lower her esteem in the eyes of her soldiers. The time of highest esteem was when she was joining in at their level. The soldier remembered wistfully Gohunt’s heroic attack on the Evil One. When the Evil One was upon them Gohunt was at her best. What could Gohunt do this time to overcome the impending catastrophe? no one could tell her it was about to happen; she would have to see for herself.
Gohunt was oblivious to the lack of food. She was isolated and alone in the huge purple nest of thousands of ants. She thought that among them only one was her friend: U-Nash, who was not even there.
The soldiers hid the position from her. As food ran out, they cut rations to each foraging party without her ever knowing. The soldier leading each party had to make do. Some selfishly continued their own rations and cut only the workers. Others shared the cuts. The soldiers were too scared to cut the rations of workers charged with tending to eggs, larvae and expanding the nest because Gohunt was always on the prowl around the nest. She would notice and the soldiers responsible would be punished. As rations were cut on the foraging parties, workers became enfeebled. They collected less and less food. So rations were cut further.
A group of ten enfeebled workers walked in line out into the Desert of Stones. There was so little food that none had to carry much, but still they buckled under the weight. They walked slower. And then some stopped. The soldiers ordered them on. Some attempted to continue. But stopped again. Still the soldiers ordered them on. Several dropped their loads. The soldiers ordered them to pick them up. None was to make it back to the nest. Hatched from uniform eggs, each of uniform size, fed on uniform rations, they had virtually identical stamina and strength so when one died, others died at the same time.
“We need drastic action,” the soldier leading the group said on her return to the nest, “but who is to tell Gohunt. We must swing all the workers tending to tunnels and eggs on to foraging parties. If we don’t, we, too, will die.”
Each soldier began to feel more confident that none would take Gohunt’s side. But they could not be certain. She had such power over other ants. Faced with her some might crumble and enforce her ridiculous orders, especially soldiers looking after workers on tunnelling and tending eggs. Should they show Gohunt the dead workers? Better still, should they show the other soldiers the dead workers first.
“We could mash up the dead bodies to feed them,” one said. “That would leave more food for the foraging parties.”
“No; let’s get Gohunt and the other soldiers together to see the dead bodies,” said another. “Then they will have to believe us.”
They agreed to approach Gohunt.
* * * *
“Not now,” Gohunt said. “Can’t you see U-Nash has returned.”
“It is urgent,” the foraging soldier said. “And U-Nash should see them, too.”
“What must we see?” asked U-Nash.
“Dead workers. They have died from starvation. There is not enough food in the nest.”
“Nonsense,” cried Gohunt. “You just haven’t rationed properly.”
“But . . . .”
“Don’t interrupt. Mash up the bodies and feed them to the tunnelling parties,” Gohunt said dismissively. “And in future ration properly.”
The foraging soldiers dithered. Should they go, or should they stay? Would they persuade U-Nash, who could then tell Gohunt?
“My leader,” one ventured, “this is more than a matter of rationing. There is nothing left to ration.”
“Ah, but there you are wrong, my friend,” said Gohunt triumphantly. “I will not hear your nonsense any more. U-Nash has brought us some excellent news from the other side of the nest. Tell them, U-Nash. Tell them whatever our food shortage is, it is now over. Over, forever.”
U-Nash was not comfortable. Her plan with Longfeel and the other exiles was straight-forward, but daring. She would arrange a deal for them to return to the nest and they in turn would bring the aphids and fungus with them. They knew that eventually Gohunt would use some pretence to renege on the deal and that at that moment they would rebel. They would tell the other ants about Gohunt’s lies about the Evil Ones and her murder. U-Nash assured Longfeel that once the rebellion started, the other soldiers would join in killing Gohunt with alacrity. Then Longfeel could return to her precious new nest to rescue the eggs and larvae of the black-and-brown ants. What could go wrong?
“Remember Longfeel and the other exiled ants,” U-Nash began. “Well, they have come across a nest of other ants. The ants are smaller than us and black-and-brown. They have a very small nest. To give you an idea of its size, it has only one entrance. So it poses no threat to us. But these ants have two remarkable ways of getting food. They ensure the nest always has enough food. The ants chase half-sized creatures called aphids. They round them up alive and take them back to the nest. The aphids are rubbed and produce milk, which Longfeel tells me is the sweetest tasting thing she has ever had. They also have sweet tasting fungus in the nest. These clever ants collect tiny specks called spores from the fungus and bury them in the dirt at the bottom of the nest. Very soon the fungus appears and can be eaten.”
The soldiers were amazed. This would solve all their food trouble. They could have huge areas growing fungus and hundreds and hundreds of aphids.
“I will go out and return with the exiles and their aphids and spores as quickly as I can,” U-Nash continued. “Then our food troubles will be over.”
“Are you satisfied, now?” Gohunt asked impatiently.
“Yes,” the foraging soldier said, “but it will take some time for U-Nash to get back and for the aphids to produce much milk. Please, my leader, can we forage on both sides of the nest now and can some of the tunnelling ants be moved to foraging.”
Gohunt saw no sense in being dogmatic. When she was in a position of strength, she knew how to win over her soldiers. She knew how to keep them loyal to her.
“Yes, you may. And we will take some workers off tunnelling duty to help forage. You have been great soldiers. You have fed the nest in times of great difficulty. We are all grateful to you and you can feel very proud of what you have done for the whole nest.”
U-Nash saw how the soldiers’ eyes lit up, how they swelled with pride and thanks at Gohunt’s words. And she wondered whether her assurance to Longfeel about rebellion had been warranted. Gohunt had strange powers of persuasion at critical times, and they would be facing these times very soon.
The foraging soldiers walked away.
“She’s all right,” one said. “She’s hard sometimes, but she always works for the good of the nest, even if she is headstrong and won’t listen sometimes.”
“Yes,” said another, “remember the time she killed the Evil One. She saved us all. She protected us when we were paralysed with fear. I will never forget that day.”
* * * *
Longfeel and the exiles were greeted with great ceremony and curiosity. What were these aphids? How did this fungus appear?
The sense of momentous occasion was amplified by changes in the sky. Great brooding dark-grey clouds continued their build up. The ants had not seen the sun for days. The earth was cooling. Beyond the purple nest, beyond the black-and-brown nest, the eucalypt reached to the blackened sky, its miserable foliage gaining slight relief from the heat, but its roots stretching and demanding water. Near the eucalypt, the creek-bed erupted into life. Water from far, far away slowly trickled its way toward the Desert of Stones. It meandered along the creek-bed. As each day went past the creek filled more: from a trickle to a stream and now a river. In the far distance lightning slashed the sky: great flashes of blanket lightning, followed by stabbing, zig-zagging forks. Seconds later almighty thunder cracked.
At the purple nest, the ants saw the arrival of the aphids as salvation. There was only a tiny amount of milk, but news of its sweet taste rumoured through the nest. Gohunt had triumphed again.
“Ants,” Gohunt said from atop the nest. “today we welcome Longfeel, Ik-Rass, Minion-Minor and the other exiles back to the nest. They are forgiven. They bring with them the seed for our future strength and growth. From now, with the aphids and the fungus, we will no longer be at the mercy of nature to provide food for our nest. Instead, we will control nature. We will provide food for ourselves. This is the ultimate control over nature.”
At that, the lightning slashed the sky again, followed by a powerful clap of thunder.
* * * *
“I think they’ve gone,” Thoran said.
“There’s no activity,” Merewright replied. “No ants are coming and going. Maybe they took my warning. Let’s go in and look.”
They descended into the disused nest, expecting at any turn to find Longfeel or some of the other purple exiles. But they didn’t go down far.
“What is it?” Thoran asked.
“Water,” Merewright replied. “It has filled all the bottom chambers. There are eggs and larvae floating on it. It’s filled half the nest.”
As the creek began to flow, water seeped up into the nest. Longfeel and her exiles did not know it, but they had escaped just in time. Longfeel’s romantic dream of coming back to the nest after the rebellion to save the eggs and larvae was at nought.
“Let’s get out quickly,” Merewright said.
“I don’t like it,” Thoran said worried. “The water and the dark sky. What does it mean, Merewright. Are we doomed?”
“Old Merewright told me about it. He told me we must never occupy the old nest. He told me many things. It’s all right, Thoran, the dark sky will come blue again. We are not doomed.”
But he thought to himself, Old Merewright never told me about the purple ants. Whatever happens, they must be remembered.
The aphids wilted under the strain in the purple nest. Taken from their usual diet of eucalypt sap and grass to the edge of Desert of Stones they suffered. It would have been worse in the sun, but even so the aphids languished. Gohunt treated them badly, as if they could produce milk without being looked after, without being fed the food they liked. After a time, no amount of rubbing would produce milk. Even Longfeel and Minion-Minor who had watched Merewright many times with the aphids could not make them produce. One by one the aphids died.
The fungus, too, failed. The way Longfeel described it, all Merewright did was put the spores in the dirt and the fungus appeared. But Longfeel had little understanding of conditions needed to cause the fungus to grow. They planted the spores, but the soil was infertile and dry. Nothing happened. Several days later they dug up the spores and planted them somewhere else. Still nothing happened. Gohunt thought it was a trick.
“We must have more aphids, Longfeel,” Gohunt demanded. “It was part of the deal for you to come back to the nest. And you have failed. You have lied about the spores. We have not seen any fungus. For all we know you might be making it up.”
It was so predictable, U-Nash thought. Here comes Gohunt, making an excuse to attack Longfeel.
“But you have milked them too much,” Longfeel said. “It is idiotic to expect twenty aphids to feed a nest of thousands. We have said many times, the nest is too big.”
“Enough of this insolence,” Gohunt replied. “The nest is not too big. Your aphids are too small. And the fungus has failed.”
“No, it needs damp. It’s too dry here.”
“Excuses. Excuses. I have promised the nest that the aphids and fungus would feed us. You have failed, Longfeel. Workers are dying and it is all your fault.”
When things went wrong everything else was to blame: the soldiers, the workers, Longfeel or chance. When things went right, it was Gohunt who caused it. This was the way she thought. It came naturally to her.
“Have patience, Gohunt,” Longfeel said. “The fungus will grow. And we can look for more aphids. But you cannot expect the aphids to produce milk constantly.”
U-Nash thought the time would come soon. Gohunt would inevitably go from blame to punishment. As more workers died and as the aphids did not produce all that Gohunt promised, it seemed a rebellion would be successful. All the soldiers were scared of Gohunt, but they were equally as scared for the future of the nest. If workers starved, soldiers would be next.
It came sooner than even U-Nash expected. The next day in front of several foraging soldiers, Gohunt said: “Longfeel, I knew this would not work. Against my better judgement I allowed U-Nash to bring you back to the nest. You have lied about the aphids and fungus.”
Longfeel seized the moment: “No, Gohunt, you are the liar. I was there on the expedition to catch Minion-Minor. You lied about the Evil One. The Evil One did not kill the soldier. You murdered her. I saw it all. There are no Evil Ones, just pathetic little black-and-brown ants which you exaggerated for your own lying purposes. Minion-Minor saw it, too. Did you forget about Minion-Minor? He’s just a worker, so you forgot about him. He’s here and will verify what I say to the whole nest.”
“Longfeel, I am amazed. I killed an Evil One while you were in exile. Everyone here saw it.”
“No, Gohunt, you did not kill an Evil One. I have spoken to U-Nash about it. All you killed was a giant grasshopper of some kind. You said to everyone that the Evil Ones were black-and-brown, not green. You lied Gohunt. Has any ant seen any more so-called ‘Evil Ones’?”
The foraging soldiers began to listen intently. Longfeel and U-Nash were the only ants to have stood up to Gohunt, and here they were at it again. Longfeel’s attack was finding its mark. Some of the soldiers began to believe her, but at the mention of the killing of the Evil One at the nest, they were reminded of Gohunt’s selfless and heroic deeds. Whatever the thing was called, it was deadly and Gohunt was fearless in attacking it. Some of the foraging soldiers thought deeds meant more than words. Others thought Longfeel must be listened to.
“We should fetch Minion-Minor, and see what he says,” a foraging soldier says.
Gohunt quickly broke in: “Don’t be silly, we are not listening to a mere worker.”
Then she turned to U-Nash and said: “We cannot allow this. “She will disrupt the whole nest. She is a pernicious influence and must be stopped before she spreads these lies.”
She still believed U-Nash was her friend, adviser and confidant. But U-Nash looked at Gohunt solemnly and said: “No Gohunt, your time is up. You are the liar, not Longfeel.”
“What, you! You, U-Nash! You are not against me, too? After all I have done for you and the nest. I get this. You believe her over me.”
“I’m afraid so,” U-Nash replied.
“Well then, you both must die,” Gohunt said. “Exile is too good. I was too generous before. I should have killed you then for your treachery, Longfeel.”
Longfeel looked at U-Nash desperately, and U-Nash whispered reassuringly in reply: “It’s all right.”
Gohunt knew she could not rely on the foraging soldiers so she cried out for the more reliable tunnelling soldiers: “Soldiers! “Soldiers!”
The soldiers were already on their way. They were desperately searching for Gohunt in the face of a greater calamity than the challenge by Longfeel and U-Nash. On their arrival, Gohunt imagined their quick obedience was due to her power, but before she could utter the command to kill U-Nash and Longfeel, the head soldier said: “Quick. Come quickly. Come and see. What shall we do?”
They raced to the top of the nest, but could hardly get out. As each soldier struggled through the main entrance she was pelted with great force.
It had begun to rain.
It rains maybe once or twice a decade on the edge of the Desert of Stones. It is rain unlike rain anywhere else. Great sheets of water pour out of the saturated sky. The parched clay is unused to water. It is quickly saturated. The flat ground does not drain well. Little natural drainage exists in a land with so little rain: there is no regular force to carve a network of permanent watercourses to take the water away. When it rains the water builds up in a sheet on the flat clay, and then moves slowly and determinedly across the near-flat country to the lower ground, ending in the giant saltpans far, far away. Ironically, only those places close to the rare large, permanent watercourses escape inevitable flooding. These watercourses take the water away more quickly, so the land nearby is drained more quickly.
Gohunt and the soldiers watched in terror. Each huge drop splashed in sheets of water on the ground. They could hardly see as the water raced toward the nest and swirled around the base of the mound and water gurgled down Gohunt’s prized special food entrances. The little food left in storage was soaked. The precious white food reserved for soldiers was useless in the wet. It dissolved, turning the water milky white, too thin to be edible. But the food was the least of the purple ants difficulties. Survival itself was threatened.
Suddenly Gohunt cried: “Quick, the Queen! The Queen!”
* * * *
Old Merewright had told him what to do. As the first drops fell, Merewright quickly herded the rest of his aphids underground. He told Majorim she should order all the ants back to the nest. The Queen should not be fed and all eggs pushed out of the nest. By the time the last black-and-brown ant reached the nest the first drops of rain had turned to sheets, but its fall was broken by the great eucalypt above. The soil absorbed much more water than nearer the Desert of Stones. The entrance to the black-and-brown nest was on slightly higher ground. Even so, by the third day some water got in, but it drained harmlessly to the great sump chambers below. There Merewright was planting every fungus spore he had. Old Merewright told him that the only time the ants could live on fungus and aphid milk alone was for a short time during a great rain. And the rain would pass.
For five days the black-and-brown ants stayed underground, feeding on aphid milk and fungus. The fungus held good against the dampness in the lower chambers. The ants dozed in blissful half-conscious state of well-being. Little work was needed and no ant desired great activity. They lost all concern for themselves or the future in their joyous, sleepy state. They hoped the rain would last forever. Only Merewright, Majorim and Thoran, feeding on aphid milk alone, were alert to the passing of time, the needs of the Queen, and the question of whether the nest would withstand the onslaught of the rain.
Not far away, on lower ground, the disused nest filled rapidly to the top. Lifeless eggs and larvae floated to the entrance. It would be months before any ant ever entered it again.
* * * *
“All must help save the Queen,” Gohunt said. “Never mind about the Evil Ones. U-Nash, Longfeel, forget what happened. You are forgiven. We are all ants of this nest now. We must save our Queen to save our nest.”
Thirty soldiers rushed underground with Gohunt. Workers were running everywhere as the water gurgled into the nest. They were carrying eggs and larvae from flooded chambers to higher ones. Some carried eggs outside into the maelstrom, where they were battered by the great drops of water.
Gohunt entered the Queen’s chamber. The water was rising up the tunnel outside.
“Widen the entrance, quick,” she ordered.
She joined in and she quickly won the admiration of those around her as her mandibles shifted prodigious amounts of dirt. Still the entrance was not wide enough. Still they dug as the water rose. Gohunt was oblivious to the danger. She dug with ferocious energy. They gradually eased the Queen out, her huge swollen abdomen scraping the sides of the enlarged entrance. Gohunt pulled with single-minded strength. The Queen slowly came up the passageway.
“Keep pulling,” Gohunt ordered as she ran up the passage to find a suitable chamber. “Widen the entrance to this one,” she said. It was not as high as she wanted, but it would do for now. It was somewhere at the base of the mound, Gohunt figured, and probably out of danger. “Oh, why did I dig those food tunnels,” Gohunt lamented to herself. “Without them, the nest would have been safe.”
She rushed back to the Queen. The others had not dragged her far.
“What’s happening?” Gohunt demanded.
“No ant is pushing,” a soldier said. “They have fallen back into the water.”
Then Gohunt realised what was happening. The Queen was half floating. She was being pushed up as the water rose. That meant the ants behind her had probably drowned, Longfeel and U-Nash among them. Even now, in the nest’s greatest crisis, with its Queen threatened, Gohunt thought about her position as Leader of All the Soldiers. Just as well, thought Gohunt. If this rain ever stops, I can rebuild and the nest will be better without them.
But Gohunt had no idea if the rain would stop at all. It rained so rarely at the edge of the Desert of Stones that rain starting and stopping was not within the common realm of experience. For all Gohunt knew, the state of her whole universe had changed permanently, from one of sun, heat and dryness, to one of shadow, cool and rain. But she had to hope for a reversion to the better conditions of the past. She knew that they had existed, so there was no reason to think they could not exist again. It was based on this hope she struggled now with the Queen, rather than on any rational knowledge that the rain would stop.
It took nearly the whole day to get the Queen to the higher chamber. Still the rain lashed outside and the water level in the nest slowly rose. Gohunt ordered several soldiers to get some food and she and the remaining ten soldiers waited with the Queen.
* * * *
The soldiers did not return and Gohunt was worried. Her duty now was to stay with the Queen. But they had to have food. She did not want to describe to one of these soldiers where her secret storage was. The soldier was bound to misunderstand. She would think it a deceit or some special privilege that Gohunt had reserved for herself, when it was a necessary precaution. Gohunt had to have special provisions for her own survival for the good of the nest. She would have to go alone.
“I’m going to inspect the nest,” she said. “Stay here and look after the Queen.”
Gohunt fumbled through the destruction. Workers did not recognise her. They carried on with frantic duty, driven by fear and chaos. Orders and routine were the only certainties for them. They continued to dig tunnels, as ordered, clawing at the clay while water splashed around them. Working, they thought, for the good of the nest, but in fact working to shorten its structural integrity. The water forced Gohunt to retreat many times from favourite shortcuts, forced to back-track to find a different way. She came across a great chamber half-filled with water. Workers and soldiers scrambled at its sides, desperately groping at the wet clay, only to slide back into the abyss. Ants crawled over each other in an attempt to get to dry ground, only spoiling each other’s efforts. The legs of weakened ants on the surface of the water collapsed under the strain and they fell submerged and drowned. Gohunt looked with detachment at her workers and soldiers drowning. She had only two interests now: her stockpile of food and the security of the Queen. She leapt across a great hole in the floor of the passage. On the other side was deathly silent peace. She turned quickly through a maze of passages, coming across no other ant. She turned quickly into a familiar chamber, stretched her front legs to the roof and climbed with great anticipation through a tiny opening into the chamber which contained her secret supply.
She noticed water dripping slowly through the roof and her legs sank into a white sludge. The tribulations since taking leadership of the nest were at nought compared to this. Gohunt sank. Her food, the precious white substance gathered and guarded with great care over a long time to provide in times of catastrophe, was inedible, a useless muddy sludge.
* * * *
A lesser leader would have wallowed in it breaking down in despair, railing at the futility of life and enjoying the self-pity, even in that lonely chamber. Not Gohunt. Nest gone, friend turned to foe, her life threatened, her reason for being no more, Gohunt rose above the calamity. “I will rescue my Queen,” she said aloud. “I will rebuild my nest.”
Then the roof caved in on her. The water showered upon her, forcing her down the tiny hole back into the central passage. In the great expansionary time of the nest, she had been obsessed with her own position and her own survival. Now, when her very survival was genuinely at threat, she brushed it aside. Her single-minded determination was for the survival of her Queen and with that the survival of her nest. The survival of the greater transcended her own life; it was the reason for it.
The purple nest needed Gohunt, or another soldier like her, if such could be found. For all her tyranny, murder and lies, without such a leader the purple nest was nothing. Though Gohunt was herself fulfilled by her attainment and exercise of power, it was not a selfish exercise. She believed it was for the whole nest, whatever other ants might have thought. She must go on. She must find other food. She must save her Queen. The nest of purple ants, lacking a Merewright to give an understanding of a nest’s place in the world, needed a soldier of the single-minded strength of Gohunt to exist. She knew that. Instead of collapsing in the central passage to await the inevitable rise of the water she rushed back to the chamber housing the Queen.
“There is no food,” she said, exhausted.
“What will we do?” one of the soldiers said.
“We will wait for the rain to stop, move the Queen and create another nest.”
“But what will we eat while we wait for the rain to stop.”
“Dead workers,” Gohunt replied grimly.
* * * *
In the early days Gohunt’s mania for increasing the size of the nest had made her order more and more passages and chambers to be built. Many were dug very close to existing ones. With the onslaught of the rain, roofs and floors collapsed throughout the nest. In the Queen’s new chamber the roof caved in and water swamped the floor. The weight of the water caused the floor at one end of the chamber to collapse into the chamber below. Five soldiers fell with it, tumbling helplessly in the mud. Two managed to struggle to the surface only to be swept back by another cave in. Gohunt was left with the Queen and five other soldiers.
“We must go higher,” Gohunt said. “This lot is crumbling under us.”
“But it’s not safe,” one of the remaining soldiers replied.
“Nowhere is safe. We must do what we can for our Queen.”
They struggled out of the chamber, Gohunt pulling and the others pushing the Queen. The water kept rising in the nest. This alarmed the five soldiers, but Gohunt knew better.
“The water will enable us to float to the top,” she said. “Also it is filling the nest, preventing a total collapse.”
“What about the eggs and the larvae?” a soldier asked. “Shouldn’t we order some workers to save them?”
“There are no workers. Besides what would we feed them on?” she asked, missing the irony. It was only when Gohunt experienced hunger for herself that she realised there was no food for the other ants.
“Where are the other five?” a soldier asked.
“You don’t expect them to survive that rush of water, do you? When I went in search of food I saw dead soldiers and workers everywhere. For all we know we might be the only ones left.”
Indeed, Gohunt was about right. She and the soldiers who looked after the workers tending the eggs and the Queen were the best fed in the nest, and in any event they were the strongest. At the time the rain came so many of the workers were so weak that they had no strength to swim or dig themselves out of mudslides. Finally, the group reached a large chamber near the very top of the nest. By then, with the collapses beneath them it was only just above the ordinary ground level. They could hear the rain outside. Gohunt and the soldiers picked the dead bodies of workers out of the mud and ate them. They fed nothing to the Queen. She had enough stored in her body to last many days. For two days during the rain she continued to lay eggs, but there were no workers to tend to them. They fell into the mud, lifeless. On the third day she stopped laying.
Still the rain came down. Gohunt, five soldiers and the Queen stayed still in their chamber, wondering if the water would ever stop. The level rose precariously around the entrance of their chamber. It slopped on the floor, but posed no serious threat. The Queen’s abdomen shrank, but she was alive, silent as always.
At last, on the fifth day, the rain stopped. Gohunt and her five soldiers climbed out of the nest, dragging the Queen. Gohunt surveyed the ruins. The once proud mound had collapsed. Great gaping holes filled with water had replaced the once sturdy entrances. It is hopeless to start again here, she thought. We must start again elsewhere.
A few struggling workers emerged from the mud. Gohunt, ever the leader, ordered them over.
“You will follow me,” she ordered. And a sorry party of Gohunt, five soldiers, a Queen with a wizened abdomen, and ten workers walked into the Desert of Stones.
* * * *
It was different at the black-and-brown nest. The well-drained nest withstood the onslaught and the black-and-brown ants emerged to a new world. Once again the sky was a cloudless blue, but the ground was fresh and a rich smell of eucalypt filled the air. The crow had flown away. Majorim and Merewright organised some foraging parties and Bujax organised some minor repairs to the nest.
“The Queen can be fed again,” Majorim ordered.
Thoran and Merewright walked in the direction of the purple nest, Merewright following some distance behind. They looked for Bujax’s line on the ground beyond which there was no food, but it could no longer be found. They saw no purple ants.
Thoran wondered why he had become lost that day. He was glad now that he had. The knowledge of his nest was greater now. And with knowledge comes life.
He and Merewright turned back to their own nest. Thoran knew it would be a new era. Food would be easy to get. Life would be good for a time. But he also knew it would not always be like that. But he would be ready for it. No ant knew when it would rain again.
Thoran looked at Merewright. He had learned so much from him – the aphids, the fungus, the need to preserve. As they got closer to the nest Merewright turned suddenly and said: “I am retiring now, Thoran. Old Merewright said to me at the end that he had told me everything, but that I would learn more. He told me I would know the time to pass my position on. I have taught you everything, and you will learn more. The purple ants and rain have been great events in our lives, but more and different things will come. We cannot go back to our comfortable past and pretend nothing has happened, nor can we say the purple ants and the rain have changed our lives so much that nothing can ever be the same again. Some things can remain the same and others never will be.”
Then Majorim called: “Merewright, come back to the nest.”
And Thoran answered her.
Minion-Minor raced along the tunnel. Soldiers and workers were everywhere, some still working others running in confusion. In times of confusion and danger, instinct drove the ants underground. Instinct drove them ever deeper. Water trickled into the nest from the side entrances that Gohunt had so foolishly built to meet the needs of the expanding nest. As it trickled it caused fearful sounds and vibrations throughout the nest. Hundreds of ants raced downwards. Outside, the rain caused all the purple ants to head back to the nest, but many were too far away to make it home. It was another of Gohunt’s follies. Foraging parties that could safely return to the nest in dry conditions had no hope in the wet. The relentless rain filled the claypans around the Desert of Stones with a shallow sheet of water: future life for the plants and animals of the desert; present death for hundreds of purple ants.
It need not have been this way. If Gohunt had not pursued her mania for an ever-larger nest, the foraging parties would have been closer and the extra nest entrances would not have been dug. If the entrances had been restricted to the mound, no water would have entered the nest. If the huge hatching and storage chambers had not been dug to satisfy Gohunt’s demands for ever more ants and the wherewithal to feed them, the nest would not have collapsed so spectacularly.
Those ants that made it back, rushed underground. Down, down ever down they ran, past the top hatching chambers, past the food chambers, past the living chambers, down into the forbidden chambers of the Queen. Until they were stopped dead in their tracks by rising water. Some attempted to turn around only to be met by the unreasoned rush of ants running in the opposite direction in equal fear. The clash led to panic. Ants drowned in it. Their kicking legs pierced the viscosity of the surface tension of the water as they were pushed under by the weight of those on top. The dead bodies choked the tunnels. Ants suffocated silently in the struggle.
In every calamity there will be some survivors, some who do not act on deadly instinct. Minion-Minor had already survived one circumstance that would have left any other worker dead. He was to survive again. Unlike the other ants who ran down as the sound of the gurgling surge of water flooded the nest, he ran up. It was hard going at first, running in the face of all the other ants going the other way. Then a roof collapsed, pinning Minion-Minor’s back legs. He forced himself free and into the cavity caused by the collapse. It led to a higher tunnel which was not as crowded as the one below. He walked now, but still against the flow of other ants. He slid on the wet sides of the tunnel. At times the water flow made it impossible to go on. He wedged himself against the sides of the tunnel and watched as other ants, caught in the onslaught, were washed beneath him. Once again, his intelligence told him to go up, to climb up the sides of the tunnel. The instincts of other ants made them crouch low when they heard the water and felt its strengthening vibration. And they were washed to their death below. After a time the flow eased as fewer ants were coming below. Minion-Minor continued up. As he went he heard snippets of conversation among those fleeing the opposite way. They spoke of exhausted ants struggling toward what they thought was the safety of the nest to get away from the rain and vast sheets of water on the clay. They spoke of ants clinging desperately to the larger stones sticking above the surface of the water, only to be washed off by the relentless, rushing rain. They spoke of the hundreds of ants unable to make it, of the contrasting relief they felt upon seeing the nest in the midst of a sea of death only to have their fears return upon entering the chaos beneath.
Minion-Minor knew, therefore, that it was not safe to leave the nest. He also knew, but did not know why he knew, that to go down was to die. So he climbed close to an entrance at the top of the mound and found an empty hatching chamber. In normal times, eggs were brought to these chambers on hot days to help hatching and taken back down at night. No eggs had been brought here that day, because for the first time in years outside it was fully overcast and in dark shadow. Minion-Minor entered the chamber. For a while he watched as the water raced past. Then he wisely pushed some earth over the entrance to the chamber, knowing that all he could do was wait. He waited four days.
* * * *
On the fourth night, Minion-Minor dreamed. He was back in the deserted black-and-brown nest. The first eggs hatched. He and the nine other purple ants watched the larvae until they turned into tiny black-and-brown ants with large purple mandibles. Hundreds of them rushed about. They dug tunnels and built a huge mound. Minion-Minor’s dream went faster and faster. The ten purple ants watched the great activity. The dream flashed to the main black-and-brown nest. Its lazy ants walked slowly about. Suddenly, the nest of small ants surrounded the main nest. The little ants dug tunnels toward it and drove the larger black-and-brown ants away snapping at them with their purple mandibles. The little ants rounded up all the aphids and planted a huge fungus farm. The ten big purple ants applauded. Minion-Minor smiled at the work they had created: a glorious blend of active, creative ants. He basked in the congratulations of the other nine purple ants, and lifted his head to talk to thousands of little black-and-brown ants with purple mandibles. But they hissed at him and surrounded him menacingly. “We want to rest, but we have to work. We want to rest, but we have to look after the eggs. We want to tell stories, but we have to make more fungus. We have purple minds, but we have black-and-brown bodies. What have you created Minion-Minor? What have you created?” And the ants moved toward him. He felt them swarm over him and suddenly there was a bright light and he woke up.
* * * *
Minion-Minor looked up at the hole in the roof of the chamber to see sunlight. He was surrounded by dead bodies. The stench was over-powering. He had to get to fresh air. He scrambled toward the sunlight. Death, death and more death surrounded him. Dead bodies of drowned purple ants. Was he alone? Was he the only one to survive the calamity?
He surveyed the nest with disbelief. The mound was no more. In parts it had collapsed to below the original ground level. There was water at the bottom of some of the depressions, like small, muddy lakes. Soldiers’ and workers’ bodies littered the shorelines. Minion-Minor pictured the nest as it used to be before Gohunt deposed Ik-Rass: solid, familiar, safe – its mound of orange clay and small white pebbles squatting naturally on the fringes of the Desert of Stones. The devastation must have been a dream; the old nest would return. Those days were the good days, days without the mania of an ever-growing nest. Each day was a silent certainty: out to gather food and back, just enough food for the orderly feeding of the nest. The nest was a haven in the harsh, sun-drenched cruelty of the Desert of Stones. Now the nest of the purple ants was destroyed and he, Minion-Minor, faced the horrors of the desert alone. The destruction was not possible, just not possible.
How could it have happened? The nest could never be repaired. Occasional small cave-ins could be converted to tunnels, or patched, but devastation on this scale was beyond comprehension. Besides, there were no ants left to do the work. Minion-Minor knew what had caused the catastrophe. It was not the rain, not the water. It was Gohunt. She had ordered the extra tunnels where the water had flowed in. She had ordered foraging parties to go so far they could not get home. She had dug the endless extra tunnels that had caused the corruption of the internal structure of the nest. Well, Gohunt had got what she deserved. She was buried or drowned in her own ambitious creation. But what a vicious, stupid leader she had been. In all his life, Minion-Minor had never had such fury against another ant. He remembered the peaceful, idle time in the black-and-brown nest with fondness, but it was no substitute; the purple nest was his nest, his home and now it was destroyed.
He was glad Gohunt was dead. But how sad to take so many with her.
Surely, Minion-Minor thought, he was not the only survivor? But he was the only one at the top of the nest. Did others outside seek shelter, or had they been driven by fear to return to the nest with food no matter what? What of Longfeel, U-Nash and Ik-Rass? Would he be alone? That fear was his worst. Alone he was nothing. His purpleness came from belonging to a nest of purple ants. This is what Gohunt had destroyed. His very being relied on their being. A world on his own was no world. His own thoughts would be no company for himself. They would have no value, no testing point, no purpose. He had only been alone four days and now he was engulfed and enfeebled by loneliness. He could not bear to be alone much longer. He must find some others alive. His anger at Gohunt for causing his predicament welled up within him as he stood surveying the wreckage of what had once been his home. His only consolation, soon to be dashed, was that Gohunt was somewhere below – dead.
* * * *
He was hungry as he had never been before. And he remembered with dismay that all the food in a huge semi-circle of a day’s walk had been taken. He said to himself: “Whatever the stench, I must go back to the nest and see what food there is.” He went underground only to find his way blocked by water and dead bodies. “It’s hopeless; there is no food here,” he bemoaned, and returned to the surface. To stay alive I must eat the dead ants, he thought, there is no other way. He found a small dead worker, drowned in the great storm. His head, thorax and most of his legs had been buried in the mud. His abdomen protruded. Quickly, Minion-Minor bit it off and started to suck it into his body. He was indifferent to the taste, but his hunger was sated.
With his hunger gone, Minion-Minor had time for despair. He walked in a daze away from the nest. As he walked he saw the destruction of the storm. Great swirls of sand had been washed into the clay pans. The rain had spattered the smooth red stones. He saw with clarity and freshness the beauty of the desert. A great cleansing fury had swept the land. The destruction was not by the storm alone, however. Minion-Minor knew why this was a foodless plain: Gohunt’s army of soldiers and workers had taken the lot, and he was condemned to eke out his remaining days in lonely cannibalism. Minion-Minor lifted his head to the sky and cried in despair: “Why me? Why me?”
This was to be his life; there was no changing the catastrophe. He must now walk back to the nest. As he turned to walk, he heard a familiar voice.
“Oh, Minion-Minor, it is good to see you,” Longfeel cried. “I wondered if I was the only one to survive. Then I heard you cry out, and ran to you.” “Longfeel, oh Longfeel, tell me how did you get out?” Minion-Minor asked excitedly.
Longfeel described her ordeal.
As the water rose Longfeel, U-Nash and four or five other soldiers floated with it. They lost their grip on the Queen as the water took them upwards. Longfeel then felt the roof of the chamber and knew it would be over soon. She was forced under. Her feelers and legs thrashed. She felt U-Nash near her and knew they would die together. The water slopped and lapped at the roof of the chamber. It was rising and closing the gap. Every minute or so a wave smashed them into the roof, forcing them under. Then there was a gurgle and great backward force. It almost overwhelmed Longfeel. The water level dropped dramatically as the floor of the chamber collapsed. Longfeel clung desperately to the side of the chamber, and watched in piteous agony as U-Nash – her ally and friend – was sucked circularly down. No ant could climb out of that waiting abyss of death. Longfeel would never see U-Nash again.
Longfeel climbed upwards, and like Minion-Minor found a hatching chamber near the surface and waited. She was out early on the fifth day.
“Did anyone else escape?” Minion-Minor asked.
“I have seen not a soldier nor a worker,” Longfeel said. “Just bodies.”
“We must look for other survivors.”
“Yes. And food. We must leave here, Minion-Minor. We cannot hope to rebuild the nest.”
And they walked toward the collapsed mound. As they approached the rim they suddenly saw a movement.
“Look! What was that?” Minion-Minor cried.
Then they saw the rear of a huge soldier at the entrance of the nest. Minion-Minor was about to race down in joy at finding another ant alive, but Longfeel held him back.
“Wait,” said Longfeel.
The soldier’s legs moved slowly, pushing deliberately into the earth around the entrance. Despite her size and strength, she was struggling to get out of the hole. Finally, all but her head appeared. Then she pulled her head up. She was dragging something. Longfeel and Minion-Minor recognised her immediately, even from that distance. There was no mistaking the size of that soldier. It was Gohunt. But what was she dragging? It looked yellowish-white and crinkled. They watched fascinated as Gohunt dragged the whole wizened body of the Queen free, and several soldiers followed in quick succession.
* * * *
“Shall we join them?” Minion-Minor asked.
“It’s too dangerous,” Longfeel said. “Gohunt was about to kill me and U-Nash when the water hit. She will kill me if she can. She knows I know her darkest murderous secrets.”
“But we will starve if we stay here. I hate Gohunt for destroying this nest, but she is the only one who can get food for us. She will not kill us. She needs us.”
“No; I have faced death from Gohunt twice now,” Longfeel said. “I would rather face the world alone than go with her.”
“But if we went with her we could get our revenge. We could surprise her and kill her and start a new nest with the Queen.”
“Oh, Minion-Minor, you stupid worker. Haven’t you learned anything? Look at her. Look at Gohunt. She has already got those soldiers working for her. The two of us would have no chance.”
Minion-Minor recalled how Gohunt had chased him to kill him when he had dropped some food and how she had murdered a soldier when he was with Bujax and Thoran. True, Gohunt had welcomed them back from exile when they had presented the aphids and fungus, but Longfeel was right; Gohunt could not be trusted. Still Minion-Minor wondered whether they should join Gohunt and the Queen with some chance of making a new nest, or go it alone. It was a difficult choice and there was not much time to make it.
“If we don’t go,” said Minion-Minor, “we will die here with no nest and no companions. We have no choice, Longfeel. Surely, we must go with them.”
“No; I will not go. I have a better plan. We will have our revenge on Gohunt. We will rescue the Queen and we will set up a new nest. Do you want to do that, Minion-Minor? Do you?” Longfeel asked with passion and urgency.
“Yes,” said Minion-Minor, perplexed. “But how?”
“We will walk to the nest of the black-and-brown ants. They have as much to fear from Gohunt as us. We will get their help to pursue Gohunt and end her menace forever.”
“We will have our vengeance,” cried Minion-Minor, his exuberance masking a host of practical difficulties: What if the black-and-brown ants’ nest had also been destroyed? What chance had they against strong purple soldiers? What if the black-and-brown ants refused to join them? But no matter, Gohunt would be destroyed.
And Minion-Minor and Longfeel watched asGohunt, oblivious that any others had survived the catastrophe, walked with five soldiers, a Queen with a wizened abdomen and ten workers into the Desert of Stones.
Gohunt and her party walked a full day, feeding on the bodies of ants who had died in the storm. Gohunt knew it was time to stop. The Queen would die if she stayed above ground much longer. Gohunt walked to the top of a small mound and said, “We will build our nest here.”
She would not make the same mistakes as before. The nest did not have to be huge and ever-expanding for her to enjoy leadership and power. Indeed, Gohunt thought to herself, a smaller nest would be easier to control. There would be no tiresome arguments with lazy and rebellious soldier leaders. Gohunt imagined a tightly organised, small nest in the desert. Full control of a small nest was better than the instability and vulnerability of a large nest.
Yes, thought Gohunt, I can lead a small nest with ease. I will be revered by all in the nest. Already these five soldiers and ten workers look naturally to me to be told what to do. They would be lost without me. It is my duty to make a new nest for them and the Queen.
Gohunt thought a day’s walk was enough. She called to the others: “If we build here we have the advantage of being close to the other nest. We can feed off the dead ones until we get established. I know this is unpleasant, but we have no choice.” At times of hardship, Gohunt knew the best way to get workers and soldiers to follow her was to work herself.
“We will dig here,” she said.
At once she broke the surface with her strong mandibles. The clay, pelted by rain, came away easily. Gohunt’s agile legs worked the soil, tearing it away slowly. At first there was a depression, then a hole. Before long Gohunt’s body was below the surface. She threw up pebbles and bits of clay, digging with power and strength into the red earth. Despite five days in the old nest with virtually no food, followed by a day’s march, eating only the distasteful abdomens of other ants, Gohunt worked with more effect than any other soldier in the old nest at the best of times. Within an hour she had created a short tunnel, before climbing back to the surface, where the others had been looking on with amazement.
“Well, let’s get on with it,” Gohunt snapped. “I know it is hard, but I am not asking too much; as you can see I have done it. Once we have a chamber for the Queen we can rest.”
Gohunt was learning the lessons of the other nest. It would be excellent to have, say, a thousand ants to build a new nest with speed and urgency. But this was not necessary, she thought. There was no urgency for such a large nest. These five soldiers need not know it, but Gohunt recognised that she had been wrong before. The size of the old nest had been its downfall. If it had not rained, the nest would have collapsed anyway as soldiers and workers starved to death. Clearly there was destiny working here. Gohunt had been saved by the rain. The rain had destroyed the old, doomed nest only to spare her with the Queen and enough ants to start again. Destiny required her to lead the rebuilding. She was the only one to have learned the lessons of the old nest. She was the only one to know how not to repeat them. She would have a small nest with complete control, rather than risk the instability of a large nest.
“We will dig in shifts,” Gohunt ordered. “An hour each.”
She directed Ak-heel to take two workers to the end of her tunnel to start a chamber of the Queen.
“We can dig a deeper chamber for her later,” Gohunt said.
Then she ordered another soldier and two workers to dig a living chamber half way down.
“The rest of you can fetch some bodies from the direction of the old nest,” she said.
And thus they toiled for six days. They created the beginnings of a small, but safe nest. They were so busy, they scarcely noticed the great changes in land around them.
* * * *
When the delicious drenching rain pounded the stones and clay of the desert, its rivulets disappeared into the receiving earth. There the water found seed, tickled bulbs and agitated the roots of saltbush. The great silent heat of the red desert was made cool grey. When the brilliance of yellow sun struck again, the seed, the bulbs and the roots sprang toward it with the water of their new-found strength. They leapt lifeful to the surface. The succulent light green of new growth pushed apart the clay surface, too strong for resistance. The clay broke in cracks to allow the green through. The green drew its strength from the water and drank the sun in its rush to new seed, so the cycle could go on. And in this lavish competition for life force the plants exploded into a mania of colour. Dark scarlet stabbed the blue sky. Glossy wet black eyes studded the scarlet flowers. Sweet purple with yellow centres outlined themselves against the orange clay demanding attention. In the evening the vast flowerbeds sang. The flying insects hummed in cacophony, pollinating and honey-feeding in a feast of abundance.
Then, as the days went by, the sun burned the water. The edges of glorious colour drooped then crinkled into dry brown. The green stems bowed to the merciless sun and fell prostrate on a flat altar of clay, bleached. The winged insects, honeyless, pollenless, fell into the vast feeding bowl of the Desert of Stones. Gohunt’s new nest would be well provided.
* * * *
“I have not changed, thought Merewright. Yes, the old Thoran is still within me. They call me Merewright, and the old Merewright has gone, just like the old Merewright before him. But Merewright is what I am, not who I am. I look after the aphids. I tend to the fungus. That is what I do. That is what I am. That is when I am Merewright, the new teller of stories the new repository of wisdom. But within, I am Thoran, that is who I am.
“The adornment of title would make no difference,” Merewright vowed. “I will still be me.”
Merewright meant what he said. When old Merewright left and he became Merewright he was still the same black-and-brown ant. Nothing he would do would change that. As Merewright was denying his metamorphosis, Bujax arrived.
“Ah, Merewright,” he asked deferentially, “how do you think our aphids have coped with the water? Will they produce more milk, or less?”
“I don’t know,” replied Merewright. “It is hard to say.”
“Come on, Merewright, stop hiding your knowledge with these little games. Tell me if we are to have more aphid milk.”
Merewright was silent.
“All right,” said Bujax. “Have it your way. I know you want to keep your little secrets.”
Merewright enjoyed this. Bujax thought he knew something no worker could know about the aphids. Would they produce more milk after rain. Well, it had been so long since rain, that the answer was lost. Nonetheless, it was amusing that Bujax thought he knew the answer, so he repeated something old Merewright said.
“We must look after the aphids,” he said. “We must not expect too much or take too much. The aphids are not to be relied upon. They are an extra treat and no substitute for the hard work of foraging for food constantly.”
“Yes, of course, Merewright. I didn’t mean to get out of foraging or anything like that.”
“Good, because we should go out soon to see how much food is about.”
Then Merewright tried to be friendly and familiar. “Ah, Bujax, we will go out foraging again. There will be plenty of food. It will be like the days before we saw the purple ants. It is strange they are gone. They were so strong, so invincible. Yet the water has taken them.”
“We were lucky, weren’t we Merewright. They were approaching so quickly, taking everything the land had to offer. They would have taken all our food. We would have starved to death.”
“No, no. We weren’t lucky. It was meant to be like that. It was a warning for us, not meant to exterminate us. We will learn from the warning.”
“Do you think they will come back?”
Merewright didn’t answer. They walked under the great eucalypt, beyond the shade it cast, away from its fallen bark and into the sun. There before Merewright was his dream. Delicate green shoots of grass had pushed through the sandy soil. The water of fertility had created Merewright’s earlier dream. Yes: he had been here before looking at the green. He knew exactly what was going to happen next.
Bujax interrupted: “Look at all those dead beetles.”
Merewright thought: I knew Bujax was going to say that. And now he will move . . . .
Bujax moved forward.
Yes, thought Merewright, that’s how he moved before. This is exactly like before.
Merewright knew then that he was special. He was different. This was why the mantle of old Merewright had fallen upon him. He would fulfil the role as destiny had bestowed it. Majorim would still lead the nest, physically, as the top soldier, but his mind would determine its fate. He was sure of it.
* * * *
It was a time of agony and deprivation for Longfeel and Minion-Minor. The ground was alien after the rain. They had walked for three days. They walked over the speckled surface and looked at the mud-splattered sides of the great stones, the mud caked and drying now, attaching in the under parts, but leaving the tops in shiny red glory. In places the water had carried shards of sand now dried. Their legs stumbled over the fine grains. They walked up a rise and down the other side.
“Do you know how to get to the black-and-brown nest?” Minion-Minor asked.
“Yes; I led the others there after our exile, remember. But it is so different now. This is nothing like how it was then. We walked in the direction of the Evil One and there was plenty of food. We walked to where the grass was thicker and twigs and leaves were on the ground. I can’t see any of that now. And there is no food, but these horrible dead ones. I hope we can find some other food soon. I know eating our own is no good.”
“Is it the right way, or are we lost?” Minion-Minor asked.
“I don’t know.”
“You mean we’re lost.”
“Yes; we are lost. I thought we took the right direction, but we must have changed course.”
“Shall we turn back?”
“No,” said Longfeel, “I don’t know which way back is. We are supposed to walk into the sun for half a day and then away from it. But it got messed up somehow.”
“Let’s rest. And we’ll have to eat,” said Minion-Minor with a shudder. He knew there was only one thing to eat: dead ones. And the dead ones were getting worse as time went on. They were drying out and they stank. But there was no choice.
“Hurry up,” said Longfeel. “We must push on.”
As the day went on, the heat became like no heat Minion-Minor or Longfeel had ever felt. They knew of the reflecting furnace off the stones and of the blast from the red clay. And they could bear it. They had walked through it in the middle of the day many times. But this heat was different. It swallowed their energy. It slowed and dragged their steps. They knew they had to push on, to find fresh food. To stay was to die. Minion-Minor could hardly carry his head. It sagged in the gluey heat.
“I have to stop,” he cried and slumped in the shade of a red stone.
“Get up,” pleaded Longfeel. “Get up. You must get up Minion-Minor. Soon there will be no dead ones to eat. You can see how bad they are getting.”
“I can’t, Longfeel. I can’t. Go on without me.”
Longfeel relented: “We will eat and rest a short while, then.”
They ate the physically tasty by emotionally distasteful dead ones and found a large stone to sleep by. Neither dreamed. They fell into a dark sleep in the shade of the stone. It was not the sleep of rejuvenation, but the sleep of exhaustion. They slept on a surface of stillness while beneath them the vibrant water of life was working wondrous ways. The seeds of the great red flowers with black eyes were bursting under the two purple ants as they slept oblivious to the unfolding carpet of life. The sun crept around their stone and touched Longfeel’s head, awakening her. She stirred and looked about. Nothing had changed. The clean blue sky met the red desert line and somewhere, somewhere out there was the nest of the black-and-brown ants. But which way?
“Wake up, Minion-Minor,” she said. “We must go on.”
Minion-Minor arose, still tired and looked around. Slowly, the images of the stones before him looked familiar. He cried out: “Longfeel, I know where we are. This is where I first met Thoran. I remember the stones.”
“Nonsense, Minion-Minor. We have been walking for days. That would be too close to the nest. Besides, where is the food path? Don’t be silly. Let’s go. We must get on.”
“No wait, Longfeel. Look at the stones. The path has been washed away. We must have walked in a circle. The old nest must be quite near.”
Longfeel looked around. Yes; these stones were familiar. Maybe Minion-Minor was right. Longfeel walked about a bit and confirmed Minion-Minor’s view.
“Yes; I think you are right, Minion-Minor,” Longfeel said despondently.
“And look here,” said Minion-Minor excitedly. He walked toward a small pure white crumb on the ground before him. “The white food. Look at it.”
Longfeel came over. “It is, too,” she said. And Minion-Minor began to eat.
“What are you doing?” asked Longfeel shocked. “You can’t eat that.”
Minion-Minor continued to eat. And then casually looked up. “Why not?” he asked. “Should I continue to eat dead ones instead? What is worse? What does it matter? We have no nest. There is just you and I. Are you to kill me for eating forbidden food? What does it mean? Food is food now, Longfeel.”
Longfeel overcame her shock. Once again, Minion-Minor was right. Those rules meant nothing now, here in the open without a nest. And Longfeel gratefully ate the other half of the small white speck. She felt a bond with Minion-Minor. Together they had broken a meaningless taboo. Their lives were renewed, severed from the influence of Gohunt.
With a renewed sense of direction, they set off toward the black-and-brown nest. They were still tired, but energy returned with the white food and the knowledge that they were no longer lost.
Longfeel thought about the difficulty of their task. They had walked for days in a circle and they had almost starved. They were still nowhere near the black-and-brown nest. There was no guarantee that the black-and-brown ants had done any better in the rain than the purple ants. Even if they found the black-and-brown nest intact, would they be able to persuade them to help track down and destroy Gohunt? But no matter what the difficulty or what the obstacles, Longfeel knew she must go on. She had no nest to go to. She had only Minion-Minor and a desperate hope that they might kill Gohunt and make a new nest with the Queen. There was no other plan. Longfeel was lost in the thoughts of her revenge on Gohunt when she heard Minion-Minor cry out.
He had walked on to a plain of mud, so large it had not yet dried. What little soil there was had flowed into this pan and Minion-Minor sank into it.
“I can’t walk, Longfeel,” he cried. “Help me.”
Longfeel looked with pain at her purple friend and only companion in the world struggling in the mud. She looked, too, at the bodies of other ants who had got stuck there. What would she do? What could she do? To go out to help might result in her, too, being stuck. There was no point in both dying. But without Minion-Minor there was no point in her living. She would never make it to the black-and-brown nest alone, and once there she would have no companion to help her get vengeance on Gohunt. She must help Minion-Minor. And if she failed, it would be no worse than not trying at all. Ensuring her back legs were always anchored on solid ground she tentatively stepped with her front legs toward Minion-Minor in the mud.
* * * *
Merewright stepped out of the nest. He walked a short distance on his own. Around him the grass gleamed green. Insects buzzed and hummed around small flowers and chomped at the newness of the foliage.
Ah, yes, thought Merewright. There will be easy times for a while. Food will be abundant and nearby. And the purple ants have apparently gone. I can let others gather food without worry, and I can plan what needs to be done.”
Merewright did not have to go out with the others to gather food. He was not under the orders of the soldiers, nor even under the orders of Majorim, the chief soldier. His place was ill-defined, but Merewright knew he had a purpose. The purple ants had no ant like him – no ant to be a counterpoise to the chief soldier, to take the long view. As Merewright pondered these things, several ideas clouded his head. He had to ensure the continuation of the old skills: the orderly collection of food and nurturing of aphids and fungus for lean times. Old Merewright had done this before and the black-and-brown nest had survived the catastrophe of the storm. That was all very well and quite easy to do, but a new threat still menaced the normalcy of the nest. This was the threat of the purple ants. It was not direct, it was one posed against the black-and-browns’ food supply. Merewright knew that if the purple ants came back, his nest would have no hope in head-to-head combat. They would be torn apart by huge purple mandibles. He must know how long they had in this calm after the storm. To know that he must go to the purple nest to see why they had retreated. And it would be best to go while food was abundant at home.
Next day, he and Bujax set out.
One of the advantages of living in a smaller nest was a greater sense of self-reliance. Black-and-brown ants had to learn many tasks, unlike the workers in the now-destroyed purple nest who followed orders without any understanding of what their work meant in the overall scheme of the nest. The black-and-brown ants learned by things and remembered them; it was necessary for their nest’s survival. Both Merewright and Bujax, therefore, remembered the direction to the purple nest and they walked without hesitation that way.
The land gleamed. The bright grass reached for the sun. The tired surface had been raked fresh by the rain. Merewright and Bujax walked in silence. From time to time they came across the dead bodies of flying insects, cut down in the rain. And occasionally a dead bird or lizard drowned in the deluge. Before long they came across the bodies of dead purple ants. Merewright saw how the water caused death and stench among moving animals but caused life and freshness among the still plants. But later the circle would turn. The plants renewed by rain would in turn provide for renewal by the insects and other animals. Others would take the place of the dead ones they saw now, Merewright thought.
As they got closer to the old purple nest, they saw more dead purple ants. Some were grotesquely trapped in the now-hardened mud, their back legs and abdomen buried and front legs and head prostrate on the surface where death by exhaustion had caught them. It was clear that a huge number had perished in the storm. Nonetheless, Merewright and Bujax walked gingerly in case they should venture upon some live ants. As they walked on this appeared less likely. They saw piles of bodies mixed with mud and wondered why so many were so far from the nest that they had not made it back and why no purple ants had come from the nest after the storm to find out what had happened to their missing soldiers and workers. It was most peculiar, Bujax thought.
“What do you think has happened, Merewright?” he asked.
“I can only think that their nest has been so badly damaged by the water that they are all repairing it. Otherwise they would be out here. I think it is safe for us to go on to see, but we must be careful.”
“Maybe we should rest first and find out after the night.”
“Yes; we will do that,” Merewright said.
And the two searched for a large safe stone.
Merewright and Bujax approached the wrecked nest gingerly. It was eerily quiet and dead still. Merewright raised his head at what he thought was a slight movement of pebbles, but it was nothing. They got to the very edge of what had once been the giant mound and peered down at the collapsed chaos. Bujax whispered, “All I can smell is death. Are they all dead, Merewright?”
“I don’t know,” Merewright whispered back. “We must be very careful. Even if only a few are still alive they could quickly overcome us. They would probably kill us.”
“Dare we go inside?”
“Not just yet. Let’s wait to make sure there are no ants here.”
They walked right around the collapsed mound. Merewright pondered with quiet amazement at the tragedy that had befallen the purple ants. The destruction affected him profoundly.
“Quick, come and look here,” he said to Bujax excitedly.
Merewright was pointing at an entrance at the far edge of the mound.
“So what, it is just another entrance,” Bujax said.
“Don’t you see? Ask yourself who built it in such a stupid place?”
They continued walking around finding more of the mysterious entrances at the extremity of the mound. Merewright became more puzzled.
“What is it, Merewright? Why do these entrances trouble you?” he asked.
“Bujax, don’t you see, some ant has deliberately destroyed the purple ants’ nest. Old Merewright told me that entrances must be dug on high ground. Remember the abandoned nest near our nest? It was built too low. We now know why. The water flows in. Ours was just a mistake, but these entrances have been dug deliberately when the nest already had a mound. When I first saw this nest it had a large mound with several entrances near the top. Now we find these entrances around the side, and the mound has collapsed, killing all inside. The side entrances have been dug deliberately to allow the water in to flood the nest. Who could have done such a thing, and why?”
“Maybe they just made a mistake.” Bujax said prosaically.
“No; the purple ants were too clever for that. Can you imagine the ants that built this huge nest making such a silly mistake.”
“Well, I don’t think they were very clever ants. Remember Minion-Minor, Longfeel and the others. They knew nothing about fungus and aphids, until we showed them. And they tried to hatch eggs which we put out to dry because it was obvious there was not enough room in the nest. Maybe they were just dumb and got too big for their own good.”
“No,” said Merewright. “I cannot believe that the powerful ants which made this nest could have been so stupid. Surely they had learnt and passed down their knowledge. I think these entrances were dug deliberately to destroy the nest.”
“Did any survive?”
“It doesn’t look like it. If any survived they would be repairing the nest, but there are no solders or workers here. And we have seen hundreds of dead ones on our way here.”
Bujax felt sorrow for the purple ants. He imagined their futile, wet struggle as their nest collapsed. He recalled the piles of bodies of those that had struggled in the wet to make it back to the nest. Now all was gone. All destroyed. A great nest no more. Bujax tended to take things as he saw them. He looked for the simple explanation. He saw the nest was destroyed. Felt pity for the purple ants, but then looked on the bright side: without the purple ants, there would be no threat to the black-and-brown ants’ food. Merewright was more complex. He wondered and speculated. He did not share Bujax’s optimism. He thought that the ants, or whatever, who destroyed the purple nest could destroy their nest. And he was not certain that all the purple ants were dead; there were so many of them. Perhaps some escaped the catastrophe and moved elsewhere. He stood brooding ominously at the edge of the destruction, thinking intently about what this meant for his own nest.
“What’s the matter, Merewright?” Bujax asked.
“Oh, nothing. I think we should wait a while longer and then try to go inside.”
They walked slowly about the ruined surface, getting more confident by the moment that there was no danger. They began chatting idly, the awe of the destruction put aside.
Suddenly, the earth moved under Bujax and a chunk collapsed under him. Merewright moved quickly to his aid and he scrambled unharmed but shaken from the hole.
“This nest is still collapsing,” Merewright said.
“It’s giving me the creeps,” Bujax replied. “Let’s get out of here.”
“No; Bujax, don’t let a small incident upset you. We’ll try to get inside.”
They tried a dozen entrances without much success. One or two at the centre went down a little way, but then came to dead ends caused by the collapse. Without knowing it they even tried the very entrance through which Gohunt had escaped.
“This looks more promising,” Merewright said. “Come on.”
He went down some way, but the stench of death was too powerful and the passage narrowed dangerously. Bujax reminded Merewright of the collapse on the surface, and they decided to retreat.
“Yes, Bujax, we have seen enough,” Merewright said. “Clearly, there is nothing here but death and destruction. We shall go home.”
They climbed out of the ruin and set off in the direction of their own nest. There were no paths, so they didn’t follow the exact route they had come.
“Well, Bujax, what do you make of it all?” Merewright asked.
“We have been very lucky. Just as the purple ants were reaching our feeding areas, the rain came and destroyed them. Perhaps it was just meant to be like that. We can now go back to our nest and live happily.”
“I wish it were so, Bujax, but I am not so sure.”
As if to prove Merewright’s point, it was then that they saw a small purple ant struggling in a large pool of mud and a soldier reaching out to rescue him.
* * * *
When Gohunt walk some distance from her new nest she was over-joyed, but puzzled. The Desert of Stones was supposed to be a cruel place. All the soldiers leading forays here from the old nest reported food was scarce. Were they all lying? Food was abundant. There was more here than their tiny nest could eat.
It is a pity, Gohunt thought, I could build a bigger nest, like the old one, but resistant to water flowing in causing a collapse.
Gohunt pondered the idea. She imagined herself once again the most powerful ant in a huge nest, a nest with thousands of ants at her command. Ah, the very thought of it caused intense pleasure to flow though her body. But she checked herself. There was no point in another short reign over a large nest. She was lucky to get away with her life last time. No; she must consolidate. She must have a secure and permanent food supply. Though there was much food around, there was no guarantee it would last. There was one place she could get her secure supply – from the aphids and fungus of the black-and-brown ants. This time she would be careful. She needed not only the aphids and fungus, but to have some black-and-brown ants to look after them, to ensure they produced. She wanted none of the sterile catastrophes of the last nest. The new nest would be built up gradually, securing her power. It might even be much smaller that the old nest, but it would be hers and it would be permanent. She must organise the few soldiers and workers who had survived the catastrophe. She would promise them greatness as founding ants of the new nest. It would be so easy. They would follow. They always followed. But she must be careful. If the whole plan for another mighty nest were put before them in one go they would resist. They must be manipulated. They were simple ants and would not understand the great scheme; they only understood today, not the future. Gohunt knew she could make them follow and agree with her; it was just a question of knowing how to act and what to say and when to say it. She would build up their confidence.
“Isn’t this a splendid spot, Ak-heel?” Gohunt said.
“Yes, our nest is coming along fine,” Ak-heel replied.
“You must take great credit, Ak-heel, for helping to find this place. You have been a brave soldier in helping to save our Queen and found the new nest. You are a Founding Soldier and I will make you a leading soldier. It is a privilege you have well earned.”
“Oh, thank-you, Gohunt,” Ak-heel replied, oblivious that her thanks amounted to an acknowledgment of Gohunt’s leadership of the new nest.
“Slowly we will build a better nest for the Queen. You will have great responsibilities, Ak-heel, and I know you will fulfil them.”
Ak-heel swelled with pride. At last another soldier had recognised her talent.
“Thank-you, Gohunt. I will ensure the Queen’s new chamber is made quickly so she can start laying eggs again. We must have workers to help with the task.”
“Quite right,” said Gohunt. It was so easy. They cried out to be led. All she had to do was lead them. And lead them she would. But there was an obstacle to overcome first.
“Ak-heel,” she said, “it was a shame you were not a leading soldier in the old nest. But it was so big, there was no chance for me to recognise the talents of all. This nest will be smaller; easier to manage.”
As Gohunt said this she saw that in some ways a smaller nest would give her more power, not less. She would be able to control all the soldiers.
“You see,” Gohunt continued, “the destruction of the old nest by the storm has been a blessing for you. It has projected you into the position you deserve. It is strange how these things work out, isn’t it. We have plenty of food; it will be easier for you now.”
And Ak-heel saw the destruction of the old nest in a new way. It was not a catastrophe in which ants close to her had been killed. It was not the end of a secure way of life. No; it marked the end of drudgery and the beginning of a new and easier life. Gohunt was right. All she had to do was follow Gohunt’s instructions and she would be assured of a special position in the new nest. Life was looking up for Ak-heel.
* * * *
Merewright and Bujax gazed from a distance with intent fascination. At least two purple ants had survived the storm, but they were struggling for their lives.
“One looks like a soldier and the other a worker,” Merewright said. “It means there will be others about. We must go very carefully.”
“Why don’t we wait and see if these two free themselves from the mud?” Bujax asked.
“It’s too dangerous. They may be exhausted if they free themselves, but you know how large their mandibles are. They could kill us. They probably would kill us just for food.”
The thought instilled enough fear in Bujax for him to agree.
“Let’s move,” he said.
“Yes. We can hope they don’t survive, but our nest must be ever watchful for signs of a new purple nest. We must send out scouts all the time to look for the food line. I wish I knew what we could do against them. Until now we have just been lucky, but we can’t rely on luck forever. We must go carefully, Bujax, even now there could be pools of mud which we could get stuck in. Let’s go this way.”
Merewright indicated the opposite side of the mud pool where the rising ground made its perimeter more defined. The two moved gingerly around the pool, walking up the slight embankment. The path took them closer to the purple ants, but it was a safer way. The body of mud would separate them, even if the purple ants got free. As they walked Merewright looked over at the two struggling purple ants. They fascinated him, as did their predicament. There they were, stronger, larger and with sharper and longer mandibles. They were better equipped in every way to deal with the harshness of the land, Merewright thought, but here they were helpless, made helpless by mud. The mud was slowly draining their strength. It was destroying them, just as the water had destroyed their purple nestmates. There must be a lesson here. Their strength is beaten not by fighting mandible to mandible, but by things, things like water and mud. Their physical strength was their very weakness. They destroyed themselves because they were strong enough to build a nest too large to survive the storm. They were so strong they thought they could walk anywhere, and trapped themselves in the mud. We are not so weak, Merewright thought.
“I must remember this,” Merewright said out loud.
“What was that?” Bujax asked.
“Oh, nothing. Nothing. I was just thinking out loud.”
“What were you thinking?”
“I think you were right Bujax; these purple ants, though strong and dangerous are not such clever ants. Their nest was not destroyed on purpose, but by their own folly. I am seeing things more clearly now. . . .”
“Look at the purple ants,” Bujax interrupted. “Look closely. Do you recognise them?”
Merewright looked closer. Slowly he saw the struggling ant and his rescuer more distinctly. “Yes, yes I do. I cannot believe it, but it’s Longfeel and Minion-Minor.”
If it had been two unknown purple ants, Merewright would have left them to their fate, but this was different. Why did mere acquaintance make so much difference? Merewright knew these ants; they had lived in his nest for a while. He had shown them the aphids and fungus. True, they had been subversive. They had taken the excess eggs to the abandoned nest and they had finally left the black-and-brown nest. But Merewright knew them. What would have happened, Merewright asked himself in self-justification, if he and Bujax had gone a different way? Minion-Minor would have drowned, and so, too, Longfeel in her attempt to rescue him. He and Bujax had not been seen. If they ran over the crest, Minion-Minor and Longfeel would never know they had been there. It would not matter. But Merewright knew them. True, they were purple, but they were still ants. What about the danger to the black-and-brown nest? What if there were more of them? No; he could not risk it. He must leave them be. If only they had been two other ants, ones he had never met. Then Bujax interrupted his anguish.
“What should we do?” Bujax asked.
“Help them, of course,” Merewright said.
Merewright surprised himself. Bujax’s question was enough for him to overcome his doubt.
“But why?” Bujax asked.
“You asked me what we should do. I have told you. If you thought we should leave them, you would have said so. We will help them. They are ants. Their home has been destroyed. And look, they have now seen us, so there is no choice.”
Merewright knew that their seeing them should make no difference. Even if the stranded purple ants had not seen them, Merewright knew they should offer aid. He knew, too, that it should make no difference that the two imperilled ants were known to them. Just being other ants in trouble should have been enough. After all, no purple ant had killed a black-and-brown one. The only threat was food supply. Merewright continued to tussle with the dark question of why they were going to help the purple ants. As he and Bujax approached Longfeel and Minion-Minor he resolved the contradiction. It was survival – not of the purple ants, but of the black-and-brown ants. Minion-Minor and Longfeel would be useful in that quest. They would, wittingly or unwittingly, help. They would be able to find out if there had been other survivors more easily than he and Bujax could. They would be able to tell them about what had happened at the purple nest. Merewright was acting upon a compulsive curiosity driven by an instinct for survival. How could they walk away, and leave that knowledge behind.
“We are here to help,” Merewright called.
“Thank-you, thank-you,” Minion-Minor gasped. “I’m almost done.”
* * * *
Gohunt was pleased that at last the Queen had produced her first eggs in the new nest. They would be hatched quickly to ensure they came out workers. Gohunt had quite enough soldiers for now. Workers could be controlled and bullied. There was no need for more soldiers for now. She knew how they talked among themselves and plotted. Gohunt had enough to do with the new nest without worrying about soldiers plotting to take it over. Ak-heel had done well with just ten workers to build a chamber and to feed the Queen so she was capable of producing eggs. Soon there would be more workers to help.
One day Ak-heel was talking with one of the other soldiers.
“Gohunt made me the leading soldier,” she said proudly.
“No,” replied the other. “Gohunt made me the leading soldier.”
“That cannot be. I promise. Gohunt made me the leading soldier.”
“Well, maybe she made us both the leading soldier.”
“We both can’t be the leading soldier,” Ak-heel said, her pride wounded. “I am the leading soldier. And I will talk to Gohunt and tell her to tell you that.”
“Oh, it doesn’t matter. There are only five of us; we are all important in the new nest. Why don’t we just work together. We don’t want to go back to the fearful ways of the old nest, do we?”
“I don’t care,” Ak-heel said impetuously. “I am the leading soldier.” And Ak-heel marched off to tell Gohunt.
Gohunt appeared most concerned. “Of course, you are the leading soldier,” she told Ak-heel. “I said so, and that is enough. And I will prove it to you.”
Gohunt knew she was travelling on dangerous ground now, but without risk she could not lead. “Ak-heel,” Gohunt said conspiratorially. “There can be only one leading soldier, and that must be you. Your friend cannot go around saying she is the leading soldier. It confuses the workers and disrupts the nest. Something must be done, don’t you agree?”
“Yes, of course, Gohunt. Something must be done.”
“Good. I’m glad you agree with my plan. This is what we will do. It is quite simple. We will tell your friend that we must go a short distance from the nest to test the clay for another entrance. You and I will dig in some hard places and she will dig in a soft place. When she digs in and her head and thorax are buried, you step forward quickly and boldly and cut her body in half.”
“You are not scared are you, Ak-heel? You have agreed to this plan. As leading soldier you must go through with it. If not, you cannot be leading soldier.”
Ak-heel tried to think of a way out, an excuse or an alternative plan, but she met Gohunt’s compelling stare.
“All right, Gohunt, I’ll do it.”
Gohunt knew she must act immediately, before Ak-heel either talked about it or got scared. Gohunt quickly got the intended victim and left her with Ak-heel.
“Tell her about the task we have to do, Ak-heel,” said Gohunt. “I have to fix something in the Queen’s chamber, I won’t be long.”
Gohunt was good to her word and returned quickly. The three set off walking in an arc from the nest.
What a tiny fragile nest it was, compared to the great nest of before. A solitary entrance surrounded by a few tiny pebbles over which a couple of workers walked was all that could be seen. Gohunt knew the nest had to be bigger, but she had other more important things to do first. The memory of the first nest lived on with the five surviving soldiers. From time to time they recalled it and recalled the catastrophe. They did not blame Gohunt for it directly, because the rain and flood were the obvious causes, but every now and then Gohunt got the suspicion that some of the five questioned within themselves Gohunt’s right to rule the new nest. It was as if they wanted no one to give orders. But Gohunt knew she must take command or they would all perish. Despite their occasional misgivings, Gohunt managed to control them. The easiest way was to promise each of them the position of leading soldier. It made each trust her and feel they were select. But now that plan had come unstuck far sooner than she wanted. She would have preferred to keep all five original soldiers until the nest was properly established, but that was too dangerous now. It was better, thought Gohunt, to risk the survival of the nest than to risk her leadership of it.
They had tried to dig several new entrances in hard clay and now approached softer ground. Ak-heel’s challenger for the leading-ant role had no idea what was coming. Though Ak-heel was agitated and restless inside, on the outside she was quite calm.
“Your turn for this one,” Ak-heel said.
Her companion began to dig. Gohunt walked a short distance away to slightly higher ground, surveying the scene with an arrogant turn of head. The digging continued. Ak-heel got closer to the protruding abdomen and was about to strike.
“Wait,” Gohunt whispered, “just a little deeper to make sure.”
Ak-heel couldn’t see what difference it would make, and preferred to get on with it. Gohunt looked around again and then calmly nodded for Ak-heel to proceed. Ak-heel approached the abdomen again. She thought, just briefly, that it was a terrible deed just over a quarrel about who should be leading soldier.
But then, Ak-heel thought, I deserve to be leading soldier and nothing should get in my way.
Her head lunged forward and in one deft snip her strong mandibles snapped at the narrow joint at the top of the abdomen severing it cleanly. It oozed fluid and small particles of dirt and dust attached to it. Just under the surface, the severed soldier’s legs and thorax twitched in a vigorous spasm before falling still. Ak-heel was sickened by her deed, but put on a calm defiant face as she pulled herself up and turned around to accept Gohunt’s praise. She was stunned. Gohunt was not alone. She had another soldier with her, a soldier called Dort.
Why did that silly Dort arrive at this time, thought Ak-heel. How were she and Gohunt going to explain? Then a slight unease came over Ak-heel as she watched Gohunt stare at her with feigned amazement.
“Dort and I have watched you kill another soldier without reason,” Gohunt said. “The soldier was working to establish our nest in this difficult desert. . . .
“But, but, but,” Ak-heel tried to explain.
“Don’t interrupt,” Gohunt snapped.
“Dort, please, you don’t understand. Let me explain,” Ak-heel cried desperately.
“There is no need for explanation. We saw what you did.” Gohunt said. Then she turned to Dort and issued a two-word command: “Kill her.”
Ak-heel was too quick. Her body and brain were already on high alert from the first killing. She ran quickly, turning through the stones.
“Quick! After her,” cried Gohunt.
Dort gave chase and Gohunt followed. Ak-heel was weaving erratically through the stones. She had nowhere to run to, no sense of direction. She was running in a large circle around the entrance of the nest. She knew that to run in any direction was death. If she ran deeper into the Desert of Stones, there would be no food. If she ran back to the old nest, there was only desolation. As she ran, she realised there was only one chance of survival: to turn and persuade Dort to help her kill Gohunt and to stay with the new nest.
Soon Gohunt saw Ak-heel was running in circles, so she cleverly turned around and waited. It did not take long. As Ak-heel ran, thinking of ways to get out of her present danger, she kept her head down. She was practically upon Gohunt before she saw her – a looming presence of purple with no shape. Ak-heel did not wait to take cognisance of the shape. She knew it was Gohunt so she turned suddenly around and ran instinctively in the opposite direction, only to be faced by Dort.
Ak-heel opened her mandibles, and the acceleration of the fearful run from Gohunt caused them to slam into Dort’s body. Their heads slammed into one another and Dort’s left mandible was torn back from its socket. Ak-heel’s mandible gouged across Dort’s eye. Ak-heel tumbled past Dort and limped away. Dort, hopelessly injured lunged at her again, but Ak-heel shrugged her away. Even in that life-and-death struggle, Ak-heel could think clearly about what had gone before. Gohunt. It all came back to Gohunt. She must get Gohunt. She must remove her from the nest. She was the source of all the purple ants’ woes, the destruction of the old nest and now she was pitting soldier against soldier in the new. If the nascent nest were to have any chance in the arid and hostile environment of the Desert of Stones, Gohunt must be exiled. How could she achieve this? She must explain it to Dort. But what use was Dort now, with one mandible ripped away? And even now he was feebly launching another attack.
“Stop, Dort,” Ak-heel said. “Don’t you see what you are doing? You are just slavishly following Gohunt’s orders. Who says she is right? Think what happened to the other nest and side with me against Gohunt. We can make a better nest.”
“No, Ak-heel, you are the one that has killed another soldier. You are the one causing trouble. How can I trust you?”
Ak-heel saw it was no use. She didn’t want to harm Dort any further. She should attempt to return to the nest and get the help of the remaining two soldiers. Ignoring Dort, now harmless with one mandible gone, she started to think of a plan. Her thoughts trailed as she rehearsed her conversation with the other soldiers. She was pleased at how persuasive she could be. She would argue that Gohunt was the cause of their woes, of their banishment to the Desert of Stones and for the death of thousands of ants from the big nest. Ak-heel was pleased at her own eloquence. She imagined herself before the other two soldiers who were listening approvingly. Yes, it would be easy to get them to side with her, and then it would be simple to set a simple trap for Gohunt.
Just as she convinced herself that she could do the job, she felt a sudden pain, and she turned to find its cause. To her horror she saw that Dort had sneaked up behind her and jabbed her single mandible into her abdomen. She turned ferociously round to counter the attack, but the suddenness of her movement caused Dort’s mandible to further tear the side of her abdomen away. A sickening daze overcame Ak-heel and she slumped with collapsed legs. The life fluids dribbled from her stricken abdomen. In the midst of her daze she saw the purple presence of Gohunt.
“Gohunt,” she cried. “You did this. You did this.”
Then she turned to Dort: “Watch yourself always, Dort. Never trust Gohunt.”
Gohunt looked down piteously and turned to Dort saying: “There is only one lesson in this Dort: those who kill must die. You have been a brave leading soldier. Let us return to the nest and tell the others how we overcame the treachery of this miserable ant.”
And they left. Neither heard Ak-heel’s last words: “Dort, listen Dort. It will cost you your life and the life of our nest. Don’t listen.”
At that Ak-heel died.
* * * *
Merewright knew immediately what to do. Walking out into the mud would be useless. He and Bujax would only share Minion-Minor’s fate. Longfeel, too, was in danger of succumbing to the mud.
“We will bring stones down to you, Longfeel,” Merewright said. “You will be able to get a better grip to pull Minion-Minor out.”
“Yes,” said Longfeel, “but hurry I can’t hang on much longer.”
Minion-Minor was conserving his energy, just slowly moving his back legs to stop himself sinking while Longfeel held up his head.
“Yes, hurry,” he cried.
Merewright and Bujax worked frantically, pushing small stones to the edge of the mud pool.
“No; bring them closer,” Longfeel demanded.
“We can’t,” insisted Merewright. “If we do that we will sink ourselves and we will all die. We will build a causeway out to you. From there we can pass stones to you with safety.”
“Oh come on, you are too cautious. You will be all right. Speed is most important. Minion-Minor and I cannot wait that long. You black-and-brown ants cannot carry things quickly.”
“True,” said Bujax. “but we don’t need to. We are not stuck. And we think before we act so we don’t need physical strength to get us out of trouble. We can survive quite well without huge mandibles and large strong bodies.”
Longfeel knew there was truth in this. She had seen how the great physical strength of the purple ants had caused their nest to be destroyed. She had seen the wizened Queen.
“Never mind what Bujax says,” Merewright said diplomatically. We are not here to fight; we are here to help. And we will help you, but we will not risk ourselves. We will do it my way. And we will succeed.”
Merewright spoke with complete command. This was a very different creature from the dear confused Thoran of old. It was a transformation created by knowledge and wisdom. Knowledge and wisdom were the source of the black-and-brown ants’ ability to sustain a self-perpetuating nest.
Patiently, he and Bujax brought stones to the edge of the mud. Slowly and confidently they built a causeway out to Longfeel. They placed stones under her and gradually she got a better grip. She began to pull Minion-Minor out of the mud. But Minion-Minor cried out: “Stop, stop. You are pulling my head off. I am too stuck behind.”
“We need more stones,” Merewright cried. “Quick, Bujax.”
They moved quickly. They built a dry bed of stones under Minion-Minor’s head and front legs. Now, at last Longfeel could let go with Minion-Minor sinking into the mud. Once Longfeel was free the process of gathering stones speeded dramatically. With fast determined steps Longfeel walked back along the causeway and up the dry clay. She grabbed large stones with huge mandibles and despite her exhaustion staggered back with them to where Minion-Minor lay. They built a solid stone path to the back of him and forced stones under his abdomen. Now, at last, there would be no suction and he could be pulled free. In an extraordinary effort of cooperation, Longfeel pulled from the front and the two black-and-brown ants pushed from the rear. Slowly Minion-Minor crawled forward on to the dry causeway. At last, he was free of the mud. The four ants stood motionless and exhausted on the clay shore of the mud pool.
“Thank-you,” said Minion-Minor. “Thank-you. Without you help I would be dead. Again you have saved my life, Thoran. I will never forget.”
Bujax found the reference to Thoran jarring. He said gently to Minion-Minor, “I know you are tired after your great ordeal, but I should tell you about Thoran. He is called Merewright now.”
Minion-Minor was puzzled. “What do you mean?” he asked. “What happened to the Merewright I knew?”
“Our nest,” Bujax replied, “always has a special worker, a worker with great knowledge who helps the leading soldier work out what is best for the nest. We don’t go by size and strength alone. The special worker is always called Merewright. The Merewright you knew is gone and Thoran became Merewright. It is the way the nest keeps knowledge, like the knowledge of aphids and fungus. That way we can survive even though we are only a small nest.”
It was all too perplexing for the exhausted Minion-Minor.
“Yes, I see,” he said, not seeing at all. “Can’t we go to sleep now?”
And the four found a safe place and slept.
* * * *
Merewright dreamed. Sweetness overpowered him and then gave him strength. His feet were stuck in pure sticky sweetness. He sucked its deliciousness in and felt the ecstasy of sated hunger. There was no limit to the sweetness and he looked up and saw hundreds of black-and-purple soldiers and workers feeding from the pools of sticky sweetness. Purple ants came in their thousands and tore the black-and-brown ants apart. The black-and-brown ants fled but were herded up by the purple ants and chased back to a huge purple nest.
“But I saved Minion-Minor and Longfeel,” Merewright pleaded.
To which the purple ants chanted in reply: “They are not purple ants. They are not purple ants. We don’t care who you saved. We don’t care who you saved.”
Merewright looked into the faces of the purple ants and saw that all the soldiers were Longfeels and all the workers were Minion-Minors. “I saved you. I saved you all,” he cried.
Then all the Longfeels and Minion-Minors replied at once. “No, Merewright. You did not save us. You enslaved yourself and your friend Bujax.”
“Why are you all the same?” Merewright asked.
“Because we are purple,” the Longfeels and Minion-Minors replied. “But you said when I saved you that you would never forget.”
“Oh yes. That is true. We will never forget. But that does not mean we have to repay. We owe the black-and-brown ants nothing.”
* * * *
“Wake up, Merewright,” Bujax said. “We should go back soon.”
Merewright awoke with a start.
“Where’s Longfeel and Minion-Minor?” he asked.
“We are over here,” Longfeel said. “Why are you staring like that Merewright? What’s the matter?”
“Oh nothing. I just had a bad dream.”
“Oh, is that all?” Minion-Minor asked.
“Tell us what happened to your nest,” Merewright urged. “We have just been there and there is no sign of life. Were you the only ones to get away?”
So Minion-Minor and Longfeel told the two black-and-brown ants of the destruction of the purple nest. How the water gushed in through the unprotected entrances and how ants in their thousands drowned. Longfeel told of the recent history of the nest as she had heard it on her return: of the Evil One, of the huge expansion in size and numbers, of how food was running out and of how the nest was stripping the land around of everything that was edible.
Bujax at once saw the significance of the sharp line he had seen near the black-and-brown nest. He and Merewright were now even more grateful for the storm.
Longfeel told of Gohunt’s power to organise, to force ants to follow her and of her mania, violence and viciousness. At this Merewright shuddered because of his dream. Were all purple ants like Gohunt to a greater or lesser degree, Merewright thought.
“You must remember,” Longfeel said, “that not all the ants in the purple nest liked what Gohunt was doing. But we could no nothing. Those that opposed faced exile or death, like I did.”
Merewright realised that his dream was just that, a dream. And he was relieved. He felt great sympathy for Longfeel and Minion-Minor and realised that not all purple ants were alike. These two just wanted an ordered life with security of food supply. Then Longfeel lowered her voice and looked intently at Merewright and Bujax.
“I now have to tell you,” Longfeel said, “some terrible news. Minion-Minor and I saw Gohunt survive the flood. She escaped with the Queen and five soldiers and ten workers.”
“Oh, no,” Merewright cried. “Are you sure it was Gohunt?”
“Oh yes. There can be no doubt. I know her eyes, her walk, everything about her. I have lived in dread of her. You see, Minion-Minor and I were in a great quandary. We did not know whether we should join her and her party. She had the Queen and enough ants to start a new nest. We thought it was our only hope. But we knew it was a path of self-destruction. So, mad as it might seem, we were determined to walk back to your nest to ask if you would let us rejoin you. We have no Queen and no nest of our own. If we lived in the open we would die. We almost died anyway, without your help. Did your nest survive the water?”
“Oh yes,” Merewright said commandingly. “Our nest is small and well constructed. Old Merewright had taught us about the nest and the rain. We knew how to survive. Do you now see why we put eggs outside instead of hatching them all?”
“Yes,” admitted Longfeel. “I see it now. Can we join you?”
Merewright was troubled. Despite Longfeel’s words, his dream was worrying, but still, it was only a dream. And perhaps it meant something else. As he mused, Minion-Minor interrupted: “Well, can we join you?”
Merewright thought of a helpless Minion-Minor struggling in the mud, but did not allow pity to sway his decision. He suddenly reasoned that, yes, these two should come with them. They shared something: a fear of Gohunt, and these two purple ants would have inside knowledge of Gohunt and her troupe that could help the black-and-brown nest in the coming struggle.
“Yes, of course you may come!” Merewright said decisively.
Dort became dependent on Gohunt. She had been grievously injured and could do nothing for herself. Dort was lucky to be alive and she knew it. All mention of her being leading soldier was dropped, and anyway, the nest only now contained two other soldiers. The Queen was laying eggs very slowly and the few workers did their best to ensure they hatched, but with limited success. The workers struggled with the eggs to the top chamber at the beginning of the day so they could receive the warmth of the sun and then carried them lower at night away from the cold. But the nest was not deep enough. Eggs died in the cold at night. Nor was it large enough to spread the eggs out in the top chamber. The white fibrous food, so good for new ants, was scarce so far in to the Desert of Stones. Without it many new ants died. A few weakling workers were the only result in the new nest. None of the eggs was big enough to become a soldier.
Gohunt became worried. She pondered her fate. There was no joy in commanding a nest of workers. She needed new soldiers, especially as all she had now was three soldiers, and one of them badly injured.
“We need a deeper and larger nest,” she said to the three soldiers.
“That’s what you kept saying at the last nest,” one of them, a soldier called Larg said. “And look what happened to it. Why can’t we have a small nest then we can easily get enough food for just us?”
“You silly ant,” Gohunt said impatiently. “Don’t you see that unless we build a bigger nest, we will not be able to hatch more ants. In this small nest the Queen is not laying any eggs big enough to hatch into a soldier. We are defenceless.”
“Defenceless against what?” Larg asked.
Dort remained silent, but the other soldier joined in. “Yes, defenceless against what,” she asked.
“Against an Evil One, for example,” Gohunt replied haughtily, thinking this would quell their dissent.
“You killed the Evil One, Gohunt, so there is nothing to worry about,” Larg said.
“There might be another one. Then what would you do.”
“Then there might not. We do not want a bigger nest. We are tired of the work.”
“Well, Larg, if you and your friend want a smaller nest, why don’t you go and make one on your own?”
Gohunt wanted them out of the nest. They had done a good job in carrying the Queen here and in starting the new nest. But now they had outlived their usefulness. They now presented an unnecessary challenge and a reminder of Gohunt’s fallibility. She wanted all memory of the previous nest expunged. She would just expel these two troublesome ants, like she had expelled Longfeel and the others before.
In her arrogance, however, she had forgotten that she had little force to back up her plan. Dort was of little use and none of the workers could be relied upon. But she had come too far. If she went back now she would have to live with the exposure of her weakness and continue to have a reminder of the catastrophe of the previous nest in the new nest. No; it would be better to fight and lose than to lose her position of power and leadership.
“Well, go on, leave!” Gohunt commanded.
Larg stood her ground. “No; Gohunt,” she said. “This is as much our nest as yours. And she is as much our Queen as yours. Why do you think you can order some of us out of the nest? We are staying.”
* * * *
Merewright, Bujax, Longfeel and Minion-Minor made an odd quartet as they walked back to the black-and-brown nest. Longfeel, the large purple soldier, led them because she was best able to meet any danger. As they walked, Merewright forgot about the dream. He saw Longfeel as a protector and guest. He recalled the earlier time when purple ants had caused trouble in the nest, but he was sure that with the destruction of the purple nest, these two purple ants would be able to live in the black-and-brown nest in peace. The last time they were at the nest, they had caused trouble by talking about how things were done at the purple nest. Now the purple nest was gone, the trouble would not arise. Besides there were only two of them, and despite their greater strength, they could not pose a big threat to the combined strength of the black-and-brown nest.
Merewright’s mind turned to other things. He wondered about the plants. After the rain, the plants all around flowered, giving off scent and tiny drops of nectar. It would be good food, at least for a time. Then, as they approached the nest, Merewright noticed something else. The ground, was covered as usual with dead leaves and sticks, but among them were delicate bits of white flower. Where did they come from? As he pondered this they arrived at the nest.
“You’re back,” Majorim exclaimed. “And look, you have Longfeel and Minion-Minor with you. Why are they here?”
“Don’t be alarmed, Majorim,” Merewright told the head soldier. “The purple nest has been destroyed by the water. Bujax and I have seen it with our own eyes. Let us tell you all about it.”
Majorim and several other black-and-brown soldiers and workers gathered around while Merewright and Bujax told their tale and related how Longfeel and Minion-Minor had seen Gohunt survive the flood and go with the Queen into the Desert of Stones. At the end, Majorim called for silence.
“Very well,” she said. “Longfeel and Minion-Minor are welcome here, but if they cause trouble they are out. More importantly, they must agree to serve our black-and-brown nest in preference to Gohunt and her purple nest and agree to help us, if the need arises, to destroy Gohunt and her Queen.”
At these words Longfeel pictured Gohunt struggling out of the destroyed nest. She pictured her leading a straggling group of soldiers and workers with tenacity and determination. What if she had created another nest, thought Longfeel. Gohunt the creator; Gohunt the destroyer; and Gohunt the creator again. Was the evil of Gohunt a strong enough reason to denounce her own kind? What if another soldier, like herself, had taken over the new nest? Ah, well, that would be all right. A soldier like her would be no threat to the black-and-brown ants, so all would be well.
Minion-Minor, meanwhile, thought of Gohunt as the killer. He had no difficulty with agreeing to help the black-and-brown ants against Gohunt. He liked the black-and brown ants, or at least Merewright and Bujax and the others he had met the last time he was here. From the moment he ran from the food line, rather than submit to the punishment of death, Minion-Minor knew that his comfort and survival was more important than worrying about the other purple ants.
“Yes, we agree,” Minion-Minor said. And Longfeel’s mind was made up.
“Good,” said Merewright. “Well come with me, we must check the aphids and fungus.”
The thought warmed Longfeel. Here was a much better way to ensure food supply than Gohunt’s manic and self-defeating quest for an ever bigger nest so it was able to search an ever-wider area for food. Longfeel admired the quiet diligence of Merewright, husbanding the aphids and fungus and back-up food supply. And she said so.
“Thank you, Longfeel,” Merewright said. “You have reminded me of something. Remember those pieces of white flower on the ground as we arrived at the nest?”
“No,” replied Longfeel. “I didn’t notice anything.”
That’s odd, thought Merewright. They were fairly obvious. “Well,” Merewright said. “I have an idea. You and Minion-Minor shall join me and some others tomorrow in a quest of a different kind.”
* * * *
Gohunt looked at the two defiant soldiers. She saw that Larg was clearly the leader. She had done all the talking. Gohunt knew she was in a precarious position. Dort was her only back-up. The nest was in a feeble condition. The Queen was not laying eggs to hatch soldiers. The workers were weak and the early unexpected wealth of food in the Desert of Stones was drying up. The nest needed these two soldiers. Gohunt should convince them to help. She should compromise for the good of the nascent nest. But it was not in Gohunt’s nature to compromise. Only she knew how to run the nest. Upon her rested the fate of the purple ants. Larg and her friend Fenudice were a challenge to that. That’s it Gohunt reasoned: it might be better if these two soldiers would comply, but they were not complying. Instead they were challenging Gohunt’s position as leader. And, Gohunt thought, if she could not lead, the nest was doomed. Therefore she must crush the challenge. It was as simple as that.
“Well,” said Larg. “I judge by your silence that we will stay, and that we will take part in deciding what is best for the nest.”
“I was just thinking, Larg, that what you say is quite right. Of course, you are more important than Fenudice and you must take your proper role with me to lead the nest, don’t you agree?”
Larg was taken aback. Gohunt was being unexpectedly reasonable. She turned to Fenudice and whispered so Gohunt could not hear, “See, we got what we wanted. All we had to do was stand up to her. Well done.”
“Wait a minute,” said Fenudice. “What about me? Don’t I get any say?”
“Yes, yes, of course,” said Larg. “I will look after you. You will have an equal say with me. It doesn’t matter what Gohunt says. As you see I can stand up to her.”
“All right,” said Fenudice. “At least we are in a better position now than before.”
And the two turned to Gohunt. Larg said: “Thank-you, Gohunt. I always knew you made the right decisions.”
How easy it is, thought Gohunt. These two could be used to help establish the nest and then would go the way of Ak-heel and her friend. As for Dort, she was too crippled to be any threat. All was working well, Gohunt thought smugly; if only that Queen would lay some good eggs.
“Very well, Larg,” Gohunt said. “Tomorrow we will work out how to enlarge the nest.”
Next day, Gohunt took Larg aside. They walked for awhile among the bright red stones of the desert. Gohunt looked at the unforgiving orange clay and saw that the grass was returning to brittle stalks of yellow. Soon there would be nothing here. Such a short time ago, there was abundant food, and now it was becoming more desolate. Gohunt knew that the soldiers who had led the foraging parties from the other nest had been right: there was little food here. But Gohunt knew she had been right to create a large nest. If it had been smaller, she reasoned, maybe no ant would have survived. And by now there would have been no purple ants.
At this thought she turned to Larg and said: “Have you ever thought, Larg, how difficult it is to lead a nest? You want to take part in making decisions about this nest. Do you think any soldier can do that? Well, you are welcome to try. I did not bring the water into the old nest. I did not kill all the ants. I created that nest. I can create another one. It would have been easy for me to surrender when the water came. We would all have died. Why do you think I survived? You see I am apart from the rest. I see what has to be done. I know how to get other ants to see it and do it. We would not have survived the Evil One without me. We would not have survived the water without me. I do not enjoy it. I do not enjoy the power, Larg. I do it for us. For the purple ants. For our survival. For our life. I hope you understand this. Soon, when eggs are laid for new soldiers, you will have to take my place.”
“I will be ready,” Larg said.
“Good,” said Gohunt. “But first you have a task which will be difficult, but will be a true test of why you should lead the nest when I am gone.”
“What is the test? I am ready,” said Larg eagerly.
“Very well. It is about Fenudice. She has been disloyal to you and she is jealous of your position. Before we get the Queen to lay eggs for more soldiers we must rid our nest of Fenudice. She will undermine your leadership and cause the destruction of the nest. This is a great test for you, Larg. If you succeed, you will have proved that you can lead this nest with its new soldiers.”
“How will I do it?” asked Larg.
“That is for you to decide. It is part of the test.”
Larg was overwhelmed by what Gohunt said, and utterly absorbed by her project. She thought deeply about how she would do it. She could set a trap. She could get Fenudice to help dig the nest deeper and bury her making it look like an accident. But she could dig herself out. Besides the workers would see it all and then she could not lead the nest. That is why, obviously, Gohunt had set the test like this. Maybe she could lead Fenudice out into the desert to set a new foraging path and leave her out there. She was far weaker than Larg, so that might work. She could get her to fight Dort, but Dort was so weak her friend would win. Larg thought she must do it. She must be leader. Yes; she was destined to take Gohunt’s place and to lead the nest in the Desert of Stones to be a large and great nest. All she had to do was get rid of her friend.
Merewright knew where the bits of flower had come from. The rain had brought them. The rain had changed everything. It had changed the plants. It had changed the soil. It had destroyed the purple nest. It had brought the death of the purple ants but had brought life to the plants. The great luscious shoots of green grass were the unmistakable result of the rain. The small plants on the ground had flowered. Insects buzzed. The buzzing had filled the great void of silence in his mind in a symphonic abundance of sound. Food was all around. Slowly the grass dried. The green slowly changed to yellow. The plagues of insects slowly died off. The symphony’s crescendo tapered to an harmonic dance. Merewright sensed the orchestrated meaning of rain and dry. Yes; that was it. Just as the small plants flowered and honeyed and dried, so, too, the large plant flowered and honeyed. The great tree was the source of the white flowers. The great tree, too, was flowering. Imagine the honey, Merewright thought. He was humbled.
Merewright knew what to do. He must not get excited. He must first establish the truth of what he thought. He must then prevent a frenzy of honey-eating. The great tree would provide a lot of honey, but it would not last forever. It must be carried down and stored. It must be fed to the aphids. Majorim must be told. Merewright must marshal Majorim into ensuring the other soldiers and workers treated the bounty with respect.
He told Majorim who agreed to the expedition. Before setting out, Merewright knew what they would find.
“Gather round,” he told the selected soldiers and workers. “Majorim has ordered me to take you on one of the most exciting missions this nest has even been on. It is not far, but we expect to find great things.”
“Where are we going?” Bujax asked.
“Not far,” Merewright said. “Just follow and you will see.”
It was not long before they reached the base of the great eucalypt tree. Merewright thought how the fate of the black-and-brown nest was so intimately bound with this tree, and this expedition was to make it more so. Yes, thought Merewright, if our nest had been in the stinging sun, like the purple nest, then maybe we would have made our nest larger and it would have suffered the same fate as the purple nest. If this tree had not thrown its leaf for him as Thoran to trip over he would never have discovered the purple nest. The black-and-brown ants would have been starved out by the purple nest without warning.
They started to climb. They blended in to the speckled bark. The climb was hard. Bujax sensed the dead branches quickly and the line turned quickly to more promising ones. Higher and higher they went. The wind got stronger and so did the sickly scent of the white flowers. They saw more pieces of flower stuck to the bark the higher they got. Merewright looked down. She could just make out the entrance of the nest, and beyond she saw the limits of where the great tree had cast off its bark and leaves. She looked out into the great blue bowl of a sky and saw the sharp dry line where it met the orange Desert of Stones. The black-and-brown ants went higher still and the hot scent got stronger. The ants were losing control. Some rushed toward the flower. A soldier ran along a tiny twig of branch supporting a bulbous flower of white furriness, but as she ran she nudged Bujax accidentally to the side.
Merewright watched in slow-motion horror. Bujax’s abdomen slipped to the side of the twig. His forelegs desperately attempted to grip the smooth surface. Merewright rushed forward, but it was too late. Bujax fell. It was so unexpected. It was so sudden. Bujax was carried by the wind. Gone forever, Merewright knew. Bujax. Good, faithful, solid Bujax. Gone. Bujax who helped him. Bujax who had joined him in the great adventure with the purple ants. Gone. Blown away into the Desert of Stones, just when Merewright had secured the black-and-brown ants with food for as long as they needed it.
“Oh, how fragile life!” Merewright cried aloud. “Bujax, Bujax. Why Bujax?”
The group is secured, and the individual is blown away.
With their abdomens full of honey, Merewright led the group back to the nest. There he told Majorim of the triumph and the loss, and retired deep underground to tend to his fungus.
* * * *
Larg lured Fenudice into the Desert of Stones. They walked further and further from the nest.
“Where are we going?” Fenudice asked Larg.
“Gohunt has asked us to looked for more sources of food,” Larg replied.
Fenudice sensed something amiss. As Larg chatted on, she wondered what it was. She thought closely. Larg seemed falsely friendly and far too cheery for their predicament. With Dort injured, there were only three soldiers left in the purple nest: Larg, Gohunt and herself. It was not a good foundation for a new nest in such a hostile place. That was it, she thought. “Asked!” Gohunt never asked any soldier or worker to do anything. She always ordered or commanded.
“What did you say about Gohunt?” Fenudice quizzed Larg.
“Oh, just that she wanted us to come out here to look for more sources of food.”
“Oh well, if she did not command it, we don’t have to go. Let’s go back to the nest.”
“No, you can’t do that,” said Larg urgently.
“Because I want you to come out into the desert with me.”
“You want me to come. I thought you said Gohunt wanted us to go, not you.”
“You will come with me” Larg insisted.
“It is not for you to order me. Why have you changed suddenly? What is all this?”
But Fenudice saw it. Larg was shifting uncomfortably. She was not looking straight.
“Gohunt wants you to kill me, doesn’t she?”
“What do you mean?” said Larg in false innocence.
“I have caught you,” Fenudice exclaimed. “Come on, Larg, it’s true isn’t it? Gohunt wanted you to bring me out here to kill me. There’s no need to answer. I know. And you are a silly faithless soldier for listening to her. What did she promise. Come on, what did she promise you? Or did she threaten you? Don’t answer, I know. I have seen all along but kept silent. She has killed them all. And she wants to finish us off, too. Don’t imagine you can kill me, Larg, and go back and be safe. Gohunt will get you like all the rest. There is only one way for us now. We must get Gohunt.”
“Get Gohunt. Are you mad?” Larg said. “We cannot do that. She will kill us for sure.”
“No, you are quite wrong. If we don’t get Gohunt first, she will kill us for sure. Think about it Larg. Why has she made sure the Queen has not laid eggs for soldiers? She wants to get rid of all the soldiers of the old nest before doing that. She wants to start anew. We are a threat to her. We can tell any new soldiers about the catastrophe of the old nest and how it was all her fault. She means to kill us and then get the Queen to lay eggs for new soldiers. Then she will do what she did at the old nest: make it bigger and bigger until it collapses.”
Larg was now hopelessly confused. Should she believe her friend Fenudice? Or should she believe Gohunt? Gohunt promised her the whole nest. Fenudice promised only a deadly fight against Gohunt which they were sure to lose. Better to kill Fenudice now and go back to the nest and claim her reward. But wait.
Fenudice saw Larg’s indecision. Wisely she held her silence. It was not for her to convince Larg. Larg must convince herself. Only when she discovered the truth herself would she believe it unshakingly. Fenudice waited in patient silence. She looked intently down at the fine red granules of the desert sand and absorbed their intense dryness. There was no sustenance here. Looking for food here was a pretence. There was no food, just death.
“There is no food here, Larg, just death,” she cried out loud.
Larg was shocked out of her thoughts. Fenudice confirmed what she had discovered herself. Gohunt meant death: destruction through her endless demands for more. More power. Bigger nest. More workers. More entrances. More. More. More. It was now obvious. Besides if she killed Fenudice she would be alone and defenceless against Gohunt. She could never rely on the injured Dort.
“Very well, Fenudice, we get Gohunt,” Larg said.
* * * *
Merewright and Majorim, though saddened at Bujax’s death, were well-satisfied at the bounty from the trip to the great gum tree, and the rest of the ants marvelled at Merewright’s perspicacity. Longfeel wondered what would have happened if only Gohunt had been like Merewright or Majorim. But that was wistful, wishful thinking. Longfeel thought back on Gohunt’s cunning ways and how badly she had been treated by her. But then if she had not been exiled she would never have found the black-and-brown ants and Merewright and Bujax would never have rescued her and Minion-Minor from the mud. They would have suffered like the rest. Longfeel wondered whether Gohunt and others had set up another nest. They must have perished. Everything was against them. But then Gohunt was so resourceful and so determined that she might just have made it. Longfeel was confused and tortured at the thought. She pined for a purple nest; she dreamed of it, but she knew it was beyond reach. She loved the black-and-brown nest dearly and, like Minion-Minor, was deeply grateful to Merewright and the others. But it would never, ever be exactly right. There would always be something missing. Nonetheless, Longfeel, in this second exile, was resigned to it and at peace.
* * * *
Fenudice took over the plot to kill Gohunt. She and Larg talked about it together, but Fenudice steered the conversation around.
“We could lead her out here,” Larg said. “And then attack her from both sides.”
“Don’t be silly. She is too strong to attack in the open. She would kill us both. We should attack her at the nest.”
“But that is on her home ground,” Larg replied. “She knows every tunnel and turn. She would get away from us and maybe get the workers to help her.”
“Ah, but we must use surprise. I have it. You will be outside the nest and as she climbs out you can take her while she is at a disadvantage.”
“So I have to do the attacking,” Larg said in outrage. “Why don’t you do the attacking.”
“Very well,” Fenudice said with equanimity. “That is no problem. But I have a better idea. What if you are outside and then I lead Gohunt out. As we leave the nest I will point to a large stone that we will have previously placed near the entrance. Knowing Gohunt, she will seize the stone and come out backwards. Then we will both attack her. Her abdomen will be exposed. Her mandibles will be clamped around the stone. She will be taken utterly by surprise. It will be so easy.”
“Yes; yes,” cried Larg excitedly. “We’ll do it tomorrow.” Fenudice was strangely self-satisfied. She looked at Larg superciliously, and thought to herself, poor Larg.
* * * *
These soldiers are so troublesome, Gohunt thought. Sometimes I think it would be wiser to have a nest of workers only. But it would be too vulnerable.
Gohunt was troubled that morning. Food was becoming more scarce. The nest could not be enlarged without the greatest of effort. At every turn there was either crumbling sand or impossible rock. Tunnels were giving in and there was nowhere else to dig. They just did not understand the burden she carried. Upon her lay the fate of the purple nest. Without her the purple ants could perish. Everything she did was for them, even if it meant that one or two had to be killed for the benefit of all, even if some had to be exiled. All these decisions had been taken by her for the best. Fenudice understood. At least that plan would work quite simply.
Gohunt walked around the nest in silent deliberation. She thought of the great nest she had created earlier. The rain had been an unexpected tragedy after her earlier triumphs, especially the killing of the Evil One. She had created a marvel, but had got no thanks. Even now, faced with these frightening odds she had created a workable nest, even if it would only be temporary. They could not stay here without a better food supply.
At that she came across the injured Dort. At least she presented no threat.
“Ah Dort, what are we to do?” Gohunt asked, half rhetorically.
“What do you mean?”
“Well, we cannot stay here forever. We need a better food supply.”
“Why don’t we find some aphids and fungus, like the black-and-brown ants?”
“Yes,” Gohunt said, “”that is a possibility. But we are in no condition to send a foraging party. Not yet. We need soldiers. We must have soldiers. Soon the Queen will be ready.”
At this Gohunt strode off, leaving Dort puzzled.
Early the next day, deep in the nest, Gohunt spoke with Fenudice.
“How is everything?” Gohunt asked.
“Fine, just fine,” Fenudice replied. “Shall we go to the top?”
“Yes,” said Gohunt calmly. “We will need a large worker. Round one up as we go.”
They climbed to just beneath the entrance where there was a large rock placed by Larg and Fenudice the previous day.
“Up you go Fenudice,” Gohunt said.
Fenudice climbed out into the sun and looked around. She saw Larg waiting.
“How is it going?” Larg whispered.
“Exactly according to plan,” Fenudice said. “I’ll wait on this side. You wait there. Closer. Closer than that. Yes that’s fine. Don’t give her a chance”
Larg was now poised at the very edge of the entrance. And they waited.
It did not take long. Soon a purple abdomen appeared and before very much of it rose above the surface Larg lunged with open mandibles. She plunged them into the soft flesh, locked her feet into the ground and pulled with furious might. It was far easier than Larg thought. There was little resistance, but as she pulled backwards she realised with horror that it was not Gohunt, but a helpless worker. The worker’s front legs clawed helplessly and with increasing slowness until they were still. The worker was dead.
Larg looked quizzically at Fenudice and then saw with horror that Gohunt herself had climbed out of the nest after the worker and was marching directly for Larg.
“Help me, Fenudice,” she cried. “Help me.”
Fenudice stood motionless. She watched calmly as Gohunt and Larg locked mandibles.
Fenudice and Gohunt, of course, had planned it with great prescience. They knew exactly how Larg would behave, and she fell for it completely. Gohunt was so pleased when Fenudice had told her how easy it had been to sway Larg into the trap. All Fenudice was required to do under the plan was to help Gohunt dispatch Larg if she proved a hard fight.
But Fenudice stood motionless.
Larg twisted powerfully and Gohunt twisted back. Their locked mandibles neutralised each other. Suddenly they broke free of each other. Larg slashed her mandibles through the air and Gohunt ducked back. Gohunt raised her head to attack as she had done so often before, raising such fear in her opponent to cause paralysis. Larg was motionless. Gohunt lunged forcefully, but Larg was too quick. In the last split second she stepped sideways and stabbed Gohunt in the side of the head. Gohunt was knocked senseless. Larg moved in for the kill. But just as she was about to snap Gohunt’s head off, she felt a searing pain in the abdomen. She turned to see Fenudice.
“Well done, Fenudice,” Gohunt said in daze. “I thought you weren’t coming.”
“What’s this, Fenudice,” Larg cried in anguish. “You have betrayed me. You were always on Gohunt’s side you led me into a trap.”
At that Larg lunged at Fenudice, but Fenudice was too nimble and Larg to weak. Larg fell helplessly to the side, mortally wounded.
“Come help me, Fenudice” Gohunt cried feebly. “You will be rewarded for your great work today. I did not want all this killing. I wanted cooperation to build a great new nest. We can do that now Fenudice, don’t you see? All I have ever wanted is a great nest where purple ants can live in security from any outside attack. I have done that, Fenudice, haven’t I? I have not let the great Queen perish. We will make a great nest again.”
Poor Gohunt, thought Fenudice. She really does believe it.
“Gohunt, let me help you,” Fenudice said sweetly. “We must heal your injury. What are your plans? What shall we do next?”
“Ah Fenudice, you are loyal to the end. You followed me out of the great nest and have helped me here. I should have seen it earlier. You should have been made chief soldier earlier. You must be chief soldier now.”
“Chief soldier of what, Gohunt? There is only injured Dort left.”
“Never mind that now. There will be many soldiers when we build up the nest. Eventually you will take over from me. You are made for the task. You understand there is only one aim: to make the purple nest strong and secure.”
“Well we have a long way to go.”
Gohunt sensed a wilful independence about Fenudice. Maybe it would be wrong to make her chief soldier. Maybe she should give the position to Dort, after all. How her head ached, but she must do something about Fenudice, for the good of the nest. Her aching head could wait.
“Fenudice, come here,” Gohunt said. “There seems to be something wrong with your neck. Let me look at it.”
Fenudice walked slowly toward her.
“Oh, is there?” she asked.
“Yes, let me look at it closely. Come closer.”
It had worked before for Gohunt. It was the easy way to get what she wanted. She used her great physical strength to remove any soldier who crossed her or threatened her. In the past, she had convinced herself that she had only ever used her strength to help the survival of the nest. Fenudice was a threat to that now. Gohunt had no control over the force that made her protect and build the nest.
Then, just as Fenudice walked right next to Gohunt, Dort climbed out of the nest and watched the two great soldiers with idle curiosity which quickly turned to horror.
As Fenudice turned her neck unsuspectingly toward Gohunt, Gohunt opened her great mandibles. Dort saw what was to happen and cried out.
Fenudice jumped quickly, but Gohunt snapped downwards and her mandibles gashed Fenudice’s head. Fenudice turned with ferocity. Gohunt was weaker because of her earlier injury. The two ants locked together. Neither dared to break the lock to attack elsewhere or run.
Dort watched in anguish as the two last soldiers fought it out. Gohunt pushed at Fenudice. But Fenudice resisted. Neither ant moved. It was as if they were in placid stillness, in an effortless natural sculpture. As Dort looked she knew each ant was pushing against the other with all her force and might. But the equality of force was such that neither ant could move. They were frozen in equilibrium.
One must give soon, thought Dort. They cannot go on like this for much longer. Yet the two ants lost strength equally. Dort was entranced by the motionless struggle. Perhaps Gohunt had at last met her match.
It seemed Dort had thought too soon. Suddenly Fenudice gave way. All six legs collapsed at once. Gohunt lunged forward and over Fenudice with mandibles initially still locked. In fact, Fenudice had acted with sudden deliberation. By giving way she had caught Gohunt by surprise and yet could control her own actions. The force of Gohunt’s forward movement was so strong that she was thrown over the top of Fenudice. The inside grip of her mandibles and those of Fenudice was ground into each other, stripping the jagged teeth of each away. Gohunt’s advantage was gone, but she sprang to her feet and turned on Fenudice with determination. Her mandibles struck Fenudice’s abdomen, but there was no grip. Once again, Fenudice ducked sideways with great effect and Gohunt went headlong into the ground. Fenudice pounced upon her, but just before she hit, Gohunt turned her head up and pierced a mandible into the side of Fenudice’s head. The force of Fenudice’s movement, however, wrenched Gohunt’s head, dazing her. Fenudice seized her advantage and was just about to use her last effort to finish Gohunt off when Dort called out: “Stop.”
“Stop fighting, you two,” she cried. “We need every soldier to help defend and feed this nest. We must work together and not fight.”
“Yes,” said Fenudice. “We must work together, but we cannot work together with Gohunt.”
And at that she opened her ripped and injured mandibles and snapped them around Gohunt’s neck. They were too blunt to be completely effective. Fenudice had to haul and pull and twist and shake. Gohunt offered no resistance.
“Stop it,” cried Dort.
But she was too late. Gohunt’s head was finally severed. The effort had exhausted Fenudice. She looked feebly up at Dort.
“One of us soldiers had to do it,” Fenudice said. “”There would have been no peace while she remained alive. You must do what you can, Dort.”
At that, Fenudice died.
Epilogue Dort tried many times to get the Queen to lay eggs big enough for soldiers. She encouraged and nurtured the workers to feed the Queen so she would be big enough and strong enough to lay soldiers’ eggs, but only workers’ eggs resulted.
Dort and the workers knew that their failed attempt had resulted in too many eggs. There was not enough food to hatch them all. Dort remembered Gohunt’s urgings back at the old nest and their catastrophic results. She ordered some of the workers to take eggs out of the nest and leave them in the sun.
“But they will dry out and die, and Gohunt always said we must look after every egg,” a worker protested.
“Gohunt created a great nest,” Dort replied. “That was fine then and in that place. But Gohunt is dead and we are here in the middle of the Desert of Stones. We either have a small nest or no nest. Better the eggs die than we all die because the nest gets too big and we run out of food.”
“Could that happen?” the worker asked.
“Yes, I have seen it,” said Dort. “Take the eggs out into the sun.”
The purple workers were perplexed for a time. But few had any direct experience of the old nest. They had heard stories from the ten surviving workers, but the new nest was their life. And now, after a short time, Gohunt was dead and there was only one soldier left. There was nothing to do but obey. With Gohunt gone, the ways of the old nest would go, too.
Dort watched as the workers slowly carried the eggs into the sun. She looked at the tiny nest and the great Desert of Stones beyond. What would become of them without Gohunt? What would become of them without Gohunt changing things, creating new ways of doing things, expanding the nest, pushing the workers and soldiers to do ever more, organising and controlling? Could they now do what they liked? Dort pondered these questions and fell into a dream. She dreamed of a peaceful nest where there was ample food. Her dream took her in great detail down every tunnel of her peaceful nest. She floated and meandered through the tunnels of fantasy peering down at aphids and fungus and at workers with feelers rubbing with time to think and wander. It was a long, long dream. She dreamed of aphids and fungus supplying their languid life. Suddenly she was woken by a worker crying, “Dort, Dort, wake up!”
Dort awoke and stared shakily around.
“Dort, you have been asleep a long time,” the worker said. “Look what has happened while you were asleep? Is this what you want?”
Dort looked about dazed. Hundreds of eggs were lying in the sun, dried out.
“Oh, no! Not that many,” Dort cried. “Stop them.”
“It’s too late,” the worker said. “They have brought all the eggs out. That is what you asked us to do.”
Dort rushed into the nest and went down to the Queen’s chamber. She had worked too hard. Her abdomen had shrunk and her head drooped. Dort knew she would lay no more. In such a short time Dort had failed. It was the end of the purple nest.
* * * *
That night a great full moon rose over the Desert of Stones. It shone into the sterility of the purple nest. It made the stones shine and cast sharp shadows against the clay. Around the moon was a misty ring of deep green and red. Not far away, Merewright and Majorim came out of their nest.
“It’s going to rain again, Merewright,” said Majorim.
“Yes; and so soon,” Merewright replied. “I’ll round up the aphids and plant some more fungus. We will be ready.”