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The Ombudsant

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An ant queen has been kidnapped, and the butler didn’t do it.

The unsung hero of every ant colony is the butler.

A butler in an ant colony? What does she do, you may ask, serve drinks? No, or at least that’s not what I do. Not that it stops wisecracking ants from yelling, “Hey, butler, fetch us a drink!” They think they’re so funny. If they even bothered to watch Masterpiece Theatre, they’d know a butler does a lot more than tend bar. Find a cocktail waitress if you need a drink.

The job of an ant butler is even more complicated than that of a butler on some English estate. I’m combination adviser-to-the-queen, foreign minister, general administrator and translator-at-large. I’m fluent in multiple dialects of antish, conversant in termite and know enough spiderese to tell you that spiders will say anything, and I mean anything, to get you onto their web.

I once met a butler from a different colony who said they call her “ombudsant” instead of butler. I asked the queen if we could get that instituted, but she said no. Something about tradition. It’s too bad. Ombudsant sounds more dignified than butler.

How do I look? Well, my head’s bigger than a worker ant’s. Workers have little heads, since they don’t do any thinking. Soldiers have big heads, but that’s to make room for their large mandibles. They’re basically idiots with big heads. I have a large head like a soldier, but it isn’t crowded out by mandibles. I actually have to use my head. All the time. And it’s usually to clean up the messes the other ants are always making.

And they tell me to fetch them drinks. Actually, there are plenty of days when I wish my job were as simple as that. Like the other day.

I’m in the queen’s chambers giving a report on the colony’s finances (could be better) when I hear a commotion. I peek out into the tunnel and see a troop of soldiers carrying something very large. Before I can make out the object, they deposit it into a nearby chamber. Then they start whooping it up, so I rush out to shush them.

“Who’s in charge here?” I ask.

A large soldier steps forward and barks, “Commander at your service, Buttboy!”

(I hate when they call me that. I’m a girl, just like the rest of them.)

“Commander, what is the meaning of this racket?” I ask.

“We brang us a big prize, Buttboy!” she reports.

“How many times have I told you? You call me butler or ombudsant. Now keep it down out here,” I say.

“OK, Ombuttboy. But don’t you wants to know what we brang in?” asks the commander.

“Do I have to?”

“Yup.”

“Very well, then. What did your eminences bring in?”

“OK. Hold onto your seat. We bringed us a queen ant,” says the soldier.

“Oh, that’s nice….. YOU WHAT?!”

“We stole us a queen,” she says, all proud-like.

“Wait a second, you went into a nest and kidnapped a queen?”

“That’s just it. We didn’t even have to go inside anywheres to get her. She was outside, hanging out in some tent her stupid ants made of themselves. Like an ant pile up.”

“An ant pile up? How big was it?” I ask, my curiosity well peaked.

“It was pretty big now that you mention it. Like a big ant fortress.”

I don’t like the sound of this at all. I peek into the chamber where said abducted queen is held and a chill goes through me. She’s huge and ugly, and has massive mandibles. There’s only one type of ant that makes queens like that.

I come back to the soldiers, who are still celebrating.

“You fools! That was no tent. It was a bivouac. Those were army ants, and you, my friends, are idiot ants.”

“Cool,” one of them says. “Army ants.”

“Cool?! You clearly don’t watch nature shows. Do you have any idea what army ants are about? The ants you saw making the tent are the ones who stay behind with the queen. The rest of the colony was out on an invasion. When they come back from marauding and find their queen missing, what do you think they’re going to do, post Missing Queen signs?”

They respond with a collective “Uh…Duh…Ummm...”

“Newflash! Here’s that they’re going to do, and in the following order: A) Sniff out Mama; B) Snuff out every single one of us; C) Repeat step B.”

“Aw, come on, Buttboy. Stop over-reacting. We got ourselves an army,” says the commander.

“More like a militia. You don’t get it, do you? We’re leafcutter ants. They’re army ants. We farm for a living, and they invade, conquer, pillage and lay waste for a living. You’ve all heard about Antilla the Hun, right? Greenghis Khan?”

“Yeah, those are some cool stories,” says Commander Brains.

“They’re not stories! They’re real! And the hordes will be at our gates come sundown! Get it?!”

Silence. Maybe she gets it.

“So, don’t you want to know how we went and kidnapped her?” says the commander, who clearly isn’t one to dwell on uncomfortable facts.

“Sure, why not, we’re all gonna die anyhow,” I say.

“OK, so, we saw that ant fortress I was tellin’ you about and decided we had to see what’s all the commotion about, but how do we get in there, you ask, seeing as we’s foreigners?”

She pauses and looks at me expectantly.

“Oh, right,” I say. “How did you get in there?”

“Good question! So we look about till we find a dead one. Real ugly, with mandibles that can chop up a walkin’ stick like it was nuttin’. So we slice her and rub ourselves with her juices so we smell like her. Raunchy! Then we sneak into their tent and who do we see but their queen, sleeping. So, a bunch of us get underneath her and carry her away. Just like that.”

“Well, there’s the how for ya’. I don’t suppose there’s a why, is there?” I inquire.

“No, not really,” she says.

“Still, how’d you carry her all this way? Wasn’t she really heavy?” I ask. Not that I care, but I’m starting to feel bad for the morons.

“That my friend was pure brawn,” she says, all but patting herself on her backs with all six legs.

“And not a milligram of brain,” I add.

“Don’t mention it,” she says. “But actually they wasn’t that far off from here so we didn’t needs carry her that long.”

“So, they’re good and close to here. How lovely,” I say.

Just then I hear the queen calling me.

“Buttly! Oh, Buttly!”

I wish her royal highness wouldn’t call me that. It just encourages the others.

I rush in and bow.

“What does her majesty wish?”

“We are detecting some worrisome pheromones in the colony, and we would like to know if something is amiss,” she says.

“The queen should not worry. There’s nothing to be alarmed about,” I tell her.

“We are relieved,” she says.

“However, the queen might want to start making more soldiers and less workers,” I say.

“Oh, my,” says the queen.

“In fact, I would recommend ceasing all production of workers for the foreseeable future,” I say.

“We see.”

As I’m leaving the queen’s chambers, I run into a group of workers that’s just arrived from the colony’s main gate with some rather disconcerting news. Apparently, some foreign ants have gathered at the foot of our hill and are seeking an audience.

“How many would you say are there?” I ask one of them.

“A few. Maybe thirty, or forty. Or maybe several thousand. Or maybe more,” she says.

“More than several thousand?”

“Mayproblafinitely. Yes, definitely.”

Gulp.

I need to collect my wits and devise a strategy. In short, I need to stall. So I prepare a most conciliatory pheremonic brew and send it up to the gate with some of the wimpiest worker ants I can find.

Then I address the soldiers and workers assembled before me.

“OK, crew. While our peace envoy is up there entertaining our guests, I want to hear some ideas. You, soldier ants, you got us into this jam. How do you recommend we get out of it?”

“We could just slice her up into little pieces and hide her,” says one.

“Yeah, she’s indefenseless. Let’s just kill her,” says another.

Like I said, they’re not big in the brains department.

“The army is at our gates. They know she’s here. I’m thinking cutting up their queen is not the best of ideas,” I reason.

“Aw, chill out, Buttboy,” says the ever-wise commander. “They ain’t gonna just come in here. Them army types like the open field. They’re not big on urban warfare.”

“Ah, a military strategist in our midst,” I say.

“You’re lookin’ at this all wrong,” continues General Brains. “We got their queen. They’ll die without her, so we got ‘em where we want ‘em. If they want her back, they gotta give us somethin’, and somethin’ good.”

“Like our lives? Would that be somethin’ good?”

Then I turn to a worker.

“How about you? What do you recommend we do?”

“Work harder,” she says.

“Work harder? Harder at what?”

“Harder at our jobs, whatever they are. Gathering leaves. Making piles. We’ll just work harder and everything will get better,” she says.

Oy.

Just then the peace envoy returns. Sort of. Several worker ants come bearing the decapitated heads of the original worker ants I sent up.

“What does this mean?” asks a soldier.

“What do you think it …” I start to say, but then I stop. One of the disembodied heads is trying to speak.

I hold it up and all fall silent.

“They say…no peace… only …... death ,” it says with its last gasp.

“Oh,” say all my Little Antsteins in attendance.

“Precisely,” says I.

I realize the only way this is going to get fixed is if I go up and speak to the army ants. Suicidal, but everyone’s gotta die sometime.

But first I have to level with the Queen, who’s rather surprised by the news.

“There’s a queen in the adjacent chamber, and you didn’t tell us?!?” she exclaims.

“Yes, her highness.”

“How could you? Here we are, a lonely queen, with not a single ant who can relate to us, and all this time there’s been a queen next door and you’ve withheld them from us. Finally, the Royal We can stand for something!”

“What does the queen wish for me to do?” I ask.

“Why bring the queen to us!” she commands.

“You, I mean, the Queen wants me to bring her, or them, to the Queen?”

“Yes, that’s what we want.”

“Very well, then.” There’s no time to argue.

So we maneuver, we grunt and we somehow manage to cram Army Queen next to our queen. Then with heavy heart I take my leave to engage the enemy. I can only hope that while I’m away offering my head on a platter, Army Queen doesn’t mistake our queen’s head for an hors d’oeuvre.

Together with the commander and a selection of her finest soldiers, I ascend to the entrance at the top of our hill where my greatest diplomatic challenge to date awaits me.

The brave commander peeks through the entrance hole.

“Coast is clear,” she says.

We emerge from the hole and faster than the blink of a lidless eye, the heads of the brave commander and the rest of my bodyguards are lying on the floor, their mandibles clawing mindlessly at the dirt. My head is still connected to my body. For now. Then I’m lifted off the ground by my forelegs by two of the largest ants I have ever seen, sporting mandibles that could kill a small bird.

From my commanding position I behold a horde of ants that begins at the base of the hill and extends as far as the eye can see and in all directions. At first it sounds like they’re clapping at me. Then I realize it’s the sound of thousands upon thousands of mandibles snapping open and shut, mandibles apparently capable of removing heads at rapid speed. These ants make our most seasoned soldiers look like a new crop of workers. War drums are beating and the columns are chanting a chain of terrible verbs: “DECAPITATE!!” “EVISCERATE!!” “KILL!!” “MAIM!!”

Then from the ranks a lone ant breaks free and ascends the hill toward me. Slightly smaller than the rest, she wears a headdress of wasp wings, a necklace of dried termite heads and a certain look of almost intelligence. This must be my counterpart, their butler, or aide-de-camp, I suppose. Finally, someone to parley with. She might even know some nouns.

She reaches me and bows ever so slightly.

“Welcome, my good friend,” I say, trying unsuccessfully to bow from my compromised position. “You’ll be happy to know your queen is alive and well, and has been thoroughly enjoying her stay with us.”

To which she replies, “Give back queen or we decapitate, we eviscerate, we kill, we maim.”

“You had me at decapitate,” I tell her. She stares at me blankly.

“Well, assuming we do indeed have your good queen, what happens when we return her?” I inquire. A perfectly reasonable question.

“We decapitate, we eviscerate, we kill, we maim.”

“I see.”

I don’t find her terms particularly favorable. Then it occurs to me. Perhaps my late commander wasn’t entirely dumb. After all, we do have something these brutes need, something without which they cannot survive – their queen. If I’m going to keep my head, indeed if our colony is to survive at all, I’d better use that to our advantage.

Mind you, I’m still being held up in the air by my forelegs, but I put on as determined a look as I can, and lowering my voice to hide its shaking, I say:

“Here’s how it’s going to go. I’m going back into the nest, with head intact. We will bring you your queen, alive, but only if you swear on your queen’s head that you won’t kill us once we’ve brought her to you. And while I’m retrieving your queen, if one of your shock troops’ mandibles so much as crosses the threshold of our nest, it’s curtains for Mother Dearest, get it?”

My counterpart looks at me with a hard look, and then makes a gesture to one of the brutes holding me, the universal sign for, “Separate her head from her body.”

“Before you remove my head, I should warn you my queen will sense my death immediately. We have a special telepheremonic connection. Your queen will be dead before my head hits the ground,” I say as ominously as possible.

Pure bluff, of course. Assuming my queen were to feel anything upon my untimely demise, she’d probably think it was gas.

But Army Butler buys it. She signals to the two commandos to lower me.

“So do we have a deal?” I ask.

She nods.

“Let’s shake on it, then,” I say.

So we shake our bodies in the manner customary among ants entering an agreement or viewing a particularly pretty sunset. I then bow to her and re-enter our nest.

I descend to the queen’s chambers, hoping the army ants don’t change their mind about urban warfare or that our idiot soldiers didn’t already kill Army Queen. Though who am I fooling? There’s nothing to stop them from killing us all once they have their queen back. Even so, I’m relieved to see Army Queen is alive and well. Very well, in fact. It appears the two queens are having a grand ol’ time.

“Oh, you’re back, Buttly,” cries my queen.

“You’re right, she is cute,” says Army Queen.

“What is going on here?” I inquire.

“Oh, we’re just two soul sisters having a party and catching up on lost time,” says my queen. “I can’t believe we only met today. It’s like we’ve known each other all our lives. We’re two peas in a pod.”

I gesture to Army Queen and say, “Well, Queen Pea over here is expected upstairs right about now, otherwise, her lovely subjects are going to massacre our entire colony.”

“Oh, pshaw!” says my queen. “They wouldn’t do such a thing. Besides, we’ve made a decision.”

“Is ‘we’ as in you or ‘we’ as in the two of you’s, or, I should say, the Royal We-We?” I ask.

“Oui, oui! The two of us, that is to say, we squared, have decided that we will never part. And to this end, we are merging our two great colonies. Is that not a wonderful idea?” says my all-wise queen.

“A wonderful idea? That’s a crazy idea. You, I mean the queen, or the queens, rather, cannot merge two very, very, and I mean, very, different colonies. They’re hunters. We’re gatherers. They prefer the open plain. We favor the cloistered nest. This will not work. I assure you.”

“Well as our butler, you are going to have to make it work,” says my queen, getting a look in her eyes I’m quite familiar with.

“Then, your highness, I quit. I will not follow this lunacy. I resign effective immediately,” I announce, thinking to myself, I’m going to start a new colony, butlers-only.

“We don’t need her, I have my own butler,” says Army Queen. “I’m sure she’ll like the idea very much.”

“I met aforementioned butler, and I am quite certain she won’t like this idea. She’s very much the outdoors type,” I say.

The two queens sit quietly for a moment, and then my queen speaks, “I suppose you are right, as usual. It is, or was a crazy idea.”

Then turning to her soul sister, she says, “You had best go back to your subjects.”

And wouldn’t you know it, Army Queen begins to cry.

“Now, now, fret not, Queen Sister,” says my monarch. “I shall only allow you to depart if our two butlers promise to arrange sisterly visits. Once a month we’ll visit each other. One time at my place, the other time at your place.”

Army Queen stops crying and her face lights up.

Then turning to me, my queen says in her sweetest voice, “Surely, this is not too difficult for you to arrange.”

Sounds like a logistical nightmare to me, even for creatures as logisically inclined as ants, but I say, “If this is the queen’s will, it shall be done, but on one condition.”

“Condition?”

“I want to be known as the ombudsant and not the butler,” I say.

“What and trample on tradition?” she says.

“It’s either that, or I walk,” I say, putting my foreleg down.

“Oh, very well. Ombudsy it will be,” says my queen.

After plans are made for the next sisterly visit and a tearful farewell, Army Queen is carried up to the entrance and returned to her subjects.

I explain the visitation thing to Army Butler. She gives me this look, butler-to-butler, that is pure, “You’ve got to be kidding.”

And I return her look with an expression that’s all, “Tell me about it.”

Then she says, “Fine, but any funny business, WE DECAPITATE, WE EVISC...

“Yeah, yeah, yeah, I know the drill,” I tell her.

We do the customary shake, and I return to the nest.

As I’m heading down, I’m thinking, after a day like this I really do need a drink. So I ask the first worker I see to bring me a drink, and what does the cheeky worker tell me but, “You’re the butler, fetch your own drink!”

This is how a worker talks to the ombudsant! I swear I could’ve decapitated her right there and then. (Such violent thoughts! Must be the company I’m keeping.)

But then I think. You know what? I will get a drink for myself. All my jobs should be so simple.

This story is protected by International Copyright Law, by the author, all rights reserved. If found posted anywhere other than storiesspace.com with this note attached, it has been posted without my permission.

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