A Suspense Novel for the Young Reader

      "I've got to keep up."
      The ants were moving rapidly through the chamisa bushes and Lawrence, near the end of the long line, was falling back. The ants scurried easily over rocks and through sand and over logs. They could go straight up things, using the suction cups on the end of their legs. But Lawrence had to go around everything. The line of ants suddenly headed down into a ravine. Scrambling to keep up, Lawrence was breathing hard when he finally got back in place.
      Homeron was in command, but the female Sephea gave the orders. The ants followed her commands instantly. Lawrence decided to take a position near her, so he mustered all his strength and ran up behind her. She turned, seemed about to say something, thought better of it, and resumed her steady march. The landscape soon grew dim as the sun dropped behind Atalaya Ridge. The gullies darkened and the color went out of the desert in no time. Now it was even harder for Lawrence to keep up. He stumbled and fell and skinned both knees.
      As he picked himself up, he saw the head of the runt pop up over Sephea's shoulder. He made eye contact with him, but then disappeared. But a moment later he appeared again, and this time came and stood on Sephea's shoulder.
      "Hiya!" he said.
      He was sure funny looking, only about a tenth of the size of the others. Yet he seemed perfectly proportioned-just small. He had tiny antennas, a little bobbing head, stumpy little legs, a puffy abdomen, and a cute little gaster.
      "Hi," replied Lawrence. This little ant made him smile immediately.
      "You're a strange looking fellow," said the runt.
      "So I've been told," replied Lawrence.
      "Well, in case you haven't noticed, I'm not the best looking berry on the tree either. I'm Bleato. Nice to meet you." His voice was squeaky high, but not unpleasant to the ear.
      "Same here," replied Lawrence.
      "I'm the runt of the colony. You know what that is?"
      "I have a pretty good idea."
      "You might as well know the history. Every five or six generations the colony gets one," said Bleato. "The egg pops open and whattaya got-a very tiny ant. That's me. The job comes with a lot of abuse, but hey, we all got problems, right?"
      "Yes, I think so."
      Bleato leaned forward and whispered, "The only real problem is that they won't let me be a soldier."
      "Why not?" asked Lawrence.
      "They think I'd disgrace the colony, on account of my size. So I get to go on journeys, foraging, that kind of thing, the boring stuff, but not fighting. They won't let me kill a Creenio. And to die without killing a Creenio is not to have lived at all, if you ask me."
      "I see."
      "The soldiers keep me around for entertainment value, so I play along, make jokes, that kind of thing-"
      "That's enough, Bleato," scolded Sephea. "Don't talk to the foreigner."
      Bleato winked at Lawrence and lowered his voice. "All right, so tell me about you. What brings you to our territory, you dashing foreigner type?"
      "Oh, there's not much to tell. I-"
      "You know there's a prophecy in Magyar Hill that a foreigner will come out of the hills and save the colony," said Bleato. "That could be you."
      "I hardly think so," replied Lawrence. "I just want to keep up."
      "Bleato, I said no more talking!"
      "Okay, okay, but Seph, there's something I think you ought to know."
      "What is it?"
      "Big rainstorm coming. Big, very big."
      "Bleato, the sky is clear."
      "Seph, we're talking big here, not puny like me, but big, colossal, huge, the mother of all storms, the queen of all storms, I mean rain."
      Sephea sighed. "All right, I'll tell Homeron." She moved swiftly ahead of the others to find their leader.
      "How do you know that it's going to rain?" asked Lawrence.
      Bleato shrugged. "I get this thing in my neck, and I can't turn it and yow it hurts so much, and. . . ."
      Storm clouds appeared a short time later, just as Bleato had predicted. It started to rain.
      "What did I tell you?" Bleato gloated. "What did I tell you!"
      "You were right," yelled Lawrence, over the storm.
      The rain got heavy. Raindrops the size of buckets of water hit Lawrence in the back and on the head again and again. He got completely drenched in seconds. It got so dark he couldn't see his own feet. The others were only dark shapes ahead.
      "Hey, hey, hey, where are you going?" yelled Bleato.
      Lawrence stopped cold. "I don't know. I'm just walking."
      "You're at the edge of a cliff. One more step and you'd be spider food at the bottom of the ravine. Can't you see?"
      "Not really."
      "All right, I'll ride on your shoulder and tell you where to go."
      Bleato climbed up. Suddenly, there was a giant thunderclap followed by a tremendous bolt of lightning. It lit up the desert floor for one spectacular moment. They were standing on top of a cliff overlooking the colony-a great mound of sand below. He had seen anthills when he walked in the desert, but this one loomed like a coliseum. A torrent of water was rushing down the ravine, and only a slim retaining wall kept the water from hitting the colony head on. The light faded.
      "We have to warn the queen," said Homeron. "Come on."
      "Let's move it out," yelled Bleato. Lawrence was almost blind again, and to get down that cliff he needed Bleato sitting on his shoulder and shouting commands.
      "Stop. Go that way, no that way, good, good, now two steps the other way. There's a rock, be careful. Watch out for the hole. Hold that root. Good, good. Big step down. Not bad. Keep going."
      Soon they were on solid ground, and he could hear the sand crunching under his feet. "Nice going, you made it down the cliff," yelled Bleato over the storm, as they approached the colony.
      At the entrance, Lawrence froze. What am I doing? he said to himself. I can't go into an ant colony! An ant colony!
      "Hey, who's holding things up?" yelled Homeron from behind.
      "Uh, you better go now," said Bleato hurriedly. "You don't want to get his bigness angry."
      But Lawrence could not move. Turn and run, he thought, just run, they'll never come after me in this storm. Their colony is about to flood, so they won't care about me. I'll just run off into the desert. But then what? Think and survive. Isn't that what Gusteffes said? Find protection. I have to find protection, but what if they just tear me apart down there? There will be thousands of ants down there, and me in the middle of them all. God help me.
      "Hey, get this line moving!"
      "Uh, excuse me, but you've got a few hundred soldiers behind you in the rain, waiting to get in, and you're blocking the entrance," said Bleato. "Is this some kind of foreigner thing or what?"
      "Get moving!" yelled Sephea.
      He made a decision and bolted forward. Down, down they went, into the colony. At first he could see nothing, and Bleato had to tell him when to turn and when to duck, but then something in the tunnel walls began to glow greenish-yellow. It got brighter and brighter.
      "I can see," he yelled to Bleato. "I can see. There's something glowing in the rock."
      Suddenly, they came out into a massive chamber filled with tens of thousands of ants crawling all over each other. In the center of the chamber, two giant ants were fighting. Bleato quickly led Lawrence up a pile of ants where they could take a look. Several ants turned and looked at him as they passed, but then went back to watching the combat. The spectators waved their antennas madly and yelled and spit and snapped their jaws. It was like a boxing match, with two oversized ants battling it out.
      "That's our queen there, Andulusia," said Bleato, pointing to one of the combatants. "She's a tough old bird but she's been getting beat on for a long time."
      "What's happening?" asked Lawrence.
      "There are two queens in our colony right now," said Bleato. "Sometimes we got five, sometimes one. Right now we got two. Everyone is loyal to one or the other. Our queen is Andulusia and their queen is Meetrio."
      "Why are they fighting?" Lawrence asked.
      "Meetrio wants to rule alone. So it's a fight to the death, our queen versus their queen. Winner take all. One queen will rule, the other gets fed to the spiders."
      "What happens to you if your queen loses?"
      "Oh, nothing much. Just humiliation, exile, and death. That's all."
      "You die?" exclaimed Lawrence.
      "Yeah, they kill most of us and put the rest out of the colony for the woodpeckers to pick us off."
      "You seem so calm about it?"
      "It's the law of the colony. I'm just a runt, so what do you want me to do about it? But you're with me, so it's your neck too. So root for Andulusia, if you know what's good for you."
      "Right. Go, Andulusia," shouted Lawrence.
      "It's Queen Andulusia, tarantula brain," said Bleato.
      "Oh, sorry."
      Down below, Queen Meetrio lunged forward and clamped her mandibles on Andulusia's front leg. She fell to one side to keep her leg from being broken in two. With Andulusia on her side, Meetrio, a monstrous figure in the green light, straddled her opponent and prepared to sting. But Andulusia threw her off just in time and rolled over, rising and locking mandibles with her once again.
      The two queens circled each other slowly, their antennas swirling over great eyes that looked like a thousand cut jewels. One lunged, then the other. Meetrio ripped at her adversary and twice opened wounds. Andulusia, losing ground, gambled and reared up on her hind legs and lunged at Meetrio, snapping her jaws. Meetrio had to retreat, but soon struck back.
      Meetrio grabbed her opponent from below, in the abdomen, and yanked. Andulusia tumbled forward and Meetrio seized her and drove her jaws into the soft underbelly. Andulusia cried out in pain. It looked like the end was near. But with one great thrust, Andulusia threw off her opponent, rose to her feet, and locked antennas. The great queens slowly circled each other and then, surprisingly, they bowed to each other and left the arena.
      "Who won?" asked Lawrence.
      "No one yet," replied Bleato. "They keep fighting, day after day. But Queenie's gonna have to do better than that," said Bleato. "We got lucky today, but tomorrow, who knows. . ." He shrugged.