I have to wonder what the minders are doing whilst Sarah and I engage in a mental conversation. I mean, are they listening in? I suppose it's possible. I can't sense them at all, but I suppose that isn't any sort of guarantee, considering their higher Skill levels. Perhaps this is all just part of their research, learning about people like me and our monstrous transformations. I can't afford to care too much about it, since this is such a rare opportunity.
Perhaps I've been away from the colony for too long. It's nice to have a conversation with someone who is able to reciprocate my human culture. I've still spent longer as a human than as an ant after all, and the humans I've met here on Pangera have been a bit odd, let's put it that way. Sarah on the other hand, seems quite normal, all things considered. Despite freely acknowledging being a bit unbalanced, she comes across as well spoken and measured.
[I wasn't always this steady,] she confides, [in the first few years it was rough, as I'm sure you know. After my death on Earth, and being reborn here It's hard at the start. You know what I mean.]
[You're referring to the terror and existential dread of having to fight for survival in a strange world of death?]
[Yes, I recall. I mean, I was a tiny little ant monster. Just about every monster I saw was able to rip me apart. You started out as a bear! It can't have been that bad.]
It's odd to think of a bear giving you the stink eye, especially a giant, elephant sized bear with a distended maw that housed teeth as long as a human forearm, but here we are.
[Look, Anthony, I didn't start this size. I didn't even start as a fully grown bear. I was a cub! A little harmless bear cub!]
I'm immediately suspicious.
[Just a cub eh? A harmless little fuzzy ball of fluff, with the claws, and the fangs. How large were you exactly? Somehow I don't think you were just an average, Earth sized cub]
[I might have been a touch larger than normal.]
[Just a touch, huh?]
[It's not like you were a normal sized ant!]
[How the heck would I have survived if I was a regular sized ant?! Not to mention, I was born outside of my colony! Without it's colony, a regular ant will die in a day!]
[Is that so? I wonder why?]
I will never turn down the chance to educate someone about the glorious world of ants!
[You need to think of individual ants as cells that make up a larger organism when they work together. One ant is not capable of surviving, it needs its brethren to work together to provide context, decision making and safety.]
[So ants are weak?]
[No. Ants are sophisticated social creatures who are mutually dependent on each other!]
[But an ant on its own can't survive]
[Not the point!]
[You're a bit weird Anthony,] Sarah laughed at me.
It'd been a long time since I'd heard such a relaxed, earnest laugh. Something about it just helped the tension to unwind a few notches in my non-existent shoulders. It helps a lot that Sarah is such a friendly, sociable person. It's hard to believe that she was deemed nuts enough to have her soul ripped into this planet.
[I don't know what it is, both you and James have such weird pets. No wonder you both ended up in such odd species when you were born here.]
[Odd? He's not another insect is he?]
I will brook no competition for the throne of the greatest insect!
[What? Oh, no. I won't tell you, I don't want to ruin the surprise. They'll probably bring him out to meet you next time. They tend to be a little precious with us. The Shapers, I mean.]
That sends my antennae into the air a little.
[Precious? I've been informed that I'll be fighting to the death against other monsters that they've nurtured. It doesn't seem like they're being all that careful with me. Some might say, just the opposite!]
Sarah's big bear head slumps to the ground and huffs with irritation, sending a cloud of dust swirling from the wind of it.
[I know,] she sighs, [something has gotten right into their heads. They've been so nice to me you know. I was half insane by the time I made it down to the second strata. I was lonely, blood crazed and starving. The isolation and constant fighting starts to chip away at your mind and before you know it you're a screaming loony. If I hadn't gotten picked up by a patrol of Shapers by chance I don't know what would have happened to me.]
[What happened?] I was curious to know.
[It was quite surprising to me. At the time I was so on edge and ready to fight, the first time they made contact through a mind bridge and tried to talk with me I went completely mental. I thrashed around, trying to find them but they just backed off and waited until I calmed down before they tried again. It took them three days before I was able to talk back to them, then another three before I agreed to meet them. After that I decided to take them up on their offer and came back here with them. They put me up, feed me, converse with me, taught me all sorts of stuff. It's been great.]
[So why the death blender now? Seems like there has been a clear shift in policy.]
[I know and they just won't talk to me,] Sarah huffs, clearly frustrated, [I've been told that I won't be part of the 'selection' but that they still consider me a strong candidate. They won't even tell me if James will be thrown in! He better not, that would be barbaric!]
[Isn't the whole thing barbaric? I mean, I'm in it.]
[Well, yes! Yes it is! Because we are people, not just monsters! They can't do this to us!]
Even after decades as a monster, Sarah still seems to cling to the idea of herself as being something different. A person, a human, a creature who is valued and has worth. She might have been here being coddled by the Shapers for too long. I've already had to learn the lesson, monsters are not the same as people. We're spawned from the Dungeon and that makes all the difference. Other than the ancients, the rest of us are just resources to the surface people. In the end we can only count on ourselves. At least I have my family, the colony, that I can lean on. Sarah had nothing. I feel sorry for her, to be honest. She had to lean on the Shapers to stay sane, but they've made her lose her edge at the same time.
[They absolutely can. I can't break out of here on my own. I've tested a few things already and they are watching me like a damn hawk with binoculars. They can easily force me to fight. Just knock me out, drag me out here and wait for me to wake up. Or not, just leave me here unconscious to be free experience and Biomass to their pet favourite.]
[They aren't bad people, Anthony.]
I shrug my antennae.
[It doesn't matter to me if they're bad or not, I couldn't care less. My only worry is surviving.]
[Time's up.] A new voice broke into our mental communication.
Clearly the Shapers had been listening the entire time if they were able to break into our conversation so smoothly. Spying? Just keeping tabs or were they trying to learn something? The other question, did Sarah know about it? My guards are already gesturing for me to return back the way I came, the gate opening wide for me to pass through into the tunnel back to my cell.
[Nice meeting your Sarah. Hope we get another chance to chat soon.]
[You too Anthony. Stay safe.]
I can't help but bark out a bit of a laugh at that. Stay safe? It's not really up to me now, is it?