Despite receiving the justice of my mother, I stoically endured her disapproving gaze for as long as I could manage in order to tickle grubs. Their joyful wiggles warmed my heart even as I quailed inside, anticipating another THWACK at any moment. In the end, I could only hold out for ten minutes before I slunk from the chamber, only to find myself in even more sacred territory, the egg laying room!
Victoriant and Antionette look up at me in surprise as I crawl down through a gap in the ceiling.
"Eldest! What are you doing here?"
"Oh, you know me. Just checking in on everyone and seeing how things are going."
"He's avoiding work," the Queen calls out as she enters the chamber after me.
The two younger Queens give each other a brief look.
"The Eldest? Avoiding work? Surely you jest Mother!"
"Such a thing is impossible!"
The two of them laugh together and I hasten to cut Mother off before she can destroy my reputation. What can I use to distract her?!
"Ah! Is that Aphy the aphid Queen I see? She's gotten big!"
It's true, in one corner of the egg laying chamber, a much larger than before aphid Queen is nibbling on some Biomass next to her own little pile of eggs, looking very pleased with herself.
"Yes, she evolved not that long ago," the Queen can't help but rush over to dote on her pet with pats and scritches. "I wasn't sure about bringing her down to this Strata, but in the end I felt a lot more comfortable when she's somewhere I can keep an eye on her. You do like to get up to mischief, don't you Aphy?"
The much smaller bug monster makes a noise of delight as it leans into the Queen's antenna like some sort of cat.
"The brood tenders take care of the aphid young as well?" I ask.
"Of course!" Victoriant chips in, "they seem to get the bonus stats from their care just as well as the hatchlings do, and each aphid will pay the colony back far more Biomass that we spend on Aphy to get them hatched."
"So the feeding is going well in the marsh expanse?"
"Aphy's children are far more useful than that," the Queen tells me warmly, still radiating affection towards her pet, "they've been spread to four separate expanses in the first Strata now."
"Since when did we own that much territory?" I ask, flabbergasted.
"After you left, the expansion happened pretty quickly," Antionette muses. "The Generals, Soldiers and Scouts were super excited about it. They were all fired up every time they found a new expanse. I think they sent a thousand Soldiers into the Red Woods Expanse on the first day they found it."
A thousand?! But why?!
"I heard the same," Victoriant confirms, "I think they conquered the whole thing in two hours."
Yeesh, they really were getting carried away.
"How many members of the Colony are there, right now?" I ask. "The number can't be that high, can it?"
There's a moment of reflective silence as the three gathered Queens ponder for a moment.
"You know, child, I'm not exactly sure," Mother answers me. "I haven't been keeping count perhaps the brood tenders on the council might know?"
The two younger Queens both echo the sentiment, they've no idea. I can get a rough sense of how many are in range of the Vestibule, but I can't actually count them precisely.
"I'll ask as I move around the nest, someone must be keeping a count."
Ah well, can't put it off any longer. I limber up my legs and make my way up the wall.
"Heading out, child?" The Queen asks, barely concealed amusement peppering her scent.
"Yes, Mother. The work never ends, as well you know."
"An end to work? What a terrible thought," she muses before turning back to pat Aphy some more.
Hah. I've only just gotten back and already a vacation is starting to sound nice. No! Bad Anthony! Stay firm! Alright then, time to head over to the core shapers, then I'll check in with the mages and teach them a few things. I need to catch up with the carvers, talk about their plans. Maybe there's some engineering or building knowledge tucked away in my head somewhere Unlikely, but maybe I can describe a few cool buildings and see if it inspires them?
I need to find who's making all these carvings of me as well. And the statues! Enough is enough already!
After that council I suppose, then surface. Yeesh, so much to do. I might need to try and slip some torpor in there somewhere, just in case I need a mental break. Full of determination, I follow the scent trails to the core shaper workshop and find both Bella and Ellie hard at work. It takes a few hours but I'm able to demonstrate the new techniques I've learned and share all the knowledge of monster builds that I picked up from the Shapers. The two council members seem giddy with delight at these gifts and declare that they must be committed to the library immediately!
"Library?" I ask, puzzled.
"Of course!" Ellie proclaims, "we need to preserve this information for further study."
"Yeah, but how? Since when do you have a library?"
"Oh! You haven't seen one yet? The carvers got the idea from the humans, I think. A way to store information. Check it out!"
She rushes over the one side of the busy chamber and returns with a metal plate grasped gently in her mandibles.
She places it on the table and I peer at the thing closely. It looks like a page, but instead of lines of text, it has grooves filled with a clear, gel like substance. I'm a little nervous that it's going to shout something at me like the one I found in the tunnel, but I bring an antenna down to smell it.
"Core experiment #424. Attempting to make something useful out of the centipede variety of monster has proven to be impossible. A more hopeless, failed concept of a monster is yet to be -."
"You've found a way to preserve pheromones?!"
"Indeed! It's very useful being able to 'read'. Saves a lot of time around here, let me tell you." Ellie assures me.
"Efficiency is way up," Bella confirms.
The rate these ants are developing is out of control.
"Well, good luck with what I told you. I hope it helps out a bit."
I make a hasty farewell and totter off to my next meeting. Books? Ants with books. I guess it makes sense in a way, I just didn't think they'd get going this fast. How long until they put an ant on the moon? Neil Antstrong may be just a few generations away!