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I thanked the Gods when, after falling, I saw myself on top of a mountain of debris. As crushed stone, it fragmented even more with my fall, cushioning the impact of my body against the ground. I rolled sinking my hands, elbows and knees into the dust and the fragments of stone. I waited a while until I had a little more control over the situation and, free from a quick dizziness, looked around.
From the spot I was I could only see really high hills, ones higher than others, pinnacles stretching towards the sky. Hundreds or thousands of them, side by side, forming a bizarre scenery. I stood up, balanced on the unstable ground and risked a few steps to the edge of the top I was in. My feet sank almost till my ankles filling my sneakers with pebbles. I stretched my neck and felt a strong chill. The mount I was on was at least two hundred meters away from the ground.
I then retreated. I was imprisoned on a peak from where there wasn’t the slightest chance of escape, unless in free fall until I hit the ground. There were no alternatives, there were no choices. I could either stay there for eternity or risk a dangerous descent.
I then felt the ground shake. The whole peak shook as if an earthquake was taking place. I felt the ground beneath my feet agitate, a kind of opposite flow pushed me up. I swung from one side to the other, losing balance. Then a flush of fragments burst creating a moderate geyser. Pebbles were thrown out, God knows how, forming a dense cloud of dust.
I moved away from the center of the peak, from where splinters gushed. Astonished, I saw the process diminish bit by bit until there was nothing but a small wheeling on the ground. Then, after a while, the process changed and a vortex opened on the ground draining the limestone. A hole of about five feet in diameter. I approached curiously and looked inside.
I let a muffled cry of horror out and retreated frightened before falling near the edge of the peak. My heart beat fast, my eyes wide open, hands holding tight to the moving ground, looking for an absent support.
From the opening an ant emerged. Its antennae moved nervously and its claws pushed rests of litter. It put half of its body outside and stopped suddenly when it noticed my presence. It was at least eight or nine feet tall.
My breathing was suspended. I felt my pulse speed up to worrying levels. My jaw trembled and my muscles seemed to have turned into jam. They didn’t respond to any command. The yell only came out when I saw other termites, one on top of the others throwing themselves in my direction.
The ground under my body weakened and I fell off the mountain of debris.
At times feeling the side of the mount hit against my body, at times feeling myself suspended on air, but in vertiginous fall. I saw the ground approach inexorably and not for the first time, was sure I was going to die. Then I hit a high and started rolling amid fragments of stone that cushioned my fall. The speed lowered gradually. I reached the bottom of the mountain of debris puffy, scared and with multiple bruises and hematomas, but luckily, with no broken bones besides the painful felling of not having a single part of my body free from contusions.
I straightened myself on the ground looking for something to lean on. I tried to fix my dirty clothes which were wrinkled and torn at some spots. I looked around feeling really nervous, I still had the memory of the hallucinated ants coming to catch me very vivid in me. Then I raised my head and looked up. The mounts erupted towards the sky and I was pretty sure I could see distant antennas moving. The ants were angry, looking for the prey that had fallen.
I took a deep breath trying to control the emotions and started paying more attention to my surroundings. Among the bases of uncountable towers, there was a space of around twenty or thirty meters, reasonably wide corridors, sufficient for a small crowd to move. A muffled crack and fizz which precedence I ignored. The ground on the surface was pretty firm and solid, without the sandy consistence of the mounts.
I made a big effort to stand up feeling the contusions ache and my muscles throb. I risked a few steps, fearful, approached the feet searching for something different that could make me associate the place with anything that resembled civilization.
I dragged my feet down some corridors until I stopped near a tunnel. Wide enough for… for… I was still trying to organize my thoughts when I felt the ground shake slightly and the crack and fizz I heard before increase.
I stopped any lucubration and started retreating, worried. There was nowhere to run in that labyrinthine hank of corridors, then I went to a stone big enough to hide and put myself behind it.
I muffled another scream when I saw hundreds of ants gather at the entrance of the cave. A devastating wave of giant ants, wiggling their antennas, opening and closing their fangs – from where the crack and fizz came. They formed a wall in front of the entrance, just like sentinels on guard. Behind the first ones, dozens of others scattered, climbing the acclivities and spreading down the fringes. I had no choice and cowered before the inevitable.
I was soon seen and besieged. They were getting closer. My eyes filled with tears anticipating a dolorous death when a hiss made them retreat a few meters. Another hiss made them climb one on top of the others, moving back sufficiently to make me feel less threatened.
From the entrance of the cave the biggest of all emerged. An ant that was so big it took all the perimeter of the entrance. It was probably thirty meters long and six or seven meters high. And on its back… a woman.
It was a magnificent and terrorizing sight. On one hand I understood Ekaterina’s arrival as attenuation to the danger, on the other, the presence of all those enormous ants caused me such a big dread my legs refused to move. It seemed like they would attack and devour me at my slightest move.
Ekaterina gestured towards me asking me to approach. But how could I? Having all those ants in front of me staring at me and wiggling their antennas and fangs? I endeavored to walk. To my surprise, the ants withdrew to my passing, allowing me to move on. I walked a few meters, being edged by a living wall of ants, some were hands long, others almost three meters.
I was almost at the entrance of the tunnel when an intense hiss started to echo, coming from all sides. The ants agitated, as well as the big one which had Ekaterina on her back. I yelled in surprise and fear when I was raised by the legs and carried down the cave by one of the ants, together with all the others in an apparently chaotic move, however, not being hurt on the process.
“It’s much safer here inside,” said Ekaterina, when we were already sheltered in one of the huge ant farms, full of corridors that came and went, up and down, intersecting underground in such a way all the towers were interconnected.
“What is this place?” I asked still feeling worried.
“I thought it seemed obvious,” she said raising her eyebrows in perplexity.
“Yes, an ant farm. I know that. I want to know where we are, what place is this. What planet…”
“What reality to be exact. One of the many in the infinite existing universes. Entirely inhabited by insects.”
Ekaterina moved to one of the internal walls. They were pretty solid. A kind of organic glue solidified them. There was a housing and inside it, some clay jars. She took two of them and gave me one.
“Just like Robert A. Heilen’s story?” I asked, grabbing one of the jars.
“That is fantasy. This is real. Although there is a war going on here as well.”
I was getting ready to ask the first question when the word “war” stroke me.
“Anything connected to the hiss heard outside?”
Ekaterina nodded. We were sitting on stones sculpt to look like armchairs, they were far from being comfortable, though.
“Ants here have a bigger intelligence degree than the dolphins on earth do. They’re not merely war machines who look for food and reconstruct indefinitely what has been destroyed. Although the ants in our reality have an established social structure, these, besides that, can understand abstract concepts and are able to learn. This jar in your hands and these armchairs were built by them, from sketches I drew on the sand. Fascinating, isn’t it?’
“And what is there inside the jar?”
“A kind of sweet and lightly brewed beverage. It is made by them, it is used mostly to feed the worms. You can drink it. It is safe, pleasant and extremely protein-rich.”
Despite the fact the experience did not appeal to me too that much, I took the jar to my mouth and took a sip. Enough to see Ekaterina was right. The drink was delicious.
“What about the war? Against whom do the ants fight?”
“Wasps. It is actually a war for food. The wasps, equally intelligent, feed on the worms. At times of bigger scarcity they even feed on the ants, preferably on the huge queens like the one you saw taking me on her back.”
“To feed on the worms they need…”
“To infiltrate the towers, destroying its walls. Then dig down more profound depths. Many of these towers, most of them actually, are formed by mountains of debris with no other use than cheating the wasps which loose precious time on it. But sometimes they find an active tower. The fight is fierce and terrible. The wasps have a kind of carapace on their bodies and legs that protects them from the fangs of the ants. Sometimes it takes tens, maybe hundreds of them to kill a single wasp. And one wasp to kill tens, sometimes hundreds of ants. The calculation might seem unfair, but on this planet there are billions of ants more than wasps. There is a kind of balance in the end.”
“In other venues, you’ve talked about the difference between explaining and infodumping, and provided one of the best guidelines for its use – the reader doesn’t like to be treated as a dim child. However, is this applicable to both SF and Fantasy? Or would you say that Fantasy – given its tradition of mythic realities deeply rooted in alternate history – provides writers with a broader, freer canvas to use it?” I asked the question after a hem, wishing to conduct the interview as fast as possible.
Ekaterina Sedia was surprised by the sudden change of subject and, aware of the fact that an interview had to take place, put the jar she had on her hands on a small rising on the armchair. Before she answered she gave an appraising look at the walls around us. We were in an isolate chamber. On the other side of the entrance there was a corridor where thousands of ants moved back and fro in constant toil. They didn’t seem to be on alert.
“It’s applicable to everything. Reader never needs to know as much as the writer thinks. Read Michael Cisco – he rarely infodumps – or worldbuilds in the traditional sense, and yet he writes amazing books. I also don’t think that there’s some sort of a real difference between fantasy and SF, so I don’t think we need to treat them differently.”
She seemed to finish, although I was still waiting for a continuation. I marveled at the short answer and made my silence a kind of stratagem to get her to continue, but Ekaterina remained quiet, staring at me. I hemmed clumsily, moved my feet and fixed my glasses that were sliding down my nose.
A sudden shake that made pebbles fall from the walls surprised me, but didn’t seem to scare Ekaterina.
“Are there any other questions? I fear we’ll have to hasten this interview,” she said standing up. The jar on the armchair swung and fell on the ground, spilling its content.
“Yes, there are three questions more,” I answered, standing as well.
“Ask them then,” she said, while walking towards one of the walls of the chamber. She searched for something I couldn’t make out what was and, in a quick gesture, seemed to make a lever come out of it. A secret door opened with a creek.
She called me and pointed towards what was on the outside. A helix stairway made of stone that seemed to lead to great depths.
“Escape route?” I asked worried.
“Yes,” she answered with a smile.
“Given your personal background, and the fact that none of the interviewers are US citizens, this question had to come by: what’s it like to write in a foreign language to a foreign audience? What literary choices do you feel you’re making along the writing process in order to get your point across? Would your stories be told in the same manner if you were writing them in Russian to a Russian audience? Would your plots differ?”
Ekaterina grabbed me by the arm and made me follow her down the stairway. Another trembling shook the place. The walls in that emergency exit cracked. The stairway opened up at some spots displaying ruptures which width was worrying.
“Wasp attack, right?”
“Yes. They’re getting to the level we were. The ants ran there to thousands, ready for combat.’
“Have we any chances?”
“All of them,” she stated, without the slightest doubt. “If it was that easy for us to be cornered and killed by them I would never allow this interview to happen here.”
“I never wrote in Russian to a Russian audience,” she started answering, “so I’ll have to treat this question as hypothetical. Yes, it would be very different – as it would always be when the writer and the audience share frames of reference. When I write for American audiences, I am aware that they might not recognize some things – and those I usually try to unobtrusively indicate…”
Another trembling, this one much stronger than the previous ones, made big pieces fall from the walls. The stairway cracked and broke in many places. We had to hold on not to fall. A sudden bright, a flash of light came from atop, from the top of the stairway we descended as fast as we could.
I saw a sudden shine of horror on Ekaterina’s face.
“Others – well, in the days of Wikipedia, everything can be looked up. I mean, I manage to read translated books about very different cultures without much trouble, so I assume if a reader misses something, they’ll look it up.” She answered, pushing me, forcing me to go down even faster.
Strange and frightening shrieks echoed down the narrow deep gorge we went down. Smithereens fell more and more. I started to understand why Ekaterina was being so short on her answers. We hadn’t time for long conversations. Our lives were at stake.
We finished the long descent in what seemed to be a small closed chamber. Ekaterina touched the wall and another door opened up in a shrill. We went through it, closing it behind us, and started to run. The corridor we were in was narrow, as if it had been built for people and not for giant ants. At the end of it, we got to a kind of hangar, although the term is not exactly appropriate.
There were hundreds of frantic ants, but they weren’t the ones that grabbed my attention. Maybe hundreds of flying termites were lining up, side by side, being fed, cleaned and apparently readied for flight. It was a surprising view.
“The colony is suffering a devastating attack. These are the queens that will leave carrying inside them millions of eggs that will guarantee life in other colonies.”
“And what are we doing here?”
“We’ll go with them, for our safety”
I was static observing the frenzy inside the hangar. Laborious ants worked hard to assure the future of the species. And I was there, inside an enormous ant farm, rounded by millions of them and other hundreds of wasps that dug, dug and dug in search for food.
Ekaterina grabbed me by the arm and practically dragged me.
“Do urban fantasy landscapes change from city to city? Could you set New York fantasy stories in Moscow, St Petersburg myths in Philadelphia? Or has the City become such an international template of living that urban fantasy stories can be equally read and understood by any audience in the world?”
I asked while being led. Ekaterina didn’t seem to pay attention to it. We approached a giant flying ant and were lifted by another ant that carried us within its claws with extreme easiness not causing us any harm. We held on to resistant bristles which came out from hair follicles on its back, waiting for the moment of the departure.
“Yes, landscapes change – of course they do. St Petersburg and New York are both built on a grid, but St Petersburg’s blocks are ten times as long as New York’s ones. Moscow and London are much more chaotic and labyrinthine, but the width of streets, the height of buildings, the proportion of privately owned buildings all differ – and all of those things affect a story. If there’s a doorman and a lock at the entryway of an apartment building, it’s a whole new set of obstacles versus a communally owned, unguarded buildings with homeless freely urinating in the stairwells. There’s universality about a city as a concept, sure, but the way in which they are navigated and spatially situated will dictate the sort of happenings that take place in them, and each will have some limitations idiosyncratically theirs.”
A wide corridor suddenly opened up many meters ahead of us. Just like a launching runway of formidable extension. I couldn’t see its extremity, but as a tiny spot of light. Ekaterina held better, bent forward, leaning her forehead on my back and then the flying termite rose on the air, swinging its diaphanous wings in a speed which was impossible to keep on with. The buzz of this flight was almost deafening.
We bolted forward, ants were almost colliding against each other, but not even their wings touched. I felt the air displacement pushing me back and understood why Ekaterina had bent forward.
I did the same. The luminous spot started gaining dimension and soon opened up to the outside world, many miles away from the place the attack was happening.
We were apparently safe. Then, I asked the last question.
“Tell us about your new book, The House of Discarded Dreams.”
“I think of it as an inverse Heart of Darkness – it’s about a daughter of two Zimbabwean immigrant parents discovering herself in the wilds of New Jersey. Less flippantly, it’s a book about the conflict between first and second-generation immigrants, of parents who suddenly have American children…”
Ekaterina then silenced and looked back. She strained letting a brief cry of daze out. I followed her look and was invaded by a wave of horror. A black impenetrable mantle grew before our sights, covering the horizon and approaching dangerously. There were millions of wasps in a coordinated flight, a hive of bloodcurdling proportions. I gulped, frozen with fear.
“The wobbling and gradual loss of cultural connections – she carried on with an urgent tone on her voice – and yet the persistent desire to preserve those connections. The hybrid Blank-American cultures spring from that desire to preserve, but since culture is never pure, in preservation something new is created. I was just trying to think of what is lost and what is gained in the process; and of course, there’s also marine biology and horseshoe crabs.”
The ant we were on swerved up, violently. The others chose diverse ways, going in different directions. Ekaterina grabbed on my arm, waking me up for the fact I had the watch. The watch was our salvation. I tried to push the button, but it was such a lethargic frightened move that we ended up being hit by one of the frightfully huge wasps before I could do it. It landed, grabbing the ant fiercely. It stuck its powerful sting in and then the bristles we were holding on to gave up, unclasping from the follicles.
We were thrown into the void, for a mortal death. I was frozen by fear, but saw Ekaterina in an assertive flight, coming towards me as if she was an experienced sky diver. She held me strong and searched for my wrist.
She pushed the button right before we hit the ground.
I then saw myself in a mess of explosions, red flames bursting from electrical panels, sparks, rattles and a lot of smoke. I seemed to be on a command bridge. Command bridge? But what the hell was going on?
Don’t miss the next interview with Charles Stross and the continuation of the thrilling adventure.
Luis Filipe Silva colaborated with this interview.