[MM] Your Approval, Leader Tinte Sir
"Do you really think Tinte'll clear your request?" Qeta asked, still leaning against the wall.
Tabel stared at the hologram in front of him, projected off the small circular device held in his hand. He kept his eyes focused on the notes he'd written up last week, the very same sentences he'd been running in his head for hours last night, all leading up to this. Although his ears twitched towards Qeta, he didn't respond.
"Come on, if you just read off the notecards he's definitely not going to," Qeta interrupted again, waving a hand over the hologram. It dispelled, and Tabel huffed. "Trust me. Learned that one the hard way."
"I'm sure you did," Tabel retorted, curling his lower arms around the strap of his satchel. He nervously glanced around the spacious waiting room, where a few other aner and assorted ergates were scattered. No one was looking at them, thankfully.
The door at the north wall opened, and all aner's heads snapped towards it. Flow Ink, secretary to colony leader Tinte Ink, smiled anxiously at the assembled group. He glanced at his clipboard before tentatively calling out, "Penne Ink?"
An aner stood, accompanied by an ergate. He ducked past the doors, and Flow pulled them shut after them both.
"I hope I came in early enough," Tabel muttered, rubbing at his forehead.
Qeta let himself flump into a chair, sipping some of his coffee. "Stop worrying. You're gonna sweat all over your suit. Do you own that?"
"No, I borrowed it from Housekeeping."
"If you're going to be making weird requests like this all the time, maybe you better ask them to tailor you one. Best to keep lookin' sharp, yeah?"
Tabel frowned, tucking his device back into his pants pocket. "I'm not going to be making any more 'weird' requests. And this isn't weird, anyways! It's absolutely integral to understanding the psychology of Ants and the limits of our psyche. I just want to run one experiment and present the data, that's all."
"You still couldn't explain the practical functions of such a thing to me," Qeta said, the humor suddenly gone from his tone.
Tabel turned towards his superior. Qeta was sitting in a plastic chair, one hand clutching his typical coffee cup, another other two laced in his lap, final arm draped on the chair's rest. His legs were crossed, and he stared up at Tabel with an intrigued, yet guarded look - one that he was intimately familiar with.
He huffed and turned back towards the entrance to Tinte's reception room. "I did. I told you, it can help us decide more efficient ways to raise young Ants, or save on resources spent on a period of development that we actively don't need to engage. It can assist in teaching us more about how isolation affects the brain, and make it more effective as a punishment or torture method."
"You're asking a lot for no real benefits." Qeta noisily sipped. "Still, I can get it. But you need to remember - curiosity crashed the rail."
"That saying is trite," Tabel argued. "If they had just given more funding to the engineer branch, the inter-sea railway would've been just fine."
Qeta snorted. "You're an ambitious little shit, aren't you?"
"You gonna gun for my position after I retire?"
Tabel bit his lip. It was, truthfully, something he'd considered once or twice. Becoming head of research and development? Driving the forces that would propel his colony into higher and higher reaches? It was exciting, of course. But, when he asked his direct superior - Scribe, executive psychologist, he'd just sighed and remarked that Tabel had better prep for a life of paperwork.
He'd just smiled at the time. If he wanted to ascend to Head, he'd have to take one of the six lower positions on the ladder first. And, as a branch of the psychology department, he and Scribe both knew which Ant he'd have to trample, should it come to such a thing.
But maybe he was better down here, unranked. Scribe was a fine manager, and Qeta seemed just as intelligent, although Tabel had seen less of the latter. Still, still, yet again, they'd see. They'd all see, after his experiment was successful, and everyone remarked upon the benefits and the changes he'd bring to his colony. Ink would become beautiful, with his help.
"I don't think so, Head Qeta," he said, careful to keep his tone polite.
Qeta raised an eyebrow. "Pulling out the honorifics, now? I think that's a threat. Gonna duel me?"
"What?!" Tabel barked, fingers curling around his satchel strap, "No!"
Qeta threw his head back, letting out a tired laugh. "I mean, if you wanna deal with Tinte all the time...."
"I-I'm not going to duel you! How could you even say that?"
He held up a hand, although the smile hadn't left his face yet. "Alright, alright. But I mean, if you wanted to, I'd throw the fight. You ever hear the story of Pan, Commander of the Army?"
"No," Tabel muttered, letting his shoulders slump as the tension finally drained from his body. "I don't think I have time for it."
"It's pretty short if you tell it without all the embellishments! So it starts - in Ink, of course - with this really angry Commander of the Army. He just never stopped yelling at his leader, never stopped needling the guy, over and over. And, then, one day, the Director of Internal Affairs and him are drinking, and the Director says 'man, why don't you just challenge our leader to a duel to prove your point? If you hate him so much, just dispose of him'. And Pan, the Commander, he got thinkin'."
Tabel crossed his upper set of arms. "This does sound familiar."
"See? I was sure they were still teachin' it in schools. So Pan comes up to the leader, right before a scheduled raid, before the raid party heads out. He challenges him, right then and there, says 'Leader, I disagree with your policies for our colony, and I challenge you to a duel for leadership!'. And the leader just kinda looks at him, and sighs, and he motions for the other aner and dinergates to clear a little circle, and they do. And he says, 'I accept', and Pan gets into a fightin' stance, ready to brawl."
"Yes," Tabel cut in, "And then the leader just forfeits."
Qeta nodded. "Guy doesn't even get into a formation or anything. He just says 'I forfeit', right away, hands over keys to the colony, hands his coat off to an ergate, and walks off to his old dorm. Pan was so shocked that he realized he didn't really wanna be leader, and he didn't really want his leader to leave, and realized how much of a dick he'd been. Runs after the leader, begging forgiveness, sayin' he's sorry, please come back, he'll instate you. Blah blah. The version I learned growin' up didn't have the leader taking it back, and Pan had to lead the colony."
"Why are you telling me this now?"
He shrugged. "Dunno. Just seems interestin' to tell, what with joking about duels. Really makes ya think."
The door opened, and Flow poked his head out again. "Tabel Ink?"
His head whipped up fast enough to catch Penne exiting. Tabel shot Flow a smile, stepping forwards with a, "that would be me!"
Qeta, too, rose, following after in leisure. Flow glanced at the two of them, then at his clipboard, then smiled and opened the door a little wider, although his nervous smile never left his face. He gestured the two in and pulled the door firmly shut behind all three.
Tabel's eyes flicked to the room - Tinte's throne room. At the far wall was the seat itself, which dwarfed Tinte's small stature several times over. Stained glass windows lined the hall, casting a splatter of colors on the marble floors and on Tinte's face. Their leader was not looking at them - rather, Tinte was scrolling through his own projected hologram, eyes scanning lines upon lines of text.
His eyes then flicked to Flow. He didn't know the other particularly well - they were close in age, if he remembered correctly, around a hundred? One fifty? Maybe. The promotion had been recent, but Flow had always worked in Internal Management, as far as he'd known. He seemed more nervous now, as if he glanced over his shoulder at every step. It was a rather unfamiliar fear.
Flow marked something on his clipboard and then smiled at Tabel. "You get ten minutes max, okay?"
"Understood. Thank you." he matched his tone to be as quiet as Flow's.
"Just part of the j-job," he stammered out, with a nervous grin and half-shrug.
Flow stepped towards Tinte's throne, balling a hand into a fist and placing it over his chest in salute. "Leader T-Tinte Sir, Tabel Ink formally requests an audience."
"Granted," Tinte muttered, swiping his hologram away and finally letting his gaze settle on Tabel.
He smiled up at his leader, drawing a hand up in the proper salute as well, trying not to let his expression falter at the intensity of Tinte's stare. He'd seen Tinte around the colony, of course, but he'd never had a good chance to see the other up-close, at his most regal, when the sunlight caught off the soft curls in his hair and glasses. He still had a round, chubby face, like a teenager's that he hadn't quite grown out of yet. It was unsettling, next to the hardened coldness in his eyes.
Still, fear settled in his heart. He had to get approval. Hopefully his speech was good enough.
"Leader Tinte Sir," Tabel began, careful to keep his tone polite, mind racing through everything he'd studied last night, "I am Tabel Ink, unranked, Psychology Division. I have served our colony for one-hundred-fifty-six years as a psychologist specializing in pediatrics and childhood. Today I am here before you to request approval of an experiment I desire to carry out."
Tinte pulled back up his hologram, clicking on a few icons. Tabel glanced at it, able to make out a small portrait of Scribe on the screen. "And your superior could not clear this experiment because...?"
"He informed me it would require approval from the colony leader, Leader Tinte Sir."
"Alright. Do explain your 'experiment' to me, then."
Tabel breathed in slowly, feeling his heart against his sternum as his voice picked up a near-frenzy, "Leader Tinte Sir, I have a hypothesis that I would wish to test out. As I am sure you are aware, we Ants are highly social, requiring constant monitoring, companionship, and resources dedicated to providing such things. However, based on our methods of rearing children and eggs in large groups and units, I believe that this desire for companionship is nurtured, and is not part of our true nature." he paused to breathe.
Tinte raised an eyebrow, but gestured for Tabel to go on.
He let the smile expand slightly on his face, despite the terror, "Therefore, I would humbly like to conduct an experiment to test if raising a young Ant in isolation, from egghood, would result in an Ant that did not require a level of companionship as the rest of the colony. Should my hypothesis be true, this Ant would not require a social network, not require extensive roommates, and could be sent on missions alone and complete them effectively. We could convert an entire caste of aner and dinergates into perfect soldiers, able to complete any task without requiring assistance, resist isolation inflicted by the enemy, and house them efficiently."
"What exactly are you requesting?" Tinte prompted.
"Leader Tinte Sir, I formally request your approval to grant me a single Ant egg and an order form to construct or renovate a single room in which to conduct my experimentation of raising a young Ant in isolation, in order to test my hypothesis," Tabel managed, legs shaking slightly.
Tinte stared down at him, quietly, for a few seconds. He slowly turned to the hologram, to the picture of Scribe's exhausted, miserable smile, then to Flow, who had stopped scribbling things on his clipboard to stare at Tabel, wide-eyed. There was no noise in the room, none at all, save for the sound of Tinte shifting in his chair. The silence felt deafening. And, in the silence, doubt crept up.
Had he failed to convince his leader? Were his reasons not good enough? Was his delivery too desperate? In what fashion had he failed?
"This is an unusual request," he said, after a few more seconds of silence.
A glimmer: hope. "I am aware, Leader Tinte Sir, but I hope you will grant me it all the same, in the name of research to better our colony."
Tinte gestured towards Flow. The other Ant trotted over, leaning up to listen as Tinte whispered something softly in his ear. With a small nod, Flow wrote something down and then pulled out his cellie, typing a message. Tabel watched, breath caught in his throat. Were they going to arrest him?
"I approve of your request," Tinte said. The tension drained out of Tabel as his eyes widened in realization. "Talk to the Admin Architect and the Head of Finance and Supplies. They will help you pick out a suitable room to conduct this experiment. Flow will inform the Head of Egg Management, who will provide you later today with a dinergate egg."
Tabel bit his lip. He'd been, truthfully, hoping for an aner egg. Something with real intelligence, easily understood and studied. Then again, it was a wonder that he was allowed to go through with this experiment at all. Best not to look a gift horse in the mouth, really. Best not to throw a tantrum and demand an aner egg. Of course he'd just get a dinergate for now.
He bowed, deeply, hand still saluting. "I thank you, Leader Tinte Sir, from the bottom of my heart! I will pursue this knowledge diligently."
"I expect a lab report of your experiment written up after its completion and distributed to myself, Qeta, and Scribe - understood?" Tinte prompted. "I would also like annual updates on the progress of the dinergate."
Tabel smiled to himself, although he remained bowed. It'd take at least twenty years for any meaningful data to emerge. Tinte really did consider himself secured. "Understood, Leader Tinte Sir."
"Dismissed. Flow, fetch the next aner."
Qeta and Tabel were ushered from the throne room, Flow on their heels. They passed through the waiting room, Tabel with a near-skip in his pace as the doors swung shut behind them, sealing off all the other prospective aner who wanted to grovel for Tinte's grace.
"Wow," Qeta said, plainly.
Tabel wiped off his forehead, legs shaking slightly. "I knew I could convince him. I knew it!"
"I guess I owe Scribe a lunch," Qeta shrugged.
"I- wait," Tabel turned towards the other, "you two bet on me failing?"
Qeta gave a light smile as he placed his coffee cup in a nearby trashcan. "Just for fun. We were both gonna take you to lunch if you failed, since we figured you'd be pretty damn upset over the whole thing. But you didn't, so I just gotta take Scribe out now."
"...Whatever," he muttered, rolling his eyes. "I'm not even upset. I got the APPROVAL!"
"It sounded like Tinte was actually kinda interested in it," Qeta said, thoughtfully placing a hand on his chin.
The pride in Tabel's chest swelled further, if at all possible. "You think so?"
"Uh-huh. He wanted yearly reports and shit like that, that means he's interested in whatever you gotta tell him. Sometimes I know if I request something he doesn't care about but can't find a reason to not let me do, he just lets me go and do it without telling him any info. But he wanted info from you. That's pretty meaningful."
"Oh, good... I was worried - he seemed so tense and kinda pissy."
"Thaaaat's just Tinte for ya." Qeta shot Tabel a smile. "He's always like that. Pent-up little bugger."
Tabel half-shrugged, although he still grinned. Alright, he could see that aspect of Tinte pretty clearly. The other had seemed - not uncertain, not worried, but uncomfortable, like he didn't quite belong in the chair. Or, was that just Tabel's perception of him? After all, he was just a kid on a throne - not even fifty, and giving out orders and trying to make himself more intimidating than he was. For fuck's sake, the guy looked like he belonged to Letter Colony.
"You headin' right over to the incubation rooms to pick up your egg?" Qeta asked.
Tabel glanced at his cellie. "I think I'll contact Head Architect first, see if I can get a room picked out first. I think how we handle eggs influences the nurturing of young Ants, including stuff like where they stay and how often they're touched - so I want my isolation room all set up as fast as possible, so I can get the egg out of that communal incubator."
"You are sooo starsdamned extra about this."
"It's going to be my life's work for the next two decades!" he chirped in response. "I must take every aspect seriously to ensure I have the cleanest, most detailed data possible, and the least amount of contamination possible."
Qeta tucked his hands into his pockets. "Control group in mind?"
"Hopefully the same clutch as the egg I get will be from. Ideally they're also dinergates - well, statistically they are, too." Tabel smiled as his cellie vibrated. "Raised, of course, as usual - by the Educational Director. Obviously I can't control all aspects of their life, but they'll be a good baseline."
He'd never met the Admin Architect before, nor had he heard much about the guy. They just didn't cross paths often, in their own distinct branches of Internal. The idea of meeting the other was making butterflies churn in his stomach. And now he had a text from the other! His dream, his plan, his experiment - it was really coming together, really pulling together!
"Okay, don't puke from excitement," Qeta said, holding up his hands to place them on Tabel's shoulders. "Reply to the guy and then can you get the ball rolling yourself? I've got a few other people I'd like to check up on."
"Oh! Yes, of course!" Tabel's head whipped up, "Thank you for coming with me. Your moral support meant a lot."
Qeta gave a salute. "No problem, Tabel. Us scientists gotta look out for each other. I'm sure Scribe would've come, if he could make it."
Something dropped slightly in Tabel's stomach. "Right."
"And don't forget to give that suit back to Housekeeping!"
Tabel blinked, then looked down at himself, suddenly aware of the formal clothing he'd borrowed. By the time he looked up, Qeta had already headed off down a hallway, disappearing behind a clump of ergates. Tabel stared after the other for a few seconds before his cellie vibrated again, drawing his attention.
Hi, I think this is Tabel Ink's number? It said so in the records. I'm Chiaro, Admin Architect, and Flow told me I needed to contact you about getting you a spare, unused room in the colony. Is that right?
A huge smile overtook Tabel's face as he clutched his cellie, fingers flying on the keyboard as he typed up a response. Oh, glory to the next twenty years - surely they'd be the best of his life.