Out On A LimbOut On A Limb

Long before it happened, Soldier knew the end of his world was coming.

In truth, it was only as a consequence of his caste that Soldier appreciated better than most where the threat to their small and fragile world really lay. Queen could never have noticed or understood, even if she had foreseen the danger; she never ventured beyond her chamber and her focus was directed exclusively toward the production of more offspring and the expansion of their world. The workers had only the welfare of the children on their minds and never looked beyond them or the next quarter of wood that was marked for destruction. Being a born protector, Soldier’s attention was, by nature and inclination, perpetually channelled outward. As a consequence, he’d had a taste of the vast universe outside their insular realm. But only an astute and independently curious soldier would have realised or dared to fully consider the awesome number and diversity of worlds in the universe or the magnitude of the very universe, itself. If any of his fellows had stopped to look, as Soldier did, they’d have discovered worlds everywhere, some centred at the trunk of their universe and others, like Soldier’s own world, nested in the many arching limbs.

When young, Soldier had been shocked and disappointed when he found himself questioning the seemingly myopic decision his Queen had made long ago. To his way of thinking, it would have been more prudent to have positioned their world in an innately more secure location closer to the trunk. Old now and with his traitorous musing gone undetected, Soldier had yielded almost completely to a jealous and irrepressible yearning to have been born in one of those alien worlds, secure at the trunk, rather than in his own world out on a limb.

Time and again during his long life, Soldier had seen the tunnels of his home fill with rainwater and fretted about the vulnerability of his world. Time and again, he’d watched helpless as chain after chain of workers frantically toiled to repair the damage, marvelling at their tenacity yet fearing the time when their efforts would not be enough. But only the demise of a companion world had cemented even Soldier’s greater understanding and it struck him as strange that it should be a soldier who could boast more kills than any of his brothers to appreciate that the true enemy had never been invaders from other worlds.

Soldier had been alone that day, patrolling the farthest reaches of the tunnels, when he felt a tremendous rifting in the universe. At first, he had been confounded, not knowing what the tremors could mean. Leaving his post undefended, he scurried out from the tunnel just in time to see the limb on which the nearest of his companion worlds was perched break away. Too startled to move and too fascinated to acknowledge the danger to himself, he hung upside down off the edge of his own world to watch the limb of the universe plummet, carrying the companion world with it, into the torrent of water below. The limb sank, resurfaced some distance away, only to be borne further and further downstream in a sickening and repetitious bob. Overwhelmed by the bitter scent of death and hopelessness, Soldier momentarily lost his grip on the world. He tumbled and could easily have followed those pitiful alien beings into the river had it not been for the quickness of his mind and the agility of his old legs. Snagged in the rough bark of the limb below his world, Soldier fought tenaciously for survival. Breaking free at last, he spared no time to fret over the injuries he’d sustained, but immediately set out on the slow and tortuous journey home.

Once back in the relative security of familiar tunnels, among the reassuring companionship of his own kind, Soldier abandoned his mind and senses to complete and absolute terror. He was certain then that, just as he’d suspected all along, there were limits to the resilience of worlds. No other termite but Soldier had seen the companion world topple. Even if they had, Soldier soon realised that they could never really understand why. As he hurriedly made his way back through the tunnels, Soldier had bumped frenetically against every passerby, relating all that he’d seen and sensed, but no other termite had taken counsel.

Now his own queen was repeating the mistake, laying too many eggs, tunnelling too far and too deep. From fellow to fellow, the new decree was passed down to all the subordinate termites and the moment it reached him, Soldier realised Queen’s mistake. Feeling out a warning was a daring and presumptuous move for a mere soldier to make and, in the end, his courage counted for nothing. Either his message had become corrupted during the countless transfers or he’d simply been dismissed as a foolish, misguided renegade. Frantic, he scent out a second alarm, but still no one paid any attention. Everyone was too busy. The nursery must be enlarged to accommodate Queen’s new eggs. The tunnels must be extended. The perimeter of the colony must be defended. Expansion was an industrious and painstaking process. No one had time to waste on the silly prophecies of an old soldier, who’d obviously grown skittish and afraid and should be more gainfully engaged in support of the vulnerable workers carving fresh passages.

It came in the night as the end of things often does. Only Soldier was prepared. Perhaps it had been cowardly of him to wait alone at the mouth of the tunnel. Perhaps it was even pointless. Where did he have to go but toward another world? And the moment he breached their perimeter, he’d be torn to pieces. This time, Soldier didn’t watch. He didn’t want to see his world disappear beneath the water. Instead, as soon as he felt the cracking begin beneath him, the signal that the teeming, riddled carcass of his world was about to fall, he stepped out into the universe. Soldier took his time crossing the broken limb. His own fate would be settled soon enough. There were only two noble ways for a soldier to meet death — defending his own world or invading another. But now, Soldier was left with no choice to make. He had no world to defend; Queen’s folly had seen to that.

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Short Story – Out On A Limb By Shaune Lafferty Webb
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6 thoughts on “Short Story – Out On A Limb By Shaune Lafferty Webb

  • 23/02/2012 at 5:59 am
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    This is a very sad story, very doomed, but I like it. I particularly like the line: He stepped out into the universe; and the sense of nobility you manage to create at the end. I suppose some people might find it a bit of a downer, but I like stories about other creatures – cats, dogs, ants, whatever. They’re so rare in this Cult of the Personality Age we live in I don’t care whether they’re up or down!

    • 25/02/2012 at 12:28 pm
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      A story with strong content that should make us all think about the who, what, where, when and why of life and our own impact and dare one stand up and be counted as the staus quo only ever changes if one does.

      Keep writing and keep asking the questions and who knows one may even get an answer.

  • 23/02/2012 at 6:47 am
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    My goodness ants have a tough time, Were not for a Queen and termites I could easily have imagine the story was set in an alien world. Some scenes were reminiscent of the trenches in WW2. The descriptions put me right in there amongst the gloom of the tunnels, and meeting with fellow termites-ants, passing on his message. Then the oncoming storm. Excellent descriptive narrative.

  • 26/02/2012 at 8:36 am
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    Thank you Danielle, Alan, and Louise. I am glad you enjoyed my little parable. It is a sad comment on the times that a parable about our impact on the environment is such a downer.

  • 29/02/2012 at 8:43 pm
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    An interesting tale. To paraphrase Louise’s comment, this could almost be a science fiction story.

    I particularly liked the part about Soldier’s warning messages becoming garbled; it must be hard to send a coherent signal when your language depends upon scent, and I think you did a good job of describing that difficulty. Being of “a certain age” myself, I was also taken by the idea that it is one of the elders who recognises the danger to the colony, even though he is ignored by the youngsters. A parable not just for our current times but for most of Human history, I think: the young always believe they know better than their elders :)

    I’d love to read about what happens to Soldier next (as long as what happens next isn’t him being “torn to pieces” by the other world’s Soldiers.) I think I read somewhere that honey bees can be persuaded to adopt stragglers from other hives – perhaps termites are the same, and Soldier might be lucky?

    • 14/03/2012 at 4:26 am
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      Hi Derek:

      Many thanks for your comments. An interesting thought about the honey bees – perhaps Soldier’s fate might not be so dire after all. There’s always hope.

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