By Curtis C. Chen
Lewis stared at the shifting swarm of tiny, six-legged, black beads inside the clear plastic box and wondered where his life had gone wrong.
"You're going to take over the world... with ants?"
"Pay attention," said Mentarian. Lewis had never learned his current employer's real name. In fact, Lewis had never seen Mentarian's face. The old man always wore goggles, and rubbed his bald head with his vinyl-gloved hands, making a squeaking noise like two balloons being rubbed together. It set Lewis' teeth on edge and reminded him of his worst childhood experiences.
"The insects are just one of my many tools," Mentarian continued. "Tell me, Lewis, what do ants do that no other creature can?"
Lewis fought the urge to roll his eyes. Mentarian indulged in long Socratic dialogues—not just in the lab, but also during heists and battles. Lewis suspected that was why none of Mentarian's plans ever succeeded, and why he had agreed to take on an intern. Lewis was yet another person Mentarian could talk at.
"I don't know," Lewis said. "Find unattended picnic baskets?"
Mentarian frowned, creasing his brow above his comically huge goggles. "I'm getting a little tired of your attitude, Lewis."
"Only a little? I'll have to work harder then."
"Is this all some kind of joke to you?" Mentarian snapped.
"You really don't want me to answer that."
The bald scientist stomped around the table to stand toe-to-toe with Lewis. Mentarian shoved a gloved finger into Lewis' face. "You serve at my discretion. If this course of study is unfulfilling for you, I can find another intern who is more receptive to my teachings."
Lewis thought about biting Mentarian's finger, but the entertainment value would be outweighed by the council's disciplinary measures. There were better ways to get reassigned. Like bringing up the one question his introductory paperwork had said never to ask Mentarian.
"Why do you wear those stupid goggles?"
Mentarian took a step backward. "I can see you're not in a studious mood. We'll continue this tomorrow." He turned and walked away.
Lewis followed. "You know they make you look like an idiot, right? People might take you more seriously if you wore a better costume."
Mentarian whirled around and pointed at his face. "These are not a fashion choice! This is a necessity."
"Are you horribly disfigured?" Lewis asked. "It can't be that bad. Come on, you're supposed to take sidekicks into your confidence." He reached out and grabbed the goggles.
"No!" Mentarian clawed at Lewis' arms, but the old man wasn't nearly strong enough to prevent Lewis from lifting the goggles.
What lay underneath those dark lenses was the last thing Lewis ever saw.
"I swear, Mentarian," the council inspector said, "you go through interns like other people go through toilet paper."
Mentarian shrugged, placed a water dish inside the box of ants, and closed the lid. "You know what they say. Gotta kiss a lot of frogs."
Mentarian grinned. "At least they're useful."
Photo: Ant by Jeff Kubina, May, 2007