I am Gregori, Jacques.” Gregori’s voice was power itself, yet soft and soothing. “A healer for our people.” Shea was lying across Jacques, her head on his shoulder, her eyes closed. She groaned— a low, husky sound that added fuel to Jacques’ rage. His fingers brushed the dark smudges along her swollen throat, and he turned a murderous gaze on Mikhail. “Leave us alone.” Her voice was barely a whisper, hoarse and raw. She did not open her eyes or try to move. “I can help him,” Gregori persisted, using his same compelling tone. The woman was so obviously the key to reaching Jacques. It was in the way he held her, the protective posture of his body, the way his eyes moved possessively, even tenderly, over her face. His hands were continually caressing her, stroking her hair, her skin. At the underlying command in Gregori’s beautiful voice, her long eyelashes lifted, and she studied his face. He was savagely beautiful, a blend of elegance and untamed beast. He looked more dangerous than the other two strangers did. Shea made an effort to swallow, but it hurt. “You look like an ax murderer to me.” This one has brains. Mikhail’s soft laughter echoed in Gregori’s head. She sees beyond that handsome face of yours. You are so funny, ancient one. Gregori deliberately reminded him of the quarter of a century difference in their ages.
Certain shapes and patterns hover over different moments in time, haunting and inspiring the individuals living through those periods. The epic clash and subsequent resolution of the dialectic animated the first half of the nineteenth century; the Darwinian and social reform movements scattered web imagery through the second half of the century. The first few decades of the twentieth century found their ultimate expression in the exuberant anarchy of the explosion, while later decades lost themselves in the faceless regimen of the grid. You can see the last ten years or so as a return to those Victorian webs, though I suspect the image that has been burned into our retinas over the past decade is more prosaic: windows piled atop one another on a screen, or perhaps a mouse clicking on an icon. These shapes are shorthand for a moment in time, a way of evoking an era and its peculiar obsessions. For individuals living within these periods, the shapes are cognitive building blocks, tools for thought: Charles Darwin and George Eliot used the web as a way of understanding biological evolution and social struggles; a half century later, the futurists embraced the explosions of machine-gun fire, while Picasso used them to re-create the horrors of war in Guernica. The shapes are a way of interpreting the world, and while no shape completely represents its epoch, they are an undeniable component of the history of thinking. When I imagine the shape that will hover above the first half of the twenty-first century, what comes to mind is not the coiled embrace of the genome, or the etched latticework of the silicon chip. It is instead the pulsing red and green pixels of Mitch Resnick’s slime mold simulation, moving erratically across the screen at first, then slowly coalescing into larger forms. The shape of those clusters—with their lifelike irregularity, and their absent pacemakers—is the shape that will define the coming decades. I see them on the screen, growing and dividing, and I think: That way lies the future.
But despite the Secret Service–like behavior, and the regal nomenclature, there’s nothing hierarchical about the way an ant colony does its thinking. “Although queen is a term that reminds us of human political systems,” Gordon explains, “the queen is not an authority figure. She lays eggs and is fed and cared for by the workers. She does not decide which worker does what. In a harvester ant colony, many feet of intricate tunnels and chambers and thousands of ants separate the queen, surrounded by interior workers, from the ants working outside the nest and using only the chambers near the surface. It would be physically impossible for the queen to direct every worker’s decision about which task to perform and when.” The harvester ants that carry the queen off to her escape hatch do so not because they’ve been ordered to by their leader; they do it because the queen ant is responsible for giving birth to all the members of the colony, and so it’s in the colony’s best interest—and the colony’s gene pool—to keep the queen safe. Their genes instruct them to protect their mother, the same way their genes instruct them to forage for food. In other words, the matriarch doesn’t train her servants to protect her, evolution does. Popular culture trades in Stalinist ant stereotypes—witness the authoritarian colony regime in the animated film Antz—but in fact, colonies are the exact opposite of command economies. While they are capable of remarkably coordinated feats of task allocation, there are no Five-Year Plans in the ant kingdom. The colonies that Gordon studies display some of nature’s most mesmerizing decentralized behavior: intelligence and personality and learning that emerges from the bottom up.