time to

time I feed him a litter of unwanted kittens. That is what I think of cute. Do I make myself understood?'

Wo smiled enigmatically. 'Have you ever owned an animal that worshipped you?' she asked.

Kress grinned. 'Oh, now and again. But I don't require worship, Wo. Just entertainment.'

'You misunderstand me,' Wo said, still wearing her strange smile. 'I meant worship literally.'

'What are you talking about?'

'I think I have just the thing for you,' Wo said. 'Follow me.'

She led him between the radiant counters and down a long, fog-shrouded aisle beneath false starlight. They passed through a wall of mist into another section of the store, then stopped in front of a large plastic tank. An aquarium, Kress thought.

Wo beckoned. He stepped closer and saw that he was wrong. It was a terrarium. Within lay a miniature desert about two meters square. Pale sand tinted scarlet by wan red light. Rocks: basalt and quartz and granite. In each corner of the tank stood a castle.

Kress blinked and peered and corrected himself; actually, there were only three castles standing. The fourth leaned, a crumbled, broken ruin. The three others were crude but intact, carved of stone and sand. Over their battlements and through their rounded porticoes tiny creatures climbed and scrambled. Kress pressed his face against the plastic.

'Insects?' he asked.

'No,' Wo replied. 'A much more complex life form. More intelligent as well. Smarter than your shambler by a considerable amount. They are called sandkings.'

'Insects,' Kress said, drawing back from the tank. 'I don't care how complex they are.' He frowned. 'And kindly don't try to gull me with this talk of intelligence. These things are far too small to have anything but the most rudimentary brains.'

'They share hive minds,' Wo said. 'Castle minds, in this case. There are only three organisms in the tank, actually. The fourth died. You see how her castle has fallen.'

Kress looked back at the tank. 'Hive minds, eh? Interesting.' He frowned again. 'Still, it is only an oversized ant farm. I'd hoped for something better.'

'They fight wars.'

'Wars? Hmmm.' Kress looked again.

'Note the colors, if you will,' Wo said. She pointed to the creatures that swarmed over the nearest castle. One was scrabbling at the tank wall. Kress studied it. To his eyes, it still looked like an insect. Barely as long as his fingernail, six-limbed, with six tiny eyes set all around its body. A wicked set of mandibles clacked visibly, while two long, fine antennae wove patterns in the air. Antennae, mandibles, eyes, and legs were sooty black, but the dominant color was the burnt orange of its armor plating. 'It's an insect,' Kress repeated.

'It is not an insect,' Wo insisted calmly.

'The armored exoskeleton is shed when the sandkings grows larger. If it grows larger. In a tank this size, it won't.' She took Kress by the elbow and led him around the tank to the next castle. 'Look at the colors here.'

He did. They were different. Here the sandkings had bright red armor; antennae, mandibles, eyes, and legs were yellow. Kress glanced across the tank. The denizens of the third live castle were off-white, with red trim. 'Hmmm,' he said.

'They war, as I said,' Wo told him. 'They even have truces and alliances. It was an alliance that destroyed the fourth castle in this tank. The blacks were becoming too numerous, and so the others joined forces to destroy them.' Kress remained unconvinced. 'Amusing, no doubt. But insects fight wars, too.'

'Insects do not worship,' Wo said.


Wo smiled and pointed at the castle. Kress stared. A face had been carved into the wall of the higher tower. He recognized it. It was Jala Wo's face. 'How . . .?'

'I projected a hologram of my face into the tank, then kept it there for a few days. The face of god, you see? I feed them. I am always close. The sandkings have a rudimentary psionic sense. Proximity telepathy. They sense me and worship me by using my face to decorate their buildings. All the castles have them, see.' They did.

On the castle, the face of Jala Wo was serene,

peaceful, and very lifelike. Kress marveled at the workmanship. 'How do they do it?'

'The foremost legs double as arms. They even have fingers of a sort, three small, flexible tendrils. And they cooperate well, both in building and in battle. Remember, all the mobiles of one color share a single mind.'

'Tell me more,' Kress requested.

Wo smiled. 'The maw lives in the castle. Maw is my name for her-a pun, if you will. The thing is mother and stomach both. Female, large as your fist, immobile. Actually, sandking is a bit of a misnomer. The mobiles are peasants and warriors. The real ruler is a queen. But that analogy is faulty as well. Considered as a whole, each castle is a single hermaphroditic creature.'

'What do they eat?'

'The mobiles eat pap, predigested food obtained inside the castle. They get it from the maw after she has worked on it for several days. Their stomachs can't handle anything else. If the maw dies, they soon die as well. The maw. . . the maw eats anything. You'll have no special expense there. Table scraps will do excellently.'

'Live food?' Kress asked.

Wo shrugged. 'Each maw eats mobiles from the other castles, yes.'

'I am intrigued,' he admitted. 'If only they weren't so small!'

'Yours can be larger. These sandkings are small because their tank is small. They seem to limit their growth to fit available space. If I moved these to a larger tank, they'd start growing again.'

'Hmmm. My piranha tank is twice this size and vacant. It could be cleaned out, filled with sand . . .'

'Wo and Shade would take care of the installation. It would be our pleasure.'

'Of course,' Kress said, 'I would expect four intact castles.'

'Certainly,' Wo said.

They began to haggle about the price.

Three days later Jala Wo arrived at Simon Kress's estate, with dormant sandkings and a y work crew to take charge of the installation. Wo's assistants were aliens unlike any Kress was familiar with-squat, broad bipeds with four arms and bulging, multifaceted eyes. Their skin.

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