All Hail the Queen
In the dim light of the royal reception hall, the Queen raised her voice for all to hear. “Come, Children of Darkness! I would speak to you of the terrible dangers we face.”
Her minions jostled together, eager to hear her words. The Queen stood out among her subjects, taller than all the rest and still slender and lovely despite her long years of rule, triumphant battles, and many children. Her skin was the fairest rose, translucent in its delicacy, never touched by the burning sun. Most striking, and most frightening, were her teeth. Long and dagger-sharp, even in gentle repose her great teeth spilled over her lips in a terrifying smile. Everyone knew she sharpened them daily, to be ready—always ready—to defend her throne from any who would dare to challenge her.
“My children, know that we are the chosen of creation, the rightful rulers of this world. Are we not immortal? We are immune to the dread diseases that ravage lesser beings. We are impervious to the pain that plagues them. We do not suffer from the indolence that renders other creatures fat, lazy, and complacent. And though others wither and die should their environment vary only a little, we survive—we thrive!—through conditions that would destroy mere mortals.”
Her subjects nudged one another gleefully, imagining the wretchedness of other creatures.
“Our society is the most orderly in the world, where every member knows their place. You need only look at our accomplishments to know our superiority. Our magnificent city, constructed and maintained by the cunning of our engineers!” The builders perked up with special pride. “Through the diligence of our workforce, our storerooms are filled with treasure and our city is a model of modern hygiene!” The food workers and janitors rumbled with pleasure. “Our nurseries are filled with children!” The nursery maids twittered, and the Queen’s handsome royal consorts flushed pink.
“But,” the Queen’s voice dropped ominously, “although we may live years beyond counting, we are not immune to violent death. You all know, and rightly fear, what the blazing sun may do to any who are touched by its rays.” Her subjects shuddered in revulsion.
“And you all know the penalty for foolishly challenging our society’s natural order.” She turned pointedly to a corner where the royal princesses cringed, the Queen having recently executed one of their number for daring to become too closely acquainted with the Queen’s favorite male consort.
“But the worst danger we face comes not from rebellion, nor from disease or famine, but from the Keeper!”
The crowd whimpered at the dread name.
The Queen raised her face to the chamber’s vaulted ceiling. “The Keeper! Giver of all good things! Mightier than any of us! Wielder of power beyond our understanding! We praise the Keeper, pray daily, and keep all the sacred rituals so that the Keeper will always provide us with sustenance. And we pray that the Keeper will not take us.”
The throng wailed in woe.
“Go, my children! Carry out your appointed tasks. And pray, pray with all your might that the Keeper will pass over us today and will not…”
A terrible shadow passed over the hall. “Hide!” someone shrieked. “The Keeper comes!”
The crowd screamed and scrambled for cover, but it was too late—one of the princesses was taken.
“And this charming critter,” the keeper said, “is Heterocephalus glaber, the naked mole-rat.” The long-toothed, potato-shaped rodent squirmed in his hand. “She’s an ugly little spud, lives totally underground in the plains of Africa, building tunnels through the dirt with those great teeth and foraging for roots and tubers.”
The zoo visitors strained to catch a look at the hideous, hairless creature.
“This animal has some amazing qualities. They’re one of the few mammals that live in a social structure like termites. They’ve got a queen—she’s longer than the others and she’s the only breeding female. In fact, she’ll kill off any female that challenges her. All the others in the colony have worker roles, digging tunnels, collecting food, tending the queen’s babies and, of course, the queen keeps a few males around for breeding.”
As the visitors shifted restlessly, the keeper raised his voice. “But listen to this, folks. This critter never gets fat because she doesn’t have fat cells under her skin—see how transparent her skin is? What’s more, she doesn’t have pain receptors in her skin, so she doesn’t worry about scrapes and scratches as she digs through the ground. And you know what else? She’ll never get cancer! She’s resistant to tumors!”
A grandfather shepherding preschoolers perked up. “Resistant to cancer, you say?”
“That’s right. You can bet our scientists are itching to know why. And as for life span—you may not believe it, but this little girl here is thirty years old, and health-wise, she’s no different than one of her little brothers and sisters. Even a very old naked mole-rat doesn’t seem to show any sign of age. In fact, this species may not have a natural limit to their life span. Think of them as the vampires of the natural world—big teeth, allergic to sun, and unless somebody kills them, they can live practically forever.”
As the chuckling visitors wandered toward the meercat exhibit, the keeper replaced the mole-rat in her plastic tunnel, at the end farthest from the queen. “There you go, sweetheart,” he whispered. “And stay away from that queen. She’s a bloodthirsty one.”
To learn more about naked mole-rats and view them in real time, visit the Smithsonian National Zoo’s naked mole-rat cam. To read a fun sci fi story where naked mole-rats play a minor but important role, follow this link to check out The Rayburn Bequest.
All Hail the Queen Copyright © 2022 by Kathryn Hoff