Unknown Empire

By A. L. O’Connor

Early Monday morning Peter Sargent walked down to the shed where he had his scientific experiment waiting. He lived in upper Alabama in the hills away from people because he was a loner and preferred his research animals beyond all others. He preferred the open space and he did not have any immediate neighbors by choice. He studied something that was considered a pest, a noxious pest that no one wanted. He was an entomologist, a myrmecologist, one who studies fire ants to be exact. This amazing ant had a bad reputation, but Peter thought it was entirely undeserved. They are resilient, hard-working, and inventive in their choice of mound location.  He refused to take into account that they stung aggressively with an alkaloid venom causing the victim to get raised pustules which were painful and itched incessantly. They were deemed nuisances and exterminated as soon as the first fire ant showed up. Peter, on the other hand, would go find the fire ant trail and follow it back to their mound whether it was outside in the ground or a potted plant. That was the excitement of fire ants, you never knew where they were putting their mound. How did they know where to put their nests?

(Illustration by Maria Korolov based on image by Azim Khan Ronnie via Wikimedia.)

Peter knew that they were able to do find new locations for their mounds because they communicated with each other. They communicated four different ways, the first by touch. Fire ants used their antennae to feel each other. Second, by pheromones. They left complex language trails out of their abdomen. Third, body language. Body language communicates quite a lot, such as information on where the next food source was or to determine if another ant was a familiar member of the mound. Then there is the last–sound. Fire ants can communicate by stroking a washboard plate on their thorax. This makes an audible thrumming sound. Fire ants could strum on their thoraxes [making a sound] that is audible to each other and even to myrmecologists.

Peter got to his workspace.  There was a big mass of sand in the middle of this room which held a big nest with about 500,000 individual fire ants who were busily tending to their nest or hunting for more food. The fire ants could go outside the warehouse to go get food for their queen. Workers, soldiers, builders, nurses, and cleaner fire ants–the whole group held interest for Peter. Having them in this warehouse made it convenient for observation.

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The day continues to be the same, with no difference, except for the strange large animal that does nothing but observe. It smelled horrible and would breathe carbon dioxide directly on the fire ants mixing the gas with whatever was on the trail, causing their pheromones to evaporate. But despite that smelly being the fire ants went back to work gathering food and letting the workers take whatever food was found.

The soldiers came in after vanquishing a rival mound; they were exuberant after the war. They prepared to take the report back to the Queen.

Soon the day ended and the fire ants prepared to go back to their mound. On the way home, they ran into even more wet ponds on the ground which caused them to go back around following each other’s pheromone trail.

The enormous one follows them. They get to their mound and the giant one leans over and watches as they go into the mound. The soldiers ignored him. They all managed to get down, going underground with their food, and then retired to their sleeping alcoves.

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The nest that Peter worked with was part of the massive complex of a fire ants network ruled by the head Queen. Her nest was located under the road where it was deemed safest. It was the command center for a massive empire that ruled from the river back around and throughout the neighborhood to the far wild field. The Queen ruled it all. Her hive mind kept tabs on alarming information of extinction!  Her mounds were systematically being poisoned, killing those entire ant cities. This angered the Queen. Who or what was responsible for the poisoning?  Now she would have to replenish the queen, replenishing the starting number of a soldier, builder, worker, nurses, cleaner, and breeder male castes to help the new kingdom. She would order the fire ants from another mound in sector four to give up 100,000 of them to the new queen. This does two things: gets the fire ants to the new city to start the mound and also takes a great number from an intelligent queen that might decide to secede from the empire.

“I must find out where this poison is coming from. Who is responsible for the exterminations?” worried the Queen. She brought the soldiers before her. “Go to the area where the mounds were poisoned. Find the clues that lead you to the exterminations and bring the information back to me.”

“What type of clues are we to look for?” asked the soldiers in unison.

“Clues of anything suspicious, things out of the ordinary. Things like the giant footprints showing that giant beings were there delivering the poison,” she said stridently. The Queen had her suspicions about who was poisoning her mounds, and she wanted vengeance. They will pay!

She also did not like that the uppermost city was currently being harassed by a giant being. This harassment was strange because all that was done to them was a being that seemed to just observe them by introducing foreign buzzing objects into her kingdom. The being just lowered into their midst, these strange, humming devices. The fire ants, upon her command, just ignored them. The Queen was curious about what they were but resigned herself to find out later. It was yet another mystery when it came to the giant, smelly beings. Then the being would lean in and blow in noxious gasses. This was extremely unpleasant.

Peter concentrated on the communication between the soldier fire ants. Peter dropped a minuscule microphone and listened to the almost indecipherable sounds they were making by strumming on their thoraxes to communicate. This is something all performed between each other and it seemed to be a fast way of communicating. They must be communicating some yes or no answers because the conversations were fast and in receiving the communication the ant would quickly go on her way. Peter did not know what to think about this but he decided to believe they had gotten an order from this particular ant as they went on. Peter decided to go ahead and listen in on this particular conversation. He leaned in and heard a specific sequence of thrumming on the soldier’s washboard portion of their abdomen. It was four different tones of sound and this was then manipulated by her limb so that it would do four different sounds. The pattern became clear as it was thrum a thrum, a thrum, a thrum then zee. That seemed to be a word of some sort.

“I wonder if this is some sort of word?  It appears so!” exclaimed Peter to himself.

The fire ant continued and got Peter’s attention as the soldier ant stepped down and used thrummed some more to further emphasize the information to the worker, here Peter turned up the microphone so that he could hear the soldier ant give more instructions. A dawning understanding was percolating in his head.  It’s confirmed, the thrumming was sounded which made up words!  Peter just needed to crack the code of what sounds went with words. He continued to listen throughout the following weeks, slowly learning through observing and extrapolating what the workers would do after following orders from the soldiers. He quickly got a symbol language made up of thirty sounds. They made up words like GRASS, SEEDS, CRICKETS, TUNNEL, EGGS, and QUEEN.  He then came across some orders that confused him. The soldiers would periodically go into these long conversations where they would speak but Peter had no words that could be understood. The ant was talking in words like SUN? SKY? MOON? RAIN? EXTERMINATE? in specific contents that were indecipherable.

Peter set up the talk using lab equipment relying on his computer for translations and a robotic ant. The computer voice said to the ants: “I am not an ant. I am a man. Do not fear me. I wish merely to talk.”  At first, the fire ant did not react but then they looked more noticeably out and up because it was not quite an ant sounding and the strange interloper had the correct knowledge of where to go and what to say. The new interloper was not made from ant exoskeleton when they touched it. The fire ants became alarmed and started acting crazy. They started shouting “Intruder! Attack!”, which was exactly what Peter did not want. He pulled out the robotic ant and left dead ant pheromones. The fire ants then retreated leaving Peter frustrated but also ready to do more conversations with the fire ants. The first attempt at communications was a failure.

The Queen had a hard time trying to understand what the fire ants tried to tell her about the intruder. Who was this ant?  How did it have all of the correct scents?  Who taught it the correct body language?  This was a mystery and increased her worry over the uppermost city. That location reported the strangest occurrences.

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Peter was disappointed at the first failure of speaking, but he had underestimated the ant’s protection of one another and their innate ability to recognize non-nest fire ants. The next day Peter got his microphone/speaker ready as well as his little robotic worker ant taking advantage of the fire ant language. This time he was amazed that the hive mind remembered Peter’s avatar from the previous day. This time they went all the way to Peter’s question: “I would like to talk with the Queen.”

This time the Queen reacted strongly and through the hive mind spoke: “Tell me, am I speaking to the Sun Goddess?”

Peter was surprised. This was proof of religion. Then he had to think of what to say to this question.  “No, I am not the Sun Goddess. I am a human. I’ve been studying you. I want to communicate.”

The Queen was silent for a long time. Then she asked: “Are you the one who poisons us?”

Peter was quick to reply: “No. I write books, provide information on how amazing your mounds are because it is truly a civilization.”

The answer was better for the Queen. “You say you are studying us and are learning about our society. What do you want to know?”

Peter was excited about the positive reaction: “I want to know if you have a religion. You asked if I was a Sun Goddess.”

“We do have a religion. We worship Mother Sun and Mother Moon. They are overall of the fire ants and animals. We ask Mother Sun for food and when it is found we thank her. We ask Mother Moon to watch over the safety of our mound”

So, fire ants had a complex civilization complete with religion item that was considered the definition for a sentient being. And we have been systematically killing them off as pests! By killing off the ants that pushed a Darwinian unnatural selection of the smartest kind of ant. Peter had to write this up in his dissertation!

As if reading his mind, the Queen asked: “Where do the poisoners come from?  They look like you, are as grotesquely large as you, and smell as bad as you do.”

“I am not one of them. They are what we call exterminators.” Peter leaned back and grinned at the success.

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It was up to the Queen to come up with an answer of what to do to the upper nest. This new giant being who talked with a bad dialect which was barely understandable offered an answer. If she could spend more time speaking with him, she could get more tactical information from him. She would be able to learn his language and turn it around for an assault. They were large but there must be something the fire ants can do. She thought: I like the fact that the being does not expect anything sinister. He is remarkably open about all the information I ask of him. I am feeling superior.

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The Queen said to her soldiers: “Then move on to the last being to exterminate. I kept him for the last. I hate him the most!  This being is somehow involved with the exterminators and must be killed.” She said with abhorrence.

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Peter woke up with the feeling of pain on his feet and calves, a strange stinging sensation!  He threw back the covers to look to see what the problem was into his lower limbs which were covered with fire ants!  He quickly rubbed as much as he could off but they kept singing to him. Then he noticed that there were fire ants all along the rim of his bed and back of his pillow. He was horrified. He realized at this point that there was nowhere for him to go since the floor was teeming with fire ants. He had a sinking feeling that this was the fire ants’ revenge for working with them as scientific test subjects. This would be the end of him and from his job working as a myrmecologist. His heart was drumming, as he looked around for an escape. Not seeing anything he looked back at the fire ants and decided that he would just have to push them off the bed as quickly as he could. So, there was no way out.

Just when all things were lost or seem to be out of the started to hear a strange throbbing and thrumming. He looked around for the sound and realized it was coming from the fire ants. At first, it was just thrumming but soon the words started filtering in through the thrumming itself. “You are an exterminator,” said the fire ants, “You are destined to die. We annihilate those who try to communicate with us but are part of the ones who exterminate us.”

What an indictment worried Peter. All this time I thought the exchanges we were having between the soldiers, workers, and the Queen were positive. We were bridging the two worlds together, talking about their civilization!  Discovering that they were sentient beings!  Now I know they saw it all from an alien viewpoint.  He got back to what was going on in his bedroom at 4 a.m. There was a horde of fire ants that had captured him. It would have anything he could do to get away from them.

All of a sudden there was a word coming from the fire ants: “We are tired of your incessant questions; of your bad language skills you are barely understandable. We want our mound back, away from your meddling.at your hand. You will die because you examined my species.”

“But wait! I wish to work with you.” hollered Peter, desperate to make the ants understand.

The fire ants seem to think about what Peter was saying. “You wish to work with us?”

“Yes!  I am the first to crack the language code between our two civilizations. There is so much more to explore so that we can share technical know-how.”

“If you do not have castes then you have no order in your world. You have to educate your young too long and the jobs you do are stupid. Your young are worthless for a lot longer and don’t contribute back into society. You deserve to be exterminated” The fire ants then began to encroach upon the bed, then onto Peter. “Your wishes do not mean anything to us. We will do what we want and that is to exterminate you.”  Said the fire ants.

“No, please do not do that. I am a scientist, I study you, teach all humans about how amazing you are. That is the death that I do not want!”  Yelled Peter.

The fire ants were silent. They seem to be holding their line. Then in the next unthinkable way, they backed up for a moment. Peter seemed to take the stay as a reason not to attack, but that was not it be for they were listening to their Queen. She loathed this particular being knowing that he had been studying them, he took a portion of her nest and was holding them prisoners, maybe holding them to poison. She decided that this would be the most gruesome death. Extra stinging, starting with his eyes.

The fire ants started to encroach upon the bed. Peter realized that they were not leaving him but were coming towards him. He scrunched back but it did no good. He reached backward until some fire ants came from the other side. They crawled up his back onto his front. Those in front made it to his face, moving up into his eyes, and immediately started to sting. Peter jumped up off the bed but then the fire ants on the floor streamed up his legs in the hundreds of thousands. They made it up onto his torso, neck, then head and Peter turned and danced around trying to fling the fire ants off but to no avail. All Peter could do was just scream and scream and scream. Finally, the pain and anaphylactic shock got to him. He laid down as breathing became labored then he had a massive heart attack.

The soldiers reported back: “It is done.”

The Queen was finally pleased.

This story originally appeared in Terror House Magazine.
Edited by Tochukwu Okafor

A. L. O’Connor is an Air Force brat who has lived in five different countries on three different continents. She has written a Historical/Fantasy novel, The Eagle in Green Man’s Clearing and is currently working on the sequel. She also writes short stories and runs the History Writes Itself blog.