It’s a sun-baked Sunday afternoon in a suburban neighborhood and Little Timmy is contemplating murder. He turns the water gun in his hand, inspecting the sleek plastic finish, gauging the amount of ammunition sloshing around inside. From his perch on the front porch, he scans the yard for a victim.
There. A mound of dirt not a dozen paces away from where he sits.
Little Timmy ambles over and points the nozzle at the earth. A string of black specks trundles by in his shadow, oblivious to the threat as they transport a cargo of bright-green leaves and other small, colorful morsels into the hole at the crest of their hill.
Mass murder it is, then. Little Timmy grins a devilish grin as he pulls the trigger.
Shantelle and Constantine heave a dead caterpillar between them as they follow the procession into the food storage chamber. Their fellow workers have snagged a bevy of tasty treats during today’s excursion, from sparkling sugar granules to the lifeless, warped bodies of rival ants.
“Phew,” sighs Shantelle as the two females set down their prize catch and lick their mandibles clean. “I could use a few hours of larva duty right about now.”
“You’ve said it, sis,” says Constantine. “No aching limbs, no overheating under our carapace, no sinking feeling that the shadow over there could be a wasp coming to inject its eggs into our brain. Just cute little grubs politely asking to be fed.”
Both Shantelle and Constantine’s abdomens glow a neon-blue hue; they had broken away from the other foragers earlier today to hoard some food for themselves, as per tradition, and had stumbled upon a puddle of sugary blue liquid flowing out of a big cylindrical object.
(The liquid had been Cool Blue Gatorade and the object had been a plastic bottle, but a creature as simple as an ant could never know this.)
Constantine had almost passed out laughing when Shantelle’s swelling abdomen gradually adopted the color of the fluid she was lapping up, though that didn’t stop her from doing the same. Their peers had shot then weird looks when they’d returned with the caterpillar.
A commotion in the tunnel outside makes Shantelle raise her antennae in alarm. She watches a sea of workers scuttle past, perhaps a little more frantically than usual. A few soldiers, three times the size of the average worker with huge mandibles, flank the chaos, giving reassuring pats with their antennae as they herd everyone deeper into the nest.
“What’s going on, big sister?” asks Shantelle as she approaches a soldier she happens to recognize, worry bubbling in her hindgut.
“Light flooding in the upper chambers, little sister,” rumbles Antoinette, who towers over Shantelle. “Nothing too serious. All workers and drones are to proceed to the lower levels as a safety precaution.”
“Flooding?!” cries Constantine as she sidles up to Shantelle. “We just got back from a supply run. It’s dry as a desert up there.”
“The rain is not our enemy today, little sister. Our scouts report a Flesh Giant has taken an interest in our nest, and is attacking our surface troops with a water-based projectile weapon.”
A chill runs down Shantelle’s thorax. Projectile weapon? Like how termites squirt acid to melt carapace?
Antoinette must have tasted the fear radiating out of Shantelle because she says, “Like I said, it’s nothing too serious. Please follow the others and await further instructions.”
Constantine has to tug Shantelle down the tunnel by her tarsal claw. “C’mon, sis, snap out of it. You heard her. Everything’s gonna be fine.”
Shantelle chuckles nervously. “Yeah. You’re right.”
A golden thrill surges through Little Timmy as he unloads jet after deadly jet of water onto the anthill. There is something about the psyche of a nine-year-old that is so easily entertained by the sight of several smaller creatures fleeing in terror at the pull of a trigger. His still-vivid imagination conjures a city in ruins at his feet, tiny screams scurrying into his ears to banish the afternoon boredom.
His face twists when the destruction slows to a trickle. Hands balled into fists, he stomps over to the outdoor faucet to refill his trusty water gun.
Only to stop when his gaze finds the garden hose coiled nearby like a snake. He licks his lips in anticipation. He’s always wondered what it would feel like to be a god.
He’s seen Daddy do it a million times; how hard can it be? Little Timmy seizes the hose, attaches one end to the faucet, and turns it on. Beautiful, torrential water rushes across grass. But not where he wants. The hose unravels as he hauls it across the yard.
Little Timmy stands over the anthill. He points the nozzle at the dirt, and the screams multiply.
Shantelle and Constantine are herded into one of the nursery chambers, filled to bursting with workers, drones with their shimmering wings folded across their backs, and freshly-hatched newborns. There’s a sense of unease buried under the more jovial pheromone scents and the insistent wailing of the grubs.
Constantine chatters away, something about how cute the grubs over there are and how much she wants to pinch their cheeks, but Shantelle is deaf to the world around her. She gazes up at the dirt ceiling, and imagines it crumbling under a deluge that will sweep them into oblivion.
“Hey, sis,” says Constantine, snapping Shantelle’s head around, “look who’s here.”
A drone with ragged, drooping antennae limps over to the two workers. “Weird day, huh?” greets Dante.
“Tell me about it,” says Constantine.
“Learnt to fly yet?” asks Shantelle in an attempt to tear her mind away from that dark place.
Dante responds by beating his wings, so fast that they become a blur and kick up swirls of dust beneath him. He rises half a millimeter into the air before falling back down in a tangle of limbs.
“I see,” says Shantelle.
“Impressive,” remarks Constantine with a smirk.
Dante dusts himself off and trains his gaze on the other drones performing loop-the-loops high above their heads and making the grubs on the ground giggle. He sighs wistfully. “How am I ever going to leave the nest and start a new colony? I’m a loser. Might as well jump into a frog pond and save myself the embarrassment.”
Shantelle gives him a consoling pat with her antenna, to which he smiles weakly.
And then the whole world trembles. Not heavily; maybe flecks of soil leaping free from the walls and a strange, low groan permeating the chamber, but enough to get everyone in the room to stop and listen.
The screams of a hundred soldiers descend on them. They had stayed in the upper tunnels, braving the danger to keep an eye on the Flesh Giant and fortify vulnerable passageways with more dirt. Now one of them barrels into the cramped chamber, shouting at the top of her lungs:
“Evacuate the nest! This is not a drill. Take as many children with you and head for the closest emergency exit. I repeat, this is not a drill!”
“What’s going on?” demands a worker.
“The enemy has increased their firepower. The upper levels are gone, lost to flooding. We’re doing our best to redirect the water, but you will all perish if you stay here.”
That sends the chamber into an uproar. “What about the Queen?” asks another worker.
“We will see to Her Majesty’s wellbeing,” replies the soldier. “Now go. A small squad of soldiers will be joining you shortly to help with the evacuation.”
The grubs begin to wail. Shantelle and Constantine each pick one up and join the rush through a side tunnel, where it only gets darker. Dante, being a drone with underdeveloped mandibles, can’t carry a grub, so all he does is solemnly tag along.
Shantelle’s limbs move autonomously, as if she was dead to the world save for the sensory glands in her antennae that let her taste the guiding trail of pheromones left by the ants ahead. She’s seen Flesh Giants on supply runs before, but they’ve always been these stupid, lumbering creatures, so predictable and easy to avoid. Is this their true might? A strength so great that the entire colony is forced to abandon its home? Not even the rain has been able to do that.
“It’s no big deal,” reassures Constantine. Her voice is muffled by the grub between her mandibles, but Shantelle detects the uncertainty in it anyway. “We’ll build a new nest. Somewhere far away, where there are no Flesh Giants and there’s plenty of that yummy blue stuff to turn our butts blue.”
“Yeah, what is up with your butts, anyway?” asks Dante.
“Girl stuff. You wouldn’t get it. And stop staring; we’re all siblings, remember?”
“Oh, right. Sometimes I forget.”
Shantelle wants to flash Constantine a dutiful smile, if only to indicate that she appreciates her attempts at injecting some gaiety into the mood, but she can’t manage even that.
“You’re worried about Antoinette, aren’t you?” asks Constantine?
Shantelle nods. A full colony evacuation is the sort of impossible affair that blanks her mind as a futile coping mechanism, but to lose her friends in the process...
She glances at Constantine, and then at Dante, and they seem to understand because a sudden resoluteness washes across them, making them stand taller than the ants around them.
They arrive at an intersection, where the passage going left leads to one of the emergency exits. But a rockfall has sealed it shut, so Shantelle and Antoinette put down their grubs to help the other workers clear it piece by piece.
“What’s going on here?”
That gruff voice…
Shantelle whirls around to find the Queen shuffling down the tunnel, escorted by a retinue of soldiers. Antoinette is among them, helping the other soldiers urge the Queen’s gigantic, bloated body along with gentle tugs of her legs. She’s easily ten times the size of even the biggest soldier, and could reach out to touch each side of the tunnel if she tried.
“Your Majesty,” recite the workers with a dutiful bow, all except Shantelle, who is too thrilled that Antoinette is safe to utter a word.
After the soldiers notice the problem, they assist the workers in unplugging the tunnel. The workers then part for the Queen, eternally silent, to be hauled through first; being the progenitor of the colony, the future rests solely in her tarsal claws.
But the Queen is a large insect, and the combined effort of the soldiers can only do so much to make haste. A low, omnipresent rumbling has been emanating from the floor and the walls ever since the warning, but now it peaks into a crescendo of cascading rocks and a roar echoing through the tunnel.
That’s when Shantelle sees it. A wall of water, oblivion-white, stampeding down the far end of the tunnel in their direction. She stares down death and freezes.
The air is knocked out of her. She whirls around in liquid hell, limbs flailing uselessly. Then she’s wrenched to the surface, coughing and spluttering.
“Go!” urges Antoinette, who holds Shantelle above the rushing water using firm-yet-gentle mandibles. Half-submerged, the soldier hangs on for dear life to a tiny root poking out of the tunnel wall.
It takes a few heartbeats for the dazed Shantelle to notice Constantine and Dante on the dry ceiling overhead, bodies turned downwards and mandibles splayed to receive her. “Sis, grab on!”
After Shantelle is hauled onto the ceiling, she turns to face Antoinette. “Come with—”
The root snaps. Shantelle stares in wide-eyed horror as Antoinette is whisked away in a flash.
That’s when it sinks in. She can’t even see the floor of the tunnel anymore. Where are all the workers? The soldiers? The Queen?
Tarsal claws digging in between bits of soil in the ceiling, Shantelle watches fragments of her home streak by beneath her. Colorful pieces of fruit, oval-shaped seeds, and other morsels from the storage chambers. Bits of debris dislodged from the tunnel walls. She almost looks away when the flailing bodies of ants flash by, too fast to be caught. But it’s when the eggs and larvae come into view that she finally does.
Shantelle’s gut twists at the emptiness of her mandibles. She’d set the grub down to help the workers. Constantine’s mandibles are empty too.
“You okay, sis?”
Shantelle shakes her head.
Constantine’s sigh makes her entire body shudder. “Right. Let’s keep going.”
Gripping the ceiling wall, the three ants march in silence to the tune of angry floodwater. Any trace of pheromones to guide their way to the exit has been promptly washed away, so the three ants have to feel ahead of them with their antennae, making sure that the path they’re taking is continuously sloping upwards.
An eternity passes. The flood, by some twisted miracle, slows to a limping trickle before petering out entirely. Shantelle can’t take it anymore. Shantelle and Dante at her heels, she crawls to the floor and trips over piles of soggy debris on her way to a body.
A worker, body limp and legs knotted in the death pose.
“Samantha,” murmurs Constantine. “She was an ace at catching mites.”
And now she’s gone, thinks Shantelle. Her mind flashes with the faces of ants that are probably lying lifeless in a puddle somewhere, bodies twisted out of proportion. Ashanti, who would give Shantelle’s abdomen a playful nudge if she managed to catch bigger prey. Grant, who loved to practice-flirt with Shantelle before the time came for him to leave the nest and find his own Queen. Anthony, whose boisterous laughter would fill the stale underground air with joy.
Pebbles at their feet start to dance. Shantelle doesn’t need to see the flood for her to know that a second one is on its way.
“Hey!” cries Dante up ahead. He stands in a circle of light. “We made it!”
A knot of fear untangles itself inside Shantelle. She scurried over into the light and relishes the sight of clouds swimming above. She places a foreleg on the tunnel wall.
Only for it to slide right off.
“It’s coated in slimy algae,” realizes Constantine, as she tries and fails as well. “No one’s been maintaining this exit.”
The water roars into existence.
Shantelle watches resoluteness wash across Dante’s compound eyes as he unfolds his wings.
The water is devouring the entire tunnel from floor to ceiling.
Shantelle watches dust swirl at Dante’s feet as his wings turn into a blur.
The water is almost here.
“Hold on tight!” cries Dante.
Shantelle grabs a leg, and Constantine grabs Shantelle. Dante grunts and hauls the three of them into the air, woozily at first, before shooting upwards into the tunnel above just as the tunnel below erupts into manic water.
"How?" asks a bewildered Constantine.
"I don't know," gasps Dante. "I saw the water coming. And then I saw... you two."
"I knew you could do it," says Shantelle.
The circle of sky above gradually gets bigger and bigger as they ascend. Dante's pace slows to a crawl and his breaths become ragged. He hovers over to the side of the tunnel and Shantelle instinctively reaches out, only to find that it's slippery with algae here as well.
They dip a little then, confirming their fears. "Guys," gasps Dante, "I can hardly stay in the air."
"I get it," says Constantine. She sighs. "I'm gonna miss teasing you, Dante."
"I'm sorry," says Dante. "Maybe if I was stronger, maybe if I was less of a loser, I could..."
"Just quit whining and promise you'll look out for Shantelle, okay?"
"Don't," whimpers Shantelle as she cranes her head to look at Constantine dangling precariously from her leg. "Whatever you're about to do, don't."
"I love you, sis."
"We were going to start a new colony!" She's begging at this point. "A place without Flesh Giants, where there's plenty of yummy blue stuff!"
"You are my colony, silly." It's the last thing Constantine says before she plummets into the water below.
Dante rushes skywards as soon as it happens, and it's a good thing he does because Shantelle might have tried to reach to save her friend in a flash of red-hot irrationality. And then maybe Dante would have had to emerge into the sunlight and observe the destruction on his own.
The two ants rise into the sky, watching the yard below drown. The Flesh Giant towers above their dilapidated hill, releasing water into the entrance using a long, sinuous device as it overflows and spills out onto the grass. Shantelle thinks she can see bodies being spirited away by the current.
Dante lands on a leaf a safe distance away from the Flesh Giant. Shantelle is too stunned to give in to her tears.
"Why?" she wonders.
Dante shakes his head. "It doesn't matter. What matters is that we're alive."
So why does it feel like Shantelle has died a million times over? She scans the water below one last time, perhaps hoping to pick out a blue abdomen bobbing amongst the other corpses. Dante drapes a consoling antenna over her, and they walk away.
"Timmy! The cookies are ready!"
Finally. He drops the hose, his weapon of mass destruction. Hands on his hips, Little Timmy surveys his handiwork, and smiles. An afternoon well-spent.
He scurries up the porch, never considering that perhaps, in a secluded corner of the yard, the world will never be the same again.