The Last Day of the Mute Ant

Jez Patterson

Just what makes that little old ant
Think he'll move that rubber tree plant
Anyone knows an ant, can't
Move a rubber tree plant.

The truck's suspension was so effective it felt like sitting in a small, canopied aerodrome rather than the back of an armoured vehicle. Jacob watched the briefing. He'd aged a lot in the last fourteen months. He hesitated to say 'hardened'--it was too close to what he'd done to the ants.

From myrmecologist to miscreationist.

Scientists, doctors had always hidden their work behind a wall of Latin names. It was why Harrison had been brought in by the P.R. department to deliver today's briefing.

"'Roy boss?'" asked one of the marines, or whatever soldiers called themselves these days. The scientific briefing was part of their orientation, given in order to explain some of the equipment the marines would be carrying into battle when they arrived at the fields.

"Rooibos," Harrison corrected. "It's a type of South African tea. A while ago, a fellow called Nortier had the job of trying to cultivate the plant in order to increase production but found that the seeds were tiny and that, when ripe, the seedpods burst them all over the place. Then a local Khoi woman showed him how the resident black ants collected up the seeds and stored them in their nests. Hey presto: automated seed collection.

"More recently, the same method had been extrapolated in order to have ants collect something more valuable." Harrison looked his way, but Jacob already had his game-face on. "They persuaded ants to collect gold and silver deposits and bring them back to their nests where the metals could then be harvested. Think of it like bees collecting minute particles of pollen that eventually give us honey."

Or oysters turning grains of sand into pearls, thought Jacob at the inaccurate comparison. It didn't matter: as long as the men in the truck knew they weren't here to rescue civilians but silos.

"And it worked…"

We wouldn't be here if it hadn't. But sometimes you could be too clever, and sometimes things could work too well…

"The company used pheromones to direct the ants to collect metal deposits and rewarded them with foodstuffs to instil the right behaviour. The ants' own tandem-learning instilled the behaviour throughout the nest. Unlike seed collection, there are no seasonal restraints, and so the ants keep stockpiling the whole year round. The company had to mix many different strains to get just the ant they wanted. The resultant mutant…"

--One man's mutant is another man's superhero, Jacob thought. Although, granted, no one had ever put a cape on Doc Frankenstein's creation--

"…was a metal-collector extraordinaire."

And now the monster story took its inevitable downturn.

"Unfortunately, the ants had other ideas-they didn't want to give up what they'd collected."

"What does an ant want with gold?" a marine asked.

"It wasn't just gold they ended up collecting. They got a taste for metal. Not to eat it-they're not stupid--they used it to reinforce their nests and turn them into little, armoured Fort Knoxes."

"Why are we here? Why not just send in pest exterminators?"

"Tell them," Jacob said when Harrison faltered.

"Because ants protect what's theirs. Come here, Kenner." A marine more laden down with bits and pieces than a husband accompanying his wife to the spring sales stepped forward. There were grunts of amusement. The explanation of Kenner's equipment would run like the safety procedures delivered by a flight attendant prior to take-off.

"The ants use chemical warfare, so you need to keep your bio suit on at all times. Some species of ants use propaganda pheromones which can cause their enemies to turn and attack each other…"

Polyergus rufescens , Jacob thought. "

Or acetophenones to immobilise an enemy." Malaysian capmonotus cylindricus. "They can even release oleic acid to encourage necrophoric behaviour." Atta mexicana.

There was a dirty laugh.

"It means removal of their dead. They keep their homes clean. Their chemical agents include formic acid..." Formicinae. "…alkaloids and piperidines." Solenopsis fire ants. "The ants, gentlemen, are fighting back."

Jacob was impressed that Harrison held the men's gazes after that B-Movie tagline Jacob nodded for the briefing to continue.

"Ants are master architects. But, apart from reinforcing their nests, there are unconfirmed rumours this new breed are also reinforcing their exoskeletons. They bite, they sting, they spray, and they inject." Bottoms shifted uncomfortably in their seats. It was about time. Jacob leaned forward, anticipating the inevitable round of home remedies.

"Why don't we just flood the fields and drown them?"

"Some ants switch to anaerobic respiration underwater." Camponotus anderseni. "Some even go so far as to drink the water in the nest, then excrete it outside." Cataulacus muticus.

The thing with mixing the breeds was you got all the features you wanted…and forgot about the shared features you didn't.

"Couldn't we just starve them out?"

"They can grow their own food supply." Fungus-growing leafcutter ants. "They even farm their own livestock." Mealy bugs and myrmecophilous caterpillars being the cattle of choice.

Hell, Protomognathus americanus even caught and kept their own slaves.

"What about a great big magnifying glance and a hot sun?" one wag said in order to lighten the mood. Jacob joined in with the laughter until some other marine said, "Why don't we just drop a bomb on the entire damned field?"

Jacob stood up and made sure he could be seen. "Because the value of that field is in excess of the gross national product of a middle-sized European economy. You shall therefore be going in with a new spray which will neutralise the threat, but preserve the assets. Any questions?"

Jacob saw the wide-eyes of the marines as they backed up, pointing at something behind him. He turned in time to see the rest of Harrison dissolve into the billions of ants that had formerly made him.

Myrmarachne plataleoides, Jacob thought as they raced up his legs. One more trick. The ability to mimic their enemies.

© Jez Patterson 2016 All Rights Reserved

Date and time of last update 11:13 Sun 28 Aug 2016
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