With the Takeover everything changed, and I’m not sure how it happened, even now. People claim it started out of the blue but I wonder if it did, really. For months the scientists talked, and wrote, and put stuff on YouTube, but no one listened, and didn’t care, because hey, the Dow Jones was soaring and Brad and Angelina had snagged a new kid from East Neverheardofit, and so what if ants were multiplying like crazy and growing to three inches long?
Well, we all cared now.
“Hey, Boss. There’s a breach at section eight. You comin’?”
I looked up at the young man leaning around the doorframe. “Right behind you.”
Second breach of the day and it wasn’t even noon, which meant the colony was roving, and that was never good news for us. I left my maps on the desk and grabbed my hat from the back of the office door and as I caught up to my messenger waiting with several men at the end of the hall, I heard mobilizing all over the house.
“What’s colony status?” I checked each tired face around me in turn and got a lousy feeling when no one answered. “Harmon?” The bearer of my message flinched as I stared him down.
“They’re foraging Boss, at level three for sure.” He winced again. “Maybe four.”
“Christ.” I could feel the relief from the guys when they realized I was more worried than angry. We didn’t have much time.
“Okay, I want repellent lines reinforced at every boundary and thirty guys with me to the fore. We throw the bait and fix the breach and then we wait and see. Hit it hard and fast.”
Murmurs and then they scattered, each one an efficient machine, and every time I saw it I wondered how I’d come to lead. These soldiers-boys were the real deal and I, well, I was somewhere in between.
Daylight hit me heavy as we poured out the old front door, and when eyes adjusted I wasn’t happy to see more. The aging farmhouse rested on a hill from which we’d witnessed the valley’s demise, and the sight of brown, dry land and remaining ragged trees made my stomach hurt.
“Harmon,” I said, and soon he was striding at my side. “How’s the cancer-stick water?”
“Low, Boss. Real low. But Wilkens said he heard chatter about a supply drop soon. Betcha we get more if we ask.”
I could worry into nothing or buck up and deal, and honestly, my mind was already made.
“What we need is salt.” I tried to keep from breaking into a run as we neared the boundary. “Send two guys into town. Hit every feed store and clean them out of all the salt they have. Blocks, bags, I don’t care. We want it all.”
Nodding and running, Harmon went, and the boundary rose before the rest of us, a high dirt wall with one portion removed. Not fallen but taken away bit by bit, tidy as can be, and probably done in the blink of an eye. The men fell to it then, shovels wielded in capable hands, yet putting more dirt in place did nothing, it was what we put on and in that soil that mattered.
“I want to take a look,” I announced to no one in particular, yet one of the men jogged over with an ancient wooden ladder a minute later, probably absconded from the barn. We rested the legs upon the dirt wall and to my surprise the aged wood gave only minor protest as I ascended.
What a sight.
Beyond the wall was nature’s destruction; no trees, no grass, not plants of any kind. And not far enough for comfort lay the carcass of a cow, covered in ants. They’d brought it here, I was certain, for we hadn’t observed surviving animals in several days.
Black and orange ants feasted together now, dissecting meat and marching it away, and all of them huge, as long as my hand. They’d changed even more. I sped back down the ladder before they captured my scent with their ever-moving antennae.
“How long has Harmon been gone?” I demanded of the man holding the ladder as I stepped to the ground. He gave me a look of surprise.
“About fifteen minutes, Boss.”
I was getting that sinking sensation again, the one that woke me up at night and set my stomach twisting. “I’m going to get Wilkens to spark up the radio again and see who we can reach.” Without waiting for the man’s reply I sprinted back to the farmhouse, my head starting to ache. Up the stairs and to the right and there he was, my expert in ham radio.
“Wilkens, we need to talk to Boston again, or Manchester, whoever you can get.”
In the midst of making notes in his spiral-bound book, Wilkens pen froze, his wide eyes meeting mine. I saw his Adam’s apple bob.
“What’s going on, Boss?’
“We’re going to get some answers today, Wilkens, and I’m going to make us a plan.”
Switches flipped, and static popped as Wilkens worked his magic. He’d been one of our best resources, and I hoped he knew his importance.
“This time of day I’ll probably get Boston, Boss. You hoping for some news?”
I gave him a wan smile. The cities had been callous, for the lack of nature made them an unappealing milieu for ants. Easy in their position, officials made sure we got supplies, before simply waiting for ants to kill one another, or starve as the population grew, which we’d been assured of. That was over a month ago.
Wilkens had opened the window at his side and through it I heard a truck careen up the dirt and gravel drive. Running to the top of the stairs, I saw Harmon pound through the front door, a salt lick under each arm. His smooth face ran with sweat as he looked up.
“We got it, Boss. Where do you wa—”
The house shuddered, and gave a horrible groan, and as I watched, a crack appeared from stairs to crown molding.
“What the hell?” cried Harmon, but I already knew, and I swear the stairway rippled as another tremor dropped ceiling pieces on my head. Outside men were shouting, and Harmon stared at me, his chin hanging.
“Wilkens!” I called out. “You tell whoever you talk to that the plan is no good. No good!”
Flooring splintered, and plaster tumbled and as Harmon lost his footing and the front door popped its frame, all I could think of was Wilkens’ radio. We had to warn the cities, and let them know the deal, the country containment plan; it was no plan, these formicidae were mad diggers, for real.