(This is a short story, written a while ago, and which I felt needed room to breathe, some fresh air and a chance to escape from my hard drive.)
Worker Anton sniffed the air. Chemical messages surged through the colony, bringing word from the leaders: an announcement was coming. A message from The Queen herself.
He shouldered the packed mud onto his back and set off, hauling four times his body weight up the steep slope. In the distance a lion yawned. A macaw squawked. The warning bleep of a truck reversing on the road outside made the baboons shriek with rage.
Worker Rolant scurried to catch up with him, breaking the neat line to walk alongside. It was against custom. “What do you think? They say there’s been a big meeting, everyone there that matters. What will it be?”
Anton shrugged with his elbowed antennae. They’d find out soon enough. The chemicals were fizzing already. Word was coming through. He didn’t pause. Keep working. Keep walking. Carry that load, for the greater good.
The pheromones buzzed with a proclamation from The Queen. A warning. The message spoke of missed targets, the need for greater productivity. The colony was falling behind. Bigger animals were beating them. Visitor numbers were falling across the board. The lions were taking more than their fair share of attention. The giraffes, the elephants, even the stinking baboons were being lavished with time and photographs and coos and ahhhs and the best of the food. No one seemed to notice the colony, built with such love, such care and attention to detail. Such complexity and planning and order. Visitors walked by, oblivious. As if the colony didn’t even exist.
“We must build higher,” said the message on the pheromones. “Think bigger, be more ambitious. Pile on more structures, more mud. Breed faster, add more layers, get creative. Compete, out-compete, demand visitor attention. The colony will be the star attraction. The colony will be the centrepiece. The zoo’s favourite, best-loved, most photographed exhibit. Above and beyond, outclassing the tigers and the penguins, the giant tortoises and the pesky meerkats. The pheromones set out a vision for the future, a challenge for the workforce, imploring one and all to embrace the dream.
“My people,” The Queen said on the wave of chemicals, “build me a colony that overshadows the giraffes. That dwarfs the elephants. That roars louder than any lion.”
A howl of approval surged through the ant community. Worker Anton felt himself propelled forward, adrenaline pumping through his legs as he pushed himself up the slope. He saw it now, the future they were building, the ambition behind it, the planning that had gone into it. It was about more than just another pile of soil that had to be moved from here to there. He was part of something bigger.
He glanced across at Rolant, who toiled up the hill, his expression tortured with the effort, yet somehow serene.
“We can do this,” Rolant yelled and held out an antennae.
Anton slapped his friend with a high five. This was what they had waited for. Purpose. Things had been slipping for too long. Now the colony was going places. A backwater no longer. This would be their time.
Work occupied him for the coming days. Work, work, more work. No time for rest or hobbies, for walks around the zoo or taking in the sights. When a child dropped an ice-cream on top of the colony, outrage and resentment simmered through the ants, but there was no time for recriminations. No room for a blame culture here. Or for the victim mentality. Get to work, harvest what can be used, remove what must be taken away. Shift the soil. Do the work. Keep it moving.
Anton and his workmates hauled the ice-cream stick onto their collective back. Thirty of them carried it off. Dump it in the gutter and good riddance. The disrespect would be forgotten. Visitors would come to marvel at their resilience. He glanced up. A line of humans, huge even at this distance, stood with their backs to the colony, gazing into the crocodile enclosure. Children shouted, excited, jumping up and down to get a better view. None of them noticed the colony: not the intricate complexity of tunnels or the subtle weave of the sand and soil around the base. Or the treasure inside, the precious eggs secreted within.
In time, they would come to marvel that they had ever been so ignorant. The colony would prove its worth. They just needed to work harder, longer. Build it higher, and the crowds would notice, one day. The world would pay attention, once the work was done.
The ice-cream stick was light, easy to move, if a little awkward. Rolant tried licking the residue. Anton scowled at him. Unauthorised. Not fit for ant consumption. Eat at the allotted time, not before. “Focus on the work,” he said.
Rolant grinned, sheepishly, but knuckled down and helped carry the load. They slid it off their backs into the gutter, then turned to look back at their wondrous, beautiful colony.
A figure, huge and malformed, lurched towards them. A man, with a spade.
A howl of protest fizzed along the pheromones.
“What’s he doing?” asked Rolant. “He can’t. He can’t.”
But he could, and he did. The spade slammed into the earth next to the colony, lifting huge gobbets of soil and dumping them into a wheelbarrow. Did he even see the colony? Didn’t he know it was there? A gaping hole had been torn in the side of the beautiful structure. Eggs, precious eggs, tumbled out of the nest, exposed to the air, to untold dangers, rolling down the steep sides of the edifice.
What hate inspired such destruction? What ignorance?
“Who is he?” whispered Rolant. “Is he from another zoo? Is he out to destroy us?”
“No, I’ve seen him before,” Anton said. This man was here everyday, around the grounds, digging and weeding and moving and planting.
“It must be a mistake,” moaned Rolant.
No time for blame, said the pheromones. No time for standing and watching.
The spade fell again, scattering ants and eggs, gouging deeper into the structure. Repairs, Anton thought. How long would these repairs take? Then the spade fell again, and he knew there would be no repairs. Deaths, how many deaths would there be? Could the colony survive? The eggs, howled the pheromones. Everyone. Save the eggs.
Anton raced towards the destruction, heedless of the danger from the spade. He heard the others behind him, Rolant’s familiar wheeze as he gasped at the air through his spiracles, the humph and determination in the feet of the other workers as they rushed to the aid of their kin.
But what could they do? Fight this monster? How? It was huge. Yet fight they must. Already soldiers were being deployed. Anton saw a commando brigade heading up the spade itself. They’d aim to reach the man’s hands, bite him wherever they could. A platoon of infantry were storming the man’s wellington boots but it was hard work, and for every few inches of territory they won, they slid back or were knocked loose by the swinging of the monster’s feet.
Fresh orders fizzed along the chemicals. Gather up the eggs, head for a place of safety. The colony must regroup. Where was safe? Anton sensed the group decision. The attack had paused. Had it stopped? The man must have realised, so late, too late, but finally realised what he was doing. His shoulders were hunched, his back turned to them now. He threw his spade into the wheelbarrow, the metal clang ringing across the zoo.
How much of the colony had survived? More than half the structure was still intact. Collect the eggs, bring them inside. The emergency had passed. Now the real work began.
A leader ant, in charge of work groups, met them as they rushed up the side of the colony towards the gaping hole. Anton held out his antennae, touching those of the leader to take detailed work orders. He turned, used his compound eyes to locate scattered eggs, and went to work. He gathered up three precious eggs, grasping them with his mandibles, and headed inside. He jostled alongside other ants, engaged in the same vital work, but there was no acrimony, no complaints or bitterness. They were focused on the greater good. Save as many eggs as they could.
He passed other groups of workers already busy shoring up the structure. Repairs were under way. He looked at the hole. It was madness. That breach could never be healed, not properly. He caught Rolant’s eye. The thought flashed between them. Subversive, outlawed, dangerous. This was folly. The leaders were wrong. This damage could never be repaired.
But then a wonder. A message fizzing along the pheromones. Come see. A wonder. Anton ignored the call, bearing his eggs into the inner chambers of the colony, placing them carefully where they could be ordered and sorted, then hurrying back for more. When he reached the daylight, he saw the wonder for himself. A child, a human child, knelt near to the colony, gazing down at them. Their activity had captured his attention. He held up something huge, made of glass. At first Anton thought it might be a camera lens. No, the whisper went along the chemicals. It’s for seeing up close. A magnifying glass. The child must be so entranced with the colony that he wanted to see more.
The light had become dazzling. The heat was more intense than anything Anton had experienced, even on the hottest of days. It must be the exertion, the adrenalin, the danger. He was overheating. The soil was warm. His exoskeleton was hot to the touch. Eggs, precious eggs, steamed in the sunlight, burning and bursting into flames. Precious eggs, dead before they could hatch. Hurry, came the message, save them. Save the eggs.
Another human rushed towards them. What next? Anton feared to look, but it was a female, a human queen. She grabbed the boy by the hand and pulled him away. A groan rippled through the pheromones. Don’t go. The attention, for all the danger and destruction, at least some good came of it all. So much attention. Concentrated, condensed, focused attention, fleeting and over too soon. But it was a taste of things to come. Once the project was finished the colony would be the centrepiece of the zoo. And all the visitors would marvel, young and old.
They worked relentlessly through the heat of the afternoon, through the evening, and on into the night, carrying eggs, moving soil, shifting mud and rebuilding, rebuilding. There could be no rest. Once the eggs were safe, Anton’s unit was reassigned to work outside, moving debris, saving what soil could be reused, carting off whatever was discarded.
Long into the night they toiled. They didn’t stop to sleep. Instead they took power naps, falling into a deep slumber wherever they happened to be, but only for a minute or so before getting back to work. The vital work.
Dawn was rising. Anton paused for a moment to assess the damage, and the progress that had been made in such a short time. The Queen had been right all along. They could repair the colony. They could rebuild it, better than ever. It would take time, and so much effort. But what was life for, if not to work?
As the sun appeared over the elephant enclosure, a new proclamation zipped along the chemicals. “The humans were testing us,” said The Queen’s message. “We are wanted, needed, valued more than ever.” But there was an important dispatch hidden in the actions of the grounds-man, said the message, one that was missed at first. Workers swept up by the spade, carried away with the soil, have arrived home overnight. Eggs were carried off in the wheelbarrow. They were dumped inside the chimpanzee enclosure. It is a message. The humans want us to relocate to a more prominent site. With more visitors. To live alongside the chimps, their closest cousins. “This is what we have been waiting for,” The Queen said, “our proudest moment. We will build higher, taller, greater. And take our pride of place alongside the zoo’s most popular attractions.”
Work orders were changed in seconds. The schedules were ripped up. The planning charts discarded. The timetables forgotten. All change. An exodus had begun.
Anton looked around him at the other ants. Most were cheering, some stood, contemplative but confident. They had faith in their Queen. She would lead them right. She always had.
Ulysses, Anton’s manager, yelled at him from the lip of the hole. “Look lively son, new orders coming through.”
The new orders had turned their work unit into a scouting patrol. They were to find the best routes to the chimpanzee enclosure, the safest for the eggs.
“Follow me,” said Ulysses. And they were off.
Anton had never seen the chimpanzee enclosure, not even in the distance. He had heard their raucous calling. Who could miss it? But it sounded impossibly distant. Why so far? But the Queen’s explanation made perfect sense. It was pride of place. Ulysses led them down the side of the colony, out onto the vast grassy plains where the visitors sometimes sat to eat their picnics, or rest from their weary walk around the zoo. The grasslands alone were immense. The journey to the waste bin on the far side, next to the path, was the furthest Anton had been from home. But that was only the beginning of their great trek. The journey would take them past the tapirs and the hippopotamus, right at the rhino, left at the mongoose and straight on, between the baboons and the macaques, into the chimp house.
They set off not long after sunrise, but noon had come and gone before they reached the chimp house. A long march, a route march, barely pausing, taking the most direct route.
When they finally reached their destination and Ulysses ordered a rest, Anton looked up at the chimp enclosure, surrounded by metal fencing, filled with ropes and wooden structures, swinging tyres and trees and areas of open ground where the chimps sat huddled together. “They seem quiet.”
“Peaceful,” Rolant said.
“Do you think they’ll mind us moving in?”
“The humans must have told them,” Rolant said. “It’s all cleared, I’m sure.”
Anton glanced over at Ulysses. He didn’t look so confident. He paced up and down outside the enclosure, looking for an inconspicuous way in. He waved to the other ants, a dozen of them in all. “Let’s check out the lay of the land,” he said.
“We’re not here to find a place for the colony,” Rolant said. “We shouldn’t go in. The bosses said nothing about that.”
Anton shrugged with his mandibles. Ulysses was showing initiative. It’s what got him promoted in the first place. Breaking the rules seemed to be the only way to get ahead. Except you had to know which rule, and when, and why, and break it in just the right way, a little but not too much.
They scaled the high bank and slipped in through the metal mesh. No cries of alarm. No welcoming committee either. But in the far corner, a pile of fresh soil. Taken from the colony. That must be where the precious eggs had been left. “We should check on them,” he said.
Ulysses looked at him, long and hard. Was that respect on his face?
“Secure the eggs,” Anton said. “Priority one.”
“Agreed,” said Ulysses. “Let’s get to work.”
As they crossed the enclosure the chimps broke from their huddle, running around the open area like mad things, yowling and yelping, scratching and climbing on anything they could find. The chaos messed with the strict discipline of the ant marching lines, but they adapted quickly and made it across without hindrance or harm. They spent two hours searching through the piles of soil, sifting for every last egg. They found two hundred and brought them together, buried them in a deep chamber, marked it with pheromones so that even if none of them made it back alive, the others would know. Because others would come. The collective would survive.
The task completed, Ulysses called them into a huddle. The ants touched funiculi, communing in respect of the work each had done, acknowledgement of its importance to the colony, and as a right of ritual for the eggs. “I need two volunteers,” Ulysses said. “To stay here overnight and guard the eggs.”
The ants looked nervously at each other. Anton saw his chance. Speak now, before someone else jumped in. “I’ll do it,” he said.
“And me.” Rolant held out his funiculus for a high five.
“I don’t have to tell you the importance of this mission,” Ulysses said. “ I know you’re not trained, no military background. But if it comes to it, you have to be prepared to fight. Can you do that?”
Anton nodded. No hesitation. This needed to be done and he would see it done. Do the work. Make the sacrifice.
“I’ll send relief at daybreak,” Ulysses said. “Look for them, mid-morning. Eyes peeled now. One of you awake at all times. And keep an eye on those chimps. They’re indisciplined and rowdy.”
Anton and Rolant stood together, side by side, watching the rest of the work unit head across the chimp enclosure. For the first time in his life, Anton felt scared. Terrified. Alone. Far from home. But proud. Proud of his own courage. Proud of his friend for standing by him. “We’re going to be all right,” he said. “This’ll make a great home.”
It was dry, under a roof, protected from the rain. There was an endless supply of food nearby, scattered by the chimps. It was further from the viewing areas than he had expected. A quiet corner. Would the visitors even notice them, back here? They’d have to build big. Think big. The work would keep them busy.
The satisfied glow of a job well done washed over him, the long trek, rescuing the eggs, being left in charge to protect their future. Everything was going to be all right. He was sure of it.
Then the child screamed.
First there was shouts and crying and calls for help. The keepers came running, the crowd surged towards the doors, the visitors left but more men came. Whirling blue lights and flashes of bright white light. There was a human girl on the ground, and people standing around, kneeling beside her. Then they put her in one of their vehicles with the flashing lights and loud noises and took her off.
Men came with guns. Anton saw a baboon, loose from its cage. It fled the men and climbed the side of the chimpanzee cage. Then the men fired their guns and the animal fell.
Things were quieter, once the baboon was caught. But the humans remained agitated through the evening, long after the zoo normally fell quiet. Long into the night.
Anton and Rolant huddled together for the feeling of safety that it brought, vigilant in the protection of the eggs. But there was nothing to fear. The chimps were shut away and none of the humans came into the enclosure. Anton wasn’t even sure they were aware of the site of the new colony. No one came to inspect it or to see if the ants had made it across here. The humans were strange creatures, fickle in their tastes, but The Queen must know what she was doing.
In the cold of the night they needed more sleep, and took it in turns, a few minutes at a time. When he was on watch, Anton rarely wandered more than a few feet from his sleeping friend or the precious pile of buried eggs.
The dawn brought more humans. They wandered the zoo, inspecting cages. Not the usual visitors though. There were no children this time. No one sauntered among the enclosures, pointing at the animals, taking their photographs or munching on the sugary human food. Instead they looked serious, wrote things down, discussed in earnest voices. The keepers looked glum. The grounds-man loitered with his spade, pretending to work, but getting little done. This went on all morning, while the chimps scampered around the enclosure.
By noon the relief arrived. Later than Ulysses had promised, but here at last. Ulysses himself led them with several hundred workers. They immediately set to work on building a colony for the eggs that were already here. First they must dig, deep into the ground, and only when the foundations were laid would they be ready to start on the structures above. The human visitors would never appreciate the true complexity and beauty of the colony, Anton was keenly aware of that, but he said nothing, not even to Rolant. Ulysses offered them time off, a day of rest after their vigil, alone on such a traumatic night. But they both refused, in an instant, without needing to consider or consult each other.
“We want to work,” Anton said. “For the colony.”
“For the colony,” chorused the ants around him.
Ulysses slapped him on the back. “Proud to have you in my team,” he said. And for the first time in his life, Anton felt as though he truly belonged, not just because this colony was where he lived and worked, but because now, someone had noticed him. Seen his contribution. There could be no greater satisfaction or reward. As Ulysses strode off to oversee the work, Anton glanced at Rolant and grinned. The two ants high-fived. And got back to work.
By mid-afternoon thousands more ants began to arrive, bearing the precious eggs. There would be no going back to the old colony. This was already the new home. The chemical messages had proclaimed it. The Queen herself would arrive within a few days, with her retinue. Work must begin on the royal palace.
And so they worked. They toiled all that day and as much of the night as they could, and through the next day and the next.
But still, there were no visitors. The only humans they saw were the keepers and the grounds-man and the people who ran the zoo and sold the tickets. But the visitors were gone.
The colony grew in size as the days went by. It was hard work, and the chimps took to eating ants, using sticks to poke inside the colony. Hundreds were devoured by one young female who seemed to have a taste for them.
But tens of thousands of eggs were brought safely to the new site. The colony would survive.
“The humans will put a stop to the chimp behaviour,” The Queen announced in one of her messages. “Just as soon as they realise the immense amount of work we have done.”
And the proclamation was proved right. A few days later, the humans came and took the chimps away. The ants had the place to themselves. The elation, the jubilation, the sense of triumph that surged through the colony was intoxicating. The Queen toured the new structures, waving serenely and accepting the cheers and adulation. They would take pride of place in the list of attractions. Once the new colony was complete. Once the visitors returned.
But the days went by, and still no one came. More animals left. The sounds of roaring and yowling and howling and screeching grew fainter and less frequent with every passing day. The elephants, the lions, the tigers, the leopards, all of them left. Not all at once but in dribs and drabs.
Soon there were few keepers wandering the grounds. There were no animals left to feed. The grounds-man left one day, leaving his wheelbarrow leaning against the chimp enclosure, and never returned. All the time the colony grew. The population expanded. The structures were built, increasingly intricate and complex. But there was no one to see.
One day Anton could bear it no longer. “I’m going to look,” he told Rolant. “Are you coming?”
“Look where? At what?”
“At the old colony. At the cages. At the entrance to the zoo. We need to know what’s happening.”
“Leave it to The Queen,” Rolant said. “The authorities will know. They’ll tell us when it’s time.”
But Anton would not wait. Something inside him had changed. Someone had to take the initiative and he was that ant. He would do it.
He slipped away, early one morning, and didn’t show up for work. Instead he began his great trek around the zoo, past empty cages and enclosures, once full of life. All the big animals were gone. There were still birds in the trees, spiders in the grass and flies, damned flies everywhere. But the zoo, the attractions, it was all gone. He made to their old colony, the site deserted, and crossed the great grasslands that led to the front entrance, where the visitors arrived. No one. He saw not a single human. And he knew, though he found it hard to find the words or truly understand the reasons, he knew that the zoo was closed. Forever. And that all their building work was wasted.
Not wasted. The colony would survive. The eggs would hatch. The Queen still ruled. Her reign was glorious. But it was all in vain. Because no one would ever know. Only the ants themselves.
He stood on concrete at the entrance to the zoo and watched the trucks arrive, the cranes with immense wrecking balls attached, the teams of workmen bearing big hammers. They started to smash the zoo, pounding the ticket office, ripping down cages and enclosures, tearing up the pathways, the huge wheels of their vehicles gouging the grass, cared for so lovingly by the grounds-man.
Worker Anton knew what he must do. The humans surely meant to take the ants along with the other animals, but in the confusion, and the migration to the chimp house, it was overlooked. He would put this right. He’d come this far. No turning back now. He would find the new zoo, find the animals and the humans and the visitors, wherever they had gone, however long it took. He would find them, and bring word back to the colony and his beloved Queen. It was all a mistake. But he would rectify it. He would keep walking and never look back. That was his life, now. That was his work.
He turned to look back at the zoo that had been his home all his life, whispered a silent farewell and set off alone.
Photo credit: Formigó armat by kodachrome65