Ant Hill

By Joe Vadalma




The dream of a lifetime was about to come true for Dr. Ulysses Dargon, entomologist specializing in myrmecology. Because of nanotechnology, he was getting a once-in-a-lifetime chance to study ants at an extremely close range. In fact he was going to actually live among them. He marveled as the head technician, Victor Egbert, showed him the equipment and explained what everything was for and the steps of the process. The first thing Egbert showed him was a hospital gurney with a several pieces of electronic equipment attached to it. "Youíll lie down here, and the brain wave monitor will fit over your head." He pointed out what looked like a motorcycle helmet with several wires protruding from it. "Then with hypnotic drugs we place you in an insensate state. Youíll be unaware of your own body, but your conscious thoughts will be transmitted through the helmet to the control bay." Egbert led Dargon over a gleaming metal and plastic machine that covered most of one wall. It contained numerous dials, switches, computer monitors and other electronic equipment. "Its main function is to translate your brain waves into a digital form that can recognized by the nanotechnology inside the tiny robot."

Dargon interrupted. "If Iím under a hypnotic drug, wonít I be bemused and befuddled?"

"No. Not at all. The drug weíre giving you puts you in a trance-like state. Only the automatic functions of the brain will be aware of your body. Theyíll still control systems that keep you alive, like respiration and heartbeat. But, as far as your thinking and control functions of your brain, theyíll be enhanced."

"I see."

"In fact, once the drug takes effect and the electronic equipment is operating, your experience should be as though the robot body were your own. Actually, no one really knows exactly what that will be like, since youíre the first person to use this equipment. Step over here please." Egbert ushered Dargon over by a lab bench. "Look through the microscope."

Dargon peered through the device. He saw that something that heíd first thought was an ant on the slide was really a tiny six legged, two-armed robot. "So this is the robot body that Iíll control with my brain waves."

"Yes sir. And weíre very proud of it. That little piece of machinery is worth a cool million dollars and took five years to develop."

"Amazing. Well, Iím ready. When do we start?"

"Soon. First I need to instruct you in the various controls on the robot itself. For example, the communication channel by which you and I can talk to each other. Thereís also a recording channel which youíll use to record your observations. Only one of the two channels can be open at one time."

"Iíll have a voice box then?"

"Yes, the sounds it emits wonít sound exactly like speech, more like the chittering of insects. Our computer will translate this into English."

"Let me understand. Iíll think Iím speaking in English, but itíll come out of the robot sounding like insect chittering, but will be translated back to English for communication or recording."

"Exactly."

"Thatís good. Itíll help with my camouflage. The robot has the ability to emit various ant pheromones under my control?"

"Of course. We followed your instructions to the letter."

As Dargon watched, Egbert and his assistants fired up the equipment and prepared everything for operation. He was most interested when they set up a glass tank half-full of sand and set it on the lab bench next to the microscope. He peered into it. In the approximate center was an ant hill. He watched for a while as the tiny creatures scurried in and out of their dwelling. He took out a notebook and made a few notes. He was interrupted by Egbert. "Weíre ready for you now, Doctor."

Dargon removed his jacket and tie and laid down on the gurney. The technicians carefully placed the motorcycle helmet over his head and attached monitoring equipment to various parts of his body. "This is to make sure that your bodily functions, heart rate, blood pressure and so forth, remain in a healthy state. Any anomalies and weíll immediately turn off the equipment. We donít want anything to happen to you."

Dargon nodded that he understood. They rolled up one sleeve and attached an intravenous drip. "Count aloud backwards from one hundred, please."

He began to count. "One hundred, ninety-nine, ninety-eight ..." The room started to blur.

When he reached seventy-five, his entire viewpoint changed. He was standing on a flat transparent plane staring up at enormous glass globe. He looked down and realized that he had six legs. He gazed out at the room. Most of it was a hazy blur, like distant mountains on a humid summer day.

A voice in his ear asked, "Are you ready to be transported to the ant farm, Doctor?"

He pressed the communication button on his chest and spoke. It was strange. Although he spoke English, his words sounded like amplified insect chittering. "Yes, Iím ready."

Two great prongs came out of the sky and lifted him up into the air. He chuckled to himself. They were the extremely tiny tweezers that Egbert had showed him earlier.

As they had agreed earlier, Egbert put him down in a corner behind a slight rise away from the nest. He did not want to frighten or disturb the ant colony. He gazed around to get his bearings. From his new perspective, everything in his environment appeared quite different from that of a human. The tiny grains of sand were now rocks ranging from pebble to baseball size stones. The slight rise was a good-sized hill. The glass wall behind him, which had seemed so smooth, was pitted and lumpy. The lab was a vast blur over his head with strange shadowy shapes moving about. These, he realized, were the technicians.

The voice in his ear asked, "Everything okay?"

"Just fine. Iím going to start taking notes now."

"Okay. If we need to communicate with you, youíll hear a buzz. Just switch to communication mode."

"I understand."

Dargon hiked toward the hill and climbed it. He crouched down as reached the summit, and peered over the edge. The anthill was about the length of a football field away. He actuated the robotís telescopic vision. For several minutes he watched the activities of the ants and dictated notes. Finally, he decided that heíd seen enough at that distance. It was time to go among the ants. He wondered how theyíd react to a strange bug coming into their midst.

He approached the anthill cautiously, dictating notes with each step. Several worker ants came and went from the central opening, coming quite near, but they ignored him. However, when he was at the base, two soldier ants intercepted him, made motions with their antennas and mandibles and chittered loudly. To Dargonís amazement, he realized that they were trying to communicate with him. This was a revelation that seemed to destroy all previous notions of insect intelligence. To his absolute astonishment, they seemed to be acting almost human. Now, now, Ulysses, he told himself, donít start getting anthropomorphic notions in your head, simply because youíre their size. He studied their motions studiously and couldíve sworn that they were beckoning him to follow them. When he didnít respond, they came closer to take him with them forcibly. As he backed away, wondering what to do next, he realized that a third ant was behind him. He had no choice but to move forward.

The three ants herded him toward the entrance to the anthill. Since this is where he wanted to go anyway, he didnít try to escape, but merely moved forward passively. All the while he dictated notes. As he climbed down the central hole, he felt that heíd better notify Edgar.

He buzzed the technician. "Edgar, Iím entering the anthill."

"I see. Donít worry, Doctor Dargon, weíve been watching your movements. Thereís a tracking device inside your robot body, so weíll know exactly where you are at all times. I want you to know that your real body is resting comfortably. All your vitals are nominal, except for a slight rise in pulse rate when those ants approached you."

"Good. Iím switching back to recording mode."

The three ants herded Dargon through various tunnels and past several room-like chambers. In one, worker ants were milking aphids. In another, ants were piling food that theyíd brought in. Others were chopping it into smaller pieces and carrying it away. Finally Dargonís escort brought him into the chamber of the queen. She was enormous. Drones crawled over her immense body, and workers brought food for her to eat and took away the eggs to another chamber to hatch. The soldier ants chittered away at the queen, doing little dances. The queen waved her antennae and chittered back at them. They seemed to salute and herded Dargon into another corridor.

While this was going on, Dargon spoke rapidly into his recorder, making sure he noted all the details of his observations. As a result, he hardly knew where the ants were taking him. Finally, he found himself in a small empty chamber with but a single entrance. One of the soldier ant remained in the opening. Dargon hoped that the robot body was strong in case he had to attempt an escape. Ants in relation to their size were powerful creatures. For the time being, he decided to wait to see what was going to happen.

After a while, another ant came by, and the two began dancing and chittering. Besides being an entomologist, Dargonís hobby was comparative languages. He also knew a lot about bee language which consisted of similar motions. By careful observation, he began to pick up what he believed were words in ant language. Since his robot body had systems for detecting and emitting ant odors, he noticed there was a scent component to their language. After recording the ants chittering, dance motions and scents as well as possible and their likely meaning, he was ready to try to communicate.

After the second ant went away, he tried his language skills on the guard. He wanted to ask when he would be released from his prison, but the most words he could dance, chitter and emit were, "I go."

The guard stared at him with those bug eyes for a moment, and then danced around chittering too rapidly for Dargon to make sense out of it. But his unscientific opinion was that the ant was laughing at him. Finally, the antís motions, if heíd interpreted them correctly, seemed to be saying, "You no go. You food."

Apparently, if Dargonís translation was correct, he was being held until he could be executed and turned into food. He wondered why they hadnít done that right away. Nonetheless, he felt he should try to escape somehow. He didnít want to ruin a million-dollar robot. He wondered whether he could convince the ants that he was no good for food. He danced, "I no food. Too hard."

He approached the guard and tried to indicate that it should feel his body. The ant seemed to understand, as it touched him. It signaled back, "I hard too. Food inside."

Of course, Dargon thought, what a fool I am. That argument holds no weight; insects have exoskeletons.

Since the guard seemed willing to converse, Dargon made use of this willingness to learn more of the ant language. He pointed to objects and danced what he thought their names were. Sometimes the guard corrected him. Other times it made those rapid movements that Dargon interpreted as laughter. The more Dargon and the guard communicated, the more Dargon learned about their language. He learned other things as well, which he kept in mind to record when their conversation ended.

Although what he was doing was quite interesting, he realized in the back of his mind that he must somehow keep the ants from destroying the robot in their misconception that it was simply another insect that could be converted to food. After a while his guard seemed to grow bored with him and stopped communicating. Dargon used this break to record what heíd learned. In the middle of his dictation, the communicator buzzed. He switched to communication mode.

Edgarís voice said, "Dargon, thereís an emergency here. Iíve been told that thereís been a break-in. Iíve heard gunfire downstairs. I think itís best if we break off the experiment for a while. Bring the robot to the surface so that we can store it in a safe place."

"If I can," Dargon responded. He described his situation.

Edgar started to reply, but then cried, "What do you want? No, donít." There were sharp reports that sounded like automatic gun fire. Then silence.

"Vic, whatís going on?" he asked. There was no reply, only sounds that he couldnít identify. Jesus, a break-in. With guns. He wished he knew exactly what had happened. He tried to buzz Edgar. He got no reply. He realized something terrible had happened in the lab. An awful fear grabbed him. Would the criminals or terrorists do something to his helpless body? He fought down his awful panic and tried to reason calmly. Since his body was unconscious as far as the intruders could tell, theyíd probably leave him alone. Chances are they were after the robot and the equipment that controlled it. It wouldnít take them long to figure out that it was probably in the ant cage.

He approached the guard. "Danger. Danger. Nest in danger from big big insects."

The ant stared with those enormous eyes. Dargon wished he could read its expression. "No fool, Scyrk," it jiggled and chittered. Apparently the chittered "Scryk" was its name or title. "You think escape while I panic." It laughed again.

"Danger is real. I speak with ..." There were no words for who he was talking to with the communicator.

Just then several ants converged on the guard and began to dance and chitter. Scyrk turned to Dargon. "You not lie. Something terrible happening. We leave nest. Go as you please."

Scyrk and the other ants scurried away. Whatever was happening, Dargon knew the ants would do their damnedest to save the queen, her eggs, larvae and pupae. As for himself, he was caught between a rock and hard place. If he went to the surface, the intruders would immediately get him. If he stayed where he was, either they would find him anyway, or the ants would come back and use him for food. The thought finally came to him that the best way for him to escape was to become part of the crowd.

He scurried out into the corridor and followed several workers. They went into a room that contained the larvae. Each one grabbed several larvae and ran back out into the corridor. Dargon took a wiggling larva in each of the robotís two finger hands and followed the other ants. They led him through the twisting corridors to the nest entrance. As he exited, he saw what was happening. Huge iron rods -- which he knew that had he been his normal size wouldíve extremely thin wires -- were being poked into the sand around the anthill. As he ran by one, trying to stay with the other ants, he felt a strange invisible tug. So thatís how the intruders intend to find me -- magnetic wires. He stayed as far away as he could from them. Since the ants also evaded them, he could still camouflage himself by staying among them.

After he crested the hill, he saw that the ants were all headed toward a small space between the metal that held the glass sides of the cage and the glass itself. From a human viewpoint it wouldnít have been noticeable. Nonetheless, from the antís perspective it was an opening as large as a barn door. Two by two and sometimes as many as three squeezed through it.

The intruders, seeing that the ants, and possibly their intended prey, escaping, kept poking the tweezers down, picking up an ant and dropping it from a prodigious height after examining it and discovering that it was not the robot. This hardly bothered the ants, who, as soon as they landed, headed for the hole.

Dargon avoided the tweezers by broken field running, a technique that heíd learned when he was in the army as a young man. Side-by-side with another ant, he slipped through the escape route. He was now on the wooden surface of the workbench. Although from a human viewpoint, it was fairly smooth, it had many fine grooves in it. He and the other ants used them as trenches as they made their escape. Finally, they entered a minuscule hole in the lab wall. There they regrouped inside a partially rotten stud and began making a new nest in the soft wood.

Soldier ants again surrounded Dargon. He recognized one of them as Scyrk, who danced and chittered to the others, "This creature gave warning of danger to nest. It saved two larvae."

Scyrk signaled Dargon, "What are you? How did you know danger?"

With great difficulty, Dargon attempted to communicate that he was able to speak to the great moving shadows. That there were good shadow and bad shadows. And that the bad shadows had killed the good shadows and disrupted the nest because they wanted Dargon.

After Dargon repeated his message several times and in different ways, the ants seemed to understand. An ant whose name sounded like Plfwk said, "The great queen, Chichichi, has heard of your deeds. She has granted you the great honor of being one of her slaves. Your place in our nest will be as a soldier, as you seem to have the ability to sense danger."

What an opportunity, thought Dargon. To become an actual member of their nest. But first I must find out whatís going on in the larger world. "It very great honor for which I thank Queen Chichichi. I must say that at times I become like dead for long time."

"Not a problem. We will eat you when that happens. We all die sometimes."

"This different. I come alive again."

"Strange. How will we know when youíre really dead?"

Dargon didnít know how to answer, so ignored the question. He figured that when he had to return to the big world, his robot body would be removed from the nest anyway. But all that was irrelevant at the moment. He was in a fix. If the intruders didnít disconnect him from the machine, he would likely die of thirst or starvation. He wondered who they were and what they were up to. Suddenly he got an idea, which he formulated into a plan.

"As a soldier slave of Queen Chichichi, may I humbly ask help of the nest."

"What sort of help?"

"There is a place I must go and a deed I must do, which I cannot do myself. To ask this boon is why I came to nest."

"I have never before heard of such a thing. That an ant from another colony ask a favor of this one. Besides, only the queen may grant such a thing. I will take you to her."

***

The queen and her drones were safely settled deep in the rotten stud. Scyrk brought Dargon into her presence. He made his request. "I donít need the entire nest, only a few hundred workers."

Her huge eyes seemed to glare at him. There was a long silence. "I been told that you saved the nest. If you hadnít give us warning, all my children may have been lost. Therefore, I grant your request. Scyrk, find two hundred workers. You and they will follow wherever Drgn leads and do what it says."

Scyrk saluted and scurried off to round up the workers.

Dargon wondered whether he could really pull off what he had in mind. The first difficulty was to find what he was looking for. The world of the ants was much different than the human one. Then he wondered whether two hundred ants could really do what he had in mind. And even after that stunt, he still might not be successful, depending on the state of things in the laboratory.

He led his troop of two hundred out of the hole in the wall and onto the workbench. He told them what to look for, and they scattered. After a little while, one reported back that it had found such an object. Dargon went to look at what the ant had discovered. Yes, it was what he had hoped. To his ant-sized eyes, it seemed like a long curved steel bar. Actually, it was a small piece of thin wire. Scyrk let out a loud chitter that told the other ants in their group to gather there.

After all the ants had returned, Dargon gazed around the enormous room. All the large objects were fuzzy and dim. Nonetheless, he recalled that main control unit was iron gray in color. He headed toward the iron gray mountain. Although it was butted right next to the workbench, for an ant it was like a vertical cliff with twenty-foot wide chasm between it and the bench top.

He consulted with Scyrk on how to cross it. Scyrk gave orders to the workers. Fifty of them lined up in single file. The first one crawled up to the edge of the chasm, a second crawled over the first who grasped its hind legs, a third did a similar action with the second, and so on until they formed a chain that was longer than the chasm was wide. The chain began to swing until the first ant could grasp a small protrusion on the control unit. It then crawled up with its forelegs until it was directly across from workbench top. The fifty ants thus formed a living suspension bridge. Scyrk, followed by Dargon and the other one hundred and fifty ants, crossed the chasm on the backs of the others. Dargon was a bit daunted by the prospect of crossing the deep canyon in this manner, but managed to gather up enough courage to brave it. Halfway across though, he almost froze as he glanced down. To his robot eyes, it seemed a thousand foot drop.

Once across, they had to climb the smooth vertical object to a space where two sections of metal came together. This time the ants formed a living ladder. Only Dargon, Scyrk and the thirty ants hauling the bit of wire climbed to the spot where they could get inside the machine. Once inside, Dargon and his company crawled along the wires until he found a spot where the power unit was directly below them. He asked Scyrk if the ants could drop the wire so that it would land across two terminals which he pointed out. Scyrk gave the order, and the ants dropped the wire. Dargon crossed all of his six legs and two arms that it would land in the right spot.

It floated down slowly, shifting this way and that by hidden air currents. As it neared the terminals, it twisted in the air. He was sure it was going to miss. Nonetheless, one end came down on one terminal. The other end missed the other terminal by small amount. When Scyrk saw this, he ordered a worker ant to go down there. Dargon danced, "No. That ant be killed."

Scyrk signaled, "So? It is only a worker. All queenís slaves expected to give life when ordered."

The ant crawled up to the wire and pushed it so that it touched the terminal. There was a great spark, like a lightning strike and everything went dark for Dargon. He heard a gruff voice say in English, "What the hell? The goddamn machine blew a fuse or something." He felt he was laying on his back and knew that he was back in his own body. Cautiously, he opened one eye a little bit. Standing right next to the gurney was a man dressed all in black. His back was turned, and he held an automatic pistol loosely in one hand.

Quickly, Dargon sat up, put the man in a choke hold with one arm and grabbed the automatic, which he pressed against the manís back. Dargon took a quick look around to assess the situation. Egbert and the other technician were sitting in one corner guarded by another man dressed in black with a ski mask over his face. One of the technicians was slumped over and bleeding from a shoulder wound. A third intruder was examining the control unit. A fourth was still digging around in the ant cage.

Dargon yelled, "You men, drop your weapons and line up by the wall with your hands on your head."

The one guarding the technician turned and fired at Dargon. His aim was bad, and his bullets hit his companion instead, who slumped in Dargonís arm. Dargon fired back, killing the killer instantly. The other two saw that Dargon had the drop on them. They dropped their weapons and lined up against the wall as heíd ordered.

"Call 911," he cried to the technicians.

***

After the intruders were hauled away by the police, Dargon learned that they were petty criminals who had learned about the experiment through a newspaper article that emphasized the value of the equipment. Their plan had been to steal the little robot and hold it for ransom.

"I wonder what happened to the control unit," said Egbert. "It sure was lucky that it crapped out when it did. Those crooks thought you were in a coma."

Dargon smiled. "It wasnít exactly serendipitous. Some small friends of mine caused it. By the way, youíll find the robot inside, just above the power unit. Please donít harm any ants you find there."

Later, when he told the whole story to Egbert, the technician gave him incredulous look. Dargon was sure the man thought him a fabricator of falsehoods. Nonetheless, they found the robot, the ants, the bit of burned wire, and the fried ant who gave his life just where Dargon said they would.

***

About a week later, the control unit was repaired, the ants were returned to the cage where they busily built a new nest, new security methods were put in place, and the experiment was continued. This time Dargon, in his robot body, walked boldly up to the nest. It was Scyrk who spotted him. "Drgn," it chittered. "All that you told us came true. You died and have come back from life. You were taken into the sky. The shadow giants returned us to this garden spot. You are a great being who died to save us."

All the ants came up then and danced a worship dance to him. Dargon realized that heíd founded a religion among the ants.

The End

Copyright © 2002 by Joseph Vadalma

Bio: I am a retired technical writer who used to work for a major computer company. I am a voracious reader of all kinds of books, but am especially fond of science fiction and fantasy. I was born and raised in Chicago, Illinois, but have been living in a small town in upstate New York for many years. I am married with four children, ten grandchildren, and one great-grandchild. My hobbies, other than writing, are computer games and do-it-yourself projects. I have had the following short stories published or about to be published in internet E-zines: "The Sands of Time," Black Moon Rising, January, 2001 issue; "Empty Planet," Aphelion, Feb. 2002 issue; "Cosmoergy," Martian Wave, Mar. 2002 issue; "The Key," Black Moon Rising, Apr 2002 issue; "Shadow in the Sky," Aphelion, Apr 2002 issue; "Pop-Art Nightmare," Nocturne Horizons, Jan 2002 issue. I have also written several novels of which are yet to be published. To see more of my writing, visit my website at www.geocities.com/papajoev. It is called "The Fantastic World of Papa Joe."

E-mail: papavad@juno.com

URL: The Fantastic World of Papa Joe


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