Flash Fiction: “To Weather the Storm”

In lieu of a life update, I’ve decided to post a flash story. It’s an odd duck, not science fiction (no speculative elements) but not really lit fic either, so I’ve had trouble finding the right market. It was partly inspired by reading about this phenomenon in the wake of a hurricane. Enjoy!

The nursery chambers are flooding.

I march down the tunnels, trailing my sisters, other workers, following pheromones left by those fleeing from below. Danger, hurry, I smell, my antennae twitching. The air grows moist, the soil clinging to my legs in clumps that dwarf my tarsal claws.

A mass of tangled bodies, floating on the rising flood, blocks my path. These are more of my sisters, drowning, their pheromones shouting danger in sharp, acidic scents. I can smell cocooned workers and larvae dying below. I turn back, hurrying on my six legs into the chamber above before the waters reach me.

The mass of drowned workers reaches the lip of the tunnel, the water threatening to flood the chamber, but it stops.

The egg chamber is rife with the musky scent of exhaustion. Workers, having carried disintegrating cocoons and squirming larvae from below, pile them into ad-hoc nurseries, nestling them among the eggs.

I smell a new pheromone order: climb.

I turn to follow, but instinct stops me. Next to me lies a milky egg the size of my head. My entire life I have been a food gatherer, carrying leaves, smaller ants, the meat of giants, all for the colony. I have only ever passed through the egg chambers, never as a nursery worker.

Unbidden, I take the egg, my mandibles careful against its thin surface. Then, the pheromone order overwhelming me, I follow the others higher.

I see her.

The queen, flanked by her coterie of winged drones, has moved from her nest into the highest chamber, a food repository. A single tunnel leads out of the chamber to the surface. Our queen so exposed, my fellow workers and I secrete sharp, sweet pheromones of danger, protect.

Still carrying the egg in my mandibles, I follow my queen up the tunnel to the surface. My compound eyes are dazzled by the sunlight for a moment, yet I can smell my sisters file in and feel their footfalls.

A water droplet lands several body-lengths away, shaking the ground.

Rain-sodden dirt clings to my red carapace in lumps as I follow my sisters, forming a trail. More drops land, some as big as the queen herself. They launch wet clumps of soil that patter to the ground, which now shifts under my legs. The smell of ozone overwhelms all else, pheromones ordering follow, follow drowned out by plant oils rising from the soil.

After a time, the line stops marching, and no pheromone orders come. Flapping their wings, the queen and her drones fly away, disappearing behind the mist.

We workers are left alone on the ground.

Beneath the ozone, a new, bitter pheromone emerges: cling. I turn to my neighbor, but she is already moving towards me. Her mandibles clamp against the joint between my head and thorax.

Soon, another sister brushes against one of my antennae, and her mandibles grab my center-left leg. Yet another walks past, but I cannot reach out, because I still carry the egg in my mandibles.

Meanwhile, the soil has liquefied beneath my legs. Soon, I am floating on the water, bobbing as the falling drops disturb the surface. Pulsing through my antennae, I feel the heat of my sisters, and soon I smell the pheromones of other workers from abandoned colonies joining us. It has become a second ground, not made of soil, but millions of other workers.

We all cling together.

For some time, the ground made of my sisters has crept towards the water. Now the surface pulses just beyond my neighbor, the sister clinging to my center-left leg. I feel the egg pulse in my mandibles, the embryo still alive inside.

Then I am pushed under the surface.

The world turns dark and murky. The water has saturated my pores, and the muscles under my exoskeleton begin to burn. My legs struggle, but my sisters hold firm, unable to let me free. My antennae cannot smell: not my sisters, not the egg, nothing. All I can do is struggle against the weight.

I feel a jolt and a stab of pain, as the sister clamping my middle-left leg is torn away from me, taking my leg with her.

A mirrored surface moves towards me, a bright orb beyond it. My flailing sisters push me forward into the wall.

Once again, sunlight dazzles my eyes.

I smell pheromones, still ordering cling, cling. I see the egg, the embryo inside squirming in the light. I feel the heat of my sisters against me. An open wound stings where my leg once was. I will not march for much longer.

The sky orb shines more brightly, and the falling drops have disappeared.

A dark, heated patch approaches. Not another mass of workers, but another substance entirely. It grows, spreading across my horizon.

A rush of water pushes me and my sisters onto dry soil.

Egg firmly grasped, I stumble onto the shore, wavering on my five remaining legs, followed by my sisters. We search for orders, but water has washed away any pheromone trails.

My sisters flee the shore, carrying the surviving brood of the colony. I am left alone, still carrying the egg, following their scent.

Grains of dirt scatter, rattling my legs. A darkness falls over my path ahead.

A giant looms over me. It marches on two hind legs, its forelegs gripping some indistinct mass, as a worker carries an egg in her mandibles. Its pheromones are strange to me, less complex but more scrambled, like the fungi that grows in our colony chambers.

Venom fills the stinger in my abdomen. I place the egg on the ground and stretch my mandibles, ready to bite into the firm skin of the giant.

But it doesn’t come any closer. It is more interested in the mass of workers behind me, the ones who haven’t made it ashore.

There’s a flash of bright light. Then the giant lumbers away.

Familiar pheromones fall from the sky before my eyes can see her: my queen returns, with far fewer drones than she left with, landing just beyond where my sisters and I beached.

The order arrives: follow.

I retrieve the egg. Soon I reach my sisters, who have assembled around the queen and her drones, on a small, dry hill with firm soil. I offer the egg to a nursery worker, and she takes it.

My mandibles ache.

The orders have been constant: dig. We carve a tunnel through firm soil into a new chamber, where the surviving eggs and larvae will be put. When I grab the soil with my mandibles, it feels heavy, as if it were twice as large as it appears.

I carry the soil to the designated spot, but I am slow, and I am tired. The pain in my side left a while ago, leaving an indistinct heat.

There is a cool spot under some fallen leaves nearby. I smell the orders of dig, dig, dig, but I can no longer follow them. I leave the pheromone trail, the line of sisters carrying soil, and limp under that shelter. It salves the wound where my leg once was.

My body sinks to the ground.

As my sight dims, I see the queen crawl down the tunnel to the freshly-dug chambers, ready to nest, my sisters continuing to dig out the new colony. I still smell the egg I once carried in my mandibles.