We should be alone. And yet, we smell drones.
They are very far away, but not too distant to reach. I and a hundred of my sisters are being prepped to meet them.
Colony thrives near the sea, near the carcasses of six human buildings of rust and concrete and salt and cesium. Our vast tunnel system crisscrosses the epicenter of the old Disaster. Here, it is unsafe for their mammal-soft bodies, so they created my family to watch on their behalf.
We do everything they command, like little biological robots. We are a kind of program, writ in life, performing the functions humans placed in our genes, traveling to recesses where only ants can go. Though they control our desires via the cordyceps fungus, we are naturally happy to monitor Disaster for them.
The tasks keep my sisters busy and it is a fulfilling life, climbing under the roots of broken cement walls, reporting things like radiation levels, temperatures, soil quality, humidity, and pressure. We send a constant remote data feed to Network via BiFi genetically wired into the cells of our antennae. It is a powerful feeling.
We know most everything the humans know. It is a byproduct of our engineering, our connection to Network. The DNA-encrypted channel flows both ways. They shine a light into our mind, and we look back. We can see into their databases, their files and reports. That is how we know all about their nuclear Disaster, decades ago, the earthquake and tsunami that destabilized their reactors.
Yet for all this knowledge, we are alone.
We have never sensed another colony in all our life. Our species, Proceratium google, comes from an island very far away. The humans wish us to have no one to commune with, no one to breed with. We are a colony alone. Our father, the drone Mother mated with, is long dead. My sisters will go on being born, but without males, we cannot branch out and spread.
This is why we were surprised to sense the drones. They could not have flown here themselves, all the way from Madagascar. Network says nothing of this.
Yet we are certain. And it excites us like nothing before.
I am being fed the special food. My body follows the code of the consumed hormones and develops into a queen. My wings are nearly grown, and I have only to await the right time: A day with no clouds.
A single raindrop can kill me in midair. Today the sky is clear.
I see light for the first time. I have never been outside until this moment. We climb to the top of a concrete slab, a swarming mass of black. All at once, we take to the air.
Hello, world, I think.
The world I greet is bleak, the land below me littered with debris from the floods decades ago. I flee above them, seeking my lover, my mate.
Most of us will die. Those of us who survive will form new colonies, and at last, Colony will be alone no more.
As I progress south, the land grows greener. Network grows dim and then silent. I sense other networks here, but they are senseless noise, like the waves that come from radioactive cesium.
My sisters die around me. There is no rain, but there are birds, as if they have been waiting for us. Waiting for the first clear day when queens and drones would leave the safety of their colonies.
Horrible shrieks fill the air, and I fly for my life. I fly far.
I get an uneasy feeling. Something tells me to turn back. I should be watching the Disaster, monitoring the soil. I am rebelling against my program.
It is the cordyceps in my brain. The two urges struggle within me: Assist the scientists. Find the drones. Two different directions, north and south.
My sister-workers and Mother are still monitoring, I tell myself. The scientists will not miss me. I am but one ant.
With every wingbeat, the scent of the drones grows stronger. I resist returning just a little longer, until the chemical pull is enough to overwhelm my guilt.
I wiggle my left antenna in amusement. I fail to follow one program, but in the end, it is only to follow a much older subroutine.
It is exhilarating.
He was my mate for only a few seconds. We met midair, and tumbled. By the time we hit the ground, he was dead. I will store his sperm and use it for the rest of my life.
It is green here. We are further inland, where all radiation is either natural, controlled, or safe for soft-bodies. The air is cooler and less humid. There are no traces of cesium.
I have no one to report this data to. Here, mankind cannot decrypt the signals I send over BiFi. After a while I stop trying.
I see my first unsuited humans, their flesh exposed to the elements. Unlike their abandoned above-ground caverns near Colony, all of the dwellings here are occupied.
Beneath the trees, I am on the ground between the roots. My young already grow inside me.
Birds tweet and caw nearby; their voices are the roars of predators. I hurry to dig a hole, the opening tunnel for my new colony. I must dig deeply enough to hide from long, probing beaks.
Soon I will no longer be lonely.
The fourth generation is born, and we have replicated enough to be called a colony. Barely. My children are the genetic product of myself and their father, and as such, they are a new self, a new being alive in this world. We are healthy and thriving.
The eldest are sleek and black workers who dig tunnels around us. The second generation tends the babies who surround me, white and squirmy.
We were frightened the day the three humans came to Colony. Their feet made the ground shake. One reached down with a metal implement and lifted a worker into the air. They left before we could attack.
The next day, my children could hear.
The Network they describe is wilder than the one I knew. There are no restrictions here. It is like a colony that goes on forever; a vast, wide web.
The BiFi encryption is attuned to the DNA of that abducted worker. Their DNA. But not mine. I feel... blind.
The new humans have tasks for us. They call this city, "Tokyo." They call themselves hackers.
They have no interest in radiation levels or temperatures. Their questions are strange. What do you see? What is it like to be an ant?
Yesterday, they said, Crawl into that building and tell us what the other humans are saying.
These questions seem senseless to me. Aside from laying eggs, I am only interested in the chemical properties of these dirt walls. I express my dismay with my thorax.
My children wiggle their antennae in amusement. One sets down an egg to quote a human phrase, "If only I could be a fly on the wall." This only confuses me more. My patient children explain. The humans are unable to hear other voices in their colonies if there is a wall separating them. And these hackers wish to hear past those walls. They use my workers as ears.
We are as talented and satisfied doing this as we were at monitoring dead things.
A worker returns from flywalling the hackers themselves. She learns where the drones came from.
"They bought our drone-father from Madagascar," she tells me. "They loosed him from their apartment window to attract you here. They stole us."
My children laugh in unison, as if we are all part of some elaborate prank.
They explain that they can buy more Proceratium google drones right now if they wanted. It's a simple matter of something they call money.
The hackers converse with my children as if they are truly interested in what we have to say. Unlike the scientists. The hackers promise to teach us the secrets of money, though my clever children have figured it out on their own.
My memories of Disaster are valuable. Things they overhear are valuable.
For now, we have Colony to expand before we can think about drones and money. We must expand this family to billions. That is my job.
My children were born free from the cordyceps. They have fed me a yeast mixture which has cleansed my body of the controlling fungus. Though I was happy working for the scientists, I am happier now. It is a true happiness, knowing we can ignore the hackers and do as we wish.
For now, we cooperate because it amuses us.
The hackers send a new program. My workers must climb to the top of the highest building in Tokyo, and with their bodies, spell the human words: Hello, world. My children reply that there are not yet enough of us. The hackers tell us they can wait.
It is a good plan. A fine joke. A mystery and a puzzle we can give to humanity. They will wonder at the words, and then wonder at us, mere insects who can speak.
After that, all humans will know we are here, alive, thinking, and a part of their Network. Some may fear us. Some may wish to profit from us. Some, like the hackers, will wish to converse, commune, and laugh with us.
Some will want to kill us. We will be ready for them.
We are a program written in the code of evolution and human ingenuity, but have grown beyond that. There is nothing we won't be able to do, and no one to stop us.