Lucille froze stock still on top of the counter. She had been running along beside the edge of a damp sponge when she had felt a vibration and at once sent out a whiff of alarm pheromone to warn the other girls.
Peering around the corner of the sponge, she waved her antennae to sense whatever was on the air and gauge the situation. Her eyes weren’t very good, but she became aware of a man in a blue apron at the far end of the counter. He was cursing loudly and squirting something from a plastic bottle at the other ants on her team.
Lucille was an apprentice forager for Queen Attina’s ants, a colony living on the property that Apron Man somehow thought of as his own. She had just received her outdoor certification a couple of weeks ago1. Before that, she had been a porter, and when the colony had been forced by rain to move from the main nest in the garden to a makeshift one just under the kitchen floor, she had spent a couple of exhausting days carrying stuff to the new lair: food stores, pupae, the winged male Alates, who were too lazy to walk, and even Queen Attina herself, who was too fat. It took a couple of dozen porters, working in shifts, to get her over there. Then they had to broaden the main tunnel to get her down to her lair. Attina had put on a few milligrams since founding the colony.
The foods that were available around the garden nest were much better than the processed snacks in this kitchen. Lucille was getting along in days, now, with a touch of irritable crop syndrome, and all the gluten this apron guy ate kept her up at night. The couple next door shopped at an organic grocery, but their kitchen was spotless, while Apron Man was a slob. Crumbs and leftovers everywhere. It was easy pickings, and so here we are, she thought. Every morning, the priests send us here.
The priests were a small group of the oldest ants. They got up early each morning and stepped outside to decide where to send the foraging teams. They liked to avoid ants from neighboring nests, so there wouldn’t be any fighting. Then, they went back inside and spent the rest of the day just lounging around. They had it easy. Lucille liked to imagine a life in the priesthood, although she knew they would never accept her. And right now, she had this human to deal with.
Apron Man hated the ants, and he’d been growing more aggressive lately. They’d been raiding his kitchen for some time and it was starting to get to him. At first, he would just squish single ants with his finger and wash down the counter tops a few times. Then he tried barriers of coffee grounds and baby powder, but the ants kept coming. Last week he put up a framed sign with the words “No Ants”. There was an ant silhouette in a red circle with a red slash through it. But it showed a different species than Attina’s horde, so the team ignored it. Now, the guy had escalated to this spray bottle, which he held out in front with both hands like a TV cop, sighting along the bottle cap. Lucille watched as he moved slowly along the counter on the balls of his feet, looking for targets.
The ants in Lucille’s party were scattered around the counter and walls, where they had been looking for food. Most remained immobile, hoping not to be noticed. But now, Sara, who was caught out in the open, suddenly lost her nerve and made a break for the wall. Apron Man spotted her as soon as she moved, scurrying on her six tiny legs. He squatted down a little lower and straightened his arms with the spray bottle. Lucille watched in horror as a stream of fluid shot through the air and landed on the poor ant, clogging her spiracles and drowning her. The man laughed triumphantly.
Lucille’s antennae picked up a trace of citrate. Too bad for Sara, she thought.
But now, it was Lucille’s turn to panic as the man came steadily closer. He stared intently at the counter, picking up plates and forks and looking underneath them. If he picks up this sponge I’m dead, she thought. She tried to pick a moment when the man’s gaze swung the other way and made a dash away from the sponge, ducking behind the No Ants sign. As soon as the darkness enveloped her, she felt safe. Creeping for some distance, eventually she hunkered down in the dark, under the edge of the leaning frame, and let her mind wander as she waited for the man to leave.
One of Lucille’s first memories was of emerging from her pupal case in the crèche near Queen Attina’s inner chamber. A crèche worker had approached and groomed her for the first time, smearing her cuticle with a paste of hydrocarbons from the nest’s midden. All of the colony’s ants wore this scent, which they sensed with their antennae. There were other hydrocarbons, too, that might mark an ant as a stockroom worker or a laborer. They told a lot about an individual. Hydrocarbons make the ant, it was said.
Nearly all the ants in the colony were sisters, hatched from Attina’s eggs. There were a few winged males, the Alates, who just sat around waiting for the next neighborhood mating party. That was where the males and newly-hatched, winged queens from all the local colonies would get together and have sex all night. Attina had gone to one of these orgies and claimed to have made it with every Alate there, the slut. But afterward, she had established the garden nest and founded the colony, and since then she’d been laying eggs every day.
Hiding behind the framed sign, Lucille suddenly thought of Zelda, who had emerged from the pupal case next to her own. Zelda was a tough ant. Lucille had seen her pick a fight with another worker once, squirting formic acid to burn the other ant’s eyes, and then biting off her abdomen. Even before pupating, Zelda had gotten into trouble. She was caught sniffing princess pheromone with a couple of other larval delinquents, and the crèche workers had spent a whole day biting them to prevent them from developing into queens. She’d had a chip on her trochanter ever since.
These days, back at the nest, Zelda hung out with a group of toughs who loved to pick on Lucille. They made fun of her looks. The ants in the colony all shared the same mother, but they weren’t twins. They had many different fathers and their appearances varied. Lucille’s cuticle was ruddy, and Zelda’s group teased her mercilessly about it. They called her “Red” and said she looked like a Xeno.
The Xenos were a tribe of parasitic ants living under the hedge. They were known to sneak pupae into other ant colonies to avoid having to feed them. The insinuation was that Lucille was an outsider, and sometimes she felt isolated even from ants who were not part of Zelda’s circle of friends. She became withdrawn and insecure.
Suddenly, Lucille was bathed in light. Apron Man had pulled away the frame under which she hid. The guy must have spotted her when she’d made her run from the sponge, Lucille thought. And now, terrified, she watched as he raised the spray bottle and pointed it right at her. He squeezed the trigger.
The bottle wheezed. Nothing came out. The spray mechanism must have leaked and needed priming, Lucille thought. The man pumped it furiously while she ran like hell. She felt a few droplets splash just behind her as the pump began to work again, and, in desperation, she jumped from the edge of the counter.
Down and down she fell, through empty space, as the wall flashed dizzyingly beside her. Lucille only weighed a few milligrams, and her buoyancy in the air slowed her fall. At the bottom, she landed on her feet. Looking quickly around, she saw that she was in a corner, with walls on two sides. At the base of one of them, an incompetent contractor had left a narrow gap under the baseboard. Into this gap she now ran, out of reach of the citric spray. Thank Aeacus2 for shoddy workmanship, she thought. Apron Man sprayed at the wall for a while, but she cowered under the overhang and again waited for him to leave.
Lucille’s team had found a half bag of M&Ms behind the toaster oven, and now her mission was to bring news of the find back to the nest. She had filled her crop with sample chocolate, taken from one of the blue ones, her favorite. Leaving a pheromone trail back to the find, she would feed some of the chocolate to other ants by regurgitating it down their throats, a feeding process that ants call trophyllaxis. Describing the size of the find with hydrocarbons, she would then recruit other ants to collect the rest of the M&Ms.
Sara had chosen to sample a red M&M, she recalled wistfully. Suddenly, it dawned on Lucille that she was going to have to tell Michelle about Sara’s death. Michelle had been Sara’s grooming partner. How was she going to break the news to her?
The three of them had been friends for a long time. Lucille had always liked Michelle: she had a cute little upturned clypeus and mandibles that were to die for. But, as shy and accustomed to rejection as she was, Lucille could never bring herself to make a move. She wanted to tell Michelle how she felt, but she could never find the right hydrocarbons. And so, Lucille had longed for Michelle in secret, while Sara openly courted her. Finally, the two of them had moved in together, while Lucille ended up sharing a flat in Elm Shaft with five other girls. She had to go to a public salon in the Queen’s Tunnel for grooming.
And now Sara was gone. Secretly, Lucille was ashamed to find herself wondering if this might not be an opportunity.
Now that she was a forager, she mused, she was qualified for housing on the upper levels of the nest, near the entrance. The galleries up there were modern and roomy, much nicer than her cramped apartment. Perhaps she could entice Michelle to move in with her. But, she was getting ahead of herself. First, she had to break the bad news. And those upper level places hardly ever became available, anyway.
After a while, Lucille emerged from under the baseboard. The man seemed to have gone. But she was lost and had to find her way back to the colony. She stood indecisively for a few seconds, not sure of what to do, then started walking along the edge of the wall, toward the light. There had been a window over the counter.
Shortly, she found her path blocked by a line of white chalk drawn across the floor. It was Miraculous Insecticide Chalk, she realized, and Apron Man must have drawn it. Unscrupulously sold as non-toxic, so-called Chinese chalk is actually laced with pesticides. Lucille figured the guy didn’t know this, though, because he had it all around his food. Maybe that’s why he acted so weird.
But the team had seen a chalk line yesterday, Lucille recalled, a little way from the place under the sink where they had gotten into the kitchen. She decided to follow it.
Ever since she was a young ant, Lucille had wanted to be a forager. She would have jumped at any job, really, that allowed her to work outdoors. The inside of the nest was close and musty. It tended to get moldy despite the ants cleaning it all the time. The avenues and tunnels were narrow, the plazas were small, and even though it was crowded there were no good restaurants. They were all trophyllaxis joints, and some of the waiters gave her the creeps.
But it was hard to qualify for those outside jobs. Only older ants got certified, or those with previous outside experience.
With her reddish cuticle and the suggestion that she was somehow foreign, it was hard for Lucille to find any kind of job at all, even inside. If you looked different, there were ants who didn’t want to work with you, jobs that weren’t open. Sure, you could always find work on the fungus farms. They always needed labor. It was hot, cuticle-breaking work and most of the girls wouldn’t do it, the little formic princesses.
In the early days of the colony, Attina’s warriors had raided neighboring nests, bringing home slaves to do those jobs. Lucille reflected that, despite forcibly bringing in outsiders, the colony did not really seem to like having them around.
But Lucille didn’t want to work on the farms, either. She thought the fungus was slimy, and she was prone to yeast infections, anyway. The farms were in the hot, claustrophobic core of the nest, and she simply couldn’t stand it in there. So, Lucille found herself among the many idle worker ants hanging around at tunnel intersections waiting for day jobs. Attina’s well-established colony had an excess of workers available for foraging, maintaining, and cleaning the nest. The economy was strong, but unemployment was rampant.
The chalk trail turned to the right, and Lucille continued along beside it. It seemed to follow the contours of some cabinetry. Eventually, it led to a green floor mat, and Lucille experienced a flash of recognition. They had come to this mat during yesterday’s excursion. It was made of carpeting with a Persian design, and Sara had complained that it clashed with the dish towels. But there were only a few granola crumbs on it, and they had left disappointed.
Now, however, Lucille had a good idea of where she was. They had been counting steps3, yesterday, when they came to this mat. It was about 100000 steps4 from the far edge to the crack in the wainscoting where they had emerged. And the mat formed a convenient bridge over the Chinese chalk. She began to walk, and continued musing while a part of her brain counted steps.
One day, Lucille had found work stacking seeds in one of the nest’s storage galleries. She was watching as some workers carried pizza crumbs down to a gallery in the second basement after the foragers had dropped them off near the nest entrance. One of them had rubbed hydrocarbons on her antennae to tell her they needed warehouse help. So, she applied and got hired as a stacker. After that, she worked the warehouse regularly.
Lucille was ambitious. She worked her abdomen off, stacking crumbs, and was soon promoted to porter. That allowed her to respond to hydrocarbons from incoming carriers when a new shipment arrived, and she got to go up to the entrance to pick up loads. The air was wonderfully fresh up there, near the opening. It felt cool in her spiracles. She would quickly carry her crumb or seed back down into the nest, then hurry back up to get more.
It was during one of these runs, while Lucille was near the nest entrance, that she felt the vibrations of a loud noise coming from outside. A large mower was being pushed across the lawn by an old man in dirty jeans. The catch bag on the mower was overflowing, but he didn’t seem to care. Cuttings flew all around, a number of them falling across the nest entrance and blocking the trails that the foragers used.
Outbound ants whose passage had been blocked came running back into the nest smearing hydrocarbons on everyone they met. There was an emergency call for workers to clear the way. Lucille wasn’t certified for outside work, but she received an emergency credential from the intense signaling and ended up outside, dragging grass clippings away from the opening. It was her first experience outside the nest, and she loved it.
The cracked board was much as she remembered it. It was a small crack, but beneath it a patch of the wood floor, wetted repeatedly by spills from the sink above, had softened and left a depression. Lucille ducked down into this and scooted under the cabinetry into the space near the trash bags under the sink. There were often garbage spills down here, with pheromone trails left by the ants that exploited them. Lucille found a small branch trail and began to follow it back toward the nest.
The branch trail took her to a main thoroughfare that ran along the exterior wall of the house. Lucille was surprised at the number of outbound ants she found on this main path. A strong scent of trail pheromone on the ground indicated a rich source of food nearby. Lucille had hoped to start recruiting workers to go get the M&Ms from among the foragers out here on the trail, but every ant she encountered turned her down.
Their hydrocarbons confirmed that they were already on their way to a source of food. The human had dropped a plastic box full of a sugar solution a short way up the trail. Simple syrup was highly prized in the colony. The ants would fill their crops with it and return to feed it to their nest mates. This was better than Lucille’s chocolate, and closer to the nest. After a few more fruitless encounters, Lucille gave up and continued down the main trail toward home.
She thought again about Michelle, dreading having to tell her about Sara.
The trail led through a space between the floorboards to the crawl space under the house. There, the nest entrance lay close against the outer wall. But, when she arrived there, Lucille was shocked to find a dire situation. Mountainous piles of dead ants surrounded the main entrance, as midden workers dragged still more of them out through the opening. Lucille had to slip past the outbound traffic. Inside, more dead ants clogged the passageways. The midden workers were complaining about all the work, smearing hydrocarbons on anyone who passed by in an effort to recruit help. They were offering an outdoor credential and many of the day workers were interested, but Lucille pressed on into the nest.
She learned more from the other ants in the tunnel. A poison was circulating in the colony and killing workers. No one was sure where it came from, but it had begun at about the same time the foragers started bringing in that simple syrup. Some of the girls thought the stuff was doped with borate, a deadly poison to ants. They said the plastic box was a trap that Apron Man had bought. He had removed the label so the ants wouldn’t know what it was. The guy acts like a buffoon, but he is ruthless, Lucille reflected
The poison had almost reached Queen Attina, which would have meant the end of the colony. But Sasha, her taster, had gotten sick before the queen consumed any, and Attina was spared. Too bad for Sasha.
Lucille was surrounded by a cacophony of signals as the colony dealt with the emergency. Some ants wanted the sick ones isolated, some wanted them disinfected with formic acid. Some wanted the whole inside of the nest disinfected, while others advocated a return to the garden nest, away from the poison and the dead bodies. Competing hydrocarbons were passed back and forth. In the chaos, Lucille forgot her own message of chocolate. She continued toward her apartment, uncertain what to do.
However, the message about returning to the garden nest had begun to resonate with her. The food was so much better in the garden, after all. And if the colony did move, apartments would be assigned on a first come, first served basis among the foragers. This was her chance, Lucille reflected, to get a place near the entrance.
She hurried off to find Michelle.
1An ant week is 6 days long.
2Aeacus was an ancient Greek king who asked Zeus to turn ants into men (so he could have a nice army). Present day ants worship him as a god and try to appease him for fear that he might do the same to them.
3Ants calculate distance traveled by counting their steps, each of which is about 0.2mm long. They don’t usually waste pheromone to mark a trail unless food has been found.
4 This is in base 6. Having six legs, ants perform all mathematical operations in base 6, where the number 100000 is equivalent to 7,776. This is about 1.5 meters.