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Of Aphis and Ants, the end of the anthropocene

Marta had been awoken as usual by their antennae softly stroking her on the inner wrist. They seemed to wait until they were sure she was awake before crawling up her arm. They stroked her arm again just inside the elbow. She suspected they were administering a local anaesthetic.  She waited with the usual sense of dread for the tiny pin pricks as they probed. There were always just three of them.  Were they the same three ants every day? She couldn't tell. They were on the large size for ants, but ants they were, although their proboscides was more mosquito like than  that of any ant.  It was over in a few minutes. They waddled off with the bags inside their legs full of her blood. They disappeared under the door.  There was no keeping them out. They could fire off acid to dissolve any lock, any door, and leave humans a pulpy heap if they resisted or tried to fight back.

They always made Marta think of the ants on the rose bushes she observed as a child, herding and milking aphids. Such a benign fascinating scene, so unlike the horror she was now experiencing.

Marta looked down from her office to the streets below. Washington was in ruins, the city crumbling. Nature had seriously begun to take over. It also looked incredibly clean, no longer grimy with rubbish everywhere. There were few people to be seen in the streets and only the odd car being driven about, where once, not so long ago, she could look down and see the streets teaming with people and cars. Ironically, from that height the traffic, people and cars, had looked like ants streaming from their 
 nests. It made her smile. Once the great apex predators, now just prey to ants.

The ants had become well established before anyone had any inkling that something was amiss. Marta and her staff in the Environment Protection Agency blamed themselves for missing the event. Media reports had come in of small towns being invaded by ants, but they had largely been ignored. It was just another one day news wonder.  They had seen it all before, “killer bees”, birds falling out of the sky, and the like. Pest control people had been called in and pesticide bombs used but the ants seem unaffected.  

It was hard to pin point just when panic set in. When the reports came out that they were taking blood from people? But blood sucking insects were common enough.  When any resistance or effort to fight back was countered by a blast of some sort of acid to the eyes? But there were crazy ants and fire ants and ants that fired off formic acid to its enemies or competitors. It was probably when stories came out that the ants could administer a lethal blast, that they had taken over towns and that people were in their control, acting like zombies. It was only then that Marta sent out scientists to see just what was going on. The bigger cities were not initially affected.

Marta was alone in the many storied building housing the EPA. It was where she was living these last years, sleeping on the day bed she had always kept in her office, since Des had taken their two children to join some religious sect out west in the 
 mountains, as so many had done in the early days of the invasion, believing the end days had come, the apocalypse. She believed they were dead, probably committing suicide along with so many others.

Marta showered and dressed. Water was still connected but not for much longer she thought. The central heating had long failed but luckily the climate had warmed enough for it not to be an issue, and the building was mostly glass which allowed the sun in to do its job.

Marta had some breakfast in the old staff cafeteria. In the early days she had lived out of the staff canteen until all the stores ran out. Now urban farmers kept her in supplies in exchange for space on the roof. It was safe from pillaging as she kept the entrance locked.  However, they had informed Marta they were thinking of leaving as they had few customers now.

It had taken Marta and her colleagues awhile to work out that the ants didn't want to kill them.  They just wanted to farm them. They seemed to want their lives to go on as usual, or more likely they were just indifferent to what humans wanted to do, just so long as their own objectives were not compromised, whatever they might be.

When the ants reached the suburbs of the major towns and it became clear it was a world-wide phenomenon, then the crazies seemed to take over.  Rumours spread of 
 alien invasion, Armageddon and the end times. Accusations were made about genetic engineering gone horribly wrong. The usual expected stuff. Demands were made to turn nukes on the ants, nuke them out of existence. The politicians had no idea what to do. They hid themselves in bunkers which the ants inevitably breached. The think tanks kept talking and the ants kept moving. Things began to fall apart.

It was Marta's job to get the policy makers good scientific information. The scientists were out there doing their job as usual.  Marta made it a priority to keep contacts alive, computer networks going. The internet, originally designed for a nuclear catastrophe, served its purpose for this catastrophe.

One scientist in particular, Eddie Wilson, a world renowned expert on ants, had been out in the field very early, taking notes.  He had arrived at one of the small towns where the invading ants had made their nest in the basement of one of the town's larger houses.  He just stayed in or near his truck for days and observed their behaviour.  When the ants found him and came looking for blood, he didn't panic. He had observed that if there was resistance, the ants would administer a sub lethal dose of the acid they could fire off, which seemed to calm the victim, or immobilise them.  If there was an attack on the ants or just violent resistance the ants would fire off a lethal dose and then just smother the victim in ants until all had been carried away and just the bones remained. It was scary and no surprise that people looked dazed and zombie like, unable to quite cope with the reality of it all. Nor were children, 
 babies, spared, which was the most difficult to endure. Cats and dogs were also rounded up with varying results, mostly lethal.

Marta asked Edward if he could capture some of the ants so that they might be studied in the lab but he demurred saying that it was impossible. He had seen the ants dissolve a robot which had been sent in to deal with them.

However, his first reports back to Marta indicated that the ants were only interested in farming humans, not in killing them all off. Farming ants were not unknown, and even ants that liked blood.  His opinion that this was a mutation that had gone unnoticed. Given all the chemicals that had been poured into the environment, no one should be surprised. He thought that if humans acquiesced, they would come to no real harm and it would allow time to study them further and perhaps get a hold on the situation.  He had watched colonies which had been firebombed, pesticide bombed, which they just shrugged off.

Edward also maintained that humans would have to survive without meat as he had gone to an abattoir and seen it put out of action by the ants. It was just impossible to slaughter an animal without it being completely taken over by the ants.  So farming had better be directed towards growing beans for human consumption. However, they had to get iron into children as without meat and the daily take of blood many would not survive and the human population would crash.

Marta took his report and other information which backed up his observations to the White House. The president, from his bunker under the White House, made a public appeal for calm, telling the public to acquiesce and get on with their jobs, whether it was retailing, shipping, or rubbish collection. Emphasis was put on hairdressers, beauticians and cafes in order to encourage social cohesion. Everything was done to keep important infrastructure in place, food production, power, water. The military was diverted into maintaining any gaps in essential services. But as people died, as the population decreased, it became harder and harder to maintain services. People adapted as best they could. The picture was pretty much the same all over the world where ants had spread simply by the available transport means.

Marta kept at her station, reporting to the White House, until she realised that no one was there. There was a story circulating that the President and his advisors had simply given in and opened the doors to the ants. Marta had thought it more likely they had found an escape hole somewhere, possibly some remote island which had escaped the ants.

Marta was now on her own. Edward, her scientist, had filed what he said was his last report.  They were both now old, their lives consumed by the crisis.

“My report says it all. As far as I am concerned there is nothing more to say. For a long time we knew our population was out of control. Something had to happen. We 
were expecting a catastrophe but were looking in the wrong direction. Nature is full of surprises. We were expecting a virus, not an ant.  We had been the apex predator for so long, we didn't expect to be the prey. But there it is.

“I've been roaming the country for a long time now, watching events. The human population has crashed. Not enough children have been surviving to breed. It is tough. But there is hope, as always. As the small towns die out of humans, the ants also die out, and they return to a more benign form. Vast swathes of the land now are free of humans. No prey for the ants. It is as simple as that.  They are reverting to type. It is only when a mammalian population increases, humans, herds of cattle, antelope, that the ants start building up again in numbers.

“Human survivors are moving out into the countryside in small numbers, small bands. It is tough going but better than where you are. Many predators of all sorts to contend with. They even manage to get a little meat for their children before the ants turn up again.

“I'm going to join them. I'm retiring to the country so to speak. Come with us.”

The Anthroprocene was over.  


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