Aphis stands beside her Sister-Queens, smelling the pheromones released by the incoming messenger: fear, anger, pain. Craning her head, she touches antennae with Optera and Emmet. Their anxiety rises with hers.
[I'll go.] Emmet, always the bravest, steps forward.
[No, wait.] Aphis extends her front left leg, halting Emmet. [She comes now. See?]
Indeed, the messenger arrives, running straight for the Sister-Queens' raised earthen mound. Aphis tenses. The messenger -- her golden band brighter than most workers] -- bows her head. [My Queens.]
Emmet extends her antennae, ignoring formality to exchange information with the dispatcher. Optera gasps, but Aphis withholds from reprimanding her younger Sister-Queens. Work continues around them, the rushing precision of the nest, but others have picked up the scent now. Antennae wave, testing the air. She must keep authority.
Emmet rears back. [The larvae are dead.]
[What?] Composure broken, Aphis rushes forward to examine the antennae and scent of both Emmet and the messenger, who she thinks is one of Emmet's daughters. [They should have been safe!]
Optera, a wonderful nurse though not yet a mother, cries and clicks her mandibles. Her wings flutter in agitation. [What will we do?]
[Titans killed them on the way to the new nest.] Emmet's daughter, almost prostrate with misery and fear, shakes as she relays her news. [Queen Tetra is also dead.]
Aphis clacks her mandibles, legs shaking. Her Sister-Queen, the biggest supporter of her evacuation plan, the forerunner. Gone.
[Those were the last young,] scents Emmet, acid and sorrow in the air. She turns to Optera. [It is up to you now, Sister-Queen, to make more.]
[But my Flight isn't until we reach the new nest site.]
[It isn't clear if the new site is safe,] scents Aphis. She lays her two front legs on Optera's head. [If the Titans followed Tetra's trail ...]
The messenger -- no, not Emmet's daughter, Tetra's; she should have known by the bright banding -- creaks once more. [They have erased all the trails, my Queens. They covered the ground in new earth, and have heaped it over many entrances.]
This news is too much. [Come on,] Aphis gestures, her legs propelling her down into the command centre, her wing nubs aching. [Soldiers, to me!]
Work pauses at her rapid descent and flaring pheromones. Smaller ants scramble out of her way; she recognises a few. Sisters, daughters, cousins, nieces. Hard workers, all, and strong. The nest has waited two generations for this night. Aphis herself has plotted for most of that time; three years of stoking courage, exploring further, breeding harder than any Sugar Ant before her. She isn't a Queen for nothing.
And nothing will stop her from saving the colony.
[My Queen.] Campo, her oldest surviving soldier-daughter, bends her head before her.
When did you grow so big? Aphis thinks. Her daughter is almost the same size as her -- a feat of growth for any soldier. Glancing around, she sees that most of those who remained to guard the Sister-Queens are of her own line as well, and as large as Campo. Pride fills her abdomen, before she lets it out in a shake of her head and a flick of antennae. They will die soon, as all offspring do, and you cannot get attached.
Still, they are beautiful.
[Status update?] She touches antennae with Campo and releases her wishes into the air. The nest temperature has dropped, but that is to be expected. She holds her anxiety in check, willing her limbs to stillness.
[All basal and core chambers are vacated, my Queen. Soldiers stand ready at the entrances, although] -- Campo glances at Tetra's daughter and back -- [reports are coming in that some are blocked. Workers are on their way.]
Emmet and Optera join her position. The final three. All other Sister-Queens are gone now. They flew their mating Flights and left to create new colonies, never to be scented again. Those that remained died in the war against the Meaters or starved to death in the years before honey-aphid farming took off. A lucky few withered of age. But now the aphids have been poisoned away, and growing old is a dream in a world turned deadly.
Because of the Titans: those beasts who changed the world so drastically her scouts never knew what the outside would look like one night to the next. They laid traps of sweet food that poisoned Sister-Queens, attendants, and offspring. They made rain when the sky held no clouds, and toxic fog when the sun burned. The Sister-Queens, deep in the nest laying eggs and raising pupae, were not immune. The Meat-ant war intensified, as Titans raided them as well. Enemies on every side. The colony suffered.
Aphis won't let them suffer any more.
Scratching the moist soil, a terrible thought grows in Aphis's mind. [How did they know?] she asks Campo and her Sister-Queens. [Did someone take a wrong turn, or, worse, betray us to the Titans? How did they discover our plan to move the colony? Now the time has finally come, and ...] She breaks off, legs agitating.
Campo lifts her abdomen, as if to fend off an attack. [No, my Queen! All Sugar-eaters know we must leave here or die. No Sugar-eater would ever betray you to them. Not even sister colonies.]
The gathered soldiers click their mandibles, filling the chamber with vibration.
[Who, then? The Meaters?] The oxygen passing through her spiracles is thin, insufficient.
Her companions face her, scenting rapidly. [No!] [It cannot be so.] [Titans and Meaters? Surely not.]
She focuses on the last speaker, Emmet, who continues. [The Meaters attack us because Titans also attack them. Poison kills all ant-kind, whether Sugar- or Meat-eater. The night before the Meaters' last incursion, Titans flooded their nest with hot water. I smelled them burning.]
Aphis twinges in sympathy. Her antennae flatten in remembered stench.
[Don't excuse them.] Optera's pheromones deepen.
[No,] scents Aphis, [But Emmet has a point. It must be a separate attack. Meaters sleep at this time, besides. What about ?] She flails, searching for answers.
[It doesn't matter.] Emmet's brown mandibles click. [What are we going to do now?]
Optera releases a barrage of panic scent and rises from the soil, hitting the tunnel ceiling.
[Settle, Sister-Queen.] Aphis pulls on Optera's back legs, ducking beneath her buzzing wings.
[Flight! Flight! A Queen has taken Flight!] A troop of drones push into the chamber, black bodies churning as they, too, open their wings.
Aphis turns on them. [How did they -- no, you fools! Outside, get outside!]
The soldiers rear up, mandibles open, ready to bite any drone who gets too close. Optera is frantic now, crashing against the walls as she struggles to escape.
[You have to go,] Emmet motions. [The mating Flight -- you've started now; you have to finish it.]
The drones, already excited by the upcoming relocation, release pheromones to calm and control the Queen. Optera's instincts respond with her own scents, and the chamber heats rapidly.
Poor timing, thinks Aphis, but she has to make the most of this. She jumps upwards, aiming for her Sister-Queen.
[Optera, I thought we'd have more time.] Aphis pins her to the ceiling. Forced into a wedge, Optera finally meets her antennae. [You'll have to go alone for now, Sister-Queen. Fly high, fly far, and make a new nest. We will find you.]
[I can't!] All six of Optera's legs scrabble against the chamber walls. [I'm supposed to be here, moving the colony with you. Following Tetra. How will I know where to go?] Her antennae fold toward the drones. [There are so many. I didn't know there would be so many!]
Emmet grabs her dark wings. [Of course you knew, you fungus. Stop this, and start being a Queen.] She bites Optera's rear right leg, though not hard. [Give them a chase to remember, and then, give us a home to find.]
Optera bends her head. Her pheromones shift, indicating compliance. Resolve. And at the last, anticipation.
[That's it,] chitters Aphis. [You can do this, Sister-Queen. Now, go!]
She and Emmet release Optera, who darts away before Aphis can say goodbye. She disappears into the exit tunnel, manic drones hot on her golden gaster.
Aphis and Emmet face each other. [It's too late to stop this, now,] Emmet motions.
Aphis has to agree. She gathers herself, glancing around at the emptying hive. [We'll do what we can, send out who we can, and go down fighting.] She wraps her antennae around her Sister-Queen's. [For the good of the colony.]
Emmet and the soldiers respond in kind. [For the good of the colony.]
* * *
The damage is not as bad as she'd feared. Aphis waits below the last entrance that remains unblocked -- workers have cleared the way through but the rest are plugged by sand.
Pheromones drift down the shaft from Emmet and her soldiers above. [Clear. Watch for Titans.]
[Let's go.] Aphis waves her antennae and leads her column out.
In the chill of the night air, her eyes are blinded by a bright light coming from above and to the left. Neither moon, star, nor sun, she shies away from the unusual spectrum and scuttles over to Emmet and Campo. Her Sister-Queen's nervous scent carries on the light breeze.
[Have you found a path to the new nest?] Aphis asks.
Campo motions first. [Not yet, but runners are returning every second. It will not be long.]
[What of Optera?] Remembrance of her own mating response vibrates in phantom wings. Emmet's wing stubs tremble as well; they must move away from Optera's course.
A hum approaches. High overhead Aphis spies them: the Flight, the colony's last chance for renewal. But they are heading toward the unknown light.
[Optera, no!] Raising onto her rear legs, Aphis waves to her Sister-Queen and the drones.
The Flight do not hear her, nor do they stop when Emmet and the soldiers also join in.
A rumble thunders through the air, and Aphis cowers as the silhouette of a Titan obscures the light. A blurred, misshapen giant of nightmares. The ground shudders as it moves faster than any runner towards the nest, and the colony panics. She loses track of both her Sister-Queens as ants break formation. Soldiers surround and try to corral her away from the entrance. But the Titan is already above them, and pain rends the air as her family are crushed by its colossal limbs.
Aphis rushes down the hill and away, fear biting from all around, and stumbles over a stricken ant whose head lies twisted. Death pheromones swirl, bitter. She rears back at the foreign spoor: a Meater. The purple corpse is smaller than any soldier-daughter. Beside her, another worker struggles to right herself, two legs broken and one torn clean off. She gapes her mandibles wide in aggression. Aphis returns the gesture.
[This is your doing, Harvester,] the Meater manages. [Foul, foul, to join with Titans.]
[Fungi, no.] Aphis leans forward, towering over the ancestral foe. [Meaters block nests, steal food.] She stamps her forward legs onto the worker's gaster. [Only Meaters could join with Titans!]
A scent she does not recognise. The Meater's red head rolls. [Enemy enemy ? We all die tonight.]
[No.] Aphis will not let that happen.
But the Titan's passing has left a swathe of damage, and the ground continues to shake. It is returning. She abandons the dying Meater.
[Quick, to me,] Aphis scents. Soldiers come running, direction returned, scenting to their Queen. Some pause to help cousins, snapping at Meaters who are also swarming, rushing without care.
[This way.] She starts to move further from her nest, but the Titan is still above the entrance.
She cannot let it stop the last of her family from escaping.
Eyeing the hill, she turns to Campo, who has caught up. [Find a path.] Her antennae twitch as a terrible sensation shivers across her exoskeleton. She cannot help but look in the scent's direction. [Tetra.]
Campo blocks her sight line. [Not that way, my Queen.]
Her insides roil, acid building at the thought of her Sister-Queen, her family, all their larvae. Dead. Then a hiss explodes through the air, and turning she sees fog streaming from the Titan's hand, illuminated by the light. It swallows the Flight as they whir about the awful luminance.
She darts up the hill, desperate, unthinking, heading for the Titan who so effectively crushes their dream of salvation. Optera tumbles from the sky. Metal glints in the light, heat and haze build, but she takes no notice. She reaches the top of her former nest, where the scent of her dying colony is almost overwhelming. She sees only shadows with no resolution, only violence and pain and barren, steaming ground. She sees the creature without an exoskeleton, flesh that she can bite, enemy, destroyer, ground-shaper.
Aphis charges at the Titan, even as Campo scents from across the shifting soil, [Queen Emmett lives! Follow her trail!]
Hope remains. For the colony.
A boiling waterfall rains from above, and Aphis's world ends.