Author: Moriah Geer-Hardwick
With a single, well-practiced motion, Ernst flicks a cigarette up from the pack and brings it up to his mouth. The filter barely touches his lips, but as he swipes the pack away, it remains behind, dangling precariously. His other hand comes up, a cheap plastic lighter tucked loosely in his grip. With a rasp, it offers up a meager flame. For a moment, the harsh terrain of the old man’s weathered face is illuminated by its reluctant glow.
“Well, boys,” Ernst wheezes through a plume of tobacco smoke. “I remember when this was a simple job. Drive your truck around. Put down some chemical. Shoot the breeze with the customers.”
Mueller isn’t listening. He clenches Caldwell’s sleeve and stares wildly up at him. “No, you got to wet it,” he hisses. “Otherwise it’ll stick.” Caldwell nods anxiously and fumbles for his water bottle.
“I ain’t saying formicidae weren’t capable of complex behaviors back then.” Ernst snags his cigarette between two knobby fingers and pulls it far enough away to dig his thumb into the wiry hairs of his mustache. “But it used to be things like eusociality could be exploited. Give ‘em some neonicotinoids and let trophallaxis do the rest.”
His hand shaking, Caldwell soaks down the dressing and gingerly presses it against the tangle of intestines bulging out from the large gash in Mueller’s belly. Mueller clenches his jaw and gurgles out a pained whimper. A gush of crimson seeps up into the bandage.
“These days it’s all emergency combat medicine, tactical entry, small arms proficiency…” Ernst cuts his list short to suck in another lungful of smoke.
“When you started out you could squish an ant between your fingers,” mutters Caldwell. He glances at the bullet-riddled carapaces piled up around them. “Back when humans figured we were the dominant species.”
Ernst’s eyes crinkle as he coughs out a soulless chuckle. “What about them damn aliens, plopping down their technology for a bunch of bugs instead of us? Them pylons changed the game, for sure. How long was it ‘fore we started getting calls about ants the size of a fist? Then big as dogs. Now look at ‘em.” He nods down at one of the carcasses. “Put a lot of money into this industry though, I’ll tell you that.”
Mueller screams, writhes, and kicks at the ground. Instinctively, Caldwell claps a hand over his mouth to silence him.
“Oh, let him scream.” Ernst kneels beside Mueller and gently pulls Caldwell’s hand away. “Won’t hurt nothing.” Caldwell looks frantically over at the gaping hole in the floor. Ernst snorts a blast of air through his nose to bring his attention back. He taps his pheromone alert badge. The indicator light is softly pulsing red. Caldwell’s eyes widen and he scrambles for his weapon. Ernst slips the cigarette out of his mouth and gently offers it to Mueller. Mueller ignores him. The old man shrugs and flicks it away. Stiffly, he stands, shifts his shotgun around in its sling, and racks a shell into the chamber. The chattering sound of chitin stabbing into rock begins echoing up from below.
“Sounds big.” Ernst coughs and spits. “Seems like we got the soldiers riled up.” He rubs his nose with the back of his hand. “Y’know, used to be hardly anybody died in this line of work. Not all at once anyway. I suppose the chemicals weren’t real good for…”
Before he can finish, the first soldier emerges from the hole, its head as wide across as his shoulders, mandibles as long as his arms. Caldwell opens fire.