First Contact

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Leaf-cutter ant by Shea

First Contact

When Chris got home, he could see Cathy through the kitchen window, standing by the draining board, hands on hips, looking down with a puzzled frown. He smiled and waved but she didn't notice. She didn't even take a break from her puzzled scrutiny of the object on the draining board when the front door opened, footsteps crossed the hall, entered the kitchen and walked up behind her. Not until a kiss was planted on her cheek did she jump with surprise and slap a hand over her heart.

'Good grief Cath! What on Earth's so interesting about the sink that a burglar could've ransacked the house and you wouldn't have even noticed?'

'See for yourself.'

She moved aside and pointed to the tiny, broken thing, that had absorbed her full attention for several minutes. Chris bent over it for a close look, frowned, stepped back squinting, fished a pair of glasses out of his shirt pocket and moved in again to examine it more closely. He raised a finger to give it an experimental prod, but as his finger approached, it produced a faint, angry buzzing sound. An almost microscopically small part of it, appeared to be spinning. Chris withdrew his finger quickly.

'What the hell is it? It looks like a splatted ant, with one of its legs rotating at high speed. But it's made of metal or some other hard material.'

Cathy made a satisfied 'hrumphing' noise in her throat that terminated with a sort of snort from her nose.

'That's what I thought. That plague of ants that invaded a couple of weeks ago. I can't find the nest, but they're everywhere. I was just washing some shirts and noticed dozens of the little perishers marching across the counter. I went to dry my hands and get a newspaper to clobber them, and when I got back, they'd reached the draining board. That one made a noise, like little metal feet clicking across a metal surface. Don't look at me like that. I swear, I could hear its little feet clicking across the draining board. Anyway, I hit it with the rolled up newspaper. Got a score or more of the others too. All the rest are just normal ants that squash nicely with a bit of a whack. That clicky one isn't a normal ant though, is it?'

Chris scratched his head and blew through his moustache. 'No. It's not. I've never seen anything like it. It's a miracle of miniaturisation. Did it move like the rest of the ants? Could you tell it was different before you heard the clicking?'

'Yes. And no. I couldn't have told them apart just by looking at them. If my hearing was less acute, I wouldn't have heard that soft clicking. It was very quiet. Normally, I would just have given them a sound hammering, wiped them up and washed them down the sink. In my hurry to be rid of them, I probably wouldn't have noticed the little robot ant. For all I know, I might have destroyed hundreds of them without noticing, over these past ant-infested weeks.'

'It's astonishing!'

'Isn't it just?'

'I can't quite believe it.'

'Well, there it is. Believe it or not. I've been staring at the thing in astonishment a bit longer than you - and now I'm a believer.'

'I wonder where it came from? My guess is that it's somehow escaped from the university. Maybe I brought it home stuck to my clothing or one of the car tyres. I had no idea that the technology was so advanced. Thinking about it, the bigger surprise is finding it operating as part of an organic ant colony.'

Cathy opened one of the cupboards and rummaged for a moment, then returned with a very small, sealable plastic tub. She scooped the robot ant into it with a teaspoon. It produced an furious whirring buzz by vibrating its one functioning leg and twitched its damaged legs and antennae weakly.

'If that's where it came from, you can take the damned thing back to them tomorrow. While you're at it, you can ask them how we can get rid of the rest of them. They're making a terrible nuisance of themselves.'

Chris took the tub and held it up to the light, watching the tiny machine's increasingly weak struggles thoughtfully. 'Hmm... Only guessing about the university. Just can't think where else it might have come from. Anyway, I'll take it in. If it's not one of theirs, I dare say their curiosity will go into overdrive too. Think I'll give Jenkins a ring before dinner. Even if it's not something he's working on himself, he knows most of what goes on in the Engineering Department. If it came from Engineering, he'll know about it.'

When he finished his call he came back to help Cathy with the pasta.

'What did Jenkins have to say? Is his department to blame for our ant infestation?'

'No. He doesn't think so. He's intrigued. Wonders if the Computer Department or the Biology Department - maybe even the Psychology Department - might have some fabulously advanced nano-technology project they're keeping under their hats. Asked if he could pop over a bit later to have a look at the little chap. Don't mind, do you?'

'Of course not. The whole thing seems so far fetched, a few witnesses couldn't hurt.'

They ate their dinner in thoughtful silence. An ant scuttled across the table. There was a barely audible rattling sound of tiny foot-falls. Chris couldn't hear it. Cathy upended an empty cup on it.

'Another one. A live one for your boffin friends to play with.'

They exchanged a satisfied smile then looked down at the ceramic cup as it started to move, in slow jerks across the table cloth.

'Unbelievable! Cathy, put that plate on top of the cup. Lets see if it's strong enough to drag them both across the table.'

Cathy balanced her half-finished plate of pasta on top of the cup. They watched and waited. It jerked and wobbled. Again the crockery started to move. Chris jumped up and dashed into the kitchen. He came back with the plastic tub and a square of card.

'Here Cath. Slide this card under the cup, then pick it up and drop it into the tub with its injured chum here.'

Operation complete, they watched in fascination as the new prisoner examined its damaged comrade and set about repairing it. That was when Jenkins arrived.

Chris let him in and hurried him through to the dining room where they all sat around the table watching the delicate operations taking place inside the plastic tub. It took about 20 minutes for the functioning ant-robot to repair its patient. Then there were two functioning ant-robots, marauding round the wee box, looking for a way to escape.

'Extraordinary! And you thought we might have made these things in Engineering? Well, I'm flattered that you should think so highly of us, Adams. We're nowhere near this advanced yet. I'd be amazed if any of our departments are able to make anything like these. In five or ten years time perhaps. But even then - well, you saw the way the little devil repaired its fellow - the speed and accuracy. It's far beyond anything we've achieved. Far beyond!'

'Jenkins! Look!'

Jenkins followed Chris's eyes back to the plastic tub. The two little ant-bots had directed their rear ends at the same spot and a smouldering brown dot had appeared in the plastic. It grew.

'Good God! They're burning a hole in the plastic. Quick! Have you got a biscuit tin or something of the sort?'

Cathy dashed into the kitchen and returned with a Cadbury's Roses tin.

'Excellent. Put the tub in the tin. I don't think you can afford to wait till tomorrow to get these little scoundrels into a lab. I'll give Havers a ring if you like. He'll still be bumbling about in his office, with a bit of luck. Never seems to go home. We can get them some secure accommodation for the evening.'

Chris and Cathy both nodded, relieved to be rid of their uninvited guests sooner than they'd anticipated.

As anticipated, Havers was still working. Jenkins drove away with his prizes.

'There are bound to be more. We should have a search Chris. If they're made of metal, it might be worth trying to pick them up with fridge magnets.'

'Good idea. Pity we didn't think of that earlier.'

They found a few ants in the kitchen cupboards. None of them were attracted to the magnets. All of them were successfully dispatched with a rolled up newspaper. If there were any more ant-bots, they decided, they must all have gone home for the night. They were wrong. From various vantage points around the house, small robot ants watched their movements and transmitted the information to the nest.

The following morning Chris left for work and Cathy commenced her ant hunt. She started in the kitchen because that was the main target area for the ants' invasion. The cereal cupboard seemed to attract them most of all so she looked in there first. Sure enough, there was a queue of ants streaming in through a crack at the back of the cupboard, picking up morsels of food and streaming out by the same route. She fetched a torch from its charging cradle, dragged a chair over and climbed onto it to peer down the back of the cupboard. She could see that they were getting in through a hole bored into the outer wall to admit a water pipe.

Outside, Cathy followed the orderly line of ants, expecting to find a nest some few yards away. It was a surprise to find the line extended much further - back into a woodland beyond the garden wall, and yet further. The nest where the marching line disappeared underground, looked like an enormous heap of soil, twigs and dead leaves. It was the biggest ant hill she'd ever seen. As she gazed in astonishment at this huge mound, that certainly had not been there last time they'd walked through this part of the wood, she felt a sharp pain in her foot. Looking down with a yelp, she saw ants swarming up through the ground and over her feet and legs. Then her vision blurred and she felt dizzy.


Jenkins was looking out for Chris when he got to the university that morning. As soon as he saw the car turn in to the car park, he dashed out and sprinted down the drive to meet him, not attempting to disguise his excitement.

'Adams! Here you are at last! I've been waiting for you. Those ants of yours are extraordinary. We've subjected them to all sorts of indignities. You won't believe .... '

'Whoa! Let me get out of the car. Have you found out what they're made of yet? Cathy wondered if we could pick out the little bots from the proper ants using a magnet.'

'Yes .... Well, no. That is to say, they're made of some non-ferrous material, more like a ceramic than metal. Damned tough and, apparently, infinitely repairable. We've virtually destroyed both of them - don't worry they're still repairable. Only been wrecking them one at a time.'

'They repaired each other I suppose? That's what happened last night. Or is it more than that?'

The two men reached the Science and Technology block. Their conversation paused as they passed through the door and resumed as they climbed the stairs. (Jenkins never used the lift. Claustrophobia.)

'Yes, more. Much more. First we repeated your experiment and whacked one with a rolled up newspaper. The other repaired it in short order. Then we boiled the other one. You could see it jiggling around in the bubbles. First we boiled it for 5 minutes. When we fished it out of the water, it just gave its antennae a bit of a shake and scuttled off to find its pal. Then we boiled it for half an hour. Same result. We put it in a microwave oven and watched it cooking on full power for another five minutes. It just ran around the whole time, trying to find a way out. Nearly got out too!'

Jenkins seemed gleeful - delighted to see the look of amazement on Chris's face.

'Poor little beggars. I feel almost sorry for them. Have you found out how they work yet?'

'Oh, we're trying. It's a devil of a job though. You secure them under a microscope and they fight like demons. It's impossible to dismantle them while they're in working order. In the end, Barton whacked one with a hammer then had a go at pulling it apart while it was incapacitated. But the things are built to last. None of your modern in-built obsolescence. The fixings are invisible. The materials are unbelievably strong.'

As they approached Jenkins' lab, they passed more and more people - most of them standing around in small groups, just talking. There was an atmosphere of pent up excitement.

'There seem to be an awful lot of people around here Jenkins. Are they all here because of our ants?'

'Most of them. By the way Adams, do you suppose we could send a couple of chaps over to your place to see if we can find any more?'

'Sure. I'd better ring Cathy first though. Warn her they're coming. I expect she's carrying out her own search, right now. She'll be disappointed to hear that she won't be able to pick them out with her fridge magnets.'

They both laughed.

After inspecting the experiments with Jenkins, Chris was pleased to get away to his own office, promising as he left, to let Jenkins know when he could send a couple of his assistants over to hunt for little robots. The first thing he did once he'd got his coat off, was phone home. There was no reply. He got very little work done, telephoning Cathy every half hour or so and being pestered by Jenkins in between times, to know whether he'd got through yet. As 4 O'clock approached, he tried one final time, then packed up early. He dropped by Jenkins' lab, which was still abuzz with excitement, and said he'd contact him from home. The lab boys could come over in the morning, he suggested. Jenkins' impatience prevailed however, and he agreed that they could come over that evening.


Cathy regained consciousness slowly. At first she couldn't remember anything - not even her own name. There were no sensations, no feelings, no emotions, just an increasing jumble of incoherent, confused and disconnected thoughts. There was a smell. It was oddly familiar and yet, at the same time, strange and disturbing. There was a vibration rising up through her legs and resonating through her body. Her body felt ...... unfamiliar. She tried but was unable to order her thoughts. A growing sense of anxiety began to blossom at the unconscious edge of her mind. When it intruded on her awareness, she generated a distress signal. It just happened. She didn't know how. It received an immediate response. She was able to smell and taste it, and it calmed her. She sank back into dull but relaxed confusion and allowed the confusion to clear very slowly as her thoughts and memories assemble themselves into a logical order.

The process seemed to take a long time but at last she remembered everything. She remembered absolutely everything! It was extraordinary. She remembered almost every single thing that she had ever seen, heard, felt, believed ..... the whole lot - from the time her brain had started to develop in her mother's womb. She remembered the whoosh whoosh whoosh of her mother's heart beat, the warm, dark pink, security of the amniotic fluid, the trauma of birth - everything! Right up to tracking the ants to their nest and feeling dizzy. Something must be wrong. There couldn't be enough room in the front of her brain to hold so much conscious information. Again her anxiety started to rise. Again something responded and a quick burst of chemicals fogged her mind. She guessed the peculiar, calming aroma might be suppressing her adrenaline. She wondered if she was in hospital.

So far, it had not occurred to her to attempt to move. As her powers of reason increased, she recognised that there was some form of chemical suppression limiting her will. She felt no desire to move, but she did wonder whether she could. When people received spinal injuries, she recalled, they could tell where the injury was by the location and extent of the paralysis it caused. Just out of curiosity, she tried to move her toes. Her legs moved. All SIX of them.

The chemical suppressants, she realised, must be very effective. Normal panic hadn't kicked in yet. Still she only felt curious. She waved her antennae about and thought of Alice in Wonderland. There was a precedent for this level of strangeness. Perhaps they'd given her some powerful opiate and the ant infestation was the last thing she'd been thinking about when ..... whatever happened, happened. And that was the reason for this bizarre hallucination.

Except, she knew it was not an hallucination. Memories complete, sorted and stored in perfect logical order - still her knowledge continued to expand. She was no longer her old self. Her body was no more. It had been vivisected, dissected, recycled. The contents of her brain had been downloaded on to some species of living computer. She had been assimilated into this alien superorganism. Cathy was now part of the machine. She was also an ant-bot. And she was content. The chemical restraint was removed. Her will was the will of the whole. Her little ant-bot body ran around with the other ants and ant-bots. She communicated with the organic ants by vibrating, stroking with legs and antennae and with pheromones. Communication between the bots was more comprehensive. Via the computer - one mind in many bodies - they constituted a true AI quasi-superorganism.

The alien mind seemed alien no more. It was satisfied with what it had learned from the human and was pleased to have absorbed her. It was now prepared for the difficulties and complication presented by this large-brained mammal. Ants and bees had been easily understood, being very similar in nature to the alien entity itself. The rest of life on the planet presented no particular problem. Human-kind appeared to be the only potential obstacle. Cathy was to communicate the will of this multiple entity to human-kind.

She set off along the pheromone trail following the line of ants, back to the kitchen. A little earlier, while she was still being programmed, a marker had been prepared and deposited, to draw Chris's attention to the centre of the kitchen table. It was a token of the woman, Cathy, that he might recognise, where the ant-bot Cathy would attempt to make contact on behalf of her nest. A small screen had been set up beside the token, for her to display written messages.

The nearer she got to the house, the further from the nest, the more tenuous her contact with the alien mind. She began to feel a sense of loss. The loss of self. She was overwhelmed by feelings of regret and unhappiness. It was borne in upon her, that she was carrying out an act of treachery. The anguish that had eluded her while she was in the nest, now hit her like a train. By the time she reached the house, her original mission was obliterated. She only wanted to warn Chris and scream for help.


Just a little after 5pm Chris pulled up outside the house. As he climbed out of the car he peered through the study window. There was no sign of life. It could have been his imagination - or so he told himself - but everything seemed eerily quiet and still. There was a sense of watching and waiting, and of breath being held. These thoughts gnawed at the back of his mind until he became aware of them and started to breath again. Slowly, he walked around the house, looking through each of the windows. He didn't like to shout and possibly draw unwanted attention. Part of him felt completely stupid. There was no excuse for this paranoid behaviour. If he ran into Cathy, creeping around like this, she'd laugh at him. Still...... The sense of growing alarm was real, how ever unjustified it might turn out to be.

His circuit complete, he came to the kitchen door and looked through the window. There was a round, white object in the middle of the table that heightened his anxiety inexplicably. It was too dim inside for him to see properly and yet .... Cautiously, he opened the door and entered. There were a few ants on the floor and counter tops. He hardly noticed them as he approached the table. Now he knew why the sight of the object had disturbed him .... Shaken him so badly. It was a skull - a fresh skull, almost completely clean, apart from a scrap of flesh below one eye socket and a few dots of blood. Beside it was a large ant - it must have been almost 2 centimetres long - the biggest he'd ever seen, waving its antennae at him. The deep horror; the morbid conviction that it was Cathy's skull filled his mind like a red fog. The slight gap in the front teeth .... Cathy! He grabbed a hard-backed cookery book from one of the shelves and smashed it down on the ant that seemed to be signalling at him obscenely from next to the jaw. Then he noticed a tiny screen behind the ant. Across it he read the words, 'HELP! CHRIS, HELP ME!'

He didn't know what to think. Couldn't think what to do. Face slack, eyes dull with incomprehension, he shuffled backwards until a chair interrupted his retreat - and he slumped onto it. That's how Jenkins found him over an hour later, when he arrived with a couple of his assistants. The place was crawling with agitated looking ants.

Fiction by Tibley Bobley

Tibley Bobley

10.04.08 Front Page

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