's 2014 Horror Write-off:


Submitted by HISHAM H.

In retrospect, we all should have known that something was up when Professor Burton bought the Douglas farm.

Douglas was a farmer in name only, somehow managing to scrape together a living off a few cows, scattered chickens, and the occasional cabbage. In the end, he was sick of keeping up the pretense, sold off everything, and settled into the comfortable position of town drunk.

Not much was known about Professor Burton. Thin, bald, with thick spectacles, he looked every part the college professor. He was apparently a professor of botany. And no one knew why anyone would buy the Douglas farm.

Well, Burton certainly had plans for the place.

Now, the only thing of note on that run-down farm is the perfectly serviceable barn. And every day we saw trucks drive up and unload their cargo; light fixtures, hoses, and cables. Especially cables.

Burton also had a company build some sort of addition to the barn, some sort of upper deck or office that could reached by stairs.

Burton kept mostly to himself. Some thought he was strange, but most-myself included-considered him a harmless sort.

That all changed three months after he bought the farm.

Now I'm a vetrinarian, and I once had pretty good business in this town, with all the farmers and their animals. But farming business isn't what it used to be, and soon most of the local farms shifted to producing fruit and vegetables for the surrounding markets; locally grown and well priced produce is all the rage these days, especially old heirloom varieties. But some still kept a few animals around, like a couple of chickens for eggs, a cow for milk, or a well-loved horse.

But business was bad, so as one of the few locals with any scientific background, I soon took up a part time job as a CSI. Not that there was much to do, but it's at least a regular salary. There is next to no crime here; the only things the police are ever called for are fights and the occasional absconding goat.

So it was quite unusual for me to be lugging a CSI kit at 4 in the morning in some field. A dead cow. With my credentials, I guess I was ideal for the job. But I never would have thought things would turn out the way the did. Yes, it all started that morning, with Riley's dead cow.

Officer Harrison was there. So was Riley, the cow's owner. Riley wasn't really a farmer; instead he kept what he called "emergency cows"; livestock that could be sold whenever there was a sudden need for money.

As I approached, I realized there wasn't much of a carcasse left. It was just a skeleton, barely held together with ligaments. The bones were stained but picked clean. And the ground beneath and around was blanketed with cow hair.

"Well, the scavengers worked fast."

Officer Harrison spoke up: "Not that fast."

Riley grunted. "Cow was alive last night."

I was opening my kit when I heard that. I looked up at Riley's somber face.

This cow was alive last night?

Riley saw the questioning look in my eyes.

"I'm not crazy. Last night she was in this field, chomping grass. Today, she's that."

This was unheard of. Even with scavengers and insect activity, it would have taken weeks for the cow to be reduced to this state.

Officer Harrison spoke: "Riley says he didn't hear anything last night. No wolves howling or cows screaming or anything like that." He turned to me. "Any ideas what could have done this?"

I shook my head. There was no animal, no phenomenom I could think of that can skeletonize a cow in one night.

"I've always laughed at those UFO fanatics. At the stories of cattle mutilation..." Riley trailed off. He looked up at the sky.

"Now, now, there must be a rational explanation", I said lightly as I started to bag up the bones. I needed more bags.

"I'll take this to the lab, take a closer look. I'm sure I'll find something."

Riley just shook his head. "Better sell my other cow."

My investigation proved to be very unsatisfying.

No tooth marks, or any marks that might indicate a weapon. Not a scrap of flesh left, but the bones were still stained. No scorch marks, no acid damage. Even the brain was missing, but the skull was intact. How?

Even if some particularily ravenous pack of animals somehow killed this cow without alerting Riley and then somehow consumed every bit of meat while leaving the bones unmarred, how would have they gotten at the brain?

I admit, I was a bit unsettled, but also excited. This was a mystery, a puzzle. The community buzzed with the story of Riley's cow. Some thought it was UFOs; others thought that this was the advent of some terrifying new flesh-eating disease. (I admit I was a bit uneasy when I heard that rumor). Some even thought it was the work of humans; perhaps some starving, desperate people came across that cow and simply ate every scrap of it, there and then. But the majority thought is was just a very hungry pack of wolves.

Didn't explain why the brain was missing. Or why Riley didn't hear anything.

It's ironic, and utterly idiotic of me, that over the next few weeks, it didn't ring any alarm bells when an inreasing number of my clients were reporting missing cats and dogs.

Not even when the farmers were happy that the gopher problem seemed to have died out.

Nor when we saw Professor Burton hard at work, digging some kind of trench around the barn.

So it was quite an unpleasant surprise when the same thing happened again.

This time it was a pet goat named Nancy, living in a fenced enclosure in the backyard. It was the same story; Nancy had been perfectly fine last night, but come the morning her owners were horrified to find that she was a skeleton and a pile of hair. No signs of a struggle; the fence was unbroken. And her owners had heard nothing.

Her bones told me nothing new. Again her brain was missing.

A few day later, it was a parrot, still in its cage. But there was something different this time. Although the skull, sternum and hips remained inside the cage, the bones that could fit through the bars were missing. And there were some feathers beneath the cage.

It was the parrot that finally (and belatedly, I admit) led me to connect the pet disappearances with the skeletonizations. I was pretty sure that whatever did this was also feeding on the local cat and dog population.

But wasn't only mammals and birds. Now that I finally payed attention, the insect population had plummeted as well. No more cockroaches in kitchens or bathrooms. No wasps or ants swarming over overripe fruit. No flies buzzing around rotten trash.

I am sad to report that Officer Harrison took a complete disinterest in all of this. He pointedly ignored everything I laid before him, and told me that he had other things to worry. Yeah right.

Our community was completely baffled by these events. Rumors spread around like wildfire. Stories of chupacabras floated about. People started keeping their animals inside their houses, or otherwise in locked coops and huts. That seemed to help a bit, although a coop of chickens were found skeletonized one morning. People started standing vigil over their remaining livestock.

I decided I was going to get to the bottom of the mystery. One day, someone brought in a rabbit he had hit. Despite my efforts, it soon died, but as I went to dispose of its carcasse, an idea occured to me.

That night, I put the rabbit out on my backyard, just within the edge of the house lights.

And I waited.

I waited for what seemed like hours. I was expecting a shadowy figure to pop up any minute now.

Imagine my surprise when the rabbit started to disappear.

At first, I didn't realize what was happening. It seemed like the rabbit was slowing sinking into the ground. I grabbed a flashlight and went out for a closer look.

When came close enough, I realized the rabbit was covered by some sort of dark coat.

A seething, moving coat.


Thousands of black ants crawling all over the rabbit.

It occured to me that I hadn't seen a single ant for the past few weeks, even though they used to everywhere.

And as I watched, they formed a blanket beneath the rabbit, and started to drag it away.

I decided to follow. You might think it foolish of me, but at the time I did not feel to be in danger. I was already familiar how ants loved meat; I've seen plenty of dead chicks covered with ants. It did occur to me that the ants may be partly responsible for at the very least the clean bones and missing brain. And it's not that I was seeing anything alarming. I was watching ants drag away a food item, except it was a rabbit instead of a grasshoper.

As I followed, I saw other streams of ants join the group carrying the precious meat, and the pace started to pick.

Almost three hours later, I realized we were heading for Burton's property. As I approached, I considered waking him up to ask for permission; but decided against it. He was a man of science, and he would understand. Plus, I did not relish waking up a man just to ask if I could follow some ants across his land.

They marched right across the field, towards the barn. Then we came across the trench that Burton had been digging around his barn.

Except it was now a moat. It was filled with murky water.

As the mass approached, I saw them gathering at the edge the water, milling around. Then they spilled forward, floating on the water. I knew some ants were capable of this rafting behaviour, but what surprised me was what happened next.

Another column approached from the opposing bank. They too started rafting, and the two columns joined up in the middle of moat, forming a bridge. More and more ants arrived, until the bridge grew big and sturdy enough for the rabbit. They carried it across, while I jumped over the moat.

They were heading towards the barn. And as I approached, I noticed there were gaps at the bottom of the barn doors and walls. Gaps large enough for a cat or dog to squeeze through. Gaps that showed that there was some pretty strong lighting in there.

As the rabbit disappeared into the barn, I hesitated. Walking across a field was one thing, but entering the barn was trespassing, plain and simple.

As I walked around the barn, considering my actions, I came across stairs. Stairs that led up to the room that Burton had added to the barn. And I could see the lights were on.

Good, I thought. The guy was awake. I'll go up there and we'll talk about this.

I ascended the stairs and knocked on the door. It was open.

The room was devoid of human presence.

But it was certainly not empty.

It was full of monitors and cables. It looked like a surveillance room.

One side of the room was completely glass, overlooking the floor of the barn.

And I was amazed by what I saw.

Hoses draped the walls, expelling jets of mist.

Light fixtures dangled from the celing on long cables, illuminating the thing sprawled below.

In the center, a massive stalk, woody and gnarled, emerged from the mound. It snaked outward in a spiral. Along its length sprung long, broad, shiny leaves at regular intervals. Each leaf had a thick midrib that extended into a tendril. And each tendril ended in a pitcher.

Each pitcher was a massive, globular, barrel-shaped jug, banded and striped with cream, yellow, orange, and brown, like it was carved from agate, with two rows of webbed orange-tipped tentacles running down the front and a bright, almost fluorescent orange lip. Each had a leafy, umbrella-like cover, and beneath that jutted a pair of what looked like lime-green fangs, terrifyingly similar to the dentition of a saber-toothed tiger.

I was looking at a giant, no, GARGANTUAN pitcher plant. A pitcher plant that was practically a mini-jungle in itself.

The monitors all showed extreme closeups of the plant. There must have been dozens of cameras hidden in the foliage. Some of the cameras were aimed at individual traps. The controls were simple and intuitive; I could zoom in on anything I wanted. So I took a closer look at the ants.

They crawled all over the plant, but were most concentrated on the traps, thick writhing rivers and ribbons of black and red bodies. Normally ants of two colonies would fight, but here I saw different species all intermingling peacefully. As if some bizzare peace treaty had been signed.

Small black ants. Medium sized brown ants. What looked like fire ants. Ants of all sizes and colors. And ants of shapes and varieties I've never seen before. The floor seethed with what seemed like trillions of tiny bodies. There were slender, long-legged ants and bullet-shaped stout ants. There were ants ornamented with spines and even hair. There were ants with jaws open at a 180 degree angle to each other. There were ant with enormous heads and massive jaws. And there were really weird ants: ants that had bizzare potrusions, stalks and tubercles on their heads and/or abdomens. One looked like it had a periscope, with its eyes perched on the tip of a tall protrubance.

I noticed that there was always one or two holes, scarred and woody, in every snaking tendril connected to one of the traps. And the ants entered and exited them freely.

I watched as the rabbit carcasse was dragged into the barn on a bed of chitinous bodies. They swarmed over it, and the cow seemed to melt. Skin and fur were sheared away. Muscle and fat seemingly dissolved under the combined effort of a billion tiny jaws. White bone started to peek through the seething mass, as well as the glistening sheen of viscera.

But then there was a lull in the frenetic activity. I saw various lumps being seperated from the carcasse; the biggest one looked like a liver before it was smothered in a different kind of ant, shiny and brown, almost coppery. They swarmed all over the lumps, ignoring the main carcasse, which was feasted on by the other ants.

As the lumps shrank, the brown ants started to stream torwards one of the traps. The ants already on the trap cleared a path for the gleaming brown stream. It snaked all the way up to the lip of the trap.

I zoomed in on the trap. I watched in amazement as I saw that each ant carried a lump of pulpy flesh in its jaws, and as it approached the edge of the lip it would drop its cargo below, into a clear pool of amber liquid. The amber liquid seemed to have bugs in it as well; little brown larvae things that were actively wriggling and swimming, but I couldn't make them out clearly. But one thing was clear.

The ants were feeding the pitcher plant.

I knew pitcher plants were carnivorous, and a few were big enough to trap the occasional rat, but I was sure nothing on this scale was ever known to science. This thing was using ants to eat larger prey

I zoomed back in on the rabbit. Already the bones showed underneath the seething mass. And I watched as the bones and bit of fur were ferried to a distant corner of the barn. I zoomed in as close as I could.

Bones. Small and medium sized bones piled haphazardly. I recognized dog skulls and cat skulls. Clumps and tufts of hair and fur.

I checked the other corners. Sure enough, each had a pile of bones and fur, the ants' refuse heaps.

I began to understand. Smaller carcasses would be brought here to be processed, but larger animals were too heavy to shift, so were processed on location.

But it didn't explain how the ants managed to overpower and kill such large, powerful animals, not to mention doing so silently. The parrot was trapped in a cage, true, but the owners heard nothing, and I knew very well how loud a parrot could be.

My thoughts were interrupted as the door swung open.

Professor Burton stood in the doorway. Holding a mug and a pot of coffee.

We stared at each other.

Burton spoke first. "I can explain..."

I jumped up, suddenly furious. "You better explain, you piece of shit!"

He nearly dropped the coffee pot.

"N-no, what I meant to say was, what are you doing here?"

I rushed at him, pinning him to the door. Didn't this maniac realize what he had done?! I was rewarded with the unpleasant sensation of hot coffee running down my leg.

"No, we're past that! Explain...THIS!"

I waved my hand vaguely at the monitors.

He spoke in a shaky voice: "On my last trip to Borneo, I found this little patch of rainforest in a deforestated valley. The logging company gave me permission to explore before moving in. They said I had a week. So while I wander around in there, in the process losing my camera and glasses, I come across this fantastic Nepenthes. It was huge; draped from several trees like a huge liana. I collected some samples, then like an idiot I tell the loggers what I discovered. When I came back next day, the entire patch had been razed. Those bastards worked overtime to make sure they could finish the job; they knew if news of this discovery spread they'll never be allowed to cut down that forest."

His voice shook with emotion, but he went on. "But I showed them! I still had the samples I had taken the day before, and with any luck I would be able to propagate it. And I did, which-"

"You idiot! So you come down here to cultivate a monster plant? Why here? Why not in a lab somewhere?"

He coughed. "Professor Lewis, the head of the botany department, is a very unpleasant man, well known to staff for appropriating the work of others, so I was determined to-"

I cut him off. "You really don't understand what you've nearly done?! You knew you were losing control, that's why you dug that moat! But it looks like they outsmarted you." I shook my head in disgust. "It's sheer luck that nobody was hurt!"

"Ah", he eagerly cried, "but they do not harm humans!"

"Bullshit. Why wall yourself up in this room instead of walking in your garden?"

"But I do! I go in there to check the equipment, drop off prey items, things like that! I built this room so I could better observe what was going on, take in the whole picture, so to speak. I can't watch the plant round the clock, so I set up the cameras to monitor everthing. It's all saved to mutiple redundant hard drives for later analysis, so-"

"Wait. You're saying you've been in there, and yet you made it out alive?"

"The plant wasn't this big in the beginning. It was just a small cutting at first; I've been growing it in my house for several months before I decided I needed more space. All that time, and I was never molested by the colony, so-"

"Wait, you brought the ants from Borneo too?"

"Yes. I already told you I managed to take several samples; I managed to collect part of a brood which contained a queen. But what's really fascinating is that it managed to recruit local ant species, possibly though some sort of phermone, and even alter their morphology, possibly by secreting hormone analogues which affect larva development and pupa maturation. The original symbiote species is the only one that feeds the Nepenthes directly; all other species are used for prey capture and defense, which-"

"Look, this is fascinating and all, and I admit it's one heck of a discovery, but you're really in over your head right now. You little moat did nothing to stop them, and now they're depleting the entire area of fauna. You've got an ecological catastrophe just waiting to happen."

I relaxed my hold on him.

"Look, sorry about losing my temper, but you've messed up bad, and you need help. I suggest taking a cutting and starting somewhere else, in a more secure and controlled environment."

"Wh-what? Start over from scratch? But-"

"You already have, what, like terabytes of video? I'd say you've collected enough data to make a formal description. Just take a cutting and maybe one of the traps in a truck, that should be enough to stake your claim. I don't think Professor Lewis will be able to hijack this one"

"I suppose you're right," he said with some reluctance. "And what do you suggest I do about-"

"Spray the place with insecticide," I said flatly. "Best thing is to just wipe out the ants, then chop up the thing and send it to a university or something. Those ants are far too dangerous to-"

I paused. I remembered something.

"Hold on a minute. How do the ants kill the animals without raising a ruckus?"

"Ah," he smiled nervously, "the ants are not the only symbiotes. In my samples, I also collected a new species of mosquito that breeds in the fluid of the pitchers. The larvae take a portion of the plant's food; on such a rich diet they build up enough reserves to last their entire adult life. The adults do not feed at all, and as soon as they emerge they will mate and lay eggs, sometimes in the same pitcher they hatched from. But the females still have well-developed mouthparts, and can still bite, although they can't suck blood. Their salivary glands are enlarged, and secrete a potent, and very fast-acting-"

Burton was interrupted again, but this time wasn't me.

It was the whining, humming cloud that blew through the open doorway.

The mosquitoes covered us like grey fur. I couldn't feel the bites, but I did start getting drowsy.

I flailed about, trying to swat them, or at least brush them off. But they were relentless.

My movements slowed. My vision blurred.

Then I blacked out.

When I woke up, I found myself in a hospital bed. Covered all over with mosquito bites, which thankfully didn't itch.

They told me nobody had realized I was missing for three days. It was only when Harrison needed my report to complete his own paperwork did he bother to check if I had showed up for work. And Burton only went to town for groceries once a week. So it was a couple of days until we were found, unconscious in the room. So all in all, we had been knocked out for five days.

Even then, we were only discovered because someone reported that the doors to Burton's barn had been left open for two days.

Burton visited me in the hospital later that day. He regained consciouness the day before, and told me what Harrison had told him.

When Harrison came up to the barn to check things out, it was empty.

The plant was gone; the stalk had been sawn through, leaving only a stump. Everything else was left behind.

"They left the lights, the cameras, everything was untouched," he said bitterly. "They were after one thing only: the plant. I have lost everything."

I wasn't really in the mood to sympathize, but seriously his whining was getting on my nerves. "But you still have the videos, your own notes..."

"I stored them all on the hard drives. And every single one of them is corrupted. Ruined. Ants chewed a hole in each one and set up house. I went to a guy who specializes in data recovery; he said it's pretty much hopeless."

I was looking at a broken man.

"Right now the police think its a straightforward case of assault and robbery. The official story is somebody drugged the two of us, then made off with the plant."

I stared. "Is that what you told them?"

"It's what they chose to believe. I merely did nothing to correct that assumption."

"How did you explain all the bones?"

He snorted. "I told them I had no idea how they got there."

"And what if I tell them what really happened?"

"You think they'll believe your story of sedative mosquitoes and a giant pet-eating plant? They'll blow it off as a particularily vivid hallucination induced by the knockout drug or whatever. Besides, it'll be your word against mine."

He sighed. "Though, to be honest, I don't care either way. I poured every penny I had into this. It was a dream come true, a fantasy come to life. I rescued it from a patch of rainforest that going to be cut down. I spared no expense. Now it's gone, and I have nothing left."

"Seriously? You sold your house and everything?"

"Well, I still have my house. And a shed packed full of old fish tanks."

There's not much left to add. The perpetrators were never caught, and the wildlife slowly replenished itself. Everything was back to normal, and I didn't feel like pressing the matter. Especially since Burton had sold off the property and paid off everybody who had lost an animal. Everybody thought it was peculiar, but mighty kind and neighborly of him; I personally thought killing a beloved pet deserved harsher reparations.

Burton's gone now. But I'm still uneasy.

I remember how Burton had told the colony never attacked him. Back when he was taking care of the plant.

But the mosquitoes attacked us after I told him to spray the place then destroy the plant.

And the ants never touched us. We could have easily ended up as plantfood, but we didn't.

I think that plant is aware.

Aware that killing its caretaker was a bad idea.

Aware that its caretaker had become a liability after talking to me.

Aware that our deaths would have caused the police to look more closely into the robbery.

Aware that Burton had stored all his data on the hard drives, and so destroyed them to keep its existence a secret.

I think it wasn't stolen. I think that maybe thousands of tiny jaws were ordered to chew through that stalk, and now million of bodies are carrying it somewhere else to be planted and take root.

I think it escaped.