's 2015 Horror Write-off:

" Fire Ants "

Submitted by Peter Marchetti

Fire Ants

by Peter Marchetti




The clock hanging on the wall above my desk ticks on, as I stare blankly at my computer screen. Ten o'clock, ten fifteen, ten thirty.

I let a sigh slip through my lips. Another draft scrapped, with only an hour and a half before the report is due.

Control A, delete. Right click, restore from backup.

Again, I read over what I have written so far:

"No one knew where they came from, or how they got here. No one was even quite sure when they began to arrive, one by one, turning up in dark corners, or crawling from a crack in a wall, or from hidden deep in the folds of an abandoned blanket.

Most people agreed on when we began to take notice of them. On June 18th, 1997, the hottest day to that point of an already warm summer, a bed in a Nicaraguan hospital caught fire. The blaze was contained quickly, and no one was hurt except for a young boy, who had to be treated for burns to his hands and face. When asked about the fire, he would say only that a bug that he had caught had exploded.

It would have just been another strange incident from around the world, another incidence of spontaneous combustion, another sea monster sighting, or alien abduction. But the next day, reports were made of a similar incident in India. A family of Italian tourists, staying at a hotel in Madurai, filed a very confused complaint. They reported that the husband had been taking an afternoon nap, when he was awoken by what felt like a pinprick on his arm. On opening his eyes, he saw what appeared to be an ordinary ant, and assuming it had bitten him, he smashed it.

The resulting conflagration destroyed the bed, bedside table, and windowshade, but left the family unharmed, apart from superficial burns to the husband's hand and arm. While these incidents alone would be easy enough to dismiss, as a child's confusion or a lie to cover for smoking in bed, the similarity between the reports and their timing pushed a other people to come forward with stories of their own, about small fires starting around where ants had been killed. The cases of Madurai and Nicaragua were unusual in their intensity: most often, the ants would burn like a candle flame, hot enough to cause blisters but too brief to cause fires.

I first learned of these strange occurrences in early August, while researching fire ants for a school project on invasive species. I don't remember where I found the first reference to this new kind of 'fire ant', but I quickly came across a wealth of newsgroups and Geocities pages discussing their sudden appearence. I asked my dad about it, and he just mumbled something about conspiracy theorists and told me to get back to the report.

I, of course, poured the rest of my evening into researching this phenomenon."

And so on. A couple rough paragraphs of my early 'research' over the following months, before it was derailed by the start of the school year. A list of bullet points about the news reports that began mid-September, some more detailed notes on the incident in early December. Some images of graphs, charting the slow increase in temperatures around the world. A few world maps, showing how the range of the ants increased from the Fall of '97 to the Spring of '98, and again to the summer of '98.

Building up these sections hadn't done much for me, I suppose I should try cutting down. Keep in the news reports, in broad strokes, focus on the big picture rather than the details. I make a note to streamline the transition, then start a new paragraph:

"Reports of these ants began to appear in the mainstream news around mid-September. The first countries to officially recognize the danger posed by the ants were India and Brazil, followed quickly by Indonesia and most of Central America. By the end of October, most of the world had acknowledged the ants' existence. An international group of entomologists began to study the ants, and was quickly replaced by a group of biochemists, and then physicists, as the sheer impossibility of the ants' anatomy became clear."

And pause. How much detail should I go into here?

After thinking it over a while - the clock's ticking a constant reminder of the approaching deadline - I add in a couple sentences about the ants' physiology. Alive, the ants are indistinguishable from South American fire ants until they start to heat up, and dead they are a pile of ashes. At some point in time, seemingly triggered by a rise in internal temperature or pressure, they begin to produce a fluid inside their abdomens that somehow reacts exothermically with itself, heating and heating and heating until it pops. The fluid combusts so rapidly and completely, even in almost completely oxygen-free environments, that it was never possible to perform any analysis of it. It was never determined what the source of this fluid was, as any attempt to vivisect the ants invariably resulted in its combustion.

And then there was the event of December 11th. This event surely deserved more complete attention:

"The most mysterious aspect of the ants was their source. It had been tentatively confirmed by research groups around the world that the ants were not an evolution or modification of a natural species, but no other source for them was postulated until the morning of December 11th.

At 5:38 AM, the Qinshan Nuclear Power Plant in China was abruptly shut down. An inspection of the plant revealed that several small explosions seemed to have taken place inside the reactor's steam generator. Almost immediately, nuclear power plants around the world were shut down. Investigations at the Angra 1 power plant in Brazil and the Kakrapar and Rajasthan Atomic Power Stations in India revealed that ants had somehow appeared inside the reactors, eventually bursting in the heat to cause the damage seen in the Qinshan plant.

Following this revelation, panic began to spread in the global community. Rumors had already begun to spread that the ants simply appeared out of nowhere, but these incidents were the first concrete proof that the ants could appear anywhere."

Another pause. Was that last sentence too alarmist? A silly thought, I suppose. As if anyone reading this wouldn't know already how unsafe the world has become. I glance at the clock again. Ten fifty-six. It'll have to do for now. If the editors object, they can rewrite it themselves.

Another paragraph, covering most of the following year. Those paying attention to such things noticed that global temperatures were rising- the hot summer of '97 gave rise to an overly warm winter, and the summer of '98 set new records worldwide. Wildfires more than tripled in frequency in countries near the equator. International aid groups tried to help at first, but were quickly overwhelmed. Governments began to dissolve, and refugees flooded to the north and south. By the time September came again, global average temperatures had risen about three degrees centigrade, mostly around the equator.

The paragraph finished, I pause again.

How do I write the rest of this?

How can I possibly communicate to any of us who might be left, what it was like living through that time?

Every week, almost every day brought new disasterous discoveries. As the temperature rose, the ants appeared just a little more often, a little further north, and burned just a little bit hotter when they died. It's been two years since the summer of '98, and it feels as though the summer never ended. For a while, the streets in America were full of cars driving north, but then cars in Mexico began exploding, as ants appeared in their gas tanks, died, and burned.

Since last year, they didn't even need to die before exploding. They just swell up like a blister, and pop, spraying their surroundings with liquid fire.

I feel myself sinking into it again, all will drawn out of me. I stare out the window. Most of the street lights are out now, but I can still see other houses here and there with a light on in an upstairs room. How many of them I wonder, think they might be safe here? How many are too weak, or too poor to head north? How many of them look out their windows each night, and think the same thoughts I have? It doesn't matter.

A chime goes off. Eleven fifteen. With no small effort, I drag myself back to the desk and sit down. Control S, Alt F4. Open up Netscape. The internet went down sometime in '98, but a few smaller networks have been built in its place. Take the file I just finished and submit it, commenting: 'Sorry, this is all I've got'.

Pull back from the desk, power down the computer. Lean back in my chair, hands behind my head. I stare up at the ceiling.

There's a small red insect clinging to the rafters.

I think it might be an ant.