The fight has been going on for years. But the end is in sight. The enemy have finally withdrawn, leaving their most precious base unguarded. Finally, finally, the war is coming to an end…
We’re moving in. It’s taken a while. Thirteen years, to be precise. Thirteen years of careful, slow maneuvers. Thirteen years of painstaking, steady progress, mired at every turn by every foreseeable problem. And more than a few that no one foresaw.
General Za’s a wiley one, thank goodness. Far better than the one he replaced. I can’t remember his name right now, but he was a cretin. He had a thing for frontal assaults. It sounds great when someone talks about it, all guts and glory. Then the charge sounds and you go racing away, legs shaking and brain filled with the sounds of your enemy screaming at you.
You don’t sweat at a time like that. You’ve gone beyond the point of something so prosaic, so simple. Nope, by that time, you’re cold to the point of freezing. Every part of you feels like ice, shutting down the painful bits in response to what’s to come.
I remember the worst one. The one where I lost most of my buddies. It should have been simple. An outlying fort, guarded by only a few scouts. Nothing serious, we were told. Nothing to worry a troop like ours, veterans for the most part and highly skilled.
So we advanced with our flags and chins high, borne on the wave of confidence the certain victory brought us. We’d gone months with nothing to show for our efforts but a few measly yards of soil, but this would be different.
We reached the outpost unchallenged and were about to start digging when the first shot rang out. After that, it all happened far too fast. They came from everywhere. From the outpost itself, from behind the nearest hills and from beneath our feet. They knew we were coming. They knew and they’d set a trap.
I can still remember the red of their uniforms, so bright against the battlefield, so glaringly obvious, once you knew they were there. But we didn’t know and they carved through us. They had better weapons and we were caught off guard. They tore us apart before we even had time to draw weapons and form ranks.
And the general did nothing. He sat up on his mound and stared down until he knew we were done for, then sounded the retreat. No clever maneuvers, no outsmarting the enemy, just dying then running away. So, like I said, he was a cretin.
Fortunately, Za is anything but. Since he took over, we’ve made more ground than in the three years previous, since I took the oath. He thinks about things before sending us in. He makes plans that work and, when they don’t work, he changes them quick enough that we don’t all die.
I like the general. I met him once, a few months back. He came to inspect my troop. We lined up on the parade ground, nice and neat. I had to shout a little to get them ready, but I don’t mind a bit of shouting. You get used to it. I think you have to, if you want to serve the people as well as you can.
So today, we’re moving in. My stomach is tied in knots and I’m twitching. Thirteen long years, millions of people, and finally, we’re here. We’ve told stories about this as long as I can remember. My grandfather told me stories about this. My toes are scrunching.
I jump and stand to attention. It’s all second nature, these days, as normal as breathing. But I’m still not quite ready for it. I still don’t quite believe it’s happening.
Lance Corporal inspects the lines and nods. ‘You’re ready.’ He takes a deep breath and clears his throat. ‘This is it, boys. It’s been a long time coming, a hell of a long time, but they’ve chosen the right troop to lead the way. They say it’s empty. They say there’s no resistance expected. It’s ours for the taking. But I’ll believe that when I see it. So be alert. Be on your guard. Because today, gentlemen, we take our new home.’
He marches off and we fall into line. I glance behind to see the massed hordes of our army. Thousands upon thousands of black suited soldiers, every one willing to die for the people. But none so ready as us.
The entry way is open and we march in, bold as brass. But within seconds, we fall back into old habits. Back to back, sneaking on tip toes, weapons at the ready. The commanders can tell us whatever they want, no place is secure until we say it is.
I’m not sure which one of us notices it first. But the word comes back and I look down, at my feet. Sure enough, there it is.
The one thing we weren’t ready for. No one is that evil. Not even them.
But it’s true. White powder is caked around my and my buddy’s feet. Every one of us is walking through death, powdered up and poured on the ground. They left this place for us, this home we’ve fought so long and hard for, but they’ve poisoned it beyond any chance of reclamation.
I still refuse to believe it. Not because I can’t see it or smell it as it sneaks its way up my nostrils and into my blood stream. I can’t believe it because I refuse to believe that anyone would do this. I could believe it of humans. I’ve seen it from them enough times. But other ants? Even reds?
I shake my head as the call for retreat comes back down the line. Our home, our great quest, is over. Along with my life and all those in troop 723. We trudge back outside but even before I see the sun, I can feel my blood stream clogging up and my heart beat slowing. As I emerge from the red nest, my legs cave in and I crumple to the floor. The light dims and my last sight is of millions of black legs, each and every one twitching with a fury that can never be fully expressed.
This means war.