The following is a special commissioned interlude. The next chapter of the main storyline will be out tomorrow as scheduled. Thanks!
Bird-Chair-One. That was the designation of the termite who bustled his way along the sidewalk. He was named, as all members of the Sphere Colony, via the convention of ‘animal-object-number.’ Most termites weren’t given names, of course. Most wouldn’t have been capable of comprehending anything resembling the basic concept of a name. Or any idea of individuality, for that matter. They were simply cogs within a machine.
But Bird-Chair-One was no ordinary termite. Oh, on the outside he would look like a fairly typical representative of a soldier member of the Coptotermes formosanus species. That was the scientific term for the commonly known subterranean termite, a species often referred to as the super-termite thanks to a reputation for building enormous, expansive colonies and the speed at which they could consume wood. They were considered an invasive species of insects, capable of doing untold damage to homes and structures, particularly if not caught and contained in time before the colony spread too much.
And that was before you gave them human-level intelligence and superpowers.
There was one slight difference, physically, between these termites and most members of their species. Unlike typical Formosan termites, these possessed two tiny black nubs, barely visible, at the end of their heads. Nubs which provided them with one of many advantages they had over others of their kind: the ability to see. Those tiny, almost imperceptible bumps on each termite’s head, were eyes.
On his way down the cracked and broken pavement, the termite passed a small swarm of his fellow hive-members, who lined up together. A stream of thick fog emerged from the gathered insects, drifting out in front of them before forming itself into a series of sharp, angled spears. Though spears made of thick fog were hardly going to intimidate anyone, in a moment, they changed. The fog vanished, replaced by metal in the same shape. Several six foot long iron spears appeared, before clattering loudly into a low, wooden wheeled cart that lay nearby. A harness made of wood and rope attached the cart to four dogs who lay dozing in the sun. Atop the cart, at the front, was a glass orb the size of a hamster wheel, where a single termite perched.
Seeing (and feeling) the load of metal spears fall into place, the driver termite walked forward to stand on a small button, sensitive enough that even that miniscule amount of weight activated it. Doing so made a bell at the head of the cart ring, waking the quartet of dogs. Trained as they were, the dogs hopped to their feet and began to walk forward, pulling the loaded cart. The driver could move slightly left on the button to make a higher pitched dinging sound, which would make the dogs turn that direction, or move right to make a lower pitched donging sound, making them turn that way instead. Or the driver could move backward, creating a rapid beeping sound that would cause the dogs to stop entirely.
The dogs weren’t intelligent, but they had been well-trained and would expect treats for the work they provided. Treats the colony would provide.
Watching the wagon pull away briefly, Bird-Chair-One waved his antennae toward a couple termites in particular who were among those creating more spears. They were his friends, Giraffe-Rock-Thirty-Two and Elk-Cup-Fifteen, and he sent what amounted to a telepathic greeting. Members of the colony were capable of communicating with one another by sending and receiving the equivalent of ‘thoughts’ through their antennae. It allowed very complex conversations to be had in a much briefer time than human dialogue.
Yet, despite how quick and easy communication was, Bird-Chair-One knew he couldn’t stay to spend time with his friends or marvel at how well training their new transport-dogs was going. His mission, at that moment, was entirely too important to indulge in even another moment of conversation. And he knew just how easily Giraffe-Rock-Thirty-Two could distract him with jokes and tall tales if given a chance. No, he had to keep going, hurrying along the broken sidewalk, attached to a broken street, in the middle of an empty field that had, at one time, been a town, if a quite small one. Now there was little to illustrate that humans had ever lived there, aside from bits and pieces.
One year earlier, the humans had called this place Merit, Kansas. But that town no longer existed in any meaningful way. It was still listed on maps, of course. But every building within the city had been destroyed in a war. A war between humans and the Colony of the Sphere.
Soon, Bird-Chair-One reached the nearest tunnel entrance, hidden as it was under the remains of a mailbox. Pausing at the misleadingly small hole (which gave absolutely no indication of the sheer size and scale of the structure it was leading into), he lifted those tiny eyes to look around once more. No houses or other buildings still existed in what had been Merit. Every human structure had been stripped down to nothing, including the very foundations. That was what had to be done, both to send a message to their human enemies, and to provide much-needed resources to defend themselves through the ongoing conflict. Resources for the war.
It hadn’t begun with war. No, it had truly begun a little over a year ago, with the sudden appearance of a foreign object, a glowing orb which had appeared in the middle of an ordinary colony of termites. The glowing sphere had simply popped into existence in the middle of a tunnel, disrupting the work there. In its appearance, part of the tunnel had collapsed. But a moment later, for no readily apparent reason, the tunnel had repaired itself, stretching wide to accommodate its new intrusion. Meanwhile, several termites that had been crushed by the orb’s appearance were restored to their original, intact selves and were safely relocated.
All soldiers or workers among the common termite lacked truly formed eyes or vision. They navigated using their antennae to detect odors, and could differentiate light from dark. And it was both the strange scent of the orb as well as the light it was giving off (to say nothing of the damage it had done to the colony tunnel) that attracted soldier investigation. One in particular drew itself close enough to reach out and brush the orb. And that was when quite literally everything changed. Not only for that single termite soldier, but for the entire colony.
The first, most immediate change, was the fact that every single member of the colony immediately developed the ability to see. Those small, black, pebble-like bumps grew on the heads of the termites, awakening the ability of sight within all of them. Even those among the colony, such as the king, queen, and colony-expanding, winged alates they produced, who did technically have a rudimentary ability to see, had that ability expand greatly. Every single one of them, from that instant onward, had the gift of sight as clear as a human’s. Even better, technically, considering how well the vision worked within the pitch-black tunnels.
But the sense of sight, while being the most immediate and obvious change, was far from the most important. What followed, mere seconds later, was the ability to comprehend what that vision meant. The termites, one and all, every member of the colony, could suddenly understand what being able to see meant. They understood the concept of dying, of existing, of building. They knew what they were, what humans were, what other animals were. They were, one and all, as intelligent and aware as any average human. More importantly, the members of the colony were not only given a basic awareness and intelligence, they were gifted with the understanding of language. English, in this case. They knew what the words ‘tunnel’, ‘orb’, ‘dirt’, ‘wood’, and even their own designation of ‘termite’, meant. They knew the meaning of thousands of words, and even possessed at least a basic understanding of the history of humanity. The average termite in the colony, from that moment onward, possessed an equivalent knowledge and understanding of history, language, math, science, and more as, at a bare minimum, the average human high school student.
As with humans, some were more intelligent and knowledgeable than others. A few of the lowly workers and soldiers developed a level of intelligence on par not only with the average human, but with human scientists or academics. The queen and king, meanwhile, were given the intelligence and knowledge needed to control the colony, including the understanding that the most gifted of their subjects had to be protected and nurtured for the good of the colony.
It was an awakening, the uplifting of an entire colony of termites to a level of intelligence and understanding on par with any human. They were aware, intelligent, capable of individual personality. From that moment forward, every member of the colony, including those later grown from larvae, were just as individualized and capable of thought, creativity, and even emotions such as anger, compassion, and love as humanity itself.
And yet, for as remarkable as the colony’s sudden intelligence was, the gift of the orb (which had become a sort of god to them) did not end there. It also bestowed the ability for each of the termites to generate a bit of white fog. This fog was capable of disintegrating any currently non-living material (including dead wood) it touched so long as at least one member of the colony was currently standing on or touching identical material. For example, if one member of the colony was perched against a tire, any fog produced by any of the termites could disintegrate any other tires.
Materials dissolved this way could then be repurposed. The termites would simply produce more fog, manipulate it into the shape they wanted, and the fog would be replaced by the solid form made of their absorbed material. And while they were limited in how much material they could produce this way, it was not a one-one ratio with what they had dissolved. For every single pound of material the fog disintegrated, the colony as a whole could create ten pounds of the same material. Unfortunately, only original material could be multiplied this way. The termites could not, for example, disintegrate ten pounds of steel, create a hundred pound block, then disintegrate that and have access to a thousand pounds.
That was the new colony, an intelligent collection of termites capable of working together to disintegrate any non-living material and use that material to build elaborate, incredible structures. Each could only produce a small amount of fog by themselves, but together, much large amounts could be used, and thus much larger structures created.
With their new intelligence and individuality, the Colony of the Sphere (as they called themselves) attempted to reach out to the humans of the nearby small town of Merit, Kansas, by using their material-construction fog to create words made of stone, metal, and wood.
Unfortunately, that attempt… did not go well. The humans they tried to communicate with, their first attempt at contact, reacted horrifically. They rejected the very concept that the termites could be intelligent. No, worse, they reacted as though the colony were monsters, and tried to kill them. Almost the entire greeting party had been annihilated. A thousand of their people, a thousand intelligent creatures, who had been looking forward to meeting real humans, were wiped out.
And the humans had not stopped there. They had set about attempting to wipe the colony out entirely. Not all of them, naturally. But enough. And too few tried to stop them. After all, what they were killing were only insects. Poison, fire, huge drilling machines, they had gone to extreme lengths in their efforts to destroy the termite ‘invaders.’
The colony, of course, had retaliated once they understood that there was no negotiating, that there could be no compromise. Using their powers, they destroyed the drilling and digging machines, disintegrated the human weapons, even the clothes they wore. They moved further, destroying the very homes the humans lived in, the vehicles they drove, everything they could. They drove the humans to flee. And when more humans came with their weapons, their armored vehicles, their bombs, the colony destroyed those too.
Eventually, the humans had stopped coming, for the most part. A few still approached, and those who could be trusted were traded with. One in particular, a human named Jerry Mose, had driven a scouting expedition of the colony across a large part of the state, to every junkyard, scrapyard, abandoned car lot, factory, everywhere that would allow the termites to disintegrate more incredibly useful metal and add it to their collective resources. The human authorities had subsequently cracked down much harder on anyone approaching or leaving the territory of the colony, performing very intensive searches to ensure none of the termites snuck beyond their borders. But by then most of the damage had been done.
It was that, the addition of so much iron and steel (particularly given the colony’s ability to multiply any material they absorbed by ten), which allowed them to create the structure Bird-Chair-One was descending toward as he entered the tunnel. The tunnel, unlike those built by ordinary colonies, was made of concrete. The entrance area was quite wide, with a sharply angled ramp leading downward. Along the top of that ramp were twenty tiny, insect-sized boards with wheels under them. Each board had a spool attached to the back, with string leading from that spool to another one attached to the wall. Next to each spool was a small button.
Essentially, any member of the colony could perch themselves on a cart and push off. The cart would carry them, much faster than they could walk, down the steeply angled concrete tunnel, staying within narrow grooves which prevented the carts from banging into one another. On the way, the string attaching the cart to the wall spool would unwind. Once the cart was at the bottom, either the button attached to the wall spool, or an identical one down there, could be used to open a small stream of water into a bucket that was linked to the spool on the far side of the wall. The weight of the water-filled bucket would pull the cart back to the surface, and once the cart was locked in place, the bucket would empty and return to its normal position.
It was a complex system, and the colony was always trying to improve ways that they could get around. Particularly given the fact that their small size was the biggest disadvantage they had in their war for survival against the humans who kept trying to exterminate them. For now, it worked well enough, and Bird-Chair-One rode one of the carts down, down down. The concrete tunnel went through twenty feet of dirt, followed by a further forty feet of solid cement that matched the tunnel itself. And even then, after passing sixty feet deep into the ground through that mixture of dirt and concrete, the ride was only halfway over. A further sixty feet of solid steel, the exterior wall of the buried protective bunker that had become the primary colony home, had to be passed through. Twenty feet of dirt, forty feet of concrete, sixty feet of steel, all protecting the colony from the humans who had tried so hard to eradicate them.
For the moment, those humans had given up trying to destroy them, thanks to a mixture of the damage their very expensive equipment suffered any time it got close (the colony had scouting groups hidden in the wild watching all approaches toward their territory), and the arguments presented by those few humans that the colony counted as allies. They were intelligent and capable of rational thought, which prompted enough humans to speak up for their rights to exist that it was easier for the government to back off, put up signs and barricades blocking people from approaching the former town, and try to ignore the problem than it was to deal with it.
But the colony had not forgotten. They knew that it was only a matter of time before more humans came to try to kill them. And they would not be helpless victims again. They prepared their defenses, their weapons, for when that time inevitably came. The next time humans decided to play exterminator with the Colony of the Sphere, they would find a much bigger fight on their hands.
Bird-Chair-One and the rest of his people would not be wiped out. They had tried to extend a mandible of friendship to humans, and had been thoroughly burned. It was not a mistake they would make twice. While they could be allies with a few notable humans, those who had proven themselves, the colony would not expose itself to the risk of extinction again. Humans, as a general rule, were not to be trusted.
Reaching the bottom of the ramp, Bird-Chair-One left the cart and raced through the maze of tunnels, passing many, many more of his people. Though not as many as there could have been, considering how much better the colony was at defending itself than most insects. Like other Touched-animals, they also seemed to live longer than most of their kind. Though given the fact that most termites lived only one to two years, and it had been merely a single year since they had been Uplifted, that was harder to gauge.
The point was, they lived longer and thus the colony that had begun at a size of several hundred thousand should have been much larger. Yet something prevented that. Whether it was intentional on the part of the Sphere or not, their larvae only produced viable young at a pace that roughly matched their dead. Whenever they lost members of their species, for whatever reason, more larvae could hatch and grow. It kept the colony at roughly the same size, despite their greater intelligence and survival capability.
Finally, the tiny termite soldier reached the entrance to the queen’s chambers. It was guarded by dozens of those like him, who would quickly be backed up by hundreds more at a moment’s notice. To say nothing of the various traps that could be triggered to block off the tunnel and fill it with things such as deadly spikes and a flood of water if need be.
It took a few moments of telepathic communication of ideas and concepts before Bird-Chair-One was allowed to enter the queen’s chambers. Finally, however, the thick stone slab was moved aside, and he hurried in, before stopping to behold the queen herself. Truly massive in size compared to the lowly soldier he was, the queen perched in the corner of the room. Her gaze was centered on what, to humans, would be a tiny, cell-phone sized personal television that had been dragged in there. To the colony, it was a massive monitor, connected through a cable leading to a hidden metal satellite dish that allowed it to pick up these signals.
She was watching the human news, the anchor reporting from a town over seventy miles away. Nothing of any great import, but Lion-Sapphire-Zero insisted on keeping herself up to date on everything the humans were talking about. Just in case.
At the approach of her subordinate soldier, her attention moved from the commandeered television, and she sent the simple telepathic request of, Success or failure?
Success, Bird-Chair-One was happy to report. The boat floated properly on the water, and many of our people were capable of mounting it safely.
This is excellent news, came the cheerful response from Queen Lion-Sapphire-Zero. Soon, we will be able to move our expedition along the river to the place the humans call Leavenworth. Let them watch our above-ground defenses with their satellites and drones. Let them continue to search our human allies to ensure none of us are smuggled beyond these borders. We will move our people through the underground tunnels to our boats, and sail them under cover of darkness far beyond where the humans expect to find our people.
After a brief pause, Bird-Chair-One felt safe enough in the queen’s good mood to ask, Will we attack them then, to repay the lost massacre?
No, the queen informed him. We will not initiate hostilities. But we will place our people in position to retaliate if need be.
And if the humans do make any move to exterminate us again, they will find the cost to be far higher than they could have imagined.