Never move at night. Never move in bad weather. You can blunder into a trap, and then it's all over. If you can't see clearly at least a hundred meters in all directions, laager up on some piece of hard ground-a large slab of pavement is best-and wait it out.
Yeah, that's risky. They don't move fast, but they never quit, ever. The longer you sit still, the more time they have to move in, surround you, cut you off. They're clever bastards-don't let anyone tell you different. If they're out there, they'll smell you. They don't got noses, but they'll smell you. And if they smell you, they'll come for you. Count on it.
Usually sitting still is the better bet, so you go to ground, put out your sensors, get real heavy-duty paranoid, and wait it out. And if your luck is out and they do come, then you move-hell, you run!-and hope you don't stumble into an ambush. Moving at night is just plain stupid, but you'll do it because staying put is suicide.
And if they do cut you off, you dump all the juice you got around you, get on the horn, and scream for evac. And while you wait, you'll pray to the God who abandoned us that those choppers'll come in time. And when He doesn't answer, you'll pray to whoever or whatever that those chopper jocks are more reliable than God, 'cause they're your last chance.
If they're out there, they will smell you. They will come for you. And then either you'll kill 'em off, or they'll find a gap in your defenses-a hairline crack will do-and they will eat you alive.
The Heyworth farm, 10km southwest of Wade, Oklahoma:
"Caaptaain! Caaptaain!" The distant shout snaps Wintergreen out of his troubled sleep. He sits up anxiously, fighting fatigue and confusion, trying to understand what's happening.
"...¡Amigos!..." It's a panicked Sergeant Hernandez on the all-squawk. "...¡Conseguimos hormigas aquí!..."
"Caaaptaaain!" Doc is hoofing it at top speed out of the vacant field to their east where he was setting out the remote sensors. "Aaaaannnts!" He points behind him frantically. "Aaaaaaannnts!"
"What the hell?" Lieutenant Washington looks around in dismay, drops his apple, grabs the binoculars, and looks off to the east. Wintergreen is half out of it, caught off guard, trying to shake off his grogginess. Instinct tells him the greater threat is up the road...
"...Estephan! They're behind us!..."
"...¿Maldicion, ahora qué?..."
Their suit radios are becoming clogged with panicked voices. Something is wrong here, terribly wrong. Hernandez has abandoned 'Able' tanker, and is beating a hasty retreat toward the command section. Beyond him, two hundred meters north, 'Able' team is milling around in confusion...
"...Hey! Watch where you spray that stuff!..."
...on the edge of the woods as they try to change front. One of the orange-suited figures pushes another out of the third's path-Estephan-as he swings his long spray boom around.
"...Dammit! Move, Micklund!..."
"...Hey, Bravo! What's happening?..."
The Captain climbs stiffly out of the humper's front seat, rubbing his eyes and gasping in the stifling midday heat. The weight of his clumsy exposure suit is almost too much in his condition. Dizzy from his sudden move, he sags against the vehicle, mops his sweaty forehead, and struggles to put it together, cursing his fatigue.
"...¡Capitán!..." Hernandez sees him, and waves frantically to get his attention. "...We got ants here, sir!..."
"...Terry! Straighten my hose..."
Doc comes pounding up to the humper, blowing hard and shaking, and grabs the Captain's arm in his excitement. "Ants, sir! A big swarm over there! They're headed this way!"
"Sir!" Sergeant Rossiter calls to him through the humper's open side panel, and points at the sensor monitor. One of the lights is glowing.
"...Julio, what's happening up there?..."
"...Can you give me more pressure, Franco?..."
The Captain stares into the command vehicle's radio compartment, flogging his mind to understand what's happening. A second monitor light comes on. There are too many things at once. 'Dammit!' he thinks. 'I can't let myself go like this.'
"...She's wide open, Ben..."
"...Move your freakin' ass, Micklund!..."
"Doc? Where'd you plant number one?" Rossiter demands.
"Huh? Ah...over there, sarge." Doc points north to a small white flag sticking up out of the weeds about twenty meters east of the road...
"...Straighten that hose, sonuvabitch!..."
"...All right! I'm doing it! Sonuvabitch yourself!..."
...which means there are three swarms closing in on 'Able' tanker, and one on the headquarters team.
"What about number eight?" Rossiter demands.
Doc hesitates. "I dropped it. It's back there." He points eastward, toward the swarm he'd run into.
"...Watch out for the hose..."
"Did you plant any to the south?"
"No, sarge, I didn't get a chance."
"...Look out, Jonesy!..."
"Better assume the worst, sir," Rossiter says as the rest of them look south toward 'Bravo' truck.
"...Cap'n?..." It's Big Ben's melodious bass. "...We got ants here, suh. They's a swarm comin' in from th' west..."
"Copy that, Ben," Rossiter says. "Protect yourself."
"...We doin' that!..." The tall orange-suited figure is sweeping his spray boom in broad frantic arcs. "...Franco, break out th' rest of th' hoses. Julian, go help him..."
"...Already on it..."
"Let's get out of here," Washington snaps. "Doc, mount up, we're falling back to a new position."
"Too late, sir." Doc points south at a dark stain flowing across the road between them and 'Bravo' tanker. Another orange-suited figure breaks away from 'Bravo' team and circles around toward their truck, but stops abruptly when he almost stumbles into the new swarm on the road.
"...Whoa, shit! We got more ants here, Ben!..."
"...Tell 'em to take a number!..."
Rossiter's worst is about as bad as it gets. They finally got a reaction from the hive after tracing and blasting tunnels all morning, and they're getting more than they bargained for. This was supposed to be a modest Class Four infestation...
"...Check our rear, Terry..."
...but now fire ants are coming at them by the ton from all directions determined to make a meal of 'Two-Easy' Company. The Captain is finally getting a handle on the situation...
"...Hey, I'm doin' my job. Cut the crap..."
...and realizes he made a serious error assuming this infestation is just in the woods west of the road. 'Idiot!' he curses himself. 'You know better than that!' He screwed up, big time.
"...You ready, Julian?..."
"God," Doc mutters. He's figured it out, too. "This is a Class One infestation! We're right in the middle of them!"
"All units." Rossiter is on the all-squawk again. "This is a Class One infestation. We have multiple swarms inbound from all directions. Both teams redeploy to link up and retreat, aysap." A lone Company can't stand up to a hive complex this huge. They'll be lucky to avoid being trapped and overwhelmed.
"...'Bravo', we copy..."
"...'Able'! We're on it!..."
"This is 'Two-Easy' to 'Two-Batt'. We have an emergency. Over?" Rossiter is on the com-squawk now.
"There's that bunch I found, sir." Doc points off to the east.
"There they are!" Washington adds. "God! It's huge!"
The Captain snatches the binoculars from him, provoking an angry outburst. The swarm to their east is like a dark river of molasses three meters wide flowing sluggishly over and around obstacles like an oncoming tide. Millions of ants are bearing down on them; enough to chew through their exposure suits and strip them to bones in no time. They have twenty minutes to clear this spot, and nowhere to go.
"...get me some more slack..."
"...damn it, damn it, damn it, damn..."
"...¡Julio! ¡Venido alrededor al sur de nosotros!..."
"This is 'Two-Easy' to 'Two-Batt'." Sergeant Rossiter is about the only one holding onto his cool. His words are half drowned in the squeal and hiss of interference. "We have an emergency. 'Two-Batt' respond. Over?"
To their north, 'Able' team is emerging from the woods, wading into the oncoming swarms, Estephan swinging the sprayer boom from side to side to carve a swathe through to their truck while Muller and Micklund follow close behind. Sergeant Hernandez has halted a few dozen paces from 'Able' tanker, and is searching for a way to link up with his team.
"...got any air support?..."
"'Two-Easy' to 'Two-Batt', do you copy? Over?"
"...¡Hijo de una perra!..." Hernandez reverses course suddenly, heading back with an exaggerated dancing step and a livid string of curses. "...¡Dado, tu freza de Satan!..."
"...English! Speak English, everyone..."
"...What's happening over there, 'Able'?..."
"...Straighten my hose, Johnson!..."
"...Julio! You all right, amigo? What's happening?..."
"...Damned ants!..." Hernandez looks around in confusion, trying to decide where that last message came from, then turns toward the humper, and points at the ground where he was just standing. "...Captain! This bunch is headed for you!..."
That can't be the same swarm which chased the Sergeant away from his tanker. No one ever saw a swarm twenty meters wide-and lived to tell of it. So hopefully there are four swarms to their north.
"'Two-Easy' to 'Two-Batt', respond urgent, over?" Rossiter is starting to tense up now.
"Gas, sir," Doc mutters as he starts fighting with the closers on his exposure suit. Wintergreen glances at him in confusion, then realizes the wind is from the north, carrying the deadly spray from 'Able' tanker in their direction. Their operation is descending into chaos. Soon there won't be any place they can be sure is gas free.
"Suit up!" Washington barks. He is more alert than the Captain, and moves to fill the void in command every chance he gets.
"...They just keep coming!..."
Washington gives the Captain a contemptuous glance, and reaches up to close the humper's side panel. His eyes meet Rossiter's. "Get us all the support you can, Sergeant."
"...Oh, Jesus God!..."
"Yes, sir." Rossiter pulls the hatch shut and dogs it, then shuts the air vents. A moment later, the positive pressure compressor kicks on, pressurizing the radio compartment.
"...Steady there, Julian..."
"...JESUS! We got ants on our right! Ben! Our right!..."
"...I see 'em, Jonesy..."
"...¡Estoy en él!..."
"This is 'Two-Easy' to 'Two-Batt'." Rossiter's voice comes through the repeater mounted over the fold-out table. He's worried now. "We have an emergency. 'Two-Batt' copy. Over?"
"...¡Hola Estephan! ¿Qué pasa?..."
"...Hey, somebody! My hose is hung up..."
"We gotta go, sir."
"Huh?" Wintergreen completely forgot the threat coming directly at them from the east. His mind still isn't working clearly. Doc points to the swarm just emerging from the weeds.
"Right," Washington grunts, and takes a quick look around. Time's up, and there's still no place to go. "Let's move as far up toward 'Able' as we can. We'll pick up Hernandez at least."
They mount up hurriedly, and Doc guns the starter, trying to get the engine to fire.
"...Estephan! Over there!..."
Estephan swings his spray boom in an arc to meet a new threat. Five swarms to their north, one to the east, at least three to their south. 'Able' team is being driven southward, off course to their tanker.
"...I'm on it, Ben..."
"'Two-Easy' to 'Two-Batt', emergency. Over?"
"Come on, dammit." Doc hits the starter again.
"...Captain, we got a hose... Johnson! Over there!..." Wintergreen climbs on the humper's running board for a better view. One of the figures around 'Bravo' tanker swings his spray boom around to the east. Four swarms to their south.
"This is 'Two-Batt' to 'Two-Easy', we copy your emergency. What's happening? Over?" The transmission is scratchy and blurred by background static.
"Shit," Doc swears under his breath as he grinds the starter.
"'Two-Batt', we have been ambushed." Rossiter is speaking in the slow, cool, distinct voice professionals use when it all goes to hell. "This infestation at grid Golf-Echo-Six-Six is a Class One, repeat, a Class One hive, and we're caught..."
"...Covah my right, Julian..."
"...of it. We need ground support and air strikes..."
"Copy that, 'Two-Easy'. What is your status? Over?"
"Command section is trapped. The two tankers are isolated from each other by swarms. They're coming at us from all..."
"...MICKLUND, YOU TURD!..."
"...no casualties. We are attempting to withdraw. Over?"
"Copy, 'Two-Easy'. I don't know where we'll find ground assets, but we'll try to get you some air support. Over?"
That's no surprise. The Second Battalion is scattered from hell to breakfast trying to do too much with way too little. Wintergreen's knees are shaking, so he steps down and leans against the humper, gasping for breath.
"Copy that, thank you," Rossiter says. "This is 'Two-Easy' switching to the air-squawk." A moment later, "This is 'Two-Easy'..."
"...Look out, Ben!..."
Back up on the running board: Big Ben scurries to his left, trying to change front again. 'Bravo' team has all three sprayer hoses going now, fighting in a defensive circle as they are slowly being pushed back around their tanker. Five swarms to their south, and it looks bloody desperate. 'God,' Wintergreen preys silently, 'Get them out of there.' If he loses good men due to his blunder...
"...Cap'n, can you get us any help?..."
"...Fuck that! This goddamned army..."
"'Two-Easy' to 'Flapper-Echo', over?"
A gust of wind fans his hair, reminding him of the danger from the north. He steps down again, and fumbles with his exposure suit zippers, cursing his shaking hands. He'll be lucky to get out of this himself.
"...our asses flapping in the..."
"Come...ON..." Doc grinds the starter again. It runs slower now, the battery draining. With the shape this old heap is in, he's doing good to get that.
"'Two-Easy' to 'Flapper..."
"This is 'Flapper-Echo'. What'ja need sarge?"
"...¡Hijo de una perra! ¿Qué idiota nos consiguió en esto?..."
"'Flapper-Echo', we are trapped in the center of a Class One infestation. We have..."
"...SHIT! Oh, Jesus!..."
"...tiple swarms coming in from all directions. We require immediate air support. Over?"
"Oh, shit! Okay, sarge, show us..."
Back up on the running board: six swarms to their south, and the Captain spots another swarm coming at the command section from due west.
"...with three loads of gas. Over?"
"...Sweet Mother Mary..."
"Copy that. There's no waiting in line."
"How long did he say, Sergeant?" Wintergreen asks over his suit radio. "Sergeant?"
"DAMMIT!" The battery is going rapidly. Rossiter's radios are not helping, but they can't shut them down now.
"'Flapper Base' to 'Two-Easy', over?"
"Thank you, 'Flapper-Echo'. 'Two-Easy' to 'Flapper Base', we copy."
"...Sarge? We got all our hoses going..."
"...Who was that?..."
"...On the right! The right! The right!..."
"...¡Hey! ¡Mírelo con esa cosa!..."
"...from Battalion." It's the Ops officer, Lieutenant Rowe, rather than the Jamaican girl. "What is your situation? Over?"
"We are trapped in the center of a Class One infestation. The unit is separated and cut off from each other..."
"...El dios me da fuerza..."
"...God! Look at 'em! How we gonna kill all that?..."
"...'Flapper-Echo' inbound with three in fifteen. We require all possible air support aysap. Over?"
"Copy that. We can have..."
"...You okay, Ben? Ben..."
"...Not now, Julian..."
"...ETA one hour plus. I'll attach 'Flapper-Echo' to you, and see what else I can..."
"...MOVE, Micklund! Piece a' shit..."
"...oh Jesus, Jesus, Jesus..."
"...to hell with you!..."
"...take a while. Over?"
"...Oh, Jesus! They're gonna eat us alive!..."
"...Steady, boy. Jus' hold yo' ground, and do yo' pattern, like we showed ya'..."
"Copy that, 'Flapper Base'. This is a Righteous Fuster-Cluck, so there's plenty of fun for everyone. Over?"
"Ain't it always? 'Flapper Base', out."
'Yeah,' the Captain thinks. 'A Righteous Fuster-Cluck in anyone's book, and I set us up for it!' Shaken by his mistake, and by the Sergeant's implied rebuke, his last faint shred of willpower drains away. He steps down again, and after a moment of indecision, climbs wearily back into the front seat, trying to tune out a world he can no longer face.
"...We can't stop 'em, Estephan..."
"GIVE! Damn you!" Doc grinds the starter again, getting a backfire for his troubles. The engine still refuses to fire on the crud in their fuel tank. "We may have to bail out, sir."
"...Yes we can, Terry. Be strong, amigo..."
Lieutenant Washington is hanging on the opposite running board next to Doc. He gives Wintergreen a dismissive glance, then surveys the surroundings. "Hernandez, see if you can find a route to your tanker. Franco, focus on reopening the road."
They both ignore him, and keep on with what they are doing. The Captain sits quietly, lets him pretend he's running the show, and stares vaguely off to their east. The swarm is clearly visible now, closing in and spreading out to encircle them, a flood tide of formless black death. Strangely, he is not afraid.
"Dammit..." The battery is almost dead, and so are they. Doc pounds on the closed panel between the cab and radio compartment. "Heads up, sarge. We may have to walk."
"...Give me some slack, Franco..."
"Can't they stop that noise?" Wintergreen whimpers. The suit radios are forcing him to take part in the disaster he created and can no longer face. "Please...stop it..." His eyes blur with tears, but he can't wipe them away under his hood.
"...Who was that? Anybody get that last..."
"...Shit, what a mess..."
The engine catches just as the swarm reaches the drainage ditch by the road.