The decline of the B-52 Ant Colony began around the time the rain began to fail. At that time the colony consisted of maybe a thousand ants, who had to start foraging further and further away from the hub to support the needs of the collective.
It was conversation time. Worries piled on top of worries as ants broke off in twos and threes to discuss their predicament. Worker ants with names like No-name and XX-20 wondered whether their forty-odd years of toil would leave them with a well-deserved nest egg that would allow them to roam around in their final years.
“All that time we spent gathering a few resources for ourselves,” No-name pondered. “I mean, we were like drones. Off to work, every day. Sometimes we’d have to do overtime but not get overtime pay, work at night. We’d leave our kids at home and lose that quality time. And for what?”
XX-20 was more sympathetic. “You didn’t have a choice. There are only two options. Be out there on your own and starve. Or, be bullied by some queen and lose the complete free will to choose how to spend your time. All or none. There never was the option for any balance. Your time never belonged to you to begin with.”
They both sighed. It was an old-age sigh of wishing there was more energy in the (six) legs. No-name’s children had scattered off like ants and he had lost touch with them. They had their own anonymous lives now. No-name had always wondered if he had worked less and spent some actual time with his kids as he’d just mentioned, if their nuclear family would have remained a tighter unit in the long run. But XX-20 was right. What would he have fed them on, if he’d been as free-wheeling as that? There really had been no choice.
Ant satisfaction was ultimately irrelevant. You worked or you withered.
The months went on, and there was less and less food scraps to be found in the surrounds. The Queen, though more a baby-producer than any real figurehead, worried about unrest in the nest. At times she also despaired at the futility of it all, sending these newborns out into a cruel world that would eat them alive. Literally – there were echidnas patrolling the area.
No one had ever led a revolt against a B-52 queen, in all of its history going back generations. But the land had never been as dry as now. Solutions had always come from the land; they only needed to find them.
But this now involved foraging further away from the Colony. This generation did not know the joy of coming home to parents every night. Parents were now far too busy working even at night. This generation had raised itself, without lessons. Groups young ants hung out on the corners – dangerous places that the reputable now had to avoid, lest their toil end up in the wrong hands.
The kids were disaffected. They wanted to express themselves, and some did, but only in a mediocre, ephemeral way, gathering fickle followers who were meaningless when it came time to do something real, and true, and show some compassion.
Ant XY-257 lamented the lack of femininity in his life, the gentle touch that a female ant could have given to soften the harshness of his existence. At the end of a wearying three-day scouting mission towards the east (they were forbidden to look to the west; the direction of the setting sun was too on the nose), three days and nights without sleep with some heavy lifting, he slumped over and chatted with XX-52,032. XX-52,032 was a serious ant, little given to frivolity – the perfect ant for the times.
“Feels like we don’t have much of a future,” XY-257 lamented.
XX-52,032 sighed at this. His companion, he knew, was a dreamer who did not understand how insignificant was his place in the world. “We live, we die, there are millions just like us. We can only keep working, that’s all there is.”
XY-257 replied, “I had always thought that my life would be special, when I was a kid I thought I was destined for greatness. I didn’t realise that my life would be just 50-hour weeks performing menial chores a monkey could do.”
“You as an individual are meaningless,” XX-52,032 imparted. “All you can do is contribute to the collective. Then, what you do matters. Only then.”
Other less world-weary friends conferred in twos and threes. Many wondered if, if there was no more food to be found, they should break off from this community, this way of doing things and decide that they were the new generation, they could start society over again, it was their turn to decide what being an adult involved.
But it was a brave decision to be unconventional. Those who tried something new would be in for hard times, and perhaps only their grandchildren would reap any positive benefits, if they were lucky. Stories were rife of those three or four who had splintered from the colony. Away from the protective structure of the group and how they had always done things, these splinter groups of four or five ants had generally been eaten within hours.
No one ever remembered their names. Really, no one’s name was remembered after about three generations, but at least those who stayed locked in had contributed.
And then the decision to migrate was taken by osmosis. There they all were, moving away from their decaying structure. The B-52s were suddenly in the past.
They found the rain. It was an unexpected downpour that washed half of them away. Some parents broke down, mutely asked the world how it continued as normal when their kids had died, when the worst possible, imaginable outcome had happened. The world did not answer. It just moved on, without them. They asked: Was refreshing the colony worth the carnage?
XX-52,032 knew that it had been. They were advancing towards a goal, collectively. All they could do was continue, work, make minuscule improvements. There was no endgame. There was no perfect society. There was just fixing problems, working through them, and so on to infinity.