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Them!
An article for Footprints Magazine by Cheeseburger Brown
Them!, an article for Footprints Magazine by Chester Burton Brown

Mr. J lives in Gilford, but I won't say where. Under the sky is probably explanation enough. It could've happened in anybody's backyard.

"I've got proof!" he cackled loudly through the telephone.

I held the receiver further away from my ear. "Proof of what?"

"Them!" he hissed. "Come on over, Mr. Brown: I've got a story for your next issue that's out of this world."

"Wow. That was so cheesy. But I'll come over anyway."

Mr. J's modest bungalow backs on several acres of mixed bush. I met him on the front porch. Despite the balmy early autumn warmth he wore a toque. When I asked why he tugged up a corner to show me his glittering skullcap. "If people see the tinfoil, they won't give you a bank loan," he explained before solemnly handing me one of my own. I tried to beg off but he insisted. "You'll need it," he assured me. "The signals are much stronger out back."

I put the tinfoil on my head. "Follow me," he said.

As we walked around the house he outlined his theory: the distance between stars is unimaginably vast, too vast for a biological lifespan -- thus, visitors from other worlds are more likely than not to be artificial, much as we humans send robots as proxies to explore our own star system. "The thing is," said Mr. J, "really tiny robots would be much easier to send than big 'uns."

"Sure, I've heard that idea before. Von Neumann probes: clouds of tiny self-replicating machines for exploring space."

He paused and squinted at me. "That's the dumbest name I ever heard."

"Tell that to John Von Neumann. What do you call them?"

"Interspatial robo-bugtronic insect-o-ringers."

I raised a brow. "Catchy."

Mr. J led me along a narrow path into the woods behind his yard. We stopped in front of a symmetrical mound of well-sorted soil. I looked over at him. "It's an ant hill."

"No, it's a hyper-reconnaissance mega-manifold micro-base."

"I think your tinfoil hat's too tight. Have you described these symptoms to your doctor?"

"It's not symptoms, it's proof. Look here," he invited me, getting down on his knees and pulling a greasy magnifying glass out of his pocket. He trained it over a stream of little black ants. "See? Hard-armour exterior, perfect group coordination, no individuality. These guys are machines."

"Girls," I correct. "The ants you see outside the colony are diploid sisters, Mr. J, sharing three-quarters of their DNA. Males generally come out only once a year, to mate before they die."

He straightened to face me. "But these aren't ants, Mr. Brown. They're space aliens."

I try to smile in a friendly way. "Okay, diploid cosmic ultra-sisters."

"You're making fun of me."

"Only very slightly."

He snorted. "You won't be for long. Because I've seen what these so-called ants are carrying into their hole, and it ain't crumbs and bits of bugs. They carry metal. They're building something under there."

"I can appreciate how an exoskeleton might look mechanical, but these are just regular eusocial insects, Mr J, descended from primitive wasps right here on this planet a hundred million years ago. They're not robots, and if they're building anything underground it's an egg chamber or possibly a fungus farm."

From the shadows beside a tree he drew out two spades. "Let's find out."

We dug into the side of the mound. Ants streamed everywhere. Lobes of packed dirt fell aside, exposing labyrinthine networks of tunnels packed with panicking formicoids. They crawled over our boots as they fled and dripped from our spades like ink.

I paused to wipe sweat from my brow. "I think you owe me a beer."

Just then Mr. J's spade struck something with a loud metallic clang. Together we cleared the area, exposing a hollow space. Fishing inside with the end of his shovel Mr. J found something solid again and began digging around it. In a moment he had exposed a curved arch of something hard and geometrically perfect. "What is that?" I asked.

"It's big," said Mr. J. And then he yelled, "Whoa!" and started grabbing at his ankles. I looked down. The ants were no longer fleeing: they were attacking. The bushes roiled as they poured in from all angles, streaming up over our laces and digging their tiny mandibles into the skin above our socks.

I hollered a naughty word and began to dance against my will. Mr. J was doing a mad jig of his own. When the ants started biting my knees I knew drastic measures were called for. I yelled, "Abandon pants!"

Which is how Mr. J and I found ourselves treed in a sugar maple in our underwear while we watched the sun set. The ant-like things patrolled in a constant circle around the base of the trunk while others laboured at the damaged colony. "Do you have a cigarette?" asked Mr. J.

"No."

Darkness came and the ground was lost in shadows. Our ant-compromised boots and socks and pants became lost to us, too. I shifted uncomfortably in the tree. Around midnight the wind shifted. We agreed we could detect a faint glow coming from the colony. "What's happening?" I whispered.

A low, throbbing hum wound up from silence. We both climbed slightly higher into the tree. "I don't wanna get probed!" whimpered Mr. J.

A spinning metal saucer with dancing lights at its edge rose from the ruined colony, loose soil whipping away into the bushes. It hovered briefly and then squealed away straight up into the sky with a high-pitched buzz. The buzz faded, leaving Mr. J and I semi-nude and alone in our tree.

Cautiously we dismounted. Mr. J flicked his Bic and held it close to the ground. He ranged back and forth but could not find a single ant. We did find our pants, though. In place of the ant hill was a broad hole in the dirt, the tips of the exposed roots faintly charred.

"See?" said Mr. J proudly if somewhat shakily. "Interspatial robo-bugtronic insect-o-ringers!"

I nodded. "The point is conceded, sir."

Fin.

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IF YOU HAVE ENJOYED READING THIS STORY, PLEASE CONSIDER LEAVING A SMALL TIP. A PAYPAL ACCOUNT IS NOT REQUIRED. THANK YOU VERY MUCH. YOURS TRULY, C. BROWN.
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