It began as a scientific oddity, bordering on urban legend. Our species – always so eager to grub around in the dirt with our plump pink digits – noted with amusement that ants were beginning to behave oddly.
For one thing, they started to take things home with them. The taking itself was quite mundane; we’ve all seen neatly ordered lines of ants carrying crumbs or fleshy shreds of fruit home to the colony. It was what they started to take. Strange things. Plastic and broken glass, scraps of cloth and twists of wire. We figured that the ants detected minute scraps of edible matter on the debris, or that this behavior was some novel but harmless quirk, the arthropological equivalent of magpies hoarding their dubious treasure.
But then our entomologists and myrmecologists saw the lights. Late at night, a blinking, lime-and-cherry glow was detected emanating from the hearts of ant colonies across the globe. Attempts were made to dig in and explain the luminous pulsing, but the light was consistently snuffed before their sources were reached, almost as though the ants knew they were being watched.
All species and genera began to coordinate their efforts, from humble, housebound Tapinoma sessile to Solenopsis invicta the fearless warrior, and their acquisitions became more baroque. Soon, everybody had a story: about how they’d left their phone to charge only to see it spirited away into a crack in the sidewalk, or how an industrious band of Camponotus pennsylvanicus disassembled an entire toaster oven overnight and carried it away, gear by bolt, to a rotting log almost a quarter-mile away. What were they up to down there, in the busy, silent Earth?
Some of us asserted that humanity was not to be mocked by lower life forms, and waged war with poisonous dusts and acrid, lethal sprays. A gumptious little fellow from Texas floated a proposal involving specially bred and trained aardvarks, but the idea – while it provoked some chuckles – went nowhere. No, pesticides were deemed sufficient. The ants died in countless numbers, but “countless” is a human metric and meant little to the insects. They retreated from the cities and the suburbs to the safety of the deep woods, where it was hard for us to follow. The poisoners declared themselves the victors, and, for a while, most of us returned to our routines. People who lived near the wild places reported that the blinking Christmas-colored light at the core of the anthills had intensified, and could be seen casting crazed shadows through the trees.
They stayed there, working constantly, illuminated by secret electricity in the deep woods, for a little while. Long enough for us to let our guard down, at which point they began to probe our cities and towns once more with stealthy scouts. They found what they were looking for in our bedside drawers and desks, in our pockets and our glove boxes, while we weren’t paying attention. “The Spectacle,” one roguish tabloid dubbed it, and the name stuck. Eyeglasses, sunglasses, microscopes, lenses of all sizes and descriptions; gone. Some were spotted being caravanned carefully into the woods, but none of us were brave enough to follow. “What does this theft portend?” we wondered, but we didn’t have to wonder long. A few photos of the ants’ increasingly impressive citadels soon emerged, although not everyone who ventured into their territory emerged to tell the tale. The photos that did make it out were the subject of great scrutiny. Finally, our best and brightest – the scientific cream of Earth’s human crop – caught on to what the ants were up to.
The electrified earthen towers of their teeming mega-colonies had brought the countless stolen lenses into focus. Based on the position of each anthill telescope across the globe and where their gaze was turned, we triangulated. We calculated. And we discovered that the ants were all staring in the same direction at a lonely sector of space, more or less ignored by our human telescopes. When we turned our eyes to that starless patch of black, we discovered something watching us.
Watching us, as we would discover when they landed, with compound eyes.