Mort(e) (Excerpt)

The “war with no name” has begun, with human extinction as its goal. The instigator of this war is the Colony, a race of intelligent ants who, for thousands of years, have been silently building an army that would forever eradicate the destructive, oppressive humans. The final step in the Colony’s war effort is transforming the surface animals into high-functioning two-legged beings who rise up to kill their masters.

Former housecat turned war hero, Mort(e) is famous for taking on the most dangerous missions and fighting the dreaded human bio-weapon EMSAH. But the true motivation behind his recklessness is his ongoing search for a pre-transformation friend—a dog named Sheba. When he receives a mysterious message from the dwindling human resistance claiming Sheba is alive, he begins a journey that will take him from the remaining human strongholds to the heart of the Colony, where he will discover the source of EMSAH and the ultimate fate of all of earth’s creatures.

Robert Repino’s debut novel, Mort(e) is available January 20th from Soho Press. Check out an excerpt below, and learn more about the author in our Pop Quiz interview!



Chapter Two

The Queen saw everything. Her eyes and antennae were greedy for more information, more scents, more colors, more words. Billions of her daughters extended the Colony’s reach into the world of the humans while she watched, gathering all their experiences, pleased that things had come to pass as she had envisioned. Her mind was the Colony’s mind, throbbing with growth, pulling light from the darkness.

And it was killing her.

But she was Hymenoptera Unus, the Daughter of the Misfit Queen. The one the humans called the Devil’s Hand, the Monarch of the Underworld. The responsibility—and the awful, pounding torture that came with it—was hers alone. No one could ever truly understand what she knew, certainly not her daughters, nor the humans, nor the surface animals whom she had lifted from slavery like a living god. Her children would sacrifice everything for her, and for that she was grateful, but they would never see the world through her eyes. They would never feel alone, for they were part of a whole. They would never feel regret, because for them it served no purpose.

Though her body was thousands of years old, her mind housed the collective memory of the Colony. Every victory, every defeat, every horrible death, was recorded in the chemical language of her people and stored in her brain. One death was difficult enough. She had lived billions and billions, stretched over millennia.

There came a day late in the war with no name when the humans were close to discovering her lair, buried deep within the newly formed island in the ocean. The earth above shook with their war machines. The humans brought bombs and digging devices, along with thousands of stamping boots. The Queen lay in her chamber, prone, bloated, having grown to the size of a great whale, a beast that occupied more space than the original colony in which she was born. As advanced as her brain was—as monstrous as she was—her body was still a powerless, egg-laying factory. Trapped and helpless, through her own doing. That was why the humans could never be allowed to get close. They would have burned her and danced on the corpse while believing that they had fulfilled some prophecy foretold by their magic books and witch doctors. The Colony would not end like that. The Queen swore it. She had started this war after centuries of planning. She would see it through until all the humans were dead, and the world and its deserving inhabitants were remade in her image.

The earth continued to rattle and groan as the human and insect armies fought aboveground. Another explosion on the surface throttled the chamber and shook loose a hunk of earth that crashed to the ground. The Queen had driven the humans mad with fear by then. An animal forced into a corner posed a threat, but a human faced with extinction was unpredictable and savage, positively devolved.

All around her, the Queen’s daughters continued their work of licking her swollen abdomen, clearing it of debris and pathogens as it pulsated and squeezed out new eggs. If this entire chamber collapsed, if all her chambermaids had their heads chopped off, they would continue licking until their brains finally shut down from a lack of blood and oxygen. Their devotion was absolute.

A procession of oversized workers carried in their jaws the swollen, nearly transparent larvae of the Alpha soldiers, the ones bred to be larger than a human. They could snap a man in half, tip over a tank, endure countless projectiles from the humans’ guns and cannons. After these super-soldiers hatched, the Queen carried out her ancient task of holding each one, touching antennae with it, and imparting some—but of course not all—of her immense knowledge. Enough for them to fulfill their duty. They could not handle much more than that. Her daughters could only follow her orders, not analyze and agonize over them like she could.

What to offer the new soldiers on this particular day posed a challenge. The Colony was so close to victory over the humans, yet they could lose it all so quickly. Her own mother, the so-called Misfit Queen, had been forced to make the same decision many years earlier. And the Misfit chose to give Hymenoptera everything. It was both the source of Hymenoptera’s greatness and the root of her misery. While she hated this gift, the Colony would have failed, and the humans would have won long ago, had she not accepted it.

The Queen delivered to each of the Alphas that day a summary of the war and the Colony’s history, going back to her grandmother, the Lost Queen, the one whose failure had triggered the conflict with humanity. That foolish monarch had ruled thousands of years earlier. Unchallenged, controlling vast stretches of the earth and its underground, the Lost Queen thought herself the planet’s rightful ruler. Hers was the species best suited for leadership: unhindered by sentimentality, fear, or a misguided belief that this world had been created solely for them.

While the Misfit was still in the larval stage, the Lost Queen was learning far too late that the Colony was losing out to the humans, ceding land, food, water, and dominion over other creatures. And while the Lost Queen tarried, unable to comprehend the danger surrounding her, an army of men swept over the land to attack the anthills that had risen up in defiance of one of their cities. The stink of human sandals and the thundering of their feet alerted the Colony, but it was too late. The humans brought with them sharp tools and torches. They attacked during the day, when the ants would be sluggish under the desert sun. Millions were ordered to their deaths in defense of the Colony. Entire bloodlines were lost. Throughout the tunnels and byways, the cloying scent of oleic acid—the ants’ alarm signal of death— clung to the walls, a symbol of their defeat.

Though the ants had been attacked before, there had been a harmony to things. Both they and their enemies knew that wiping out the other would not be wise in the long run. Equilibrium was needed. But this assault from the humans was something different. The sandaled men intended to murder every last one of the ants, not to merely set a boundary between their worlds. The Lost Queen knew then that she was facing a race of evil gods. These creatures killed for pleasure, yet regarded only their own suffering as significant. Such a species could not be reasoned with. They could be shown no mercy.

And so, faced with the onslaught, the Lost Queen’s daughters retreated to their catacombs while the humans plowed over their cities. When the earth was quiet again, the Lost Queen ordered the workers to dig their way out. All efforts were redirected. Even breeding and collecting food were put on hold. The existing larvae were triaged, the weaker ones feeding the diggers until they died of exhaustion and were replaced by the next in line. The future would have to wait until the present was resolved.

By the time the ants emerged from the dirt, the land around them had become a vast field of crops, seemingly endless in every direction. The Lost Queen’s gamble had worked. There was food everywhere. She ordered her daughters to feed so they would simultaneously weaken the human city. In only a few hours, the ants devoured the bulk of the crops. When morning broke, the farmers arrived to find that much of their harvest had been destroyed. Before they could react, the ants, emboldened, swarmed the ankles of the men and bit down into the flesh. Many brave ones died in that moment of blissful revenge, crushed by the flailing hands of the panicked humans. One of the farmers was so shocked that he hyperventilated and passed out in the dirt. The other humans retreated to the city wall.

The Lost Queen herself mounted the unconscious man’s body as her subjects entered the mouth, nostrils, and ears. Thousands of years later, Hymenoptera was still able to access this memory. She could hear the sound of their jaws ripping flesh. She could smell the opened capillaries, the scent of iron all the more potent after spending so much time buried in the sterile earth. The man convulsed and then lay still.

The Lost Queen sent scouts within the city walls. Inside, they observed the humans lighting a great pyre upon their temple’s altar, where they prayed for deliverance from this plague. For several days, while the ants hollowed out the farmer’s corpse, the humans sacrificed animals on the fire, hoping to reverse whatever they had done to disappoint their creator. Later, unsatisfied with—or uncertain about—the divine answer they received, the humans began placing live women and children into the flames, all the while whooping and beating their chests like the partially evolved monkeys that they were. To the ants, nothing demonstrated the depravity of these primates more than their blood rituals, and the violence and nihilism that came with them.

At last the city gates burst open. Men ventured into the field carrying buckets filled with an oily liquid. They dipped torches into the vessels, lit them on fire, and tossed the flaming orbs into the crops. Now it was the ants’ turn to panic. The Lost Queen ordered another attack, confident that she could make an example of some other human, but a well-placed torch cut off the advance. She had underestimated the human capacity for self-destruction. There was no way, she thought, that the humans would destroy what remained of their own food supply in order to avenge the death of one worker, or to please some invisible deity. Any doubts she may have had about human cruelty vanished when one of the men, in his zeal to hurl a torch, accidentally spilled the flammable slime onto his tunic and lit himself on fire. Thinking that this was part of whatever curse had befallen them, the other humans shoved the doomed man into the crops. He plunged forward into the hot soil, twisting in agony before dying.

The ants crashed into one another while the heat around them grew. Abdomens burst, the victims hopelessly wagging their antennae, searching for some relief, or at least new orders. The strong ones tried to climb over the dead to safety, only to have the liquid fire poured upon them. Thousands of chemical sirens rang out. The scent trail leading to safety evaporated. The disoriented ants could smell their own flesh as it cooked inside them.

Defeated, with the Lost Queen missing and presumed dead, the surviving ants returned to their catacombs. There was no communication, no reassuring scents from one to another. There was only digging for what seemed like weeks. At last, they reached their old tunnels and regrouped. Though the ants never had a need for myths, in this desperate hour, the closest thing to an ant legend—the Misfit Queen—was born.

A team of workers searched the catacombs for eggs. Many of the nurseries had caved in, or their temperatures had fluctuated so much that the eggs were useless. Meanwhile, another team of ants tried to locate survivors who could serve as a temporary queen, for only one of these could mate with a drone and use his collected sperm to fertilize the eggs. After three days, the ants came across a chamber of larvae, including a sickly queen who, in the confusion, had mated with a number of drones. The males lay dead beside her, their service to the Colony complete. Under normal circumstances, this traitorous queen would have been banished, having collected sperm outside of the annual mating day. Instead, the workers began to transport a number of healthy eggs to the new royal court. Their chemical signal permeated the tunnels, saying, Clear a path.

With the eggs in place, the Misfit Queen was put to work. Her first task was to use the drones’ sperm to breed a clutch of fertile females. Exhausted and near death, the Misfit at one point tried to eat one of the eggs brought before her. The workers gently pulled her away and nudged her along until she collapsed, just as the final egg had been fertilized, and the first of the new queens was hatching.

As the Misfit lay dying, the strongest of the new queens emerged from her molting, rising taller than the others, a formidable leader destined for greatness. The Misfit leaned toward her daughter, her replacement, and their antennae touched in the ancient communion of their species. The first chemical signal the great Hymenoptera received from her mother was this:

You will avenge our people,
by the light of your wisdom
and the darkness of your heart.

You will travel beyond the sands and beyond the seas.

You will build cities and topple mountains.

You will never forget the scent of your clan.

You will grasp the world in your jaws
while the beasts on two feet bang the earth
and shout to the skies.

You will lie in wait for the savages.

Though their fire will burn you,
and their weapons will smite you,
you will rise, you will rise.

And then the rivers will flow toward you.

The hills will bow to you.

The sun will revolve around you.

The creatures of the earth will worship you.

The winds will push you forward.

You will rise.

You will rise.

For each of her Alpha daughters, Hymenoptera always stopped here in the story. What happened next was for her alone to remember.

Upon receiving this first and last message from her mother, the young Hymenoptera grasped the head of the Misfit Queen, tore it off, and ate it, ravenous and ready to lead. The humans had forced her people into this savagery. They made her do this, murder her own mother before everyone. All that would end. Her people would rise. There was nowhere else to go from here. Reassured by what they had witnessed, the surrounding workers destroyed the other queen eggs. They fed Hymenoptera the dying workers, who were so exhausted they could no longer lift their heads. The new Queen devoured them, her antennae probing the others to see if they would resist. She was sending them a message: all would sacrifice for the good of the many. The destiny of her people was to conquer and to reign. A new era had begun.

This is where Hymenoptera would pick up her story again for her Alpha soldier daughters. She shared the legend stating that the cries of the fallen brought forth the accumulated knowledge of the species, placing it all into her head. From that moment on, she developed a plan for vengeance that would take millennia to execute. The Colony would acquire knowledge the way humans gobbled up resources and land. The ants would create an army with warriors who were larger, stronger, and more vicious than even the most bloodthirsty human. They would study and exploit all aspects of mankind’s existence: language, community, physiology, history, and science, as well as religion, that anti-science that animated the humans, driving them to either greatness or destruction. They would exert dominion over the other ant clans and make contact with other species who viewed the humans as a mutual enemy. The Colony now had a goal beyond mere survival.

Its subjects had purpose. They observed history in linear rather than in circular terms. Like their enemy, they had an apocalypse to anticipate.

The Colony began to learn at an accelerated rate. Meanwhile, the Queen bred a caste of medical engineers who kept her alive, allowing her to grow and molt, soon making her one of the oldest and largest creatures on the planet. In less than a century after the fire, the ants deciphered the origin of human speech—sound waves traveling from evolved organs in the throat—and in another two hundred years they could read several human languages. Unable to truly see the text on a stolen fragment of manuscript, the Queen bred a subspecies with olfactory sensors on their feet. These “interpreters” would march around the written words, tracing the ink. After years of study, the Queen found human language to be a primitive and self-defeating form of communication, light-years behind the instantaneous clarity and subtle nuance of her chemicals. Human speech could mean everything and nothing at once. How could a species procreate, build, innovate, and survive with such an appallingly inadequate system, she wondered. It was the study of language that made the Queen realize how easy it would be to turn the humans against themselves. Homo sapiens had a weakness for their language, a sort of gullibility. Whereas knowledge was stored with the Queen, ensuring almost complete infallibility from the moment a pair of antennae came into contact, humans would have to bicker over translations, authorship, historical context, symbolism, and meaning. They had to rely on the faulty memory of storytellers, the biased interpretations of scribes, and the whims of inefficient bureaucrats in order to pass down their collected knowledge. In a way, she was disappointed. She had hoped that somehow the humans would surprise her and show a capacity that she had yet to discover, something that would make them worthy adversaries. But they were merely talking monkeys, an unfortunate anomaly staining the elegance of the animal kingdom, and the entire world was worse off for it.

Along with her efforts to penetrate the Homo sapiens psyche, the Queen also ordered her daughters to breed new microbes and viruses, with varying degrees of success. The bubonicinfected flea, the most notorious example, was a masterpiece. Though the Queen ultimately concluded that a plague would never be a sufficient way of eliminating the human threat, she learned much from her manipulation of mammals. Indeed, handing the surface over to the aboveground creatures, whom the humans had exploited for centuries, became an indispensable part of the Queen’s vision for the earth. When the time came, the animals would learn from the mistakes of the humans and become something greater. This would be her grand experiment, proving that the ants were the true deities of this planet. And maybe the animals would grow to have some of the qualities of the Misfit Queen: bravery for its own sake, sacrifice for the good of the species, greater awareness of their place in the universe, humility in the face of reality, a rejection of superstition, a fearless embrace of truth. Maybe, she thought. Regardless, the surfacers deserved to be unyoked from human domination and given a chance to be free.

When the anthills began erupting—thereby opening the first phase of the war—the humans viewed the event with amusement rather than urgency. There would be no Hymenoptera Unus to reorient them toward a new destiny. Instead, the humans responded piecemeal. They evacuated the infested villages, retreating again and again. They attempted the use of pesticide, all the while bickering among themselves about the environmental side effects. This concern seemed especially absurd to the Queen, given that their species had done more than any other to pollute the earth. When the pesticides failed, the human governments acted swiftly to quarantine the countries that were now overrun. Some humans were misguided enough to expect fences to repel the ants. In fact, the fences were meant to keep the fleeing refugees from entering the wealthier countries.

When the insects simply dug underneath the barriers, the humans used a line of fire to hold them back. The flaming borders were so long that they could be seen from space, glowing orange ribbons sending up columns of smoke. The humans congratulated themselves for their ingenuity and solidarity, and resolved to retake the land as soon as possible.

Several weeks later, the Queen ordered the Alphas to attack. At first, the Alphas were instructed to prey on children only. Images of the hideous beasts carrying off screaming students from schoolhouses appeared on television screens across the world. Soldiers deserted their posts and returned home to protect their families. No one could determine a rational explanation for what the ants were doing. Rather than organizing a counterattack, confused military leaders focused on building protective bunkers for themselves. Scientists argued over the cause of such behavior. Civilians turned on their political leaders. More than once, rioters overran military checkpoints to drag senators, governors, presidents, and dictators out of their mansions in order to hang them or worse. Predictably, religious leaders agreed that this atrocity was a punishment from the heavens. The Alphas were beasts from hell, rising from humans’ worst nightmares for a final reckoning.

Those humans who stood and fought produced some of the most horrific battles the planet had ever seen. Whereas many species had evolved the ability to go into shock and die under severe trauma, humans were somehow able to rise above this trait and fight on, even with severed limbs and punctured arteries. But their rage was no match for the undying hatred of a queen who blamed them for the death of her mother. The sight of thousands of ten-foot-tall insects storming a fortification and tearing soldiers apart appeared over and over. It did not matter how good a human soldier’s aim was, or how many bombs he could lob, or how many air strikes he could request. There were always more ants on the way. And unlike the humans, the Alphas would not philosophize about the losses. There would be no hazing of new recruits, no fatalistic bets on who would go first, no masturbating to photos of sweethearts back home. The Alphas were as merciless and determined as the humans were doubtful and afraid.

It was in the midst of this madness that the Queen initiated the final phase of her takeover: the transformation of the surface animals. Under her direction, the Queen’s chief scientists developed a hormone derived from the chemicals they had used to breed the Alphas and keep Hymenoptera alive. The ants injected the potion into the water supply. The hormone had an effect on birds, reptiles, amphibians, and mammals. Meanwhile, the ants constructed their nameless island in the Atlantic, along with hundreds of dirt towers on every continent, from which they broadcast signals that only the animals could hear, and that their rapidly growing brains would absorb. The frequency contained subliminal instructions on how to read, how to use tools, how to fight, how to organize societies—basic knowledge the animals would need.

The Change manifested itself on the first dose of the hormone. The animals first became self-aware, which often compelled them to flee their confines. They could now see the world beyond mere survival. For some, it was a horrifying moment. Many died leaping through windows or running through traffic. But for most, the experience was liberating, like the discovery of an elusive formula.

Within a day, the physical advancements were considerable. Their larynges extended, enabling the animals to form words. For those that did not have hooves or wings, the front paws grew into hands with opposable thumbs, and the hind legs were able to support the weight of the body. Once again, there were poor reactions among certain animals. Early in the experiment, for example, there was a pack of wolves so shocked by their new appendages that they bit them off. This behavior was an aberration, however, falling within the Queen’s projection of a four-to-nine-percent failure rate. Now the animals would do what the Queen’s loyal daughters could not. They would pull themselves up to greatness, as she had done.

Many animals understood immediately that they had been the slaves of cruel masters. A new front in the war opened, this time in homes, farms, laboratories, and zoos. Now the humans had to deal with their own pets, livestock, and test subjects standing before them, sometimes wielding weapons, staring with determined eyes. For many animals, this confrontation was the first time they would speak, forcing out the newly discovered words in an awkward stutter: “Indeed, yes, affirmative, I have come to kill you, sir.”

Soon the animals formed a rapidly growing army. Some former pets were conflicted about this, but the evidence against the humans was overwhelming. The humans, after all, ate the animals, stole their milk and eggs, encroached on their land, and carved up their bodies to make them more suitable pets. The Queen, on the other hand, offered a sense of purpose, and a future. Like the Alphas, the animals would know who had raised them up. They would know that there was a god on earth.

The ceremony forthe Alphas was nearly complete. The workers gathered in a horseshoe shape facing the Queen, awaiting final approval before shuffling off to their destinies. There was only one daughter left to hold, one who was smaller than usual, yet active and squirming in the Queen’s arms. Whereas the new soldiers seemed emboldened by their duties, the Queen was exhausted from reliving the story. These few moments with her daughters were more than she had enjoyed with her own mother. She did not wish to think about it. The continued rumbling at the surface reminded her of what was at stake: centuries of planning, an entire world for the taking, an implacable enemy pushed to the brink of extinction. She could not fail her people as her grandmother had.

The Queen’s antennae probed the young one. The story began again in her exhausted brain: the wars, the sandaled men, the oily smell of death. And then the Misfit Queen, the Abandoned One, reaching out to her through time. The Queen gave it all to this soldier, including her mother’s last moments alive, when Hymenoptera had to do her duty by murdering her.

Another thud against the ceiling. The workers waited for the Queen to hand over this last daughter. But Hymenoptera was not convinced that this latest brood understood the price that had to be paid. The price she had been paying for generations now. And so she lifted her child to her jaws and crushed its skull, sending a crunching echo throughout the chamber. Everyone remained still. No one dared even to tilt a head or extend an antenna. Whatever pleasure this act brought the Queen was short-lived, replaced almost immediately by a heavy loneliness. She was the Colony. But she was not of the Colony. Perhaps her experiment would do more than produce mere talking creatures, and instead create beings worthy of her and the Misfit Queen. But until then, she was alone.

After she had swallowed what was left of her daughter, she made the workers stand at attention for a long time before finally dismissing them. When they were gone, she sat in the darkness and thought of her mother.


Excerpted from Robert Repino’s Mort(e). © Soho Press. January, 2015.


Subscribe to this thread

Post a Comment

All comments must meet the community standards outlined in's Moderation Policy or be subject to moderation. Thank you for keeping the discussion, and our community, civil and respectful.

Hate the CAPTCHA? members can edit comments, skip the preview, and never have to prove they're not robots. Join now!