Feature Short Story
To read other short stories,
click one of the titles below.
                                         The World Builder
                                                                   By Rab Foster


   Everybody knew of the Emperor’s beautiful gardens.  But because of their ominous, if undefined,
reputation nobody wanted to visit them.

   Some people did visit them, at the Emperor’s insistence.  Those forced visitors went in but never came
out again.

   Before entering the gardens that morning, I looked back and saw the newly risen sun peering over the
roofs of the central capital.  I didn’t expect to see those roofs again.  I wondered for how much longer I’d
see the sun.

   A court official and a soldier escorted me.  I was a lecturer at the capital’s university, rarely set foot
outside the campus and hadn’t handled a weapon in my life, so they’d decided only one soldier was
needed in case I grew resistant.  For a long time we followed a flag-stoned boulevard with high granite
walls on either side.  We passed two arched entrances blocked by bronze-paneled doors and bearing
signs, one that said THE WATER GARDEN and the other THE AIR GARDEN.  Finally, we reached a third
entrance called THE EARTH GARDEN and the official produced a key and inserted it into a door there.  I
was slightly relieved that our destination hadn’t been the quarter called THE FIRE GARDEN.  The name of
that one had troubled me most.

   The door opened and the Earth Garden welcomed us with an immense palette of color.  Already,
butterflies floated above beds of lavender, bluebells, pink verbena, scarlet poppies, white salvia and roses
of a dozen hues.  Patches of trimmed green lawn alternated with pockets of long wild grass.  Ponds and
creeks glowed like slivers of glass in the early sunlight.

   All I could say was: “It’s lovely.”

   “This way, please,” said the official.  His voice trembled.

   They led me along a path, threading between the lawns and flowerbeds and over footbridges straddling
the creeks, to a huge banyan tree that rose and spread its branches at the garden’s center.  The official
pointed to a bench placed among the giant roots that oozed from the bottom of the tree.  “Sit here,” he
instructed and again his voice trembled.  “Stay here.  When the Emperor has time, he’ll come to this spot
and speak to you.  But he may be a while.  You may have to wait.”

   Then he and the soldier strode away.  I noticed an urgency in their strides – they struggled not to run.  
They passed through the doors and closed them behind them, and no doubt the key turned in the lock
again.  I was in the Earth Garden alone.

   But was I alone?  I walked around the banyan tree, peered into a hole that yawned like a mouth in its
trunk and looked up at its branches.  I saw no potential assassin hiding behind or inside the tree nor, as far
as I could tell, in the canopy above.

   Then I surveyed the garden.  The tree was its only tall feature and there was no cover for anyone to
creep up.  However, I observed several human-shaped statues placed at random points across the
garden and wondered, paranoid, if these were really statues and not people standing still, pretending to
be made of stone.  Most were depicted in mid-movement – a foot lifted, an arm outstretched, a head
twisted to the side.  Living people would find it hard to maintain such poses for more than a few minutes.  I
left the tree and examined the nearest statue.  It was fashioned out of rough, brown stone.  Its grotesquely
swollen features made it look less human close up.

   I returned to the tree and sat on the bench.  An executioner didn’t need to be concealed in the garden, I
realized.  Probably the Emperor would arrive with some soldiers and condemn me to death for the crime I’
d committed, though just now I didn’t know what my crime was.  Then his soldiers would kill me.  My life
would end as simply as that –

   Suddenly, I felt a vicious pain in one of my hands while it rested on the bench.  I sprang up and saw that
the hand had acquired several huge red blisters.  More alarmingly, probing their way around the blisters
were a couple of monstrous brown ants, each nearly the length of my little finger.

   Though it made the pain worse, I slapped my bitten hand and pulverized the ants on it.  Only after that
did I notice more ants.  They flooded over the surface of the bench and formed a dark strand that extended
back from it, along the ridge of a root, up the tree-trunk and into the mouth-like hole I’d inspected earlier.  
Then the ants on the bench started spilling over its edge and onto the ground, where they hurried towards
me.

   A fiery jab in my other hand told me that I’d left the bench with other passengers.  Before I could beat
those ants off me, something bit deep into the back of my neck.  And already a swarming brown mantle
covered my boots…  Panicking, I fled from the tree’s shade, into the now-glaring sun.

   My hands burned.  The pain that engulfed them seemed somehow to have weight.  This dragged me
down, slowed me, stopped me.  Fighting against the pain, I tried to raise my arms above my head.  My
arms rose – and froze.  I looked behind me, a movement that enflamed the pain in my bitten neck.  I saw
the ants flow after me from the bench.  I turned my head forwards again – and it froze too.

   Unable to move, I stood with my arms raised as if I was worshipping the sun.  The ants’ venom caused
not just pain, but paralysis.

   I felt my pursuers catch up and begin climbing, both outside my garments and under them, against my
skin.  They ascended from my legs to my torso, and then to my throat and face and upraised arms.  Still
they bit, seemingly determined that my paralysis should last an eternity.

   Time passed.  I somehow grew accustomed to the burning, sickening pain of their bites.  My eyes
began to focus and I could perceive things again.  The only parts of my body in view were my arms.  
Swarming along them was a different type of ant, even larger but paler than the first brown ones.  At the
same time threads of cloth started to dangle and fall from my sleeves.  My eyes were the only components
of my body I could move and I forced them to swivel sideways.  I made out how more of those giant pale
ants covered the tunic on my shoulder.  While their mandibles worked, the tunic shredded and fell away too.

   When my clothes had gone, the ants began to inflict new pain.  This was more agonizingly drawn out
than the bites had been.  It suggested that, gradually, tracts of my skin were being peeled off.  I looked at
my arms.  The giant ants had departed and the ants moving along the skin, which was hideously lumpen
with red blisters, were another type again.  They were small and dark.  For a long time I watched clusters
of them advance, accompanied by that slow flaying pain, before I grasped what they were doing.  They
weren’t just removing skin, but altering and reapplying it.  Behind them, they left a brown crust with a texture
like stone.

   Horror-struck, I understood what those grotesque brown-stone statues, depicting people in strange
poses, actually were.

   While my skin was transformed, I also felt the ants increase against three parts of my body.  They
amassed around my genitalia, buttocks and lower face.  Directing my eyes downwards, I saw a great
beard of them surround my mouth.  I tried to scream but couldn’t, the paralysis keeping me still and silent
like the statues whose I ranks I was destined to join.

   These were their ports of entry.    

   First, they needed to modify the entrances.  From the head of my penis, cleft of my buttocks and rim of
my mouth came what felt like thousands of needle-points picking away skin and flesh.  I divined that they
were disassembling the tube of my foreskin and the column of tissue and blood vessels within it and were
also gouging away skin and fat on either side of my anus.  Thousands of pairs of mandibles removed
these, particle by particle.  Meanwhile, I could see what was happening to my mouth.  I saw red flitters that’
d once constituted my lips, gums and tongue carried off amid their seething bodies.  As the mouth-flesh
disintegrated, my teeth loosened and they bobbed away too in the ant-mass, like wreckage swept off in a
flood.

   Once they’d enlarged the three openings, they began to venture inside.  A ghastly, creeping dryness
went with them – down my throat and into my stomach, up through my abdominal passages and into my
urinary and digestive systems.

   I’d barely recovered my senses after this latest and worst assault when I noticed three figures
approaching across the Earth Garden.  They moved awkwardly because of their outfits: helmets with
visors, overalls made from some metallic-looking fabric, bulky gauntlets and boots.  Two figures carried on
their backs cylindrical tanks with tubes sprouting from them.  The tubes ended in pipes that the figures
cradled like weapons.  At one point, they paused, bent forward and inspected a spot on the ground below
them.  Then the tank-carriers pointed their pipes down and spent half-a-minute blasting the spot with gouts
of black smoke.

   They continued towards me and stopped when they were a few yards away.  The central figure, not
carrying a smoke-tank, spoke through a mesh at the bottom of his visor.  Both mesh and visor glittered in
the sun, which served to hide his face.  “The protocol is that subjects kneel in the presence of their
Emperor.  Given your condition, however, I shall excuse the lapse.”

   Then the Emperor paused and seemed to study me, what remained of me.  “Yes, an excellent decision.  
When the expedition to the southern jungles reported that they’d discovered a strange new species of ant
and I commanded them to bring samples to the capital…  I didn’t expect the species to adapt so well to
our temperate climate.  Whilst being unadventurous.  Content to remain within the boundaries of the Earth
Garden.  Their reluctance to explore is, you’ll appreciate, a good thing for the inhabitants of the
neighboring city.”

   I imagined him smiling.  “You should feel honored.  Most ant species consist of only a few types –
workers, soldiers, queen.  This species contains at least 17 types.  Some you’ll already know – the first
assault force that bite and paralyze, the removers of hair, nails and cloth, the epidermal transformers that
ensure that the new colony will be protected by an impenetrable crust.  Other types do their handiwork
inside.  The pioneers, who carry an arsenal of enzymes to neutralize saliva and digestive acids and make
the host body safe for habitation.  The driers, removing moisture from the walls of internal organs.  The
decorators, converting them into chambers and cavities.  Others whose functions my scientists have yet to
determine.  Yes, you must be proud that this artistic species is making you its latest architectural
masterpiece.”

   Paralyzed, and lipless, toothless and tongue-less, I couldn’t reply.  The word formed only in my head:
“Why?”

   He seemed to hear telepathically.  “Why?  Because you’ve caused me an inordinate amount of trouble.  
With your lectures where you mused about other ways of structuring society and organizing human beings.  
With your writings where you hypothesized that a land might be controlled by all its inhabitants and not by a
single leader – ”

   Mentally, I cried: But that’s all I did!  I mused, I hypothesized!  Nowhere in my lectures or papers did I
suggest such a society was feasible – or even desirable!  

   Again, telepathically, he seemed to hear.  “It doesn’t matter if it was simple speculation.  The fact is, you
did speculate.  By doing so, you made that alternative society a possibility.  And treasonable elements
have lately tried to promote that possibility among my more gullible subjects.  Therefore, I decided to end
your foolish conjectures.  You described a society run by its ordinary members – by a million mindless
human drones no better than insects.  So it seemed appropriate that I introduce you to my insects in the
Earth Garden.”

   He concluded: “You’ll note how the ants haven’t touched your eyes and ears yet.  Those orifices require
special engineering, which comes later in the process.  They provide access to your brain – and the ants
will put that to better use than you ever did.”

   Then the Emperor and his bodyguards turned and trudged back across the garden.  Meanwhile, new
ants crowded around my eyes.  They were so close I could make out their heads, dark and wrinkled like
raisins, with pairs of silvery antennae protruding above them and pairs of scissor-shaped mandibles
hanging below.  The mandibles opened and closed and began to shear through the membranes covering
my eyeballs.  The ants, the retreating Emperor and the Earth Garden itself disappeared as my vision
clouded, first with red, then with black.

                                                                                   *

   Later, amid the blackness, I heard a voice.  It didn’t come from outside because my ears had been
turned into tunnels and were no longer capable of hearing.  It must have been a voice within my skull, yet
separate from the final remnants of me.

   “Who are you?” I asked.

   The voice, which for some reason I assumed was female, replied in a singsong: “Who are you?  What
are you?”

   “I don’t know what I am anymore.”

   “Let me tell you, then.  You’re our home.  Our city.  Our world.  Thank you.  We’re grateful that you
donated the materials from which we could construct all this.  And I…”  She paused.  “You know, it is
difficult to think in terms of ‘I’ rather than ‘we’…  I’ve been installed in the most important part of you.”

   “My brain?”

   “Yes.  Because my intelligence is now embedded inside your intelligence, I suppose that’s how we find
ourselves able to communicate.”

   “You’re the Queen?”

   “Yes.”

   “What a strange day is.  First I meet an emperor and then a queen.”

   “Don’t overestimate my importance.  I don’t make decisions.  I don’t exercise leadership.  We operate
as one.  Each member of our colony has its own function but is equal in importance to the other members.  
We have no superiors or inferiors.  No stratification.  No unfairness.  No injustice.”

   That made me happy.  Knowing that I’d not only helped to create a new world, but a world based on
principles of harmony, unity and egalitarianism, similar to the hypothetical society I’d sketched in my
lectures and papers.

   “Now,” she said, “you must excuse me.  I have to function too.”

   “Yes.  You reproduce.”

   Thus, I fade from existence now.  My mind weakens, my thoughts become incoherent, while nursemaid-
ants tear off fragments of my cerebral matter and stuff them into the maws of the brood that’ve emerged
from the Queen’s eggs.

   Yet dying is satisfying when you know that you’ve achieved your life’s work.  Or when you know that, by
dying, you’re achieving it.
About Rab Foster

Rab Foster grew up on a
farm in the Borders region
of southern Scotland and
still lives there today.  His
short stories have
previously appeared in the
magazines and e-zines
Legend, Aphelion and
Sorcerous Signals.