The order came down at dawn, as it always did, passed from one worker to another by smell and taste. True word of mouth. They had no verbal language, the click of their mandibles nothing but noise. Although they could feel the vibration, they had no ears with which to hear.
The path he took today was different from his normal one, but then his task was different, too. From birth he had been a forager, sent out to look for grain and seeds and the not quite empty shells left behind by squirrels and birds. He’d bring what he’d found to the colony site, sending others back the way he’d come if it was more than he could carry.
But he wasn’t hunting for food today. From what he could see, no one else was, either.
He’d never seen so many of his kind together before. If he’d had a word for millions, he might have used that. Or if he’d had a word for all. Instead, he only knew that his colony was a large one, but this was bigger than that.
Workers hurried around him, some headed the same way he was, others coming back. They didn’t say what their new task was, and he didn’t ask. When he finished what he was doing now, he would be told what to do next.
It had always been this way.
He hadn’t yet reached his destination when the rains came, hotter than he remembered them ever being. Hotter than they should have been. They shriveled the hairs that covered his thorax, scalded them off.
The choreography of workers turned to chaos. They scrambled over one another, first in one direction, then another, desperate to escape. The scent of fear was so thick in the air he could taste it, even as he was separated from the rest of his kind. He didn’t need to touch them to know their terror. He felt it, too.
He scrambled for higher ground. A leaf. A twig. A chunk of rock he’d barely noticed as he walked past it earlier that day. In the end, even that wasn’t enough, and the boiling waters washed him away.
In the darkness, he was alone.
When he woke again, he found his carapace was gone, the outer shell that had protected him so many times melted away. The soft flesh underneath had swollen and grown thick. He had swollen with it. Although the others of his kind looked the same size to him, everything else he’d known was now too small to be seen, and the things which before had been the surface of his world now populated it: cliffs and trees and grass.
A worker beside him bent forward to touch its mandibles to his own, but its left one fell off. He touched his own, tentatively. They fell away, and with them the antennae on his head and the set of legs that now grew, not with the others, but from the thickened middle that had been his waist. All around him, more of his kind did the same until all of them had only four limbs and a face as smooth as stone.
He looked down at the parts that had once been him but now littered the ground at his feet. He felt the softness of his body, the bumps and bulges at the sides of his head and where his mandibles had been. He heard sound, which he had not known before. And from somewhere within him, he could not say where, he heard the words that he spoke now, the first his kind had ever known.
“I am reborn, and I am Man.”