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   Chapter 3 No.3

The Raid on the Termites By Paul Ernst Characters: 13760

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:04


Ant-Sized Men

Next morning, at scarcely more than daybreak, Jim and Denny stood, stripped and ready for the dread experiment, beside Matthew Breen's glass bell. The night, of course, had been sleepless. Sleep? How could slumber combat the fierce anticipations, the exotic imaginings, the clanging apprehensions of the two?

Most of the night had been spent by Denny in dutifully arguing with Jim about the advisability of his giving up the adventure, in soothing his conscience by presenting in all the angles he could think of the risks they would run.

"You'll be entering a different world, Jim," Denny had said. "An unimaginably different world. A terrible world, in which you'll be a naked, soft, defenseless thing. I'd hate to bet that we'd live even to reach the termitary. And once inside that-it's odds of seven to one that we'll never get out again."

"Stow it," Jim had urged, puffing at his pipe.

"I won't stow it. You may think you've run up against dangers before, but let me tell you that your most perilous jungle is safe as a church compared to the jungle an ordinary grass plot will present to us, if, as we plan, we get reduced to a quarter of an inch. I'm going in this with a mission. To me it's a heaven-sent opportunity-one I'm sure any entomologist would grab at. But you, frankly, are just a fool-"

"All right," Jim had cut in, "let it go at that. I'm confirmed in my folly. You can't argue me out of it, so don't try any more. Now, to be practical-have you thought of any way we could arm ourselves?"

"Arm ourselves?" repeated Dennis vaguely.

"Yes. It's a difficult problem. The finest watch-maker couldn't turn out a working model of a gun that could be handled by a man a quarter of an inch tall. At the same time I have no desire to go into this thing bare-handed. And I think I know something we can use."

"What?"

"Spears," said Jim with a grin. "Steel spears. They make steel wire, you know, down to two-thousandths of an inch and finer. Probably our friend has some in his laboratory. Now, if we grind two pieces about a quarter of an inch long off such a wire, and sharpen the ends as well as we can, we'll have short spears we could swing very well.

"Then, there's the matter of clothes." He grinned again. "We'll want a breech clout, at least. I propose that we get the sheerest silk gauze we can find, and cut an eighth-inch square apiece to tie about our middles after the transformation."

He slapped his fist into his palm. "By George! Such talk really begins to bring it home. Two men, clad in eighth-inch squares of silk gauze, using bits of almost invisibly fine steel wire as weapons, junketing forth into a world in which they'll be about the smallest and puniest things in sight! No more lords of creation, Denny. We'll have nothing but our wits to carry us through. But they, of course, will be supreme in the insect world as they are in the animal world."

"Will they be supreme?" Denny said softly. That unknown intelligence-that mysterious intellect (super-termite?) that seemed to rule each termite tribe, and which appeared so marvelously profound! "I wonder...."

Then he, in his turn, had descended to the practical.

"You've solved the problem of weapons and clothing, Jim," he said, "and now for my contribution." He left the room and came back in a few minutes with something in his hands. "Here are some shields for us.

"Oh, not pieces of steel armor. Shields in a figurative more than a literal sense."

He set down a small porcelain pot, and opened it. Within was a repulsive-looking, whitish-brown paste.

"Ground-up termites," he explained. "If we're to go wandering around in a termitary, we've got to persuade the inmates that we're friends, not foes. So we'll smear ourselves all over with this termite-paste before ever we enter the mound."

"Clever, these supposedly impractical scientists," murmured Jim, with a lightness that did not quite succeed in covering his real admiration of the shrewdness of the thought.

And now they stood in front of Breen's glass bell, with Breen beside them all eagerness to begin the experiment.

"What am I supposed to do after I've reduced you to the proper size?" he asked.

"Take us out to Morton's Grove, to the big termitary you'll find about a quarter of a mile off the road," said Denny. "Set us down near the opening to one of the larger termite tunnels. Then wait till we come out again. You may have to wait quite a while-but that isn't much to ask in return for our submission to your rays."

"I'll wait a week, if you wish. Let's see, what had I better carry you in?"

It was decided-with a lack of forethought later to be bitterly regretted-that an ordinary patty-dish of the kind in which restaurants serve butter, would make as good a conveyance as anything else.

Matt got the patty-dish and placed it on the pedestal floor, tipping it on edge so Jim and Denny would be able to climb into it unaided (he wouldn't dare attempt to lift bodies so small for fear of mortally injuring them between thumb and forefinger). Into the patty-dish, so they could be readily located, were placed the bits of wire, the tiny fragments of silk gauze to serve as breech clouts, and a generous dab of termite-paste; and the two men stepped inside the glass dome to share the fate that, the night before, had been the dog's.

The bell was lowered around them. They watched the inventor step to the switch and pull it down....

At first there was no sensation whatever. Almost with incredulity, they watched the glass walls cloud, realized that the fogging vapor was formed of exudations from their own substance. Then physical reaction set in.

The first symptom was paralysis. With the vapor wreathing their heads in dense clouds, they found themselves unable to move a muscle. The paralysis spread partially to the involuntary muscles. Heart action was retarded enormously; and they ceased almost entirely to breathe. In spite of the cessation of muscular functioning, however, they were still conscious in a vague way. Conscious enough, at all events, to go through a hell of agony when-second and last stage-every nerve in their bodies seemed of a sudden to be rasped with files, and every tiny particle of their flesh jerked and twitched as if to break loose from the ever-shrinking skin.

Time, of course, was completely lost sight of. It might have been ten hours, or five minutes later when they realized they were still alive, still standing on their own feet, and now able to breathe and move. The spell of rigidity had been broken; nerves and muscles functioned smoothly and painlessly again. Also they were in clear air.

"I guess the experiment didn't work," Dennis began unsteadily. But then, as his eyes began to get accustomed to his fantastically new, though intrinsically unchanged surroundings,

he cried aloud.

The experiment had worked. No doubt of that! And they were in a world where all the old familiar things were new and incredible marvels.

"What can be the nature of this stuff we're standing on?" wondered Jim, looking down.

Following his gaze, Denny too wondered for an instant, till realization came to him. "Why, it's ordinary wood! Just the wood of the pedestal platform!"

But it didn't seem like wood. The grain stood out in knee-high ridges in all directions to the limit of visibility. It was like a nightmare picture of a frozen bad-lands, split here and there by six-feet-broad, unfathomable chasms-which were the cracks in the flooring.

"Where's the patty-dish?" queried Jim.

Dennis gazed about. "We were standing right over it when the reducing process started.... Oh, there it is!"

Far off to the right an enormous, shallowly hollowed plateau caught their eyes. They started toward it, hurdling the irregular ridges, leaping across the dizzy chasms.

The tiny dish had been tipped on edge-but when they reached it they found its thickness alone a daunting thing.

"It's a pity Matt didn't select a thinner kind of china," grumbled Dennis; gazing at the head-high wall that was the edge of the plate. "Here-I'll stand on your shoulders, and then give you an arm up. Look out-it's slippery!"

It was. Their feet slid out from under them on the glazed surface repeatedly. It was with the utmost effort that they finally made their way to the center of the shallow plateau.

There, lying beside two heaps of coarse cloth and a mound of horrible-smelling stuff that he recognized as the dab of termite-paste, they saw two glistening steel bars. About five feet long, they seemed to be, and half an inch in diameter. The wire-ends which, a few moments ago, they had been forced to handle with tweezers for fear of losing!

Jim picked one up and drew it back for a pretended spear-thrust. He laughed, vibrantly, eagerly.

"I'm just beginning to realize it's really happened, and that the hunt has started. Bring on your bugs!"

Dennis stooped and picked up his spear. It was unwieldy, ponderous, the weight of that long, not-too-thin steel bar. Jim's great shoulders and heavy arms were suited well enough to such a weapon; but Dennis could have wished that his were some pounds lighter.

They turned their attention to the evil-smelling hill of termite-ointment. With many grimaces, they took turns in smearing each other from head to feet with the repulsive stuff. Then they knotted about them the yard-square pieces of fabric-once sheer silk gauze, now cloth as stiff and cumbersome as sail-cloth. They faced each other, ready for their trip.

The heavens above them, trailing up and up into mysterious darknesses, suddenly became closer and sparkled with a diamond sheen. Stretching off and up out of sight was a mountainous column that might conceivably be a wrist.

"Matt's looking at us through a magnifying glass," concluded Denny.

Abruptly the ridged bad-lands about them began to vibrate. Thunder crashed and roared around their ears.

"He's trying to say something to us," said Denny, when the awful din had ceased. "Oh, Matt-we're ready to go!"

Jim echoed his shout. Then Denny snorted. "Fools! Our voices are probably pitched way above the limit of audibility. He can't hear us any more than we can understand him!"

They gazed at each other. More than anything else that had happened, this showed them how entirely they were cut off from their old world. Truly, in discarding their normal size, they might as well have been marooned on another planet!

A tremendous, pinkish-gray wall lowered near them, split into segments, and surrounded their plateau. The plateau was lifted-with a dizzy swiftness that made their stomachs turn.

With sickening speed the plateau moved forward. The texture of the heavens above them changed. The sun-the one thing in their new universe that seemed unchanged in size and aspect-shone down on them. The plateau came jarringly to rest. Great cliffs of what seemed black basalt gleamed high over them.

Matt had carried them out of the building, and had set the patty-dish on the black leather seat of his automobile.

There was a distant thundering, as though all the worlds in the universe but Earth were being dashed to pieces. That was the motor starting. And then, as the car moved off, Jim and Dennis realized their mistake in choosing a patty-dish to ride in!

In spite of the yielding leather cushion on which their dish was set, the two quarter-inch men were hurled this way and that, jounced horribly up and down, and slid headlong from one end of the plateau to the other as the automobile passed over the city streets. Impossible to stand. They could only crouch low on the hard glazed surface, and try to keep from breaking legs and arms in the worst earthquake it is possible to imagine. Anyone who has ever seen two bugs ill-advisedly try to walk across the vibrating hood of an automobile while the motor is running, will have some idea of the troubles that now beset Dennis and Jim.

"The ass!" groaned Jim, in a comparatively quiet spell. "Why doesn't he drive more carefully?"

"Probably," groaned Denny, "he's doing the best he can."

Probably! All that was left them was conjecture. They could only guest at what was happening in the world about them!

Matthew Breen's face and body were lost in sheer immensity above them. They knew they were riding in a car; but they couldn't see the car. All they could see was the black cliff that was the seat-cushion behind them. The world had disappeared-hidden in its bigness; the world, indeed, was just at present a patty-dish.

Somehow they endured the ride. Somehow they avoided broken bones, and were only shaken up and bruised when the distant roar of the motor ceased and the wind stopped howling about their ears.

"Well, we're here," said Dennis unsteadily. "Now for the real-"

His words were stopped by the sudden rising of the plateau. Again they felt the poignantly exaggerated, express-elevator feeling, till the plateau finally came to rest.

The crashing thunder of Matt's voice came to them, words utterly indistinguishable. The saucer was tipped sideways....

Doubtless Matt thought he was acting with extreme gentleness; but in fact the dish was tilted so quickly and so without warning that Jim and Dennis slid from its center, head over heels, to fall over the edge and land with a bump on the ground. Their spears, sliding after, narrowly missed impaling them.

Once more came the distant crashing of Matt's voice. Then there was silence. Their gigantic protector, having dumped them unceremoniously into the grass of Morton's Grove, had ushered them squarely into the start of their insane adventure. From now on their fate belonged to them alone.

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