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   Chapter 6 No.6

The Raid on the Termites By Paul Ernst Characters: 16576

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:04

In the Food Room

Restlessly, Jim paced back and forth in the narrow dank cell. At the doorway the two guards opened and closed their jaws, regularly, rhythmically, about sixty to the minute. Hours, the two men calculated, they had been there. And still the clashing of those jaws rang steadily, maddeningly in their ears.

Clash-clash-clash. The things seemed as tireless as machinery. Clash-clash-clash. And into that savage, tireless movement, Denny read a sort of longing refrain.

"Try-to-es-cape! Try-to-es-cape!"

He shivered. At any time, did he and Jim grow too fearful of the dark future or too nerve-wracked by the terrific suspense, they could step into these gigantic, steel-hard jaws. But to be sliced in two ...

Jim stopped his pacing, and stared speculatively at the wall of their cell. For the dozenth time he raised his ponderous spear and thrust the pointed end at the wall with all his strength. And for the dozenth time he was rewarded only by seeing a flake no larger than his clenched fist fall out.

"Might as well be cement!" he rasped. "God, we're caught like flies in a spiderweb!"

"Well, you wanted excitement," remarked Dennis, a bit acidly. The strain was telling on him more than on the less finely strung Holden; but he was struggling to keep himself in hand.

"So I did want excitement," said Jim. "But I want at least a sporting chance for my white-alley, too. But-"

He stopped; and both stared swiftly toward the door.

The ponderous, gruesome clashing of jaws had stopped. The two nightmare guards stood motionless, as though at command. Then they moved into the cell, straight toward the two men.

"It's come!" said Jim through set teeth. He swung his spear up, ready to shoot it at the horny breastplate of the nearest monster with all his puny strength. "We're going to catch it now!"

But Dennis gazed more intently; and he saw that the blind but ferocious creatures showed no real signs of molesting them. Instead, they were edging to one side. In a moment, as the two men moved warily to keep their distance, they found suddenly that the soldiers were behind them, and that the doorway was free to them.

The glimpse of freedom, however, was not inspiring. The meaning of the move was too apparent: they were again being herded.

Whatever reigning power it was that had let them penetrate so deeply into the trap, and then had surrounded and imprisoned them-was now going to honor them with an audience.

"His Majesty commands," commented Jim, reading the sinister gesture as clearly as Denny had. "I'll wager we're about to meet your 'unknown intelligence,' Denny. But be it 'super-termite' or be it Queen-whatever it may be-I want just one chance to use this spear of mine!"

Reluctantly he stepped forth before the fearful guard; reluctantly, but in full command of his nerves now that the wearing inactivity was ended and something definite was about to happen. Which proves but once again the wisdom of the gods in not allowing man to read the future. For could Jim Holden have foreseen the precise experience awaiting them, his nerve control-and Denny's, too-might not have been so firm.

Again their way led sharply down, through tunnels loftier and broader and glowing more brilliantly with phosphorescence which was a testimonial to their greater age.

The efficiency of their herding was perfect. At each side entrance along the way stood one of the ghastly soldiers, jaws clashing with monotonous deadliness. Now and again several of the monsters appeared straight ahead, barring the avenue, and leaving no choice but to turn to right or left into off-branching tunnels. Small chance here of missing the path! And always behind them marched their two particular guards, closing off their retreat.

"How do you suppose they sense our approach?" wondered Jim, who had noticed that the menacing jaw-clashing began while they were still fairly far from whatever side entrance was being barred to them. And again: "You're sure they can't see?"

"There isn't an eye in the lot of them," said Denny. "They must sense our coming by the vibration of our footsteps."

But when they tried tiptoeing, on noiseless bare feet, the result was the same. Surely the things could not hear them for more than a few feet; yet with no sound to guide them, the blind guards commenced automatically opening and closing those invulnerable jaws with the distant approach of the two men just the same. They could only ascribe it to the same force that seemed able to follow them, step by step and thought by thought, though it was far away and out of sight-the ruling brain of the termite tribe.

Ever hotter it grew as they descended, till at length a blast of heat like a draft from a furnace met them as they rounded a corner and stepped into a corridor that no longer led downward. They knew that they were very near the ruler's lair now, on the lowest level, deep in the foundations of the vast pile.

Dennis wiped perspiration, caused as much by emotion as by heat, from his face. He alone of all students on earth was going to penetrate the very heart of the termite mystery. He alone was going to have at least a glimpse of the baffling intelligence that science had guessed about for so many decades He ... alone. For it was hardly likely that he would ever get back up to the surface of earth to share his knowledge.

How different was this adventure from what he had hoped it might be! He had thought that the two of them might simply enter the termitary, mingle-perilously, but with at least a margin of safety-with the blind race it housed, and walk out again whenever they pleased. But from the moment of entering they'd had no chance. They had been hopelessly in the clutch of the insects; played with, indulged, and finally trapped, to be led at last like dogs on a leash to the lair of the ruling power.

They rounded another corner and now, ahead of them, they saw what must be the end of this last and deepest of all the tunnels. This end showed as a glare of light. Real light, not the soft gleam of the rotting wood walls which was already paling feebly in comparison. The glare ahead of them, indeed, had something of the texture of electric light. Neither Jim nor Dennis could repress a sudden start; it was like coming abruptly onto a man-made fact, a bit of man-made world in the midst of this insect hell.

The damp heat was almost paralyzing now. Their limbs felt weak as they stumbled toward the light. But they were inexorably herded forward, and soon were at the threshold of the oddly illuminated chamber.

Now the two stopped for an instant and sniffed, as a peculiar odor came to their nostrils. It was a vague but fearsome odor, indescribable, making their skin crawl. A smell of decay-of death-and yet somehow of rank and fetid life. A combination of charnel-house and menagerie smell.

Denny blanched as an inkling of what was before them came to his mind. He remembered the swooping wasp, that had so narrowly missed them at the start of their adventure. The wasp, he knew, was not the only insect that had certain dread ways of stocking its larder and keeping the contents of that larder fresh! The termites did not customarily follow these practises. Yet-yet the odor coming from the place before them certainly suggested ... But he tried to thrust such apprehensions from his thoughts.

They entered the chamber. The two gigantic soldiers stopped on the threshold behind them and took up their standard guard attitudes. The men stared about them....

It was huge, this chamber, almost as huge as the nursery chamber they had blundered into. The source of the light was not apparent. It seemed to glow from walls and floor and ceiling, as though it were a box of glass with sunshine pouring in at all six sides.

And now horror began to mingle with awed interest, as they took in more comprehensively the sights in that place, and saw precisely what it contained.

Denny's apprehensions had been only too well founded. For larder, food storeroom, the chamber certainly was. But what a storeroom! And in what state the "food" that stocked it was!

All along the vast floor were laid rows of inert, fantastic bodies. Insects. The whole small-insect world

seemed to be represented here. One or more of everything that crawled, flew, walked or bored, seemed gathered in this great room. Grubs, flies, worms, ants, things soft and slimy and things grim and armored, were piled side by side like cordwood.

These hulks, nearly all larger than the two quarter-inch men, lay stark and motionless where they had been dropped. From them came the odor that had stopped Jim and Denny on the threshold-the strange odor of blended life and death. And the reason for the queer odor became apparent as the two gazed more closely at the motionless hulks.

These things, like figures out of a delirium in their great size and exaggerated frightfulness, were rigid as in death-but they were nevertheless not dead! Helpless as so many lumps of stone, they were still horribly, pitifully alive. Paralyzed, in some inscrutable termite fashion, probably fully conscious of their surroundings, they could only lie there and wait for their turn to come to be devoured by the ferocious creatures that had dragged them down to this, the bowels of the mound city.

Besides these things bound in the rigidity of death, there was more normal life. There were termites in that vast storeroom, too; but they were specialized creatures, such as termitary life abounds in, that were so distorted as to be hardly recognizable as termites.

Along one wall of the place, hanging head down and fastened there for life, was a row of worker termites whose function was obviously that of reservoirs: their abdomens, so enormously distended as to be nearly transparent, glistened in varying colors to indicate that they contained various liquids whose purpose could only be guessed at.

Living cisterns, never to move, never to know life even in the monotonous, joyless way of the normal worker, they hung there to be dipped into whenever the master that reigned over this inferno, or his immediate underlings, desired some of their contents!

In addition, there were several each of two forms of termite soldier such as they had not seen before, standing rigidly at attention about the place.

At the door, of course, were the two creatures with the enormous mandibles that had escorted the pigmy men to the larder. But these others were as different as though they belonged to a different race.

Three had heads that were hideously bulbous in form, and which were flabby and elastic instead of armored with thick horn as were the heads of the usual soldiers. Like living syringes, these heads were; perambulating bulbs filled with some defensive or offensive liquid to be squirted out at the owner's will.

The third kind of soldier was represented in the spectacle of termites with heads that were huge and conical, resembling bungs, or the tapered cylindrical corks with which one plugs a bottle. These, Denny knew from his studies, had been evolved by termite biology for the purpose of temporarily stopping up any breach in termitary mound-wall or tunnel while the workers could assemble and repair the chink with more solid and permanent building material.

But how fantastically, gruesomely different these colossal figures looked, here in the deepest stronghold of termitedom, than as scurrying little insects viewed under an entomologist's glass! And how appallingly different was the viewpoint from which they were now being observed-here where the human observers were equal in size, and doomed at any moment perhaps to be paralyzed and piled with the helpless live things that made up the rest of the "larder"!

And the presiding genius of this mysterious, underground storeroom-where was it? Denny and Jim looked about over the rows of live food, and among the termite soldiers with their odd heads, in vain for a creature that might conceivably be the super-insect that so omnipotently ruled the mound.

Off in a corner they saw two more termites-standard worker types, standing motionless side by side, with a queer sort of mushroom growth linking them together-a large, gray-white ball borne mutually on their backs. But that was all. The listing of those two workers concluded the roll-call of termites in the chamber as far as the two men could see. And the two were-just ordinary workers.

"I guess His Majesty is out," said Jim. But his voice, in spite of the attempted levity of the words, was low-pitched and somber. "Most impolite to keep us waiting-"

He stopped as Denny sharply threw up his hand. And he too gazed at the maneuver that had caught Denny's wary attention.

This was nothing save that the various soldiers in the chamber-seven of them, besides the two that never left their stations at the door-had moved. But they had moved in concert, almost as harmoniously in unison as if performing some sort of drill.

In a single line they filed across the rows of inert, palpitating, paralyzed bodies; and in a line they surrounded Jim and Denny in a hollow square about twenty feet across. There they took up their stations, the three soldiers with the syringe-heads, and the four with the unwieldy craniums that resembled bungs.

So perfectly had the move been executed, so perfectly and in unison had it been timed, that there could be little doubt it had resulted from a direct order. But where was the thing to give the command? Where was the head-general? In some far place, on his way to inspect the new and odd kind of prisoners, and giving orders to hold them yet more closely in anticipation of that inspection?

Jim turned to Denny and started to voice some of his thoughts. But the words were killed by the light that had appeared suddenly in Denny's eyes. In them had appeared a gleam of almost superstitious terror.

"Jim!" gasped Denny, raising his hand and pointing with trembling forefinger. "Jim-look!"

Jim turned to gaze, and his spear, clutched with almost convulsive desperation till this moment, sagged to the floor from his limp hinds.

The thing Denny had pointed at was the curious, large mushroom growth supported jointly on the backs of the two worker termites. It had been across the chamber from them when they first saw it. Now it was moving toward them, steadily, borne by the team of workers. And now, clearly, for the first time, they saw what it really was.

It was a head, that mushroom growth. Rather, the whitish-gray, soft-looking thing was a brain. For it had long ago burst free of the original insect skull casing in which it had been born. Evidence that it had once been a normal, termite head was given by the fact that here and there, on sides and top of the huge, spongy-looking mass, were brownish scales-fragments of the casing that had once contained its bulk.

Set low down under the sphere, with the whitish-gray mass beetling up over them like a curving cliff, were eyes; great, staring, dull things of the type termites have during the short-winged periods of their existences. Like huge round stones, those eyes regarded the two men as the team of termites marched closer.

Hanging down from the great mass was an abortive miniature of a body-soft, shriveled abdomen, almost nonexistent chest, and tiny, sticklike legs that trailed helplessly along the floor as the termites-in the manner of two men who support a helpless third man between them-bore it forward.

Here, then was the Intellect that ruled the tribe, the super-termite, the master mind of the mound! This travesty of a termite! This thing with wasted limbs and torso, and with enormous, voracious brain that drained all sustenance constantly from the body! It was, in the insect world, a parallel to the dream that present-day Man sometimes has of Man a million years in the future: a thing all head and staring eyes, with a brain so enlarged that it must be artificially supported on its flabby torso.

"I guess His Majesty is out," Jim had said, with a shaky attempt at lightness.

But he now realized his mistake. His Majesty hadn't been out. His Majesty had been with them all along-a four-foot, irregular sphere of grayish-white nerve matter and intricately wrinkled cortex dependent for movement on borrowed backs and legs-and was now peering at them out of the only pair of eyes in the termitary as though in doubt as to what to do first with his helpless-seeming captives.

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