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Clinging Brown Stuff







From: The Raid On The Termites

Bemused, appalled, the two gazed at this almost disembodied brain that
held them captive. It continued to come steadily toward them, carried by
its two faithful slaves; and the grotesque termite soldiers, that had
closed about them in a hollow square, parted to let it through.

Such was the bewitchment of the two men as they stared at the
monstrosity, that they did not hear the slight clashing of horn that
accompanied a swift movement of one of the soldiers behind them.

The first thing they knew of such a movement was when they felt their
arms pinioned to their sides with crushing force, and looked down to
find a pair of hard, jointed forelegs coiled about their bodies. In
answer to some voiceless command, one of the termites with the conical
heads had approached behind them and wound a leg around each.

Sweat stood out on Denny's forehead at the repellent touch of that
living bond. He turned and twisted wildly.

Jim was struggling madly in the grip of the other foreleg. Great
shoulders bulging with the effort, muscles standing in knots on his
heavy arms, he nearly succeeded in breaking free. Denny felt the tie
that bound him relax ever so little as the monster centered its
attention on the stronger man.

With a last effort, he tore his right arm free, and wriggled partly
around in the thing's grip. He raised the spear and plunged it
slantingly down into the hideous body.

This type of termite was armored more poorly than the others. Only its
head was plated with horn; chest and abdomen were soft and vulnerable as
those of any humble worker in the mound. The spear tore into it for
two-thirds its length. There was a squeak--the first sound they had
heard--from the wounded monster. The clutching forelegs tightened
terribly, then began to loosen, quivering spasmodically as they slowly
relinquished their grasp.

Denny bounded free and again sent the length of his spear into the
loathsome body. Jim, meanwhile, had leaped toward his fallen spear. He
stooped to pick it up--and was lost!

* * * * *

Obeying another wordless order, one of the ghastly, syringe-headed
monsters had stepped out of line with the start of the short struggle.
This one bounded on Jim just as he leaned over for his weapon.

Denny shouted a warning, started to run to his friend's aid. The dying
termite, with a last burst of incredible vitality, caught his leg and
held him.

In an instant it was done. The termite with the distorted head had
drenched Jim with a brown, thick liquid that covered him from shoulder
to feet--and Jim was writhing helplessly on the floor.

Denny burst loose at last from the feebly clutching foreleg. He
straightened, poised his spear, and with a strength born of near madness
shot it at the syringe-headed thing's chest.

But this one was different, armored to the full save for its soft
cranium. The steel bar glanced harmlessly from the heavy horn
breastplate. In answer, the monster wheeled and drenched Dennis, too,
with the loathsome liquid.

On the instant Dennis was helpless. As Jim had done, he sank to the
floor, his body constricted in a sheath that tightened as it dried and
which bound him as securely as any straitjacket might have done.

The two rolled on the floor, trying to shed the terrible coating of
hardening fluid that contracted about them. But they were as impotent as
two flies that had rolled in the sticky slime of some super-flypaper. At
last they gave it up.

Panting, helpless as mummies, they glared up at the stony eyes of the
ruler-termite. The team of workers moved, bearing their burden of almost
bodiless, mushroom brain like well-oiled machines.

Their forelegs went out. The two men were shoved along the floor ahead
of the monarch--and were laid in one of the lines of paralyzed insects
so patently held as the ruler's private food supply!

* * * * *

The great, stony eyes were next bent, as though in curiosity, on the
spears that had done such damage to the termite with the conical head.
In the true insect world there was no such phenomenon as those
glittering steel bars; and it appeared that the over-developed brain of
the monarch held questions concerning their nature.

The team of termites wheeled, and walked over to the nearest spear,
trailing the feeble, atrophied legs of their rider as they went. They
squatted close to the floor, and the staring eyes examined the spears at
close range. Then the owner of the eyes apparently sent out another
command; for one of the guards at the door left its post and drew near,
scissor-mandibles opened in obedience.

The hard mandible's clashed over one of the steel bars. The jaws
crunched shut, with a nerve-rasping grind. They made, naturally, no
impression on the bar. The guard retired to its post at the doorway.

The termite-ruler seemed to think this over, for a moment. Then at some
telepathic order, its two bearers picked up the spear and carried it,
and their physically helpless ruler, over to one of the living
cisterns--one filled with a dark red liquid.

One of the beasts of burden reached up and thrust an end of the spear
into the hugely distended abdomen filled with the unknown red liquid.
The spear was withdrawn, with about a foot of its blunt end reddened by
the fluid. The termite laid it down; the staring, dull eyes watched
it....

Slowly the end of the bar dulled with swift oxidation; slowly it
turned brownish and flaked away, almost entirely consumed. The acid--if
that was what the red stuff was--was awesomely powerful, at least with
inorganic substances.

The termite team turned away from the bar, as if it were now a matter of
indifference to the bloated brain borne on their backs. It approached
the men again.

"I suppose," groaned Jim, "that our turn is next. The thing will
probably have us dipped into the red stuff, to see if we're consumed,
too."

* * * * *

But here His Majesty's curiosity was interrupted while he partook of
nourishment.

The clashing jaws of the two termite soldiers at the door stopped for a
moment. Jim and Dennis struggled to turn their heads--all of them they
could move--to see what the cessation of jaw-clashing might mean.

Three worker termites squeezed past. They approached one of the line of
paralyzed insect hulks, and sank their mandibles into a garden slug.
They tugged at this until they had it under the live cistern of red
liquid into which the spear had been thrust.

One of the three flicked drops of the reddish stuff onto the inert slug,
till it was well sprinkled. Then they dragged the carcass back to the
termite-ruler.

They got it there barely in time. In a matter of seconds after they had
dropped it before the monarch, the slug had collapsed into a half-liquid
puddle of decomposed protoplasm on the floor. One of the main
functions--if not the main function--of the red acid, it seemed, was
to act as a powerful digestive juice for His Majesty's food,
predigesting it before it was taken into the feeble body for
nourishment.

The termite team settled down over the semi-liquid mess that had been
the slug, and tilted back. Now, under the huge globe of the brain, Jim
and Denny saw exposed a small, soft mouth fringed by the tiny rudiments
of atrophied mandibles. The repulsive little mouth touched the
acid-softened mass....

The withered abdomen filled out. The whitish-gray lump of brain-matter
grew slightly darker. It looked as though the mass of the dead slug
were as large as the total bulk of the termite ruler; but not until the
meal was nearly gone did the voracious feeding stop.

The three workers that had spread the banquet before their monarch, left
the chamber. The guards resumed their interrupted jaw-clashing, which
seemed senseless now: the captives, though not paralyzed as were the
other captives there, were held so helpless by the dried and hardened
fluid that escape was out of the question.

* * * * *

The misshapen burden of the termite team seemed to relax a little,
lethargically, as though so gorged with food as to render almost
inactive the grotesquely exaggerated brain. The stony eyes became
duller. Plainly the captives were to have a brief respite while the huge
meal was assimilated.

"If I could get loose for just one minute," Jim took the opportunity to
whisper to Denny, "and get at my spear--I think there would be one
termite-ruler less in the world!"

Denny nodded. He had been thinking along the same lines as Jim: that
bloated, swollen brain seemed a very vulnerable thing. Soft and boneless
and formless, contained only by the dirty-white, membranous skin, it did
appear a tempting target for a spear thrust. And now, sluggish with its
meal, it seemed less alert and on guard.

Jim went on with his thought.

"I think you scientists are wrong about all the termites having
intelligence," he whispered. "I believe that thing has the only
reasoning mind in the mound. Look at those two guards at the door, for
instance. There's no earthly need for them to keep guard as eternally as
they do. We can't even move, let alone try to escape. They're utterly
brainless, commanded to guard the entrance with their mandibles, and
continuing to guard it accordingly although the need for it is past."

Jim worked almost unthinkingly at his bonds. "If we could kill the
wizened, little, big-headed thing, we might have a chance. There'd be
nothing left to guide the tribe, no ruling power to direct them against
us. We might even ... escape!"

"Through the entire city--with untold thousands of these horrible things
on our trail?" objected Denny gloomily.

"But if the untold thousands were dummies, used to being directed in
every move by this master brain," urged Jim, "they might just blunder
around while we slipped through the lines...."

His words trailed into silence. Escape seemed so improbable as to be
hardly worth talking about. Quiet reigned for a long time.

* * * * *

It was broken finally by Dennis.

"Jim," he breathed suddenly, "can you see my legs?"

With difficulty Jim turned his head. "Yes," he said. "Why?"

"It seems to me I can move my left knee--just a little!"

Jim looked more closely. "By heaven!" he exclaimed. "Denny, I think the
brown stuff is cracking! Maybe it was never intended to be more than a
temporary bond, to hold an enemy helpless just long enough for it to be
killed! Maybe it hardens as it dries so that it loses all resiliency!
Maybe--"

He stopped. A faint quivering of the ruler's withered little legs
heralded its reawakening consciousness.

"Act helpless!" whispered Denny excitedly, as he too saw that faint stir
of awakening. "Don't let the thing get an idea of what we're thinking.
Because ... we might get our moment of freedom...."

Both lay relaxed on the floor, eyes half closed. And in the hardening
substance that covered them all over like a shell of cloudy brown
bakelite, appeared more minute seams as it dried unevenly on the
flexible human flesh beneath it. Whether Jim's guess that it was only a
temporary bond was correct, or whether it had been developed to harden
relentlessly only over unyielding surfaces of horn such as the termites'
deadliest enemy, the ants, wear for armor, will never be known. But in a
matter of moments it became apparent that it was going to prove too
brittle to continue clamping flesh as elastic as that of the two humans!

* * * * *

By now the termite-ruler seemed to have recovered fully from its
gargantuan meal. And while, of course, there was no expression of any
kind to be read in the stony, dull eyes, its actions seemed once more to
indicate curiosity about these queer, two-legged bugs that wandered in
here where they had no business to be.

The team of workers bore it close again, lowered the great head close to
Denny. One of the team began chipping at the brown shell where it
encased and held immovably to his body Denny's left hand.

A bit of the shell dropped away, exposing the fingers. Delicately,
accurately, the worker's normal-sized but powerful mandibles edged the
little finger away from the rest--and closed down over it....

"Denny!" burst out Jim, who could just see, out of the corners of his
eyes, what was being done. "My God ... Denny...."

Dennis himself said nothing. His face went white as chalk, and great
drops of perspiration stood out on his forehead. But no sound came from
his tortured lips.

The finger was lifted to the terrible little mouth under the gigantic
head. The mouth received it; the worker nuzzled with its mandibles for
another finger. The monarch, having tried the taste of this latest
addition to his larder, had found it good.

Jim writhed and twisted in his weakening bonds. There was a soft
snapping as several now thoroughly dried sections of the brown substance
cracked loose. The termite team whirled around; the ruler stared, as
though in sudden realization of danger.

* * * * *

More furiously Jim fought his bonds. Dennis was still, recovering slowly
from the nauseating weakness that had followed the pain of his mutilated
hand. There was less blood flow than might have been expected, due,
perhaps, to the fact that the nipping mandibles had pinched some of the
encasing shell tight over the wound.

With a dull crack, a square foot of the brown stuff burst from Jim's
straining chest. But now the monarch moved to correct the situation.

The two giant soldiers at the doorway started across the great room
toward them. Simultaneously, a second of the syringe-headed termites
moved to renew the bonds that were being broken.

But the move had come a shade too late. Jim kicked his legs free with a
last wild jerk, and staggered to his feet. His arms were still held, in
a measure, in spite of his utmost efforts to free them of the clinging
brown stuff. But he could, and did, run away from the body of soldiers
surrounding the monarch just before the deadly syringe of the first
attacking termite could function against him.

The great, flabby head hurtled his way. But he knew what to expect, now.
As the slimy brown stream, directed by the agitated termite-ruler,
squirted toward him, he leaped alertly aside--leaped again as the head
swung around--and saw with savage hope that the monster had exhausted
its discharge!

The two soldiers from the doorway closed in on him now. With their
apparent command of the situation, the monstrosities with the bung- and
syringe-heads closed in more tightly around their monarch. Theirs,
evidently to protect that vulnerable big brain, and leave the attacking
to others.

Jim fled down between the rows of paralyzed insects. The two great
guards from the doorway, mandibles reaching fiercely toward the
fugitive, followed. And there commenced, there in that deep-buried
insect hell, a chase for life.





Next: The Coming Of The Soldiers

Previous: In The Food Room



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