Informational Site NetworkInformational Site Network
Privacy
 
   Home - Science Fiction Stories - Western Stories


In The Food Room







From: The Raid On The Termites

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.





Next: Clinging Brown Stuff

Previous: Trapped



Add to del.icio.us Add to Reddit Add to Digg Add to Del.icio.us Add to Google Add to Twitter Add to Stumble Upon
Add to Informational Site Network
Report
Privacy
SHAREADD TO EBOOK


Viewed 448