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The Challenge Of The Mound







From: The Raid On The Termites

It was a curious, somehow weird-looking thing, that mound. About a yard
in height and three and a half in diameter, it squatted in the grassy
grove next the clump of trees like an enormous, inverted soup plate.
Here and there tufts of grass waved on it, of a richer, deeper color,
testifying to the unwholesome fertility of the crumbling outer stuff
that had flaked from the solid mound walls.

Like an excrescence on the flank of Mother Earth herself, the mound
loomed; like an unhealthy, cancerous growth. And inside the enigmatic
thing was another world. A dark world, mysterious, horrible, peopled by
blind and terrible demons--a world like a Dante's dream of a second
Inferno.

Such, at least, were the thoughts of Dennis Braymer as he worked with
delicate care at the task of sawing into the hard cement of a portion of
the wall near the rounded top.

His eyes, dark brown and rimmed with thick black lashes, flashed
earnestly behind his glasses as they concentrated on his difficult job.
His face, lean and tanned, was a mask of seriousness. To him, obviously,
this was a task of vital importance; a task worthy of all a man's
ability of brain and logic.

Obviously also, his companion thought of the work as just something with
which to fill an idle afternoon. He puffed at a pipe, and regarded the
entomologist with a smile.

To Jim Holden, Denny was simply fussing fruitlessly and absurdly with an
ordinary "ant-hill," as he persisted in miscalling a termitary. Playing
with bugs, that was all. Wasting his time poking into the affairs of
termites--and acting, by George, as though those affairs were of supreme
significance!

He grinned, and tamped and relighted the tobacco in his pipe. He
refrained from putting his thoughts into words, however. He knew, of
old, that Denny was apt to explode if his beloved work were interrupted
by a careless layman. Besides, Dennis had brought him here rather under
protest, simply feeling that it was up to a host to do a little
something or other by way of trying to amuse an old college mate who had
come for a week's visit. Since he was there on sufferance, so to speak,
it was up to him to keep still and not interrupt Denny's play.

The saw rasped softly another time or two, then moved, handled with
surgeon's care, more gently--till at last a section about as big as the
palm of a man's hand was loose on the mound-top.

Denny's eyes snapped. His whole wiry, tough body quivered. He visibly
held his breath as he prepared to flip back that sawed section of
curious, strong mound wall.

He snatched up his glass, overturned the section.

Jim drew near to watch, too, seized in spite of himself by some of the
scientist's almost uncontrollable excitement.

Under the raised section turmoil reigned for a moment. Jim saw a horde
of brownish-white insects, looking something like ants, dashing
frenziedly this way and that as the unaccustomed light of sun and
exposure of outer air impinged upon them. But the turmoil lasted only a
little while.

Quickly, in perfect order, the termites retreated. The exposed honeycomb
of cells and runways was deserted. A slight heaving of earth told how
the insects were blocking off the entrances to the exposed floor, and
making that floor their new roof to replace the roof this invading giant
had stripped from over them.

In three minutes there wasn't a sign of life in the hole. The
observation--if one could call so short a glimpse at so abnormally
acting a colony an observation--was over.

* * * * *

Denny rose to his feet, and dashed his glass to the ground. His face was
twisted in lines of utter despair, and through his clenched teeth the
breath whistled in uneven gasps.

"My God!" he groaned. "My God--if only I could see them! If only I could
get in there, and watch them at their normal living. But it's always
like this. The only glance we're permitted is at a stampede following
the wrecking of a termitary. And that tells us no more about the real
natures of the things than you could tell about the nature of normal men
by watching their behavior after an earthquake!"

Jim Holden tapped out his pipe. On his face the impatiently humorous
look gave place to a measure of sympathy. Good old Denny. How he took
these trivial disappointments to heart. But, how odd that any man could
get so worked up over such small affairs! These bugologists were queer
people.

"Oh, well," he said, half really to soothe Denny, half deliberately to
draw him out, "why get all boiled up about the contrariness of ordinary
little bugs?"

Denny rose to the bait at once. "Ordinary little bugs? If you knew what
you were talking about, you wouldn't dismiss the termite so casually!
These 'ordinary little bugs' are the most intelligent, the most
significant and highly organized of all the insect world.

"Highly organized?" he repeated himself, his voice deepening. "They're
like a race of intelligent beings from another planet--superior even to
Man, in some ways. They have a king and queen. They have 'soldiers,'
developed from helpless, squashy things into nightmare creations with
lobster-claw mandibles longer than the rest of their bodies put
together. They have workers, who bore the tunnels and build the mounds.
And they have winged ones from among which are picked new kings and
queens to replace the original when they get old and useless. And all
these varied forms, Jim, they hatch at will, through some marvelous
power of selection, from the same, identical kind of eggs. Now, I ask
you, could you take the unborn child and make it into a man with four
arms or a woman with six legs and wings, at will, as these insects, in
effect, do with theirs?"

"I never tried," said Jim.

"Just a soft, helpless, squashy little bug, to begin with," Denny went
on, ignoring his friend's levity. "Able to live only in warm
countries--yet dying when exposed directly to the sun. Requiring a very
moist atmosphere, yet exiled to places where it doesn't rain for months
at a time. And still, under circumstances harsher even than those Man
has had to struggle against, they have survived and multiplied."

"Bah, bugs," murmured Jim maddeningly.

* * * * *

But again Denny ignored him, and went on with speculations concerning
the subject that was his life passion. He was really thinking aloud,
now; the irreverent Holden was for the moment nonexistent.

"And the something, the unknown intelligence, that seems to rule each
termitary! The something that seems able to combine oxygen from the air
with hydrogen from the wood they eat and make necessary moisture; the
something that directs all the blind subjects in their marvelous
underground architecture; the something that, at will, hatches a dozen
different kinds of beings from the common stock of eggs--what can it be?
A sort of super-termite? A super-intellect set in the minute head of an
insect, yet equal to the best brains of mankind? We'll probably never
know, for, whatever the unknown intelligence is, it lurks in the
foundations of the termitaries, yards beneath the surface, where we
cannot penetrate without blowing up the whole mound--and at the same
time destroying all the inhabitants."

Jim helped Denny gather up his scientific apparatus. They started across
the fields toward Denny's roadster, several hundred yards away--Jim,
blond and bulking, a hundred and ninety pounds of hardy muscle and bone;
Denny wiry and slender, dark-eyed and dark-haired. The sledge-hammer and
the rapier; the human bull, and the human panther; the one a student
kept fit by outdoor studies, and the other a careless, rich young
time-killer groomed to the pink by the big-game hunting and South Sea
sailing and other adventurous ways of living he preferred.

"This stuff is all very interesting," he said perfunctorily, "but what
has it to do with practical living? How will the study of bugs, no
matter how remarkable the bug, be of benefit to the average man? What I
mean is, your burning zeal--your really bitter disappointment a minute
ago--seem a bit out of place. A bit--well, exaggerated don't you know."

* * * * *

Denny halted; and Jim, perforce, stopped, too. Denny's dark eyes burned
into Jim's blue ones.

"How does it affect practical living? You, who have been in the tropics
many times on your lion-spearing and snake-hunting jaunts, ask such a
thing? Haven't you ever seen the damage these infernal things can do?"

Jim shook his head. "I've never happened to be in termite country,
though I've heard tales about them."

"If you've heard stories, you have at least in idea of their deadliness
when they're allowed to multiply. You must have heard how they literally
eat up houses and the furnishings within, how they consume telegraph
poles, railroad ties, anything wooden within reach. The termite is a
ghastly menace. When they move in--men eventually move out! And their
appearance here in California has got many a nationally famous man half
crazy. That's what they mean to the average person!"

Jim, scratched his head. "I didn't think of that angle of it," he
admitted.

"Well, it's time you thought of something besides fantastic ways of
risking your life. The termite has been kept in place, till now, by only
two things: ants, which are its bitterest enemies, and constantly attack
and hamper its development; and climatic conditions, which bar it from
the temperate zones. Now suppose, with all their intelligence and force
of organization--not to mention that mysterious and terrible unknown
intelligence that leads them--they find a way to whip the ants once for
all, and to immunize themselves to climatic changes? Mankind will
probably be doomed."

"Gosh," said Jim, with exaggerated terror.

* * * * *

"Laugh if you want to," said Dennis, "but I tell you the termite is a
very real menace. Even in its present stage of development. And the
maddening thing is that we can't observe them and so discover how best
to fight them.

"To get away from the light that is fatal to them, they build mounds
like that behind us, of silicated, half-digested wood, which hardens
into a sort of cement that will turn the cutting edge of steel. If you
pry away some of the wall to spy on them, you get the fiasco I was just
rewarded with. If you try to penetrate to the depths of the mystery,
yards underground, by blowing up the termitary with gun powder, the only
way of getting to the heart of things--you destroy the termites. Strays
are seldom seen; in order, again, to avoid light and air-exposure, they
tunnel underground or build tubes above ground to every destination.
Always they keep hidden and secret. Always they work from within, which
is why walls and boards they have devoured look whole: the outer shell
has been left untouched and all the core consumed."

"Can't you get at the beasts in the laboratory?" asked Jim.

"No. If you put them into glass boxes to watch them, they manage to
corrode the glass so it ceases to be transparent. And they can bore
their way out of any wood, or even metal, containers you try to keep
them in. The termite seems destined to remain a gruesome, marvelous,
possibly deadly mystery."

* * * * *

He laughed abruptly, shrugged his shoulders, and started toward the car
again.

"When I get off on my subject, there's no telling when I'll stop. But,
Jim, I tell you, I'd give years of my life to be able to do what all
entomologists are wild to do--study the depths of a termite mound. God!
What wouldn't I give for the privilege of shrinking to ant-size, and
roaming loose in that secretive-looking mound behind us!"

He laughed again, and slapped Holden's broad back.

"There would be a thrill for you, you bored adventurer! There would be
exploration work! A trip to Mars wouldn't be in it. The nightmare
monsters you would see, the hideous creations, the cannibalism, the
horrible but efficient slave system carried on by these blind,
intelligent things in the dark depths of the subterranean cells! Lions?
Suppose you were suddenly confronted by a thing as big as a horse, with
fifteen-foot jaws of steely horn that could slice you in two and hardly
know it! How would you like that?"

And now in the other man's eyes there was a glint, while his face
expressed aroused interest.

Every man to his own game, thought Denny curiously, watching the
transformation. He lived for scientific experiments and observations
having to do with termites. Holden existed, apparently, only for the
thrill of pitting his brain and brawn against dangerous beasts, wild
surroundings, or tempestuous elements. If only their two supreme
interests in life could be combined....

"How would I like it?" said Jim. "Denny, old boy, when you can introduce
me to an adventure like that ..." He waved his arm violently to complete
the sentence. "What a book of travel it would make! 'The Raid on the
Termites. Exploring an Insect Hell. Death in an Ant-hill....'"

"Termitary! Termitary!" corrected Denny irritably.

"Whatever you want to call it," Jim conceded airily. He dumped the
apparatus he was carrying into the rear compartment of the roadster.
"But why speak of miracles? Even if we were sent to a modern hand
laundry, we could hardly be shrunk to ant-size. Shall we ramble along
home?"





Next: The Pact

Previous: The Radiant Shell



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