VIEW THE MOBILE VERSION of www.fictionstories.ca Informational Site Network Informational
Privacy
   Home - Science Fiction Stories - Western Stories


The Raid







From: The Raid On The Termites

Bewilderedly, they looked around them.

Ahead of them, barely to be seen for the trunks of giant trees
intervening, was a smoothly-rounded mountain. Majestic and aloof it
soared, dwarfing all near it--the termitary which, yesterday, had been
but waist-high. There was their eventual goal; but meanwhile their
immediate surroundings roused their greater interest--and all their
alertness!

When Dennis had said they would find a common grass plot a wild and
exotic jungle, he had spoken perhaps more truly than he knew. At any
rate, the jungle they now found themselves in was something to exceed
man's wildest dreams.

Far over their heads towered a wilderness of trees. But such trees!
Without branches, shooting up and over in graceful, tangling curves,
their trunks oddly flat and ribbonlike and yellow-green. It was
impossible to look on them as grass stems.

Here and there the trees had fallen, presenting a tangled wilderness of
leathery, five-foot-wide strips. Webs of roots, tough and gnarled,
whitish in color, curled in all directions to catch the feet and baffle
the eye. It was an appalling underbrush. And it was an underbrush,
moreover, in which there was plenty of wild life!

A hairy, pulpy thing, reddish in color, with gauzy wings and a myriad
flashing eyes scuttled close to them as though drawn by curiosity to
inspect them. As big as an eagle it appeared to them; both grasped their
spears; but soon, with a wild whistle of its wings, it rose up through
the tangle of underbrush and hummed off. A fruit fly.

* * * * *

And now a monstrous thing appeared far off, to stalk like a balloon on
twenty-foot legs in their direction. With incredible quickness it loomed
over them. Six feet through, its body was roughly spherical, and carried
on those amazingly long, jointed legs. It stared at them with beady,
cruel eyes, but finally teetered on its way again, leaving them
untouched.

"I'll never again be able to see a daddy longlegs without shivering,"
said Jim. His voice was unconsciously sunk to little more than a
whisper. This was a world of titanic dangers and fierce alarms. Instinct
cautioned both of them to make no more noise than necessary. "We had
better make for your termitary at once."

Dennis had been thinking that for some time. But he had been unable to
locate a termite tunnel anywhere. Matt had been supposed to set them
down near one. No doubt, to his own mind, he had placed them near one
of the termite highways. But his ideas of distance were now so radically
different from theirs that Dennis, at least, was unable to see a tunnel
opening anywhere.

He spoke his thoughts to Jim. "There must be a tunnel opening somewhere
very near us," he concluded. "But I--Good heavens!"

Both crouched in wary alarm, spears held for a thrust, if necessary, at
the frightful thing approaching them from the near jungle.

Thirty feet long, it was, and six feet through, a blunt-ended, untapered
serpent that glistened a moist crimson color in the rays of the sun. The
trees quaked and rocked as it brushed against them in its deliberate
advance. Dead leaves many feet across and too heavy for the combined
efforts of both men to have budged, were pushed lightly this way and
that as the monster moved. The very ground seemed to shake under its
appalling weight.

"If that comes after us," breathed Jim, "we're through!"

But now Denny drew a long breath of relief.

"Be still," he said. "Make no sound, and no move, and it will probably
pass us by. It's blind, and couldn't harm us in any way--unless it
rolled on us."

The two stood motionless while the nightmare serpent crashed by. Then,
with the earthworm fading into the distance, they resumed their hunt for
the near tunnel entrance.

* * * * *

Jim, whose eyes were more accustomed to searching jungle depths, finally
saw it--a black hole leading down into a small hill about two hundred
yards ahead of them. He pointed.

"There we are. Come on."

Laboriously they set out toward it. Laboriously because at every step
some almost insuperable hurdle barred their way. A fallen grass stalk
was a problem; sometimes they had to curve back on their tracks for
sixty or eighty feet in order to get around it. A dead leaf, drifted
there from the trees near at hand, was almost a calamity, necessitating
more circuitous maneuvering.

With every yard the realization of the stark peril that was now theirs
increased.

A grasshopper, blundering to the ground within a rod of them, nearly
crushed them with its several tons of weight. A bumblebee, as big as a
flying elephant and twice as deadly, roared around them for several
minutes as though debating whether or not to attack them, and finally
roared off leaving them shaken and pale. But the most startling and
narrow of their narrow escapes occurred an instant after that.

They had paused for an instant, alert but undecided, to stare at a
coldly glaring spider that was barring their path. It was a small
spider, barely more than waist-high. But something in its malevolent
eyes made the two men hesitate about attacking it. At the same time it
was squatting in the only clear path in sight, with tangles of stalks
and leaves on either side. A journey around the ferocious brute might be
a complicated, long-drawn-out affair.

Their problem was decided for them.

* * * * *

Overhead, suddenly roared out a sound such as might have been made by a
tri-motored Fokker. There was a flash of yellow. The roar increased to
an ear-shattering scream. Something swooped so breathlessly and at the
same time so ponderously that the men were knocked flat by the hurricane
of disturbed air.

A fleeting struggle ensued between some vast yellow body and the
unfortunate spider. Then the spider, suddenly as immobile as a lump of
stone, was drawn up into the heavens by the roaring yellow thing, and
disappeared. A wasp had struck, and had obtained another meal.

"Thank God that thing had a one-track mind, and was concentrating on the
spider," said Jim, with a rather humorless laugh.

Dennis was silent. He was beginning to realize that he knew too much
about insects for his peace of mind. To Jim, insects had always
heretofore been something to brush away or step on, as the circumstance
might indicate. He had no idea, for example, of exactly what fate it was
he had just missed. But Denny knew all about it.

He knew that if the wasp had chosen either of them, the chosen one would
have felt a stabbing thing like a red-hot sword penetrate to his vitals.
He knew that swift paralysis would have followed the thrust. He knew
that then the victim would have been taken back, helpless and motionless
as the spider was, to be laid side by side with other helpless but still
conscious victims in the fetid depths of the wasp's nest. And he knew
that finally an egg would have been laid on the victim's chest; an egg
that would eventually hatch and deliver a bit of life that would calmly
and leisurely devour the paralyzed food supply alive.

"Let's hurry," he suggested, glancing up to see if any more wasps were
hovering about.

The lowering tunnel mouth was very near now. Barely twenty yards away.
What with the crowding monsters around them, the tunnel began to look
like a haven. Almost at a run, they continued toward it.

* * * * *

Then a commotion like that which might be made by a mighty army sounded
in the underbrush behind them. Dennis looked back over his shoulder.

"Hurry!" he gasped, suddenly accelerating his pace into frank flight.
"Ants...."

Jim glanced back, too--and joined Denny in his flight. Pouring toward
them at express train speed, flinging aside fallen stalks, climbing over
obstructions as though no obstructions were there, was coming a grim and
armored horde. Far in the lead, probably the one that had seen the men
first and started the deadly chase, was a single ant.

The solitary leader was a monster of its kind. As tall as Jim, clashing
in its horny armor, it rushed toward the fugitives.

"It's going to reach the tunnel before we do," Jim panted. "We've got to
kill the thing--and do it before the rest get to us...."

The monster was on them. Blindly, ferociously it hurled its bulk at the
things that smelled like termites however little they resembled them.
The termite-paste was, in this instance, the most deadly of challenges.

Jim stepped to the fore, with his spear point slanted to receive the
onslaught, spear butt grounded at his feet.

Whether the six-legged horror would have had wit enough to comprehend
the nature of the defense offered, and would have striven to circumvent
it, had time been given it, is a question that will never be answered.
For the thing wasn't given the time.

In mid-air it seemed to writhe and try to change the direction of its
leap. But it was on the point and had transfixed itself before its
intelligence, however keen, could have functioned.

The fight, though, was by no means over. With five feet of steel
piercing it through, it whirled with hardly abated vitality toward
Dennis. Its gargoyle head came close and closer.

* * * * *

Dennis sprang sideways along its length, lifted the pointed bar he held,
and dashed it down on what looked to him a vital spot--the unbelievably
slender trunk that held its spatulate abdomen to its armored chest.

There was a crack as the bar smashed down on the weak point. The monster
sank quivering to the ground. An instant later it was up, but now its
movements were dazed and sluggish as it dragged its half-paralyzed
abdomen after it, and fumbled and caught on the heavy bar that
transfixed it.

Jim caught the bar and tugged it. "My spear!" he cried. "Denny--help!"

Together the two wrenched to jerk the spear loose from the horny armor
of the dying ant. The rest of the pack were very near now.

"We'll have to let it go...." panted Denny.

But at that instant their desperate efforts tore it loose from the
convulsively jerking hulk. They darted into the tunnel mouth with the
racing horde scarcely twenty yards behind them.

Without hesitation the ants poured in after them. Jim and Dennis leaped
forward, in pitch darkness, now and then bumping heavily against a wall
as the tunnel turned, but having at least no trouble with their footing:
the floor was as smooth as though man-made.

Behind them they could hear the armored horde crashing along in the
blackness. The smashing noise of their progress was growing louder. The
two had run perhaps fifty yards in the darkness. Another fifty, and they
would be caught!

But now, just as their eyes--sharpened also by the danger they were
in--began to grow accustomed to the gloom, they saw ahead of them a
thing that might have stepped straight out of a horrible dream.

* * * * *

Six feet of vulnerable, unarmored body, amply protected by horny head
and shoulders and ten feet of awful, scissor-mandibles, faced them. The
creature was doing a strange sort of war dance, swaying its terrible
bulk back and forth rhythmically, while its feet remained immovable. An
instant it did this, then it charged at the two men. Simultaneously the
crashing of the fierce horde behind sounded with appalling nearness--the
noise and odor of the ants preventing the huge termite guard in front of
the men from recognizing and approving the smell of the termite-paste
that covered their bodies.

"Follow me!" snapped Denny, remembering that the hideous attacking thing
before them was blind, and gaining from that knowledge swift
inspiration.

Jim gathered his muscles to follow at command. But he almost shouted
aloud as he saw Denny leap--straight toward the enormous, snapping
mandibles.

In an instant, however, Denny's idea was made clear. With a slide that
would have done credit to any baseball player, the entomologist
catapulted on his chest past the snapping peril. Jim followed, with not
a foot to spare. They were not past the soft rear-parts of the thing,
but they were at least past its horrible jaws. And before the monster
could turn its unwieldy bulk in the tunnel, the ants were upon it.

For a few seconds, blinded to their own danger by the fascination of the
struggle going on before them, the two men witnessed the grim watcher of
the tunnel as it drove back wave after wave of attacking ants.

Two at a time, the invaders charged that wall of living horn. And two at
a time they were swept against the walls, or slashed in two by the
enormous mandibles. One against an army; but it was a full minute or so
before the one began to weaken.

"Come," whispered Dennis, at last. "If what I think is going to happen
occurs, this will be no place for us."

* * * * *

They went ahead, with the din of battle dying behind them, till they saw
a small tunnel branching off beside the main stem. Into this they
squeezed. But as Jim started to go farther down its constricted length,
Dennis stopped him.

"We're fairly safe here, I think. We'll stay and watch...."

Silently, motionless, they lurked in the entrance of the side-avenue,
and peered out at the main avenue they had just left. And now that
avenue began to buzz with traffic.

First, more of the horrors with the enormous scissor-mandibles began to
stream past them. In twos and threes, then in whole squads, they
lumbered by, bound for the ant army that had invaded their sanctum.

Not quite too far ahead to be out of sight, the defenders halted.
Several of their number went forward to help the dying Horatius. The
rest lined up in a triple row across a wide patch in the tunnel,
presenting a phalanx it would appear that nothing could beat.

"How do they know enough to gather here from distant parts of this
hollow mountain?" whispered Jim to Denny. "How do they know their city
is besieged just at this spot, and that their help is needed?"

Dennis shrugged. His eyes were shining. This was the kind of thing he
had come here for. This unhampered observation of a strange and terrible
race at war and at work--it was well worth all the personal risks he
might run.

"No man can answer your question, Jim. They're blind--they can't see
their danger so as to know how to combat it. They couldn't hear, and be
alarmed by, the vibrations of battle for a distance of more than a few
yards. My only guess is that they are constantly and silently commanded
by the unknown intelligence, the ruling brain, that hides deep in the
earth beneath us and directs these 'soldier' termites in some marvelous
way--though itself never seeing or hearing the actual dangers it guards
against."

"The queen?" suggested Jim.

Again Denny shrugged. "Who knows? She might be the brains, as well as
the egg layer, of the tribe. But don't talk too much. The vibration of
our voices might lead them to us in spite of their blindness."

* * * * *

Now the main avenue before them was humming with a new kind of traffic.
From side to side it was being filled with a new sort of termite. These
were smaller than the soldiers, and entirely unprotected by either horn
armor plate or slashing mandibles.

Each of these carried an unwieldy block of gleaming substance. And each
in turn dropped its block in a growing wall behind the savage defenders
against the ants, and fastened it in place with a thick and viscous
brown liquid that dried almost immediately into a kind of cement.

"The workers," whispered Dennis, enthralled. "The building blocks are
half-digested wood. The cement is a sort of stuff that exudes from
their own bodies. In ten minutes there will be a wall across the tunnel
that no ants on earth could penetrate!"

"But the home guards, the brave lads and all that sort of thing, will be
shut off on the outside of the wall with the enemy. And there are
hundreds of the enemy," protested Jim.

"A necessary sacrifice," said Denny. "And so perfect is their
organization that no one, including the soldiers to be sacrificed, ever
makes any objection."

Jim shivered a little. "It's terrible, somehow. It's--it's inhuman!"

"Naturally. It's insectian, if there is such a word. And a wise man once
predicted that the termite organization, being so much more perfect a
one than man's, indicated the kind of society man would at some time
build up for himself. In ten or twelve more centuries we, too, might go
off in millions and deliberately starve to death because the ruling
power decided there were too many people on earth. We, too, might devour
our dead because it was essential not to let anything go to waste. We,
too, might control our births so that we produced astronomers with
telescopes in their heads instead of regular eyes, carpenters with
hammer and saw instead of hands, soldiers with poison gas sacs in their
chests so they could breathe death and destruction at will. It would be
the perfect state of society."

"Maybe--but I'm glad I'll be dead before that times comes," said Jim
with another shiver.

* * * * *

By now the wall ahead of them was complete. On the other side of it the
soldier termites stolidly fought on to their certain death. On the near
side, the workers retreated to unknown depths in the great hollow
mountain behind them. The main avenue was once more clear, and, save
for a few workers hastening on unknown errands, deserted.

"That act's over," sighed Dennis. "But it may well be no more than a
curtain raiser to the acts to come. Shall we be on our way? We're hardly
on the fringe of the termitary yet--and I want to get at the heart of
it, and into the depths far beneath it. Depths of hell, we'll probably
find them, Jim. But a marvelous hell, and one no man has ever before
seen."

They left their little haven and moved along the main tunnel toward the
heart of the termitary, walking easily upright in this tunnel which was
only one of many hundreds in the vast, hollowed mountain--which loomed
into the outer sunshine to almost a height of a yard.





Next: Trapped

Previous: Ant-sized Men



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 392