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The Termite Queen







From: The Raid On The Termites

The slope of the upward-leading tunnels had become less noticeable, from
which fact the two men reasoned hopefully that they were near ground
level. And now they began to see termite workers bearing a new sort of
burden: termite eggs, sickly looking lumps that had only too obviously
been newly laid.

A file of workers approached. In a long line, each with an egg, looking
for all the world like a file of human porters bearing the equipment of
a jungle expedition. Slowly, the things moved--carefully--bound for some
such vast incubator as the one Jim and Dennis had stumbled into some
hours before.

"We want to go in the opposite direction from them," Denny whispered.
"They're coming from the Queen termite's den--and we don't want to
blunder in there!"

They about-faced, and moved with the workers till they came to the
nearest passage branching away from the avenue on which the file
marched. Denny dabbed at his forehead.

"Lucky those things came in time to warn us," he said. "From what
little science knows of the termites, I can guess that the Queen's
chamber would be a chamber of horrors for us!"

They walked on, searching for another main avenue, such as the one they
had left; which might be an artery leading to the outside world. But
they had not gone far when they were again forced to change their
course.

Ahead of them, marching in regular formation, came a band of soldiers
larger than the usual squad. They filled the tunnel so compactly that
the two men did not dare try to squeeze past them.

"Here," whispered Jim, pointing to a side tunnel.

* * * * *

They stole down it; but in a moment it developed that their choice had
been an unlucky one: the crash of the heavy, armored bodies continued to
follow them. The soldiers had turned down that tunnel, too.

"Are they after us again?" whispered Jim.

Denny shrugged. There was still a remnant of the disguising
termite-paste on their bodies to fool the insects. It seemed impossible
that the ruling brain behind them had survived the cannibalistic rush
and taken command of the mound again? But--was anything impossible in
this world of terror?

Steadily the two were forced to retreat before the measured advance of
the guards. And now the tunnel they were in broadened--and abruptly
ended in another of the vast chambers that seemed to dot the mound city
at fairly regular intervals. But this one appeared to be humming with
activity, if the noise coming from within it was any indication.

The two passed at the threshold, dismayed at the evidence of
super-activity in the chamber ahead of them. But while they paused
there, the soldiers behind them rounded a corner. They could not go
back. There were no more of the opportune side entrances to dodge into.
All they could do was retreat still farther--into the vast room before
them.

They did so, reluctantly, moving step by step as the marching band
behind them crashed rhythmically along. But once inside the great
chamber, they shrank back against the wall with whispered imprecations
at the final, desperate trick fate had played on them.

Their path of retreat, leading around labyrinthine corners and
by-passages, had doubled back on them without their having been aware of
it. They were in the very place Dennis had wished so much to avoid--the
chamber of the Queen termite!

* * * * *

High overhead, almost lost in the dimness, was the arching roof. Around
the circular walls were innumerable tunnel entrances. At each of these
stood a termite guard--picked soldiers half again as large as the
ordinary soldiers, with mandibles so great and heavy that it was a
marvel the insects could support them.

Hurrying here and there were worker termites. And these were centering
their activities on an object as fearful as anything that ever haunted
the mind of a madman.

Up and back, this object loomed, half filling the enormous room like a
zeppelin in a hangar. And like a zeppelin--a blunt, bloated
zeppelin--the object was circular and tapered at both ends. But the
zeppelin was a living thing--a horrible travesty of life.

At the end facing the two men was a tiny dot of a head, almost lost in
the whitish mass of the enormous body. Around this a cluster of worker
termites pressed, giving nourishment to the insatiable mouth. At the
far end of the vast shape another cluster of termites thronged. And
these bore away a constant stream of termite eggs--that dripped from the
zeppelinlike, crammed belly at the rate of almost one a second.

Her Highness, the Queen--two hundred tons of flabby, greasy flesh,
immobile, able only to eat and lay eggs.

"My God," whispered Jim. Utterly unstrung, he gazed at that mighty,
loathsome mass, listening to its snapping jaws as it took on the tons of
nourishment needed for its machinelike functioning. "My God!"

* * * * *

Instinctively he whirled to run back through the entrance they had come
through. But now, with the admittance of the soldier band that had
pressed them in here, the entrance was guarded again by one of the
giants permanently stationed there.

"What had we better do?" he breathed to Denny.

Dennis stared helplessly around. He had noticed that the termites in
here were acting differently from the others they had encountered since
leaving the lair of the termite-ruler. These were moving uneasily,
restlessly, stopping now and again with waving, inquisitive antennae. It
looked ominously as though they had sensed the presence of intruders
here in the sanctum where their race was born, and were dimly wondering
what to do.

"We might try each tunnel mouth, one by one, on the chance that we can
find a careless guard somewhere," Dennis muttered at last. "But for
heaven's sake don't touch any of the brutes! I think that at the
slightest signal the whole mob of the things would spring on us and tear
us to pieces. Most of the paste is rubbed off by now."

Jim nodded. He had no desire to brush against one of the colossal,
special guard of soldiers if he could help it, or against any of the
relatively weak workers that might give the signal of alarm.

Stealing silently along among the blind, instinctively agitated
monsters, they worked a circuitous way from one exit to another. But
nowhere did any chance of getting out of the place present itself.
Across each tunnel mouth was placed one of the enormous guards,
twelve-foot mandibles opened like a waiting steel trap.

Halfway around the tremendous room they went, without mishap, but also
without finding an exit they could slip through. And then, in the rear
of the vast bulk of the Queen, it happened.

* * * * *

One of the worker termites, bearing an egg in its mandibles, faltered,
and dropped its precious burden. The thing fell squashily to the floor
within a foot of Jim, who had brushed against the wall to let the burden
bearer pass without touching him. Jim, attempting to sidestep away from
the spot, as the worker put out blind feelers, to search for the dropped
egg, lost his balance for a fraction of a second--and stepped squarely
on the nauseous ovoid!

Frantically he stepped out of the mess he had created, and the two stood
staring at each other, holding their breaths, fearful of what might
result from that accidental destruction of budding termite life.

The worker, feeling about for its burden, came in contact with the
shattered egg. It drew back abruptly, as though in perplexity: soft and
tough, the egg should not have broken merely from being dropped. Then it
felt again....

For a few seconds nothing whatever occurred. The two breathed again, and
began to hope that their fears had been meaningless. But that was not
to be.

The worker termite finally began to rush back and forth, antennae
whipping from side to side, patently trying to discover the cause of the
tragedy. And Jim and Dennis rushed back and forth, too, engaged in a
deadly game of blind man's buff as they tried to avoid the questing
antennae--which, registering sensation by touch instead of smell, was
not to be fooled by the last disappearing traces of the termite-paste.

The game did not last long. One of the feelers whipped against Dennis'
legs--and hell broke loose!

* * * * *

The worker emitted a sound like the shriek of a circular saw gone wild.
And on the instant all its fellows, and the gigantic guards at the
exits, stiffened to rigid attention.

Again came the roaring sound, desolate, terrible, at once a call to arms
and a funeral dirge. And now every termite in the dim, cavernous chamber
began the battle dance Jim and Dennis had seen performed by the termite
guard when it was confronted by the horde of ants. Not moving their
feet, they commenced to sway back and forth, while long, rhythmic
shudders convulsed their grotesque bodies. It was a formal declaration
of war against whatever mad things had dared invade the fountain-spring
of their race.

Jim and Dennis leaped toward the nearest exit, determined to take any
risk on the chance of escaping from the horde of things now aware of
their presence and ravening for their blood. But in this exit--the only
one accessible to them now--the guard had commenced the jaw-clashing
that closed openings more efficiently than steel plates could have done.
An attempt to pass those enormous mandibles presented no risk; what it
presented was suicide.

By now the dread war dance had stopped. All the termites in the chamber
were converging slowly toward the spot where the termite had given the
rasping alarm. Even the workers, ordinarily quick to run from danger,
were advancing instead of retreating. Of all living things in the room
only the Queen, unable to move her mountainous bulk, did not join in the
slow, sure move to slash to pieces the hated trespassers.

Again the questing antennae of the worker that had given the alarm
touched one of the men. With a deafening rasp it sprang toward them,
blind but terrible.

* * * * *

Dennis swung his steel club. It clashed against the scarcely less hard
mandibles of the worker, not harming them, but seeming to daze the
insect a little.

Jim followed the act by plunging his longer spear into the soft body. No
words were wasted by the two men. It was a fight for life again, with
the odds even more heavily against them than they had been in the
ruler's lair.

Behind them, blocking the only exit they had any chance whatever of
reaching, the guard continued its clashing mandible duty. If only it,
too, would join in the blind search for the trespassers, thus giving
them an opportunity of slipping out! But the monster gave no indication
of doing such a thing.

Another worker termite flung its bulk at them. Its mandibles, tiny in
comparison with those of the great guards but still capable of slicing
either of the men in two, snapped perilously close to Jim's body. There
was a second's concerted action: Dennis' club lashed against the thing's
head, Jim's spear tore into the vulnerable body.

Ringing them round, the main band of the termites moved closer. They
moved slowly, in no hurry, apparently only too sure the enemy could not
possibly get away from them. And the two worker termites killed were
mere incidents compared to the avalanche of mandible and horn that would
be on them in about thirty seconds.

* * * * *

However, the two dead termites gave Jim a sudden inspiration. He glanced
from the carcasses to the mechanically moving, deadly jaws of the guard
that barred the nearest exit.

"Denny," he panted, "feed it this."

He pointed first toward the nearest carcass and then toward the
rock-crushing, steadily snapping jaws.

"I'll try to hold the bridge here--"

But Dennis was on his way, catching Jim's idea with the first gesture.

He stooped down, and caught the dead termite by two of its legs. Close
to two hundred pounds the mass weighed; but strength is an inconstant
thing, and increases or decreases according to the vital needs of
life-preservation.

Clear of the floor, Denny lifted the bulk, and with its repulsive weight
clasped in his arms, he advanced toward the mighty guard.

Behind him, Jim glared desperately at the third termite that was about
to attack. No feeble worker this, but one of the most colossal of all
the Queen's guard.

Towering over Jim, mandibles wide open and ready to smash over its prey,
the giant reared toward him. And behind him came the main body of the
horde. It was painfully evident that the clash with the lone soldier
would be the last single encounter. After that the hundreds of the herd
would be on the men, tearing and trampling them to bits.

During the thing's steady, inexorable approach, which had taken far less
time than that required to tell of it, Jim had clenched his fingers
around his spear and calculated as to the best way to hold the monster
off for just the few seconds needed by Denny to try the plan suggested.

The monster ended its slow advance in a lunge, that, for all its great
bulk, was lightning quick. But a shade more quickly, Jim sidestepped the
terrible mandibles, leaped back along the armored body till he had
reached the unarmored rear, and thrust his spear home with all his
force.

* * * * *

The hideous guard reared with pain and rage. But this was no worker
termite, to be killed with a thrust. As though nothing had happened, the
huge hulk wheeled around. The mandibles crashed shut with deafening
force over the space Jim had occupied but an instant before.

And now the inner circle of the multiple ring of death was within a few
yards. Jim leaped to put himself behind the living barrier of the
attacking soldier. But it was only a matter of a few seconds now, before
he and Denny would be caught in the blind bull charges of the wounded
soldier or by the surrounding ring of maddened termites.

"Denny?" he shouted imploringly over his shoulder, not daring to take
his eyes off the danger in front of him.

"Soon!" he heard Dennis pant.

The entomologist had got almost up to the twelve-foot jaws that closed
the exit. He paused a moment, gathering strength. Then he heaved the
soft mass of the dead termite into the clashing mandibles.

"Jim!" he cried, as the burden left his arms.

Jim turned, raced the few yards intervening between the ring of death
and the doorway. Together they waited to see if their forlorn hope would
work....

It could not have lasted more than a second, that wait, yet it seemed at
least ten minutes. And then both cried aloud--and crouched to repeat the
maneuver that had saved them from death when they had first entered this
insect hell.

For the enormous, smashing jaws had caught the body of the worker
termite with ferocious eagerness, and were worrying the inanimate
carcass with terrible force.

The great jaws were occupied just an instant before the monster sensed
that it was one of his own kind that he was mangling so thoroughly. But
in that instant Jim had slid on his chest along the floor past the
armored head and shoulders, and Dennis had leaped to follow.

But Dennis was not to get off so lightly.

* * * * *

The charging ring of termites had closed completely in by now. The
snapping mandibles of the nearest one were up to him. They opened; shut.

They caught Denny on the back swing, knocking him six feet away instead
of slicing him wide open. Denny got to his feet almost before he had
landed; but between him and the exit was the bulk of the termite that
had felled him, and in the doorway the guard had dropped the body it was
slashing to bits, and had recommenced its slashing jaw movements.

"Jim! For God's sake...." shrieked the doomed man.

Beside himself, he managed to hurdle clear over the massive insect
between him and the doorway. But there he stopped, with the guard's
great mandibles fanning the air less than a foot from him. "Jim!" came
the agonized cry again.

And behind the gigantic termite, in the tunnel, with at least a
possibility of safety lying open before him, Jim heard and answered the
call.

Savagely he plunged his spear into the unarmored rear of the guard, tore
it out, thrust again....

The thing heaved and struggled to turn, shaking the tunnel with its
rasping anger--and taking its attention at last away from the duty of
closing that tunnel mouth.

With no room to run and slide, Denny fell to the floor and commenced to
creep through the narrow space between the trampling guard's bulk and
the wall. He felt his left arm and shoulder go numb as he was crushed
for a fleeting instant against the wood partition. Broken, he thought
dimly. The collar-bone. But still he kept moving on.

* * * * *

He moved in a haze of pain and weakness. He did not see that he had
passed clear of the menacing hulk--that his slow crawling had been
multiplied in results by the fact that the termite guard had finally,
stopped trying to turn in the narrow passage and had rushed ahead into
the Queen's chamber, to turn there and come dashing back. He did not see
that Jim was finally disarmed and completely helpless, with his spear
buried beyond recovery in the bulk of the maddened guard. He hardly felt
Jim's supporting arm as it was thrust under him, to half drag and half
lead him along the tunnel away from the horde behind.

He only knew that they were moving forward, with the din behind them--as
the grim cohorts of the Queen fought to all crowd ahead in the narrow
passage at once--keeping pace with them in spite of all they could do to
make haste. And he only knew that finally Jim gave a great shout, and
that suddenly they were standing under a rent in a tunnel roof through
which sunlight was pouring.

Several worker termites were laboring to close up the chink and cut off
the sunlight; but these, not being of the band outraged by the
destruction of the egg in the Queen's chamber, moved swiftly away as the
two men advanced.

Jim reached up and tore with frantic hands at the crumbling edges of the
rotten wood overhead. Ignoring his gashed and bleeding fingers, he
widened the breach till he, could pull himself up through it. Then he
reached down, caught Denny's sound arm, and raised him by main strength.

They were in the clear air of the outer world once more, on a terrace in
the mound low down near its base.

Jim and Dennis half slid, half fell down the near terrace slope to the
jungle of grass stalks beneath. And there Denny bit his lip sharply,
struggled against the weakness overcoming him--and fainted.

* * * * *

Jim caught him up over his shoulder, and staggered forward through the
jungle. Behind, the termites poured out through the broken wall in an
enraged flood, braving even the sunlight and outer air in their chase of
the invaders that had, profaned the Queen's chamber.

"Matt!" shouted Jim with all the strength of his lungs, forgetting that
his voice could not be heard by normal human ears. "Matt!"

But if Matthew Breen could not hear, he could see. The slightest
inattention at his guard duty at that second would have resulted in two
deaths. But he was on the alert.

Jim saw the sun blotted out swiftly, saw a huge, pinkish-gray wall swoop
down between him and Denny, and the deadly horde of termites pursuing
them. Then he saw another pinkish-gray wall, in which was set
something--a shallow, regular, hollowed plateau--that looked familiar.
The patty-dish in which he and Denny had been carried to this place of
death and horror.

Jim knew he could not clamber into that great plateau; he was too
exhausted. But the necessity was spared him.

The patty-dish scooped down under him, uprooting huge trees, digging up
square yards of earth all around him. He was flung from his feet to roll
helplessly beside the unconscious Dennis, as men and earth and all were
shifted from the dish's rim to its center.

Like gigantic express elevator the dish soared dizzily up in the
tremendous hand that held it, over the vast pile of the mound city, over
all the surrounding landscape, and was borne back toward Matt's
automobile--and toward the laboratory where the bulk of their bodies
waited, in protoplasmic form, in the dome of the glass bell.





Next: Back To Normal

Previous: The Cannibalistic Orgy



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