The Cannibalistic Orgy
: The Raid On The Termites
At first Jim and Dennis could only comprehend the numbers of the
foe--could only grip their bars and resolve to die as expensively as
possible. But then, as a few seconds elapsed during which they were
amazingly not charged by the insects, they began to notice the actions
of the things.
They were swarming so thickly about the spot where their leader had
fallen that all the men could see was their struggli
g bodies. And the
movements of these soldiers were puzzling in the extreme.
The things seemed, of a sudden, to be fighting among themselves! At any
rate, they were not hurrying to attack the unique, two-legged bugs by
the deflated acid bag.
Instead, they seemed to be having a monstrous attack of colic as they
rolled about their vanquished monarch. With their antennae weaving
wildly, and their deadly jaws crashing open and shut along the floor,
they were fairly wallowing about that section. And the crowding ring of
soldiers surrounding the wallowers were fighting like mad things to
shove them out of place.
Over each other they struggled and rolled, those on the top and sides of
the solid mass pressing to get in and down. In stark astonishment, the
two men watched the inexplicable conflict--and wondered why they had not
already been rushed and sliced to pieces by the steely, ten-foot
In Dennis' mind, as he watched, wide-eyed, the crazy battle of the
monsters around the spot, a memory struggled to be recognized. He had
seen something vaguely like this before, on the upper earth, what was
Abruptly he remembered what it was. And with the recollection--and all
the possibilities of deliverance it suggested--he shouted aloud and
clutched Jim's arm with trembling fingers.
* * * * *
That scene of carnage suggested to his mind the day he had seen a cloud
of vultures fighting over the carcass of a horse in the desert. The mad
pushing, the slashing and rending of each other as all fought for the
choice morsels of dead flesh! It was identical.
The termites, he knew, were deliberately cannibalistic. A race so
efficiently run, so ingenious in letting nothing of possible value go to
waste, would almost inevitably be trained to consume the bodies of dead
fellow beings. And now--now ...
The gruesome monarch, that thing of monstrous brain and almost
nonexistent body, was no longer the monarch. It was either dead, or
utterly helpless. In that moment of death or helplessness--was it being
fallen upon and eaten by the horde of savage things it normally ruled?
Did the termite hordes make a practice of devouring their helpless and
worn-out directing brains as it was known they devoured all their
worn-out, no longer potent queens?
It certainly looked as if that was what the leaderless horde of soldiers
was doing here! Or, at any rate, trying to do; accustomed to being fed
by the workers, with mandibles too huge to permit of normal
self-feeding, they would probably be able to hardly more than strain
clumsily after the choice mass beneath them and absorb it in morsels so
small as to be more a source of baffled madness than of satisfaction.
Which latter conjecture seemed certainly to support the theory that the
soldier termites were not trying to help their fallen monarch, but were
trampling and slashing it to death in an effort to devour it!
"Quick!" snapped Denny, realizing that it was a chance that must not be
overlooked; that even if he were wrong, they might as well die trying to
get to the doorway as be crushed to death where they stood. "Run to the
"Through that nightmare army?" said Jim, astounded. "Why, we haven't a
chance of making it!"
"Come, I say!" Denny dragged him a few feet by main force. "I hope--I
believe--we won't be bothered. If a pair of jaws crushes us, it will
probably be by accident and not design--the brutes are too busy to
bother about us now."
Still gazing at Denny as though he thought him insane, Jim tarried no
longer. He began to edge his way, by Denny's side, toward the distant
* * * * *
In a very few feet Denny's theory was proved right. None of the gigantic
insects tried to attack them. But even so that journey to the exit, a
distance of more than the length of a football field, was a ghastly
On all sides the giant, armored bodies rushed and shoved. The clash of
horn breastplates against armored legs, of mandibles and granitic heads
against others of their kind, was ear-splitting. The monsters, in their
effort to indulge the cannibalistic instinct--at once so horrible to the
two humans, and so fortunate for them--were completely heedless of their
own welfare and everything else.
Like giant ice cakes careening in the break-up of a flood, they crunched
against each other; and like loose ice cakes in a flood, every now and
then one was forced clear up off its feet by the surrounding rush, to
fall back to the floor a moment later with a resounding crash.
It would seem an impossibility for any two living things as relatively
weak and soft as men to find a way through such a maelstrom. Yet--Jim
and Denny did.
Several times one or the other was knocked down by a charging, blind
monster. Once Denny was almost caught and crushed between two of the
rock-hard things. Once Jim only saved himself from a pair of terrific,
snapping jaws that rushed his way, by using his short spear as a pole
and vaulting up and over them onto the monster's back, where he was
allowed to slide off unheeded as the maddened thing continued in its
rush. But they reached the door!
There they gazed fearfully down the corridor, sure there would be
hundreds more of the soldiers crowding to answer the last call of their
ruling, master mind. But only a few stragglers were to be seen, and
these, called to the grim feast by some sort of instinct or perhaps some
sense of smell, rushed past with as little attempt to attack them as the
The two men ran down the tunnel, turned a corner into an ascending
tunnel they remembered from their trip in, raced up this, hearts
pounding wildly with the growing hope of actually escaping from the
mound with their lives--and then halted. Jim cursed bitterly,
* * * * *
Branching off from this second tunnel, all looking exactly alike and all
identical in the degree of their upward slant, were five more tunnels!
Like spokes of a wheel, they radiated out and up; and no man could have
told which to take. They stopped, in despair, as this phase of their
situation, unthought of till now, was brought home to them.
"God! The place is a labyrinth! How can we ever find, our way out?"
"All we can do is keep going on--and up," said Denny, with a shake of
At random, they picked the center of the five underground passages, and
walked swiftly along it. And now they began to come in contact again
with the normal life of the vast mound city.
Here soldiers were patrolling up and down with seeming aimlessness,
while near-by workers labored at shoring up collapsing sections of
tunnel wall, or at carrying staggering large loads of food from one
unknown place to another. But now there seemed to be a certain lack of
system, of coordination, in the movements of the termites.
"Damned funny these soldiers aren't joining in the rush with the rest to
get to the laboratory in answer to the command of the ruler," said Jim,
warily watching lest one of the gigantic guards end the queer truce and
rush them. "And look at the way the workers move--just running aimlessly
back and forth with their loads. I don't get it."
* * * * *
"I think I do," said Denny. He pitched his voice low, and signed for Jim
to walk more slowly, on tiptoe. "These soldiers aren't with the rest
because only a certain number was called. It's simple mathematics: if
all the soldiers in the mound tried to get in that room back there where
the ruler was, they'd get jammed immovably in the tunnels near-by. The
king-termite, with all the astounding reasoning power it must have had,
called only as many as could crowd in, in order to avoid a jam in which
half the soldiers in the city might be killed.
"As for the aimless way the workers are moving--you forget they haven't
a leader any more. They are working by habit and instinct only, carrying
burdens, building new wall sections, according to blind custom alone,
and regardless of whether the carrying and building are necessary."
"In that case," sighed Jim, "we'd have a good chance to getting out of
here--if we could only find the path!"
"I'm sure we can find the path, and I'm sure we can get out," said Denny
confidently. "For in a mound of this size there must be many paths
leading to the upper world, and there is no reason--with the omnipotent
ruling brain dead and eaten--why any of these creatures should try to
stop or fight us."
Which was good logic--but which left entirely out of consideration that
one factor which man so often forgets but is still inevitably governed
by: the unpredictable whims of fate. For on their way out they were to
blunder into the one place in all the mound which was--death or no death
of the ruling power--absolutely deadly to them; and were to arouse the
terrible race about them to frenzies that were based, not on any
reasoned thought processes, or which in any case they were of themselves
incapable, but on the more grim and fanatic foundations of unreasoned,
primal, outraged instinct.