- Author: Paul Ernst
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A Complete NoveletteBy Paul Ernst
The Challenge of the Mound
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?"CHAPTER II
"What are we going to do to-night?" asked Jim.
Dennis looked quizzically at his big friend. Jim was pacing restlessly up and down the living room of the bachelor apartment, puffing jerkily at his eternal pipe. Dennis knew the symptoms. Though he hadn't seen Jim for over a year, he remembered his characteristics well enough.
Some men seem designed only for action. They are out of step with the modern era. They should have lived centuries ago when the world was more a place of physical, and less of purely mental, rivalry.