The Golden Age Of Science Fiction Vol X Part 81

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He peered between two cream-colored toadstool stalks and saw the cause of the noise. A wide, funnel-shaped snare of silk was spread before him, 20 yards across and equally deep. Individual threads were plainly visible, but in the ma.s.s it seemed a fabric of sheerest, finest texture. Supported by tall mushrooms, it was anch.o.r.ed to the ground below, and drew away to a tiny point through which a hole led to some unknown recess. And all the s.p.a.ce of the wide snare was hung with threads, fine, twisted threads no more than half the thickness of Burl's finger.

This was the trap of a labyrinth spider. Not one of the interlacing threads was strong enough to hold the feeblest prey, but they numbered in the thousands. A great cricket had become entangled in the maze of sticky lines. Its limbs thrashed out, smas.h.i.+ng the snare lines at every stroke, but at every stroke meeting and becoming entangled with a dozen more. It struggled mightily, emitting at intervals its horrible, deep ba.s.s cry.

Burl watched, fascinated. Most insects have their allotted victims and touch no others. These posed no threat to him, so Burl had little interest in them. But spiders are terrifyingly impartial. A spider devouring some luckless insect was an example of what might happen to Burl.

The opening at the rear of the funnel-shaped snare darkened. The snare drew itself into a tunnel there, in which the spider had waited and watched. Now it swung out lightly, advancing toward the cricket. It was a gray spider (Agelena labyrinthica), with twin black ribbons on its thorax, aside the head, and two stripes of speckled brown and white on its abdomen. Burl also saw two curious appendages like tails.

The cricket struggled only feebly now, its cries muted by the confining threads fettering its limbs. Burl saw the spider throw itself at the cricket and witnessed the final, convulsive shudder of the insect as the spider's fangs pierced its tough armor. The sting lasted a long time, and finally Burl realized the spider was feeding, sucking the succulent juices from the now dead cricket. When at last the carca.s.s was drained, the spider pawed the lifeless creature for a few moments and left it.



A sudden thought came to Burl and took his breath away. For a second his knees knocked together in self-induced panic. He watched the gray spider carefully with growing determination. He, Burl, had killed a hunting spider at the red-clay cliff. True, the killing had been accidental, and had nearly cost him his own life, but he had killed a spider of the most deadly kind.

Now great ambition grew in Burl's heart. His tribe had always feared spiders too much to study their habits, but they knew a few things. The most important: snare spiders never left their lairs to hunt--never! Burl hoped to make daring application of that knowledge.

He drew back from the white, s.h.i.+ning snare and crept softly to the rear. The fabric gathered itself into a point and continued 20 feet as a tunnel, in which the spider would dream of its last meal and await its next victim. Burl made his way to a point where the tunnel was just 10 feet away. Soon, through the threads of the tunnel, he saw the thick gray bulk of the spider return to its resting place.

Burl's hair stood on end from sheer fright, but he was slave to an idea. He drew near and aimed his deadly, pointed spear at the bulge in the tunnel where the spider lay. He thrust it home with all his strength--and ran away at top speed, gla.s.sy-eyed from terror.

Much later he ventured near again, heart still in his mouth, ready to flee at the slightest sound. All was still. Burl had missed the horrible convulsions of the wounded spider, had not heard the frightful gnas.h.i.+ngs of its fangs against the piercing weapon, had not seen the silken threads of the tunnel ripped as the mortally wounded spider struggled madly to free itself.

He came back beneath the overshadowing toadstools, quietly and cautiously, to find a great rent in the silken tunnel, and the great gray bulk lifeless and still, half-fallen through the opening the spear had made. A little puddle of evil-smelling liquid lay on the ground below, and from time to time a droplet dripped from the spear into the puddle with a splash.

Burl looked at what he had done, saw the dead body of the creature he had slain, saw the ferocious mandibles and keen, deadly fangs. The creature's dead eyes stared at him malignantly, and the hairy legs remained braced as if further to enlarge the gaping hole through which it had partly fallen.

Exultation filled Burl's heart. His tribe had been furtive vermin for thousands of years, hiding or fleeing from mighty insects, and, if overtaken, screaming shrilly in terror while helplessly awaiting death.

Burl had turned the tables. He had slain an enemy of his tribe. His breast expanded. Always his tribesmen went quietly and fearfully, but a sudden exultant yell burst from Burl's lips--the first hunting cry from the lips of a man in 300 centuries!

The next second his pulse nearly stopped in sheer panic at having made such a noise. He listened apprehensively but there was no sound. He approached his prey and carefully withdrew his spear. The viscid liquid made it slimy and slippery; he wiped it dry against a leathery toadstool. Then Burl had to conquer his illogical fear again before daring to touch the creature he had slain.

He moved off presently, with the belly of the spider on his back and two hairy legs over his shoulders. The other limbs hung limp, trailing on the ground. Burl was now a still more curious sight wrapped in a s.h.i.+ning cloak of iridescent colors, wearing a headdress of golden antennae, and hauling the hideous bulk of a gray spider.

He moved through the mushroom forest, and, because of the thing he carried, all creatures fled before him. They did not fear man--their instinct was slow-moving--but during all the millions of years that insects have existed, spiders have preyed on them.

Burl heard loud humming and buzzing as he topped a rise opening onto a valley of torn and blackened mushrooms. He stopped and looked down.

There was not a single yellow top among the mushrooms. Each was infected with tiny maggots which had liquefied the tough meat of the mushroom and caused it to drip to the ground below. The liquid had gathered at the center of the depression to form a golden-red lake. And all about its edges, in ranks and rows, by thousands, by millions, were ranged the green-gold, s.h.i.+ning bodies of great flies.

They were small, compared to other insects. Their increase in size had been limited due to an imperative necessity of their race.

The flesh flies laid their eggs by hundreds in decaying carca.s.ses. The others laid their eggs by hundreds in mushrooms. To feed the maggots that would hatch, a relatively great quant.i.ty of food was needed, therefore the flies must remain small, or the body of a single gra.s.shopper, say, would furnish food for but two or three grubs instead of the hundreds it must support.

Burl stared down at the golden pool. Bluebottles, greenbottles, and all flies of metallic l.u.s.ter gathered at the Lucullan feast of corruption. Their buzzing as they darted above the odorous pool of golden liquid made the sound Burl had heard. Their bodies flashed and glittered as they darted about, seeking a place to alight and join the orgy.

Those which cl.u.s.tered at the banks of the pool were still as if carved from metal. Their huge, red eyes glowed, and their bodies shone with obscene fatness. Flies are the most disgusting of all insects. Burl watched them, watched the interlacing streams of light as they buzzed eagerly above the pool, seeking a place at the festive board.

A drumming roar sounded. A golden speck appeared in the sky, a slender, needlelike body with transparent, s.h.i.+ning wings and two huge eyes. It grew nearer and became a dragonfly 20 feet long, its body s.h.i.+mmering, purest gold. It poised above the pool, then darted down. Its jaws snapped viciously and repeatedly; each time the glittering body of a fly vanished.

A second dragonfly appeared, its body a vivid purple, and a third. They swooped and rushed above the golden pool, snapping in midair, making abrupt, angular turns, creatures of incredible ferocity and beauty. At the moment they were nothing more nor less than slaughtering machines. Their multifaceted eyes burned with bloodl.u.s.t. In that ma.s.s of buzzing flies even the most voracious appet.i.te must be sated, but the dragonflies kept on. Slender, graceful creatures, they dashed here and there above the pond like the mythical dragons for which they had been named.

A few miles farther on Burl recognized a familiar landmark. He knew it well, but always from a safe distance. A ma.s.s of rock had heaved itself up from the nearly level plain he was traversing, and formed an outjutting cliff. At one point the rock overhung a sheer drop, making an inverted ledge--a roof over nothingness--which a hairy creature had transformed into a fairylike dwelling. A white hemisphere clung tenaciously to the rock above, and long cables anch.o.r.ed it firmly.

A Clotho spider (Clotho Durandi, LATR) had built a nest there, from which it emerged to hunt the unwary. Within that half-globe was a monster, resting on a cus.h.i.+on of softest silk. If one went too near, one of the little inverted arches, seemingly firmly closed by a wall of silk, would open and a creature out of a dream of h.e.l.l emerge, to run with fiendish agility toward its prey.

Yes, Burl knew the place. Hung on the outer walls of the silken palace were stones and tiny boulders, discarded fragments of former meals, and gutted armor from limbs of ancient prey. And most terrible was another decoration that dangled from the castle of this insect ogre: the shrunken, desiccated figure of a man, all juices extracted, life gone.

That man's death had saved Burl's life two years before. They had been together, seeking edible mushrooms. The Clotho spider sprang suddenly from behind a great puffball, and the two men froze in terror. It came swiftly forward and chose its victim. Burl had escaped when the other man was seized. Now he looked meditatively at the hiding place of his ancient enemy. Someday-- But now he pa.s.sed on. He pa.s.sed the thicket in which great moths hid during the day, and the turgid pool of slime and yeast where a monster water snake lurked. He penetrated the little wood of s.h.i.+ning mushrooms that produced light at night, and the shadowed place where truffle-hunting beetles went chirping thunderously at dark hours.

Then Burl saw Saya, a flash of pink skin vanis.h.i.+ng behind the thick stalk of a squat toadstool. He ran forward, calling her name. She appeared, and saw the figure with the horrible bulk of the spider on its back. Horrified, she cried out, and Burl understood. He dropped his burden, then went swiftly toward her.

They met. Saya waited timidly until she saw who this man was, and astonishment filled her face. Gorgeously attired, in an iridescent cloak from the whole wing of a great moth, with a strip of softest fur from a night-flying creature about his middle, with golden feathery antennae bound on his forehead, and a fierce spear in his hands--this was not the Burl she knew.

But he moved slowly toward her, filled with fierce delight at seeing her again, thrilling with joy at her slender gracefulness and the dark richness of her tangled hair. He held out his hands and touched her shyly. Then, manlike, he babbled excitedly of his adventures, and dragged her toward his great victim, the gray-bellied spider.

Saya trembled when she saw the furry bulk lying on the ground, and almost fled when Burl advanced and took it on his back. But something of the pride that filled him came vicariously to her. She smiled a flas.h.i.+ng smile, and Burl stopped short in his explanation, tongue-tied. His eyes became pleading and soft. He laid the huge spider at her feet and spread out his hands imploringly.

30,000 years of savagery had not lessened Saya's femininity. She became aware that Burl was her slave, that these wonderful things he wore and had done meant nothing if she did not approve. She drew away--saw the misery in Burl's face--and abruptly ran into his arms and clung to him, laughing happily. And suddenly Burl understood that all these things he had done, even the slaying of a great spider, were of no importance whatever beside this most wonderful thing that had just happened, and told Saya so quite humbly, but holding her very close to him as he did.

And so Burl came back to his tribe. He had left nearly naked, with but a wisp of moth wing twisted about his middle, a timid, fearful, trembling creature. He returned triumphantly, walking slowly, fearlessly down a broad lane of golden mushrooms toward the hiding place of his people.

On his shoulders was draped a great and many-colored cloak made from the whole of a moth's wing. Soft fur was about his middle. A spear was in his hand, a fierce club at his waist. He and Saya bore between them the dead body of a huge spider--aforetime the dread of the pink-skinned, naked men. But to Burl the most important thing of all was that Saya walked beside him openly, acknowledging him before all the tribe.

THE THIEF OF TIME.

By S. P. Meek

"That man never entered and stole that money as the picture shows, unless he managed to make himself invisible."

Harvey Winston, paying teller of the First National Bank of Chicago, stripped the band from a bundle of twenty dollar bills, counted out seventeen of them and added them to the pile on the counter before him.

The teller turned to the stacked pile of bills. They were gone! And no one had been near!

"Twelve hundred and thirty-one tens," he read from the payroll change slip before him. The paymaster of the Cramer Packing Company nodded an a.s.sent and Winston turned to the stacked bills in his rear currency rack. He picked up a handful of bundles and turned back to the grill. His gaze swept the counter where, a moment before, he had stacked the twenties, and his jaw dropped.

"You got those twenties, Mr. Trier?" he asked.

"Got them? Of course not, how could I?" replied the paymaster. "There they are...."

His voice trailed off into nothingness as he looked at the empty counter.

"I must have dropped them," said Winston as he turned. He glanced back at the rear rack where his main stock of currency was piled. He stood paralyzed for a moment and then reached under the counter and pushed a b.u.t.ton.

The bank resounded instantly to the clangor of gongs and huge steel grills shot into place with a clang, sealing all doors and preventing anyone from entering or leaving the bank. The guards sprang to their stations with drawn weapons and from the inner offices the bank officials came swarming out. The cas.h.i.+er, followed by two men, hurried to the paying teller's cage.

"What is it, Mr. Winston?" he cried.

"I've been robbed!" gasped the teller.

"Who by? How?" demanded the cas.h.i.+er.

"I-I don't know, sir," stammered the teller. "I was counting out Mr. Trier's payroll, and after I had stacked the twenties I turned to get the tens. When I turned back the twenties were gone."

"Where had they gone?" asked the cas.h.i.+er.

"I don't know, sir. Mr. Trier was as surprised as I was, and then I turned back, thinking that I had knocked them off the counter, and I saw at a glance that there was a big hole in my back racks. You can see yourself, sir."

The cas.h.i.+er turned to the paymaster.

"Is this a practical joke, Mr. Trier?" he demanded sharply.

"Of course not," replied the paymaster. "Winston's grill was closed. It still is. Granted that I might have reached the twenties he had piled up, how could I have gone through a grill and taken the rest of the missing money without his seeing me? The money disappeared almost instantly. It was there a moment before, for I noticed when Winston took the twenties from his rack that it was full."

"But someone must have taken it," said the bewildered cas.h.i.+er. "Money doesn't walk off of its own accord or vanish into thin air-"

A bell interrupted his speech.

"There are the police," he said with an air of relief. "I'll let them in."

The smaller of the two men who had followed the cas.h.i.+er from his office when the alarm had sounded stepped forward and spoke quietly. His voice was low and well pitched yet it carried a note of authority and power that held his auditors' attention while he spoke. The voice harmonized with the man. The most noticeable point about him was the inconspicuousness of his voice and manner, yet there was a glint of steel in his gray eyes that told of enormous force in him.

"I don't believe that I would let them in for a few moments, Mr. Rogers," he said. "I think that we are up against something a little different from the usual bank robbery."

"But, Mr. Carnes," protested the cas.h.i.+er, "we must call in the police in a case like this, and the sooner they take charge the better chance there will be of apprehending the thief."

"Suit yourself," replied the little man with a shrug of his shoulders. "I merely offered my advice."

"Will you take charge, Mr. Carnes?" asked the cas.h.i.+er.

"I can't supersede the local authorities in a case like this," replied Carnes. "The secret service is primarily interested in the suppression of counterfeiting and the enforcement of certain federal statutes, but I will be glad to a.s.sist the local authorities to the best of my ability, provided they desire my help. My advice to you would be to keep out the patrolmen who are demanding admittance and get in touch with the chief of police. I would ask that his best detective together with an expert finger-print photographer be sent here before anyone else is admitted. If the patrolmen are allowed to wipe their hands over Mr. Winston's counter they may destroy valuable evidence."

"You are right, Mr. Carnes," exclaimed the cas.h.i.+er. "Mr. Jervis, will you tell the police that there is no violence threatening and ask them to wait for a few minutes? I'll telephone the chief of police at once."

As the cas.h.i.+er hurried away to his telephone Carnes turned to his companion who had stood an interested, although silent spectator of the scene. His companion was a marked contrast to the secret service operator. He stood well over six feet in height, and his protruding jaw and shock of unruly black hair combined with his ma.s.sive shoulders and chest to give him the appearance of a man who labored with his hands-until one looked at them. His hands were in strange contrast to the rest of him. Long, slim, mobile hands they were, with tapering nervous fingers-the hands of a thinker or of a musician. Telltale splotches of acid told of hours spent in a laboratory, a tale that was confirmed by the almost imperceptible stoop of his shoulders.

"Do you agree with my advice, Dr. Bird?" asked Carnes deferentially.

The noted scientist, who from his laboratory in the Bureau of Standards had sent forth many new things in the realms of chemistry and physics, and who, incidentally, had been instrumental in solving some of the most baffling mysteries which the secret service had been called upon to face, grunted.

"It didn't do any harm," he said, "but it is rather a waste of time. The thief wore gloves."

"How in thunder do you know that?" demanded Carnes.

"It's merely common sense. A man who can do what he did had at least some rudiments of intelligence, and even the feeblest-minded crooks know enough to wear gloves nowadays."

Carnes stepped a little closer to the doctor.

"Another reason why I didn't want patrolmen tramping around," he said in an undertone, "is this. If Winston gave the alarm quickly enough, the thief is probably still in the building."

"He's a good many miles away by now," replied Dr. Bird with a shrug of his shoulders.

Carnes' eyes opened widely. "Why?-how?-who?" he stammered. "Have you any idea of who did it, or how it was done?"

"Possibly I have an idea," replied Dr. Bird with a cryptic smile. "My advice to you, Carnes, is to keep away from the local authorities as much as possible. I want to be present when Winston and Trier are questioned and I may possibly wish to ask a few questions myself. Use your authority that far, but no farther. Don't volunteer any information and especially don't let my name get out. We'll drop the counterfeiting case we were summoned here on for the present and look into this a little on our own hook. I will want your aid, so don't get tied up with the police."

"At that, we don't want the police crossing our trail at every turn," protested Carnes.

"They won't," promised the doctor. "They will never get any evidence on this case, if I am right, and neither will we-for the present. Our stunt is to lie low and wait for the next attempt of this nature and thus acc.u.mulate some evidence and some idea of where to look."

"Will there be another attempt?" asked Carnes.

"Surely. You don't expect a man who got away with a crime like this to quit operations just because a few flatfeet run around and make a hullabaloo about it, do you? I may be wrong in my a.s.sumption, but if I am right, the most important thing is to keep all reference to my name or position out of the press reports."

The cas.h.i.+er hastened up to them.

"Detective-Captain Sturtevant will be here in a few minutes with a photographer and some other men," he said. "Is there anything that we can do in the meantime, Mr. Carnes?"

"I would suggest that Mr. Trier and his guard and Mr. Winston go into your office," replied Carnes. "My a.s.sistant and I would like to be present during the questioning, if there are no objections."

"I didn't know that you had an a.s.sistant with you," answered the cas.h.i.+er.

Carnes indicated Dr. Bird.

"This gentleman is Mr. Berger, my a.s.sistant," he said. "Do you understand?"

"Certainly. I am sure there will be no objection to your presence, Mr. Carnes," replied the cas.h.i.+er as he led the way to his office.

A few minutes later Detective-Captain Sturtevant of the Chicago police was announced. He acknowledged the introductions gruffly and got down to business at once.

"What were the circ.u.mstances of the robbery?" he asked.

Winston told his story, Trier and the guard confirming it.

"Pretty thin!" snorted the detective when they had finished. He whirled suddenly on Winston.

"Where did you hide the loot?" he thundered.

"Why-uh-er-what do you mean?" gulped the teller.

"Just what I said," replied the detective. "Where did you hide the loot?"

The Golden Age Of Science Fiction Vol X Part 81

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