Nelretch wiped the sweat from his forehead and peered into the jungle ahead. He could not make out the mountain they were trying to skirt, as the trees were too dense. He stopped and sat on a low lying branch to rest, waving to the rest of the column. The stout, amphibious Glarns that were carrying the thin scientist's equipment put down their containers and crawled on top of them to rest.
The party had traveled a great distance already, and the diminutive scientist was really beginning to feel the heat. Here in the jungles of Quadnar V, the temperature typically rose well over 135 Gradwilligams in the middle of the seemingly endless 36 Rouckarn-long day. Nelretch turned to his databot, a tall, skinny robot of sky blue metal.
"Bot, take note: We have travelled into the heart of the valley of Gor-Tuk-Natall, deep into prime Ariticus V bred red-green tropical bi-mandibled bulldog ant territory. The thrill of the hunt is upon us-"
The horrible, gut wrenching scream interrupted Nelretch, and the timid researcher bolted to his feet clumsily. One of the Glarns had emitted the noise from farther back in the column.
"Oh my! Gurath! Gurath, what is it?" he demanded of the leader of his native party of Glarns.
"Whurrrrgghh. Ants. Here. Many," croaked the wise old amphibian in very poor Galactic Standard. The creature had two bulbous eyes atop a slug-like body, supported by six slimy, thin legs. Its carrying arms waved in expressive circles as it spoke. "Ants. Looook."
"Ooohhhhh, oooohhhh, " crowed Nelretch. "How can you tell- OW!" Nelretch exclaimed as a prime Ariticus V bred, red-green tropical bi-mandibled bulldog ant soldier sunk its three inch mandibles into the soft, pale flesh of Nelretch's left arm. This was followed in quick succession by exclamations of suprise from three or four Glarns, as five or six ants scampered out of the foliage nearby and began clambering around the containers on which the terrified Glarns now stood.
"Oh my," said Nelretch, detaching the ravenous ant from his arm with his tiny neural paralyzer. "What a fine specimen!" Nelretch took out a clear tube and dropped the paralyzed ant into it. The little scientist eyed the ant with true appreciation of its highly functional body. The ant was basically a mobile set of snapping mandibles.
Nelretch began to eye the increasing numbers of bulldog ants warily. "Bot, which of these containers has the ant repellent in it?"
"Most definitely that one," answered the databot, pointing at a container to Nelretch's left.
Nelretch took a step towards the container the bot had indicated.
The databot brought its hand to its chin. "Or that one," it added, pointing to the next container.
Nelretch paused, uncertain.
"Well, one of these containers, anyway," said the databot, moving to Nelretch's side. Nelretch twitched and shook a greenish red Ariticus V bi-mandibled bulldog ant from his foot. Meanwhile two other reddish green tropical individuals clambered onto his other foot.
"Unless we left that one back at the main camp," added the bot as an afterthought. "Of course, the stuff might not even work, anyway."
Nelretch began to feel a little uncomfortable.
"All right, everyone- " he paused to pluck two ants off of his legs, "now listen up! We need to open these containers, every one of them!" Nelretch smiled his most polite smile, and pointed to one of the containers for emphasis. He quite prided himself on his ability to get along with the aborigines of the worlds he visited.
"Wuuuurrrghhhh," wheezed a nearby glarn. "Op - ennn!"
"Yes, yes, open them all!" urged Nelretch. "That's a good fellow!"
Nelretch turned to the container nearest him. He opened the seal and rummaged around inside the box. He found three cubes of disgusting purple gel, and a spare magma funneler. "What is this sludge? Is it the insect repellent?"
"Errr, No," answered the databot. "That is Grenzarn Juice Concentrate, the number one export of this planet. The Glarns probably brought it along as food."
"Well, what's in your box?" asked Nelretch. The scientist was slightly exasperated with the databot, but he didn't let it show. That would be very unprofessional.
"My box seems to contain various instruments for analyzing ant feces. One of your experiments, you know."
Nelretch began kicking the ants gently aside. He noticed that the Glarns seemed reluctant or unable to open their boxes.
"Op....ennnn!" screamed a glarn, with the seal. Two Ariticus V bi-mandibled ants clomped onto his hindleg, and the glarn squealed, the box forgotten. It desperately shook the attackers off. The slimy covering of the Glarns was making it harder for the ants to get a good grip on them. Nelretch observed that the ants seemed to be able to scale the boxes quite easily.
"Ohhhh, I am forgetting something! We must count how many ants there are!"
"Sir?" hesitated the databot.
"Oh yes, it's really quite important. Quite. We must know how many are in this scouting party."
An ant crawled over the face mask of the databot. It plucked the ant from its face, and crushed it in its graceful metal hand.
"Bot! Really! We are here to study nature, not destroy it!" admonished Nelretch. "Now, about that repellent."
"It is not in this box either, sir," called the databot, peering into yet another container.
The Glarns had yet to successfully open a box. Two of them were beginning to looking quite miserable, as ants assailed their positions atops the crates. The amphibians were knocking the ants off with their snouts, but the ants continued to mindlessly clamber upward.
"One," said a nearby glarn.
"Yes, that's right, count them!" encouraged Nelretch. The creatures were hard to tell apart, he thought, but they really were quite bright. For amphibians anyway. Well, for amphibians with a brainpan the size of his thumb. Not bad, considering.
"One," said the glarn again.
"Oh no, do these glarn know how to count?" Nelretch asked the databot as it looked in another container. The scientist sounded alarmed for the first time.
"Me count right. Same one," said the glarn.
"Oh, yes of course, I'm sorry," said Nelretch. He was quite relieved. He opened another crate. Now he was plucking ants off as quickly as he could. The bite on his arm was oozing blood.
"Oww! These little fellows have quite a bite, ha ha!" chuckled Nelretch. "Well, I think that's sixteen for me so far." The databot thought he detected a slight quiver in the researcher's voice. "We'll have to do a statistical analysis to figure out how many we counted multiple times when we get back."
"Don't worry sir, we can always go take refuge in the river," the databot told him.
"Oh yes, of course my dear bot," said Nelretch, obviously relieved. "The river, of course. Which way was that, now?"
"Wellllll....." the databot considered. "I hadn't really thought to notice. You said that ant data was to have the primary importance on this mission."
A glarn had perked up at the mention of the river. "River. That-- way," said the creature, and indicated a direction down through the jungle.
"Of course, you must be able to smell the water!" Nelretch looked admiringly at the amphibian.
"No smell," said the glarn, looking at Nelretch askance. "Water downhill." The creature pointed.
"Oh yes, yes of course, downwards!" said Nelretch, quite embarrassed. He really hadn't meant to make such a faux pas. "I must be getting rattled, not to be thinking clearly."
Nelretch took a step in the direction indicated. His hands were working quickly to remove the bulldog ants from his torso. His legs were now a losing battle, there were simply too many ants.
"Thirty nine. Oh dear. Forty. There are so many!" Nelretch complained. "Leave the Glenzarn juice concentrate, maybe it will distract the scouts! Come on everyone, to the river!" Nelretch's voice was high and strained. The scientist's politeness was hurried now, but the Glarns didn't need any urging. They abandoned the boxes and began to crawl towards the river. The databot checked a box one last time, and moved after them, smashing several ants. "Twenty three," it muttered.
At first Nelretch retained his hope that they would quickly leave the ants behind as they moved towards the river. As the group continued downhill he realized that the ants extended much farther into the jungle around them. Every plant he brushed by seemed to deposit more ants onto him. Nelretch had collected many specimens and he had had enough of the aggressive insects.
"Bot, stop here for a moment," he commanded the databot. "Hold out your arms," he told it, and began to struggle up the robot, attempting to perch himself atop its shoulders. The robot teetered this way and that, then seemed to stabilize itself. It assisted Nelretch as he scrabbled to attain the tenuous position.
"All right bot, keep going, please," Nelretch urged from above. "Try to keep the ants off of me, would you please, databot?"
"I will do my best, sir," it responded.
For the next several minutes scientist and bot clambered through the ant filled foliage, slapping ants off of them as fast as they could. The slimy Glarns squealed and jumped under the attentions of the hungry ants. Finally Nelretch thought he heard something else over the sounds of struggle.
The roar of a waterfall was rising ahead of them.
"We are almost there, I believe, sir," the databot assured Nelretch.
"Move quickly! Move! Use your hands, dammit! Slap them off of you!!!" commanded Nelretch. The scientist was hanging on the edge of hysteria now. His sweating face had turned quite red.
"Sir, I cannot swat them all off."
"Kill them if you have to, bot! Just keep track of how many you have smashed!" Nelretch snapped.
"Four thousand five hundred ninety seven. You will have to deal with the remainder I'm afraid. There seems to be a difficulty-"
The databot tripped over a vine and hurled face down, catapulting Nelretch towards a fern.
"Arrrrrrrgghghhhhhhh!" screamed Nelretch, as he hurtled through the foliage and off the cliff concealed behind, fell through the air, down hundreds of feet into a stirring white maelstrom of water.
"Ahhh, sir?" inquired the bot from above.
Nelretch was unable to hear the databot's call, as he was sinking into a confusing, swirling doom. The scientist haltingly began to struggle upwards, and broke the surface briefly. Gasping for air, Nelretch caught a glimpse of rocky cliffsides and could see that he was being swept rapidly downstream.
Amazingly, he laughed. "Ha Ha ha ha ha ha! I am going to die! Rot in hell, databo--" and then he was sucked back under the water.
The swirling water threw Nelretch about, and just as he feared he could hold his breath no more, he surfaced in a less violent section of the river. The water was circling about in a large eddy, and Nelretch reached desperately for a rock as he passed by. His arms and legs were weak from the heat and stress, but the scientist was fighting for his life. Somehow he found the strength in his thin limbs to pull himself onto the shore. He collapsed a step away from the river, trying to recover his wits.
Nelretch noticed that he was not alone.
A tired and miserable looking glarn sat upon a rock to his left. The glarn was regarding him silently.
"Oh my, you must have made it to the river as well!" exclaimed Nelretch. "Spared by fate. Well, how many ants did you kill?"
"One," croaked the glarn. "One."
Nelretch buried his face in his hands. "We'll never know how many there were.... Ouch!"
A shooting pain brought Nelretch back to alertness. A prime bred, bi mandibled, red-green bulldog ant had attached itself to his leg.
Nelretch hit the ant as hard as he could, smashing it under his wimpy fist. "Oh! That scared me. I thought they had found us again-"
"Weeeuuuuurrrghghh!" exclaimed the glarn, as it turned and hit an oncoming soldier ant. The ant paused, stunned. Then it kept coming.
"One!" said the glarn. It kicked the ant back with its hindleg, stunning it again. "One!" counted the glarn. The amphibian spit on the stunned ant, and hit it with his snout again. The ant was still.
"Two!" exclaimed the glarn triumphantly.
Nelretch couldn't take it anymore. He was at the end of his patience. "You stupid piece of excrement!" screamed Nelretch. "You stupid, primitive lump of retarded slime! Do you think two is going to cut it?"
"Two!" said the glarn cheerfully. It thought that Nelretch was celebrating the kill. "Two!"
Then four more ants clambered out of the jungle to attack. Nelretch rolled over onto two of them, trying to find the energy to rise. Then an ant clamped onto his nose and began to savage it.
"Owww!" howled Nelretch, ripping the ant from his nose.
That gave Nelretch the strength to rise. "We must find our way back," he said, looking uncertainly up the river. "How will we find our way in this hell?"
"Village. This. Way," croaked the glarn. It indicated the direction with a slimy finger. "Not. Far."
"Alright, lead the way," Nelretch commanded.
The glarn moved slowly into the foilage, fighting ants all the way. It could hear fragments of conversation from Nelretch as it waddled along. The scientist was stomping on the ants, mumbling something about "the demon ants," and his "murderous devil-robot." The glarn didn't know that the offworlders were capable of being so mean and barbaric, or it would never have offered to carry the supplies into the jungle.
At last they came to a clearing in the undergrowth of the jungle. A small, pathetic village of glarns was nestled away in the trees. The primitive huts were placed on trees that had been slimed with sticky sap to keep the ants at bay. The inhabitants had heard Nelretch and his companion approaching, and had come out to greet the strangers.
"Now listen up you worthless, quivering amphibians! I'm in charge here!" snarled Nelretch, his fine veneer of civilization quite lost to him now. The little scientists eyes were a little too wide open, and he breathed heavily through his mouth. Spittle poured out onto his chin.
"You will do as I say, or I will have you all put to death!" he vowed. "I am going to watch you all die. I may die here in this Gra'walla'zombay forsaken jungle, but I refuse to die until I have watched all of you get eaten alive by these ants!"
The Glarns contemplated Nelretch with fear in their large, bulbous eyes.
"Now, do you have any weapons?"
"Wurrghh, we are peaceful Glarns," offered one of the amphibians.
"You don't have any tools? No clubs, spears, nets?" asked the scientist, his voice rising.
"Wrrrghh. We have grenzarn paddles," an amphibian voice offered. A glarn lifted up a flat wooden paddle, stained purple with the juice of fruit.
"Yes! Get your paddles. Arm yourselves, everyone!" The glarns hesitated, until Nelretch screamed at them, "Do you all want to die? Get your stupid paddles!"
The scientist had stripped a branch from a nearby tree to use as a club when suddenly the databot appeared in the clearing with three of the glarn natives they had hired.
"So, the murderous bot returns to finish the job," muttered Nelretch.
The databot sensed that something was different about the scientist, but he chose to ignore it. The bot could understand why Nelretch might be in a bad mood, seeing as how the expedition had gone wrong.
"I have counted sixty five thousand four hundred thirty three ants," the databot reported cheerfully.
"Never mind you," said Nelretch, dismissing his anger at the databot. "I know just how to complete our research on these killer ants!"
"What is your plan?" asked the bot.
"We'll catch the bastards off guard. We'll charge them! All out attack, that's the only way to win a war like this! Show 'em what we're made of!" Nelretch grinned insanely. He hefted his stick and smashed it down on a nearby ant.
"I thought we were here to..." the bot's voice trailed off as it realized that Nelretch was staring with a murderous glint in his eye. The bot seemed to notice the scientists primitive club for the first time. "Perhaps a day or two of rest before we resume?"
"Never! I am a... a scientist... no, a warrior! A warrior of science! It is only after these things have been killed that they can be safely studied! We are going to charge in there, and crush these things so that we can study the queen without being eaten! Then when we are done, we can clone another swarm of them so that we will not have upset the natural balance. On my signal, we attack!"
Nelretch's speech had only confused the Glarns. They shifted on their feet nervously, holding their flat fruit clubs.
"Raaaaarrrggghghhh!!!" screamed Nelretch in an uninhibited battle cry of pure savagery. The tiny scientist looked like he was trying to imitate a Jungarn beast. His ragtag group assumed that this was the signal, and they clambered forward with their insane leader.
The group waded into the ant infested jungle, swinging their weapons at the foilage to smash the ants that clambered everywhere. Several Glarns broke off the attack unseen by Nelretch, who was deep into a berserk rage. The charge of those who were left faltered as waves of ants poured forward to slow their progress. Even the databot hesitated, trying to wipe ants away from its visual sensor patch.
"Having trouble with the ants, my friend?" asked Nelretch, looking at the databot rather wild-eyed.
"Well," began the bot.
"Here, let me help you along, bot!" exclaimed the deranged Nelretch, and struck the databot in the head with his makeshift club. The bot fell off balance and landed sprawling on the ground. The moving ground, he thought, as he realized that the ants were now so thick that he hadn't even fully come into contact with the dead vegetable matter that formed the jungle floor.
"One hundred forty seven million, nine thousand three hundred forty nine," said the bot, estimating aloud.
"Die bot, die!" screamed Nelretch and landed atop the bot. He began clubbing the databot desperately, ignoring dozens of ants that were crawling all over his body, biting further into his already broken and oozing skin. "You. Must. Die!" he stated.
The databot watched disconnectedly as Nelretch raised the club over his head to strike again. A clump of ants fell onto the end of the club, putting Nelretch off balance. He collapsed into a moving carpet of ants many feet deep. The living mass absorbed Nelretch into it until the scientist was no longer visible. Even the researcher's screams were muffled by the legions of ants."Two hundred ninety four million, six hundred seventy three thousand, six hundred and thirty nine," counted the databot. "Wait till they hear about this back home!"