The Next Tenants
Arthur C. Clarke
“The number of mad scientists who wish to conquer the world,” said Harry Purvis, looking thoughtfully at his beer, “has been grossly exaggerated. In fact, I can remember encountering only a single one.”
“Then there couldn’t have been many others,” commented Bill Temple, a little acidly. “It’s not the sort of thing one would be likely to forget.”
“I suppose not,” replied Harry, with that air of irrefragable innocence which is so disconcerting to his critics. “And, as a matter of fact, this scientist wasn’t really mad. There was no doubt, though, that he was out to conquer the world. Or if you want to be really precise-to let the world be conquered.”
“And by whom?” asked George Whitley. “The Martians? Or the well-known little green men from Venus?”
“Neither of them. He was collaborating with someone a lot nearer home. You’ll realize who I mean when I tell you he was a myrmecologist.”
“A which-what?” asked George.
“Let him get on with the story,” said Drew, from the other side of the bar. “It’s past ten, and if I can’t get you all out by closing time this week, I’ll lose my license.”
“Thank you,” said Harry with dignity, handing over his glass for a refill. “This all happened about two years ago, when I was on a mission in the Pacific. It was rather hush-hush, but in view of what’s happened since there’s no harm in talking about it. Three of us scientists were landed on a certain Pacific atoll not a thousand miles from Bikini, and given a week to set up some detection equipment. it was intended, of course, to keep an eye on our good friends and allies when they started playing with thermo-nuclear reactions -to pick some crumbs from the A.E.C.‘s table, as it were. The Russians, naturally, were doing the same thing, and occasionally we ran into each other and then both sides would pretend that there was nobody here but us chickens.
“This atoll was supposed to be uninhabited, but this was a considerable error. It actually had a population of several hundred millions-”
“What!” gasped everybody.
“-several hundred millions,” continued Purvis calmly, “of which number, one was human. I came across him when I went inland one day to have a look at the scenery.”
“Inland?” asked George Whitley. “I thought you said it was an atoll. How can a ring of coral-”
“It was a very plump atoll,” said Harry firmly. “Anyway, who’s telling this story?” He waited defiantly for a moment until he had the right of way again.
“Here I was, then, walking up a charming little river-course underneath the coconut palms, when to my great surprise I came across a waterwheel-a very modem-looking one, driving a dynamo. If I’d been sensible, I suppose I’d have gone back and told my companions, but I couldn’t resist the challenge and decided to do some reconnoitering on my own.’ I remembered that there were still supposed to be Japanese troops around who didn’t know that the war was over, but that explanation seemed a bit unlikely.
“I followed the power-line up a hill, and there on the other side was a low, whitewashed building set in a large clearing. All over this clearing were tall, irregular mounds of earth, linked together with a network of wires. It was one of the most baffling sights I have ever seen, and I stood and stared for a good ten minutes, trying to decide what was going on. The longer I looked, the less sense it seemed to make.
141 was debating what to do when a tall, white-haired man came out of the building and walked over to one of the mounds. He was carrying some kind of apparatus and had a pair of earphones slung around his neck, so I guessed that he was using a Geiger counter. It was just about then that I realized what those tall mounds were. They were termitaries … the skyscrapers, in comparison to their
makers, far taller than the Empire State Building, in which the so-called white ants live.
“I watched with great interest, but complete bafflement, while the elderly scientist inserted his apparatus into the base of the termitary, listened intently for a moment, and then walked back towards the building. By this time I was so curious that I decided to make my presence known. Whatever research was going on here obviously had nothing to do with international politics, so I was the only one who’d have anything to hide. You’ll appreciate later just what a miscalculation that was.
“I yelled for attention and walked down the hill, waving my arms. The stranger halted and watched me approaching: he didn’t look particularly surprised. As I came closer I saw that he had a straggling moustache that gave him a faintly Oriental appearance. He was about sixty years old, and carried himself very erect. Though he was wearing nothing but a pair of shorts, he looked so dignified that I felt rather ashamed of my noisy approach.
“‘Good morning, I said apologetically. ‘I didn’t know that there was anyone else on this island. I’m with an-er-scientific survey party over on the other side.’
“At this, the stranger’s eyes lit up. ‘Ah,’ he said, in almost perfect English, ‘a fellow scientist! I’m very pleased to meet you. Come into the house.4
“I followed gladly enough-I was pretty hot after my scramble -and I found that the building was simply one large lab. In a comer was a bed and a couple of chairs, together with a stove and one of those folding wash-basins that campers use. That seemed to sum up the living arrangements. But everything was very neat and tidy: my unknown friend seemed to be a recluse, but he believed in keeping up appearances.
“I introduced myself first, and as I’d hoped he promptly responded. He was one Professor Takato, a biologist from a leading Japanese university. He didn’t look particularly Japanese, apart from the moustache I’ve mentioned. With his erect, dignified bearing he reminded me more of an old Kentucky colonel I once knew.
“After he’d given me some unfamiliar but refreshing Wine, we sat and talked for a couple of hours. Like most scientists he seemed happy to meet someone who would appreciate his work. It was true that my interests lay in physics and chemistry rather than on
the biological side, but I found Professor Takato’s research quite fascinating.
“I don’t suppose you know much about termites, so IT remind you of the salient facts. They’re among the most highly evolved of the social insects, and live in vast colonies throughout the tropics. They can’t stand cold weather, nor, oddly enough, can they endure direct sunlight. When they have to get from one place to another, they construct little covered roadways. They seem to have some unknown and almost instantaneous means of communication, and though the individual termites are pretty helpless and dumb, a whole colony behaves like an intelligent animal. Some writers have drawn comparisons between a termitary and a human body, which is also composed of individual living cells making up an entity much higher than the basic units. The termites are often called ‘white ants’, but that’s a completely incorrect name as they aren’t ants at all but quite a different species of insect. Or should I say ‘genus’? I’m pretty vague about this sort of thing … .
“Excuse this little lecture, but after I’d listened to Takato for a while I began to get quite enthusiastic about termites myself. Did you know, for example, that they not only cultivate gardens but also keep cows-insect cows, of course-and milk them? Yes, they’re sophisticated little devils, even though they do it all by instinct.
“But I’d better tell you something about the Professor. Although he was alone at the moment, and had lived on the island for several years, he had a number of assistants who brought equipment from Japan and helped him in his work. His first great achievement was to do for the termites what von Frische had done with bees-he’d learned their language. It was much more complex than the system of communication that bees use, which as you probably know, is based on dancing. I understood that the network of wires linking the termitaries to the lab not only enabled Professor Takato to listen to the termites talking among each other, but also permitted him to speak to them. That’s not really as fantastic as it sounds, if you use the word “speak” in its widest sense, We speak to a good many animals-not always with our voices, by any means. When you throw a stick for your dog and expect him to run and fetch it, that’s a form of speech-sign language. The Professor, I gathered, had worked out some kind of code which the termites
understood, though how efficient it was at communicating ideas I didn’t know.