THE man came out on the front porch and examined the day. Bright and cold -- with dew on the lawns. He buttoned his coat and put his hands in his pockets.
As the man started down the steps the two caterpillars waiting by the mailbox twitched with interest.
"There he goes," the first one said. "Send in your report."
As the other began to rotate his vanes the man stopped, turning quickly.
"I heard that," he said. He brought his foot down against the wall, scraping the caterpillars off, onto the concrete. He crushed them.
Then he hurried down the path to the sidewalk. As he walked he looked around him. In the cherry tree a bird was hopping, pecking bright-eyed at the cherries. The man studied him. All right? Or-- The bird flew off. Birds all right. No harm from them.
He went on. At the corner he brushed against a spider web, crossed from the bushes to the telephone pole. His heart pounded. He tore away, batting the air. As he went on he glanced over his shoulder. The spider was coming slowly down the bush, feeling out the damage to his web.
Hard to tell about spiders. Difficult to figure out. More facts needed -- No contact, yet.
He waited at the bus stop, stomping his feet to keep them warm.
The bus came and he boarded it, feeling a sudden pleasure as he took his seat with all the warm, silent people, staring indifferently ahead. A vague flow of security poured through him.
He grinned, and relaxed, the first time in days.
The bus went down the street.
Tirmus waved his antennae excitedly.
"Vote, then, if you want." He hurried past them, up onto the mound. "But let me say what I said yesterday, before you start."
"We already know it all," Lala said impatiently. "Let's get moving. We have the plans worked out. What's holding us up?"
"More reason for me to speak." Tirmus gazed around at the assembled gods. "The entire Hill is ready to march against the giant in question. Why? We know he can't communicate to his fellows -- It's out of the question. The type of vibration, the language they use, makes it impossible to convey such ideas as he holds about us, about our --"
"Nonsense." Lala stepped up. "Giants communicate well enough."
"There is no record of a giant having made known information about us!"
The army moved restlessly.
"Go ahead," Tirmus said. "But it's a waste of effort. He's harmless -- cut off. Why take all the time and --"
"Harmless?" Lala stared at him. "Don't you understand? He knows!"
Tirmus walked away from the mound. "I'm against unnecessary violence. We should save our strength. Someday we'll need it."
The vote was taken. As expected, the army was in favor of moving against the giant. Tirmus sighed and began stroking out the plans on the ground.
"This is the location that he takes. He can be expected to appear there at period-end. Now, as I see the situation --"
He went on, laying out the plans in the soft soil.
One of the gods leaned toward another, antennae touching. "This giant. He doesn't stand a chance. In a way, I feel sorry for him. How'd he happen to butt in?"
"Accident." The other grinned. "You know, the way they do, barging around."
"It's too bad for him, though."
It was nightfall. The street was dark and deserted. Along the sidewalk the man came, newspaper under his arm. He walked quickly, glancing around him. He skirted around the big tree growing by the curb and leaped agilely into the street. He crossed the street and gained the opposite side. As he turned the corner he entered the web, sewn from bush to telephone pole. Automatically he fought it, brushing it off him. As the strands broke a thin humming came to him, metallic and wiry.
"...careful... inside... wait..."
His jaw set. The last strands broke in his hands and he walked on. Behind him the spider moved in the fragment of his web, watching. The man looked back.
"Nuts to you," he said. "I'm not taking any chances, standing there all tied up."
He went on, along the sidewalk, to his path. He skipped up the path, avoiding the darkening bushes. On the porch he found his key, fitting it into the lock.
He paused. Inside? Better than outside, especially at night. Night a bad time. Too much movement under the bushes. Not good. He opened the door and stepped inside. The rug lay ahead of him, a pool of blackness. Across on the other side he made out the form of the lamp.
Four steps to the lamp. His foot came up. He stopped.
What did the spider say? Wait? He waited, listening. Silence.
He took his cigarette lighter and flicked it on.
The carpet of ants swelled toward him, rising up in a flood. He leaped aside, out onto the porch. The ants came rushing, hurrying, scratching across the floor in the half light.
The man jumped down to the ground and around the side of the house. When the first ants came flowing over the porch he was already spinning the faucet handle rapidly, gathering up the hose.
The burst of water lifted the ants up and scattered them, flinging them away. The man adjusted the nozzle, squinting through the mist. He advanced, turning the hard stream from side to side.
"God damn you," he said, his teeth locked. "Waiting inside --"
He was frightened. Inside -- never before! In the night cold sweat came out on his face. Inside. They had never got inside before. Maybe a moth or two, and flies, of course. But they were harmless, fluttery, noisy --
A carpet of ants!
Savagely, he sprayed them until they broke rank and fled into the lawn, into the bushes, under the house.
He sat down on the walk, holding the hose, trembling from head to foot.
They really meant it. Not an anger raid, annoyed, spasmodic; but planned, an attack, worked out. They had waited for him. One more step.
Thank God for the spider.
Presently he shut the hose off and stood up. No sound; silence everywhere. The bushes rustled suddenly. Beetle? Something black scurried -- he put his foot on it. A messenger, probably. Fast runner. He went gingerly inside the dark house, feeling his way by the cigarette lighter.
Later, he sat at his desk, the spray gun beside him, heavy-duty steel and copper. He touched its damp surface with his fingers.
Seven o'clock. Behind him the radio played softly. He reached over and moved the desk lamp so that it shone on the floor beside the desk.
He lit a cigarette and took some writing paper and his fountain pen. He paused, thinking.
So they really wanted him, badly enough to plan it out. Bleak despair descended over him like a torrent. What could he do? Whom could he go to? Or tell. He clenched his fists, sitting bolt upright in the chair.
The spider slid down beside him onto the desk top. "Sorry. Hope you aren't frightened, as in the poem."
The man stared. "Are you the same one? The one at the corner? The one who warned me?"
"No. That's somebody else. A Spinner. I'm strictly a Cruncher. Look at my jaws." He opened and shut his mouth. "I bite them up."
The man smiled. "Good for you."
"Sure. Do you know how many there are of us in -- say -- an acre of land. Guess."
"No. Two and a half million: Of all kinds. Crunchers, like me, or Spinners, or Stingers."
"The best. Let's see." The spider thought. "For instance, the black widow, as you call her. Very valuable." He paused. "Just one thing."
"We have our problems. The gods --"
"Ants, as you call them. The leaders. They're beyond us. Very unfortunate. They have an awful taste -- makes one sick. We have to leave them for the birds."
The man stood up. "Birds? Are they --"
"Well, we have an arrangement. This has been going on for ages. I'll give you the story. We have some time left."
The man's heart contracted. "Time left? What do you mean?"
"Nothing. A little trouble later on, I understand. Let me give you the background. I don't think you know it."
"Go ahead. I'm listening." He stood up and began to walk back and forth.
"They were running the Earth pretty well, about a billion years ago. You see, men came from some other planet. Which one? I don't know. They landed and found the Earth quite well cultivated by them. There was a war."
"So we're the invaders," the man murmured.
"Sure. The war reduced both sides to barbarism, them and yourselves. You forgot how to attack, and they degenerated into closed social factions, ants, termites --"
"The last group of you that knew the full story started us going. We were bred" -- the spider chuckled in its own fashion -- "bred some place for this
worthwhile purpose. We keep them down very well. You know what they call us? The Eaters. Unpleasant, isn't it?"
Two more spiders came drifting down on their webstrands, alighting on the desk. The three spiders went into a huddle.
"More serious than I thought," the Cruncher said easily. "Didn't know the whole dope. The Stinger here --"
The black widow came to the edge of the desk. "Giant," she piped, metallically. "I'd like to talk with you."
"Go ahead," the man said.
"There's going to be some trouble here. They're moving, coming here, a lot of them. We thought we'd stay with you awhile. Get in on it."
"I see." The man nodded. He licked his lips, running his fingers shakily through his hair. "Do you think -- that is, what are the chances --"
"Chances?" The Stinger undulated thoughtfully. "Well, we've been in this work a long time. Almost a million years. I think that we have the edge over them, in spite of the drawbacks. Our arrangements with the birds, and of course, with the toads --"
"I think we can save you," the Cruncher put in cheerfully. "As a matter of fact, we look forward to events like this."
From under the floorboards came a distant scratching sound, the noise of a multitude of tiny claws and wings, vibrating faintly, remotely. The man heard. His body sagged all over.
"You're really certain? You think you can do it?" He wiped the perspiration from his lips and picked up the spray gun, still listening.
The sound was growing, swelling beneath them, under the floor, under their feet. Outside the house bushes rustled and a few moths flew up against the window. Louder and louder the sound grew, beyond and below, everywhere, a rising hum of anger and determination. The man looked from side to side.
"You're sure you can do it?" he murmured. "You can really save me?"
"Oh," the Stinger said, embarrassed. "I didn't mean that. I meant the species, the race... not you as an individual."
The man gaped at him and the three Eaters shifted uneasily. More moths burst against the window. Under them the floor stirred and heaved.
"I see," the man said. "I'm sorry I misunderstood you."