Reaction of the general public and the authorities was absolutely rational, even when it led to moderate-sized towns blocking themselves off from the rest of the world as defense against a nonexistent contagion. For months it had been known that something was killing game. It was guessed to be a disease. It seemed reasonable that the “disease” might spread to domestic animals: dead pets and cattle suggested that it had. In the past, at least in the case of spotted fever, an animal disease had gone on to attack human beings. So as a matter of routine there had been research on the problem. This was wholly rational, as was the concentration of research upon disease.
By definition a Gizmo would be in the class of things like an ignis fatuus—a will-o’-the-wisp. The idea of a Gizmo was akin to the idea of a ghost or a devil or any evil spirit. Nobody seriously engaged in research on a supposed disease which might be important in animal husbandry would be apt to suspect that a spook might be more deadly than a germ.
Especially, such a thought would not occur at the beginning of real apprehension. The tragedy of the village of Serenity was not yet twenty-four hours old. The attack on Murfree was still hopeless confusion in the minds of those who had witnessed it. Migrations of animals from the forests had only recently been reported, and the death of rounded-up furry fugitives in Minnesota had happened this same day. Now the highways were dotted with wrecks: now cattle were found dead in their pastures and on the open range: now cats and dogs were found suffocated. It was perfectly sane and reasonable that newly disturbed authorities should reason as the fish and game officials had reasoned before. They looked for a plague, the more plausibly because Gizmo swarms in different localities made Gizmo-caused deaths occur in patterns strikingly like contagion from sporadic cases of infection. The reaction of people everywhere was absolutely rational.
Cursing, Lane backed the car and turned it away from the barricade outside Hot Springs. Presently he found a highway to the left, toward the east, and turned into it. He passed hills and hollows and fields and cozy farmhouses. He chose his turnings wisely, and presently he was back on Route Two-twenty on the near side of the tiny Hot Springs settlement. In the long detour he saw no sign of any unusual happening.
Beyond Hot Springs he turned in at a gas pump in the hamlet of McClurg. He had ideas, born of the barricade and the shotguns, that he should not let his fuel supply get too low.
Nobody came to attend the pump. He stopped the motor and got out of the car. There was a sign: Hens for Sale. Fresh Eggs. Vegetables. The gas pump stood in front of a dingy small store. Still nobody came to wait on him. He listened. There was a horrendous squawking of chickens somewhere behind the store. Sounds of panic among chickens do not necessarily mean anything at all, but Lane said over his shoulder: “I’m going to see what’s the matter.”
He went around to the back of the store. There was a chicken house there, of that modern variety which includes a fowl-run under its roof. This allows electric lights to delude the chickens into getting up in the middle of the night to eat an extra meal and so be inspired to lay more eggs. Behind the coarse wire of its front there was a hysterical tumult. Lane thought he caught the sound of whinings in the uproar.
He called back to the car:
“Looks bad! Get set!”
He moved forward. Chickens fluttered in a snowy confusion inside. The chicken wire bulged where they threw themselves against it. A man shouted angrily at them.
Lane jerked open the door and went in. A bald-headed man slapped hurtling, squalling chickens aside to get at one of three or four which flapped convulsively on the floor in front of the roosts. He picked up one struggling chicken. To Lane’s experienced eye it was obviously strangling. Lane shouted in his turn, but the man’s face contorted as he found himself unable to breathe,—while the chicken suddenly struggled free and flapped outside.
Lane waved his cigarette lighter. There was a flame and a horrible stench. The man gasped and stared at Lane.
“Come on out!” shouted Lane. “Come out!”
The man blinked, but the din of squawkings continued without a pause. Something bumped against his foot. A white chicken writhed on the floor, suffocating. He bent down.
Lane forestalled him. When the lighter came near the strangling chicken’s head, something caught and burned momentarily with a pale bluish fire. The chicken was instantly its insane and hysterical self again, and proved it by joining in the panic.
The man gaped; he was totally unable to accept so irrational a happening. Lane shook him, and he said some bewildered words which were lost in the confusion of noises. There were two more chickens suffocating on the floor. Lane bent to one, picked it up, held the lighter to its head—and there was a momentary flame and a chicken no longer in distress. He picked up the last and rescued it in the same fashion.
“Now come out!” snapped Lane. “It’s dangerous here! Come on!”
He pulled the bald-headed man outside.
“What—what the hell did you do?” demanded the man blankly. “What the hell’s happenin’?”
“Something’s after your chickens,” said Lane furiously, though his anger was not with the man. “It killed four of them. One of them had you! Come on, now, and let me show you how to protect yourself.”
He heard many whinings. The death-shrieks of Gizmos were evidently signals other Gizmos could hear despite, louder simultaneous sounds. Lane seized his companion by the arm.
“Come on!” he snapped. “Run!”
But the bald-headed man instinctively resisted. And then it was too late. There were awful sounds in the air all about them. Gizmos arrived, and Lane felt them touching all over his body in that dense aggregation which would drown him if it did not suffocate him. A wild fury filled him. As the bald-headed man fought crazily, his face contorted in the struggle for breath, Lane forced his arms through the fluttering resistance of the Gizmos. He put a cigarette in his mouth. When his lighter flared, flames leaped upward palely, causing screams ten feet above his head. He breathed malodors and lighted the cigarette. Then he took it in his left hand and stabbed and stabbed at the empty air.
It was not sensible. It was only partly effective. The glowing tip of the cigarette killed Gizmos, to be sure, but not fast enough. But Lane was not acting as a rational human being; he was too enraged to realize his own folly.
The professor came running.
“Dick!” she called. “I want to catch one! Let me catch one! I need a specimen for Washington.”
She waved a pillowslip and an unlit gasoline blowtorch in the sort of insanity which comes of obsessive zeal. She saw Lane as the center of separate, leaping, bluish flames. She hardly noticed the struggling, strangling bald-headed man. She dropped the blowtorch and waded into the viciously whining atmosphere about Lane. The Gizmos were dense enough to blur the sharp edges of treetrunks nearby.
“Got him!” whooped the professor.
Then Carol came running with a brazing torch. Lane picked up the gasoline burner, and he felt wrath as, holding his breath or gasping the unbreathable, he sprayed gasoline and Carol fired it, and flames leaped up and shriekings sounded while Professor Warren sturdily twisted a pillowcase in which something throbbed and made shrill noises. In the car on the far side of the store the Monster’s muted howling could be heard.
It lasted for a long, long time. It was intoxication to kill the things that had no substance until a flame touched them.
But presently the throbbing thing in the pillowcase squealed alone. The outline of trees and leaves and branches was quite unblurred. Carol took her finger off the trigger of the brazing torch, looked at Lane and swallowed audibly. Wind came from somewhere and blew away the odor of dead Gizmos. The Monster howled on. Lane took a deep breath; then he looked at the bald-headed man, who stirred only feebly.
“I’ve been pretty much of a fool,” said Lane.
He bent over the semiconscious owner of the chickens, which in their house had now regained a composure as insane as their former panic.
“We wiped out a whole swarm, Dick,” said the professor, beaming. “Not a big swarm, maybe, but we wiped them out! They can’t help coming to one of their number who’s screaming bloody murder instead of practising it! And I’ve still got my specimen!”
The bald-headed man panted and opened his eyes. They filled with fright.
“You’re all right now,” Lane told him. “When you get your breath I’ll explain what’s happened and how to keep it from happening again.”
“I had a heart attack!” gasped the man on the ground. “Get me to a doctor! I had a heart attack! Get me to a doctor!”
Lane growled. The owner of the chickens remained fanatically still, panting his own diagnosis of his condition. He couldn’t believe what he remembered, and anyhow most diseases had their publicity men in all popular advertising media: in case of a heart attack, the patient must be kept still and a doctor summoned immediately. The bald-headed man desperately demanded the approved and publicized treatment for his imagined ill.
“We’ll take him to a doctor, then,” grunted Lane after a moment. “No sense leaving him alone! This could happen again! I’ll get the car.”
He went to the front of the store. Burke was in the driver’s seat of the car, ashen with fear, racing the motor, his hands frozen on the steering wheel, and puffing agonizedly on a cigar. Every window in the car was shut tightly. On the floor of the car, the Monster howled despair past even defiance.
Burke looked at Lane with panic-filled eyes. It took long seconds to get him out of his paralysis of fear. Lane knew that if he’d really been able to move, Burke would have driven crazily away the instant he knew a multitude of Gizmos was nearby. He’d have left them, and he’d never have stopped the car until the gas gave out.
Now, Lane filled the tank with gasoline. He pushed Burke into a back seat. He drove the car painstakingly near to the bald-headed man, still flat on the ground. It occurred to him that here was a possible chance to prove the existence and characteristics of Gizmos so the facts would get on the news wires. They had a Gizmo, captive. They could call others at will. There could be a public demonstration for police and newspapermen and public health authorities somewhere. It would end with just such an attack on their audience as had taken place in Murfree. And they could end that attack as they’d ended the one on this man.
They loaded him into the car, because he pathetically insisted that he must remain absolutely quiet lest another heart attack strike him dead. In a consciously feeble voice he gave directions for finding a doctor.
Burke whimpered as the car sped along the highway and the conversation among Lane and Carol and the professor—raised above the Monster’s continuing howls—made it clear that they intended deliberately to call such an aggregation of Gizmos as had attacked Murfree and made dust clouds and murdered people in the wrecked cars they’d passed this day.
“But Mr. Lane!” Burke protested, practically wailing. “This here Gizmo in this pillowcase—right now it’s calling its friends to come help it!”
“True,” said the professor briskly. “And if they come, it will be a consummation devoutly to be wished.”
“But they could be dust storms,” wailed Burke. “God, Mr. Lane! You’re telling ’em to come after us!”
“Exactly,” said Lane, “Just as the men in that small town you’re going to organize will tell them to come-to be killed.”
He heard a chattering between the Monster’s doleful, hopeless howls. It was Burke’s teeth. But Lane entered into a professional discussion of the methods to be used when they staged a demonstration of the calling of Gizmos for destruction. Suddenly Professor Warren said apologetically: “I’m ashamed to admit it, Dick, but I want to make a hopelessly unscientific experiment. Insofar as I’m a typical scientist, I writhe. But let me make it, eh?”
“Go ahead,” said Lane. Then he saw a wreck beside the road ahead. He said, “Carol, will you help your aunt?”
The professor dived down among the wildly assorted parcels in the back of the car. She came up with the paper bag she’d filled in a grocery store in Murfree, minutes before the Gizmo attack.
“I want to try a—a ghost-repellent,” said the professor abashedly. “It might work on Gizmos.”
“Science is wonderful!” said Lane. He drove past the wreck, which Carol did not see. “Apparently it concocts things to repel even the ghosts it doesn’t believe in!”
“Nonsense!” said the professor. “This is not science; it’s superstition. But old wives among the Boers were putting bread-mould on wounds for generations before penicillin was thought of! This is a superstitious practice against ghosts and devils. I—”
She brought out a clove of garlic. Clothed as it was in its pearly skin, it was wholly inoffensive. “Ghosts,” she said defensively, “were always said to hate the smell of asafetida and garlic. People used to wear asafetida in bags around their necks, probably because it smelled even worse than garlic. I’ve got some garlic. I’m going to see if it stirs up our discontented prisoner.”
With Carol holding the neck of the pillowcase, she thrust in her hand. The captive thing throbbed and whipped about inside its prison of percale, but its whining did not change pitch.
The professor withdrew her hand, while Carol kept the prisoner fast. The professor broke the clove of garlic and rubbed it over her skin. Then she inserted the garlic-smeared hand into the bag again.
There was something like a Gizmo convulsion. The thing in the pillowslip made a noise so shrill that it was almost a whistle. It beat back and forth inside the confining cloth. It raged. It fluttered. The professor withdrew her hand and it continued to bulge and beat the cloth wall about it.
“Garlic was said to drive away devils,” observed Professor Warren with satisfaction, “because it actually drove away Gizmos. We have an item of evidence that ghosts and devils and Gizmos are alike. Do you realize, Dick, how conclusive our research becomes almost minute by minute? Now we have a complete defense against Gizmos! There’s wild garlic everywhere! If people simply smear it on themselves it will be a perfect protection! Asafetida should do as well or better! Dick, this is a great moment!”
“The revival of the use of the asafetida bag should be a great scientific triumph,” agreed Lane mildly.
The Monster screamed horror of the new noises the imprisoned, garlic-wounded Gizmo made. Carol carefully knotted the neck of the pillowcase and passed it to Burke over her shoulder. She bent down to try to comfort the dog, but he would not be comforted. The thing in the bag made noises like shrieks of rage which scared the Monster terribly.
Burke whimpered. The car rolled on. The bald-headed man moaned feebly, “Get me to a doctor. I had a heart attack…”
Then Lane looked attentively in the rear-view mirror and said: “Docs the way behind look a little bit blurry, Carol?”
Carol turned about to stare. She nodded gravely. “Yes. A swarm of them is following,” she said composedly. “They were called by our little friend, no doubt. But we can outrun them.”
Burke jerked the cigar from his mouth. Frantically, he pressed its burning end upon the pillowcase prison of the Gizmo. The cloth scorched and gave way. There was a flame and a small shriek and a vile smell.
“I—I killed it!” panted Burke. “You can’t call Gizmos into my car!”
Lane said nothing. The thing was done. There was nothing to say. He drove on. The professor compressed her lips and looked volumes at the terror-stricken Burke. Carol cranked down a window until the air inside the car was clean again. Then Lane said coldly:
“Not now,” said Carol. “I can see the blurring, but it’s stopped. It isn’t coming after us any more.”
“Then that’s that,” said Lane levelly. A little later he said: “I think this will be the doctor’s house.”
It was very near to sunset, now. Following the bald-headed man’s directions, he turned into the driveway of a doctor’s neat home set well back from the road, just where the outskirts of a small village began. The world was filled with an odd, beautiful carmine light which sometimes shows at sundown.
The professor got out of the car. Scowling, she beckoned to the bald-headed man, who was so invigorated by the nearness of medical attention that by error he got out unassisted, and then was astonished that he did not drop dead.
“Come along!” growled the professor. “Dick, you keep an eye on Burke. I’m going to see if anything at all can be done. We know how people can protect themselves, now. They’ve only to use what their great-grandfathers believed in!”
Lane nodded. The professor seized the bald-headed man’s arm and marched him toward what was obviously the office part of the building. Her manner and grip suggested marching a malefactor to jail than one taking a patient to a doctor. She vanished through the doorway, thrusting the bald-headed man before her.
Lane lighted a cigarette. Carol looked at him unhappily. Burke squirmed in the back seat. To the west, the crimson of the sky grew deeper above shadowed mountainsides.
Impulsively, Carol touched Lane’s hand.
“I know,” said Lane. “Thanks for sympathizing, but we’ll make out. Don’t worry. One Gizmo doesn’t make a dust storm, but the trouble is that we needed that one. Our difficulty isn’t a new one. Plenty of people think they’re what the Gizmos consider them—lower animals. They don’t want to think about anything but their own skins and their own stomachs and their own vanity. That’s about all a lower animal does think about. Except dogs. If humans were as intelligent and as loyal as dogs …”
He brooded. Carol watched his face. But there was nothing to be gained by upbraiding Burke. He was the way he was. Presently Carol sighed, and Lane patted her hand. He didn’t take his hand away. In the back seat, Burke was desperately anxious not to call further attention to himself. When his cigar burned short he took out another and lighted it.
The sun set. There were small twilight noises. A dog barked, a long distance away. A bird called in the lonely half-light. The car, cooling off, made small snapping sounds. A vagrant night wind, blowing over newly cut grass, brought fresh, fragrant, cool air to the car. Night fell, while Professor Warren and the bald-headed man remained in the doctor’s office.
Sunset moved across the nation. Everywhere the situation was confused; there were numerous places where no one at all had seen anything out of the ordinary. There were other places where dogs and cats and canaries lay dead, and people were perplexed and grieved. These things happened where humans lived—even in their homes.
There was still no search for an explanation; veterinary surgeons puzzled helplessly over dead farm animals which had simply stopped breathing, fought crazily, and died of suffocation. Animal husbandry departments of agricultural colleges were kept busy on telephones, explaining harassedly that the described symptoms were familiar but so far unexplained. They’d been reported in isolated cases for two or three weeks. During the past few days they’d increased markedly. Yesterday and today the animal plague—and it could be nothing but a plague—had flared up with explosive violence until it began to seem a threat to the meat and dairy industry of the nation. As a matter of precaution it was advised that the drinking of fresh milk be stopped. Many calves had died.
But nobody thought of Gizmos, because people thought rationally. And it was not rational to think of Gizmos as the cause of traffic accidents and the depopulation of Serenity, Colorado, and the plague which first drove animals out of forests in Minnesota and Maine and Georgia and Oregon, and then caused them to die in fighting convulsions.
Professor Warren had taken on a large assignment in essaying to save at least some few lives by convincing a country doctor that there were Gizmos, and explaining their actions. But there was a bald-headed man whose life Lane had saved once, and she was averse to having him go back and risk his life again when he could so easily be protected. And there were other lives which might be saved, too.
So she did not come out of the doctor’s office immediately. Lane and Carol waited for her, while the sunset colors reached their greatest intensity, and faded, and there was night. Somehow, they were acutely aware of the presence of Burke in the back of the car; his cigar was not fragrant, and from time to time he stirred unhappily.
But for him, the young night might have seemed enchanted. The only light was from the stars and the bright rectangles of windows in the doctor’s home. Glimmers from other houses of the village were widely separated and indistinct.
Somehow they were not impatient to go on. They talked very quietly. Neither of them could have told how it happened, but they were closer together than they’d been on the move. And of course they said nothing that Burke could not hear. He heard everything. Yet once, without any reference to Burke or his doings preceding it, Lane said angrily under his breath: “Damn Burke!”
In the obscurity of the unlighted car Carol smiled at him. Her fingers, now intertwined with his, tightened just a little.
Eventually the doctor’s office door opened wide, pouring lamplight out into the darkness, and Professor Warren emerged, seeming very weary. She came to the car and got in.
“You can go on, Dick,” she said drearily. “I convinced the doctor. He had a dozen frantic calls while I was in there—it seems as if I talked for ages—and he gave good advice to his patients about Gizmos. I couldn’t have bettered it, knowing what I know. It’ll do some good. I meant for him to check my results, but he believed me. He’s actually read some of my published papers. Quite a biologist. So he called the editor of a Roanoke paper whom he knows personally. He told the man who I was, and that what I said was true.”
Lane started the motor and drove out on the highway, heading north. He’d been on the go for something over thirty-six hours, without relaxation. There was a place called Monterey which would be a good stopping place for tonight. He estimated the distance. Perhaps an hour. Possibly more.
“What about the newspaper?” he asked the professor.
“I was interviewed,” said Professor Warren bitterly. “On the doctor’s telephone. Quite a clever young reporter! He got all my facts straight, but didn’t believe one, and then he asked to talk to the doctor again, and the doctor swore at him and said the story of a patient of his bore out what I said, and his experience of today convinced him I was right—about car wrecks, anyhow. The traffic deaths for today are over a thousand, Dick, and the total’s not nearly in yet! The reporter got the editor on the wire to the doctor again. My story’s preposterous. That it happens to be true doesn’t matter. It will be printed in tonight’s and tomorrow’s papers. The wire services will pick up some sort of garbled version of it. It will be printed as a freak. But, Dick—”
“What?” asked Lane. But he could almost guess.
“The headline,” said the professor bitterly, “will be, Spooks At War With Humans, Says Scientist.” Then she said more bitterly still: “I wish I could resign from the human race!”
But it was an entirely rational, scientific attitude to take, at that. The newspaper couldn’t be blamed.
Tonight, though, a new sort of evidence appeared to make it rational to look at Gizmos differently. The new evidence was indisputable. With what Lane and Professor Warren and Carol had to say, it probably determined the outcome of the war.