The confusion in human affairs reached a new high during the night. Hot Springs, Va., was not the only town to shut its figurative gates. It did react early, because Hot Springs is a resort catering to visitors who arc heavy spenders. By quarantining the outer world, Hot Springs became apparently a safe place for them to do their spending. So long as that state of affairs lasted, everybody would be happy. But other communities shut themselves off from the world with the same firm resolution.
Some were mere villages. Most were relatively small towns. Cities could not barricade themselves against infection without starving. So municipal councils of sizable places met and disputed at length. They tried to compromise between the presumed need to keep out infection and the certain need to bring in food. Some of the compromises were peculiar.
Albany, New York, adopted emergency regulations which made it an offense for anybody to open a store or leave his own home. Reno, Nevada, passed a municipal ordinance which imposed splendid sanitary precautions on all its permanent residents, but excused all visitors from any quarantine measures whatsoever. Tucson, Arizona, established a three-man board with authority to do whatever was necessary to protect the public health. Athens, Georgia, forbade groups of more than three, except for the purpose of public worship.
On the other hand, the national government sanely put all laboratories manufacturing biologicals on twenty-four-hour standby readiness, so that they could begin to turn out immunizing shots as soon as the “virus” causing the trouble should be identified. Meanwhile it sent teams of investigators to beard the plague in its lair, so to speak, and at the risk of their lives gather specimens for examination. A good many of those investigators died. It is probable that some of them guessed at the actual nature of the death-causing agent before they died of suffocation. It is also rather likely that few of them believed it.
But one indisputable set of observations was made in Chicago, at the airports and the weather bureau and nearby air force radar stations. They were painstaking, official observations of arbitrary, unreasonable, preposterous facts that could not be explained. They were revealing, but it wasn’t possible to conclude anything from them for lack of the information that Lane and the professor and Carol were desperately trying to convey.
The first official observation was probably made at the main Chicago airport, some time after midnight. The field lights glared beneath a cloudless night sky. The curious shapes of radar scanners moved restlessly above their appropriate buildings. There was a distant droning in the air. A winking, alternately red-and-white light appeared against the heavens and drifted among the stars. The buildings of the airport were starkly lighted, with extraordinarily deep shadows where they were in darkness. Windows glowed. A visual beacon rotated sedately, sending its beam into the night. Headlights moved along the airport highways.
Off in the darkness twin landing lights appeared. Something which roared loudly came slanting downward behind those yellow, glaring eyes. When it touched ground the field lights showed a gigantic aluminum cigar with stubby wings. It roared and slowed, and then turned on the ground and came rolling clumsily toward the terminal.
Everything was normal everywhere. The sky-glare from the city was very bright above the horizon. Lamps glowed like earthbound stars along the roads. There was nothing unusual to see or hear—except on the radar screens.
Somebody looked at one of them, and stared blankly, and called other men, and they gaped at the screen and someone plunged to a telephone and frantically dialed the number of Civilian Air Defense. An instant later someone was calling the air force station, and a man went running down a corridor to tell what he’d seen in the dispatcher’s office. There was incredulity, dismay, bewilderment and apprehension everywhere. There were also outbursts of frantic fury. The radar screen reported a state of things which seemed either impossible or a realization of that emergency the Distant Early Warning radar system had been built to give warning of.
Radar said that something was moving toward Chicago, flying upwind across Lake Michigan. According to the radar, it was impossibly large and it moved with unlikely deliberation. Its speed was roughly thirty miles an hour. It had a shape—a bulbous head and a trailing, tenuous tail which frayed away to nothingness and reappeared without any discoverable organization in its parts. On the screens it actually looked like nothing on earth, but it would have been very like a crawling slug leaving bits of slime behind it which gathered together and followed while changing form and density. But it was flying—it was in mid-air. By its trailing tail it seemed to have moved over the lake from the most thinly inhabited parts of Wisconsin. But it headed upwind for Chicago.
Telephones hummed; short-waves flickered through darkness. A voice said authoritatively that it was a Gizmo, meaning a radar blip with no known cause except a belief that it was an area of extra-high ionization in the air. But it was the great-grandfather of all Gizmos. Its bulbous head was a good two miles in diameter, flattened to rise no higher than four thousand feet, and descending no lower than two. Its tail was ten—twenty—thirty miles in length, depending on the tenuity at which one ceased to measure it. It moved on a specific course. It would presently arrive at Chicago unless it sheered off. And there was nothing in the heavens or on earth or in the sea which should produce such an image on a radar-screen.
So much was undeniable from the beginning. And this was no observation by a mere human, who might delude himself. This was a report from complex electronic devices. It was images formed on phosphors coated on radar screen tubes, excited by accelerated electrons whose pattern of impact was governed by echoes from the original of the image. Phosphors do not imagine. Electrons are not affected by panic. As a radar image it was a faithful report—in its own terms, without interpretation—of something which actually was.
Not only airport radars revealed it; at air force installations the image appeared. The weather bureau cloud-pattern radar showed it, from a different angle and in different perspective, but absolutely the same thing. And nothing like it could exist. A bomber fleet would appear as specks; this was like a cloud or a solid object of preposterous size—yet it could not be solid. It was too big. It could not be a cloud because it had movement of its own. It did not float with the wind. Its motion was affected by the wind, but was still its own.
Pilots went running to their planes. There were thunderous roarings down runways and planes lifted and snarled away into the night. And the radar report was not one to call for a mere investigatory scramble. There was an emergency alert at all fields within striking distance. Half the available striking force of nearby airfields went aloft and toward the deliberately moving incredibly huge source of the alarming radar reflections.
They found it, and they found nothing. Their own radars pinpointed its borders. They fired rockets into it. Ultimately they plunged into it, backwards and forwards and sidewise. There was no nucleus, no solid object, no perceptible thing to cause the phenomenon. Some pilots expressed the opinion that when in the strange reflecting object their jet motors operated a little differently; some thought better, some thought worse. Some pilots returned to their bases to be replaced by others with full fuel tanks. The radar-perceived object was too huge to be affected by planes flying through it. It moved on toward Chicago. Once a pilot reported that the jet flame of other planes than his own seemed to be longer than usual. But he was not sure of that, either. It is not likely that the observation was accurate. Gizmos flying in swarms needed space between individuals, just as birds in a flock need it. Radar would not pick up millions of small things separately, but report the mass. This night, radar did.
And at twenty past two o’clock in the morning, the Gizmo swarm reached Chicago. Sirens throughout the city had roused the citizens. Radio and television stations which had gone off the air went back on to give due notice of the coming of the inexplicable thing, with encouraging statements that nothing was actually expected to happen, but with warnings that traffic jams must be avoided. Citizens of Chicago were told to stay home. They would be told everything that happened; they would have the best advice on measures to be taken for their own protection, if protection was needed.
The Gizmo swarm descended upon the stockyards.
Even roaring jet planes, circling desperately in the invisible cloud, had their thunder drowned out by the noise from the penned beasts when the Gizmos arrived. Confined in pens, the doomed cattle bellowed as whinings descended upon them. Their composite cry of despair carried all over the city. There was no one in Chicago, wakened by sirens and terrified by broadcast warnings, who did not hear it. A watchman in the stockyards used the telephone in a glass-enclosed booth from which he viewed the cattle pens. He told of whinings that rose to a shrill keening. He babbled of the beasts below him fighting madly, climbing upon each other, flinging their horns about, uttering cries no creature had ever uttered.
Suddenly his voice broke off and there were sounds of things being smashed. The line went dead.
When morning came the stockyards were filled with murdered animals. Cattle, sheep—the sheep had fought terribly—and swine were all dead. A few human beings died with them, but less than twenty—guards and watchmen and the like. It is on record, however, that there were workmen making repairs on the inside of a cold-storage room, in one of the larger packing houses. They worked comfortably through the whole episode, not having heard the sirens or the broadcasts nor even the ghastly outcry of the dying animals. When their work was finished they came out to an astonishing stillness. Day was breaking. They looked upon acres of massacred hoofed animals. They met masked police and firemen and doctors from the hospitals, gingerly examining the scene.
This produced the greatest series of separate insanities in the history of human reactions. It was past all doubt that something existed which nobody had guessed at—invisible, lethal and purposeful. There was a body of vociferous persons who demanded that war be immediately declared upon Russia, because the Russians must have done it. There was a smaller, louder group which in a strangely exultant fashion insisted that flying saucers were now proven, that the cattle in Chicago had been killed by invaders from space, and that the air force pilots who denied seeing flying saucers on the way to Chicago should be court-martialed. Of course less indignant but firmly convinced individuals maintained that the cattle had been killed by spores of a disease which were carried upon a wind current. The fact that the radar cloud moved against the wind did not shake their conviction. They considered that the observations of the wind and its velocity must have been wrong.
The newspapers ran out of space for large-type headlines and had more or less to confine themselves to printing the facts. It was quaint, though, that a small news story from Roanoke, Virginia, was crowded out of type altogether. Even the later editions had no room for it. They had to report public reaction in Chicago, and related happenings.
That reaction was remarkable. One of the most astonishing things about the human brain is its ability to hold firmly to two mutually contradictory beliefs at the same time. The death of Serenity and the astonishing number of people who died in their sleep on Tuesday night had been followed by the murder of refugee animals in a Minnesota cornfield and an astronomical increase in traffic deaths on Wednesday, and the Chicago cattle-massacre in the small hours of Thursday morning. The existence of a lower-animal plague—an epizootic—which could also kill men seemed to be established. But also something which in the Chicago manifestation was definitely not a disease was no less established. The similarity between the Chicago affair and the murder of animals in Minnesota was complete, so far as the manner of death was concerned. That motorists were suffocated obviously fitted in. It had been noted, by the way, that the victims of car accidents had rarely been traveling at high speed when the accidents took place. They were driving at a leisurely pace—often under thirty miles an hour—with the car windows open. It would seem that anybody should have concluded that there was only one inimical agency at work.
Maybe some people did, but they were in an unheard minority. Public opinion believed with passionate unanimity in an unknown disease which killed men and animals indiscriminately, and also in something else which might be Russian—or from outer space—but was alive and deadly and killed animals and men. Death was assumed to be abroad in the land, at once a disease to be avoided and an entity to be fought. So small towns barricaded themselves behind barriers, and enacted strict quarantine laws which had very little sense behind them, and demanded the stationing of antiaircraft batteries at every crossroad post office. Larger towns took even more stringent measures. Guided missile defenses were especially in demand. If there was anybody, anywhere, who pointed out that the cattle in Chicago did not die of disease, he was denounced for his denial of the general belief that they had. But anyone who observed that if the cattle had died of plague antiaircraft batteries would be useless was regarded as subversive.
The confusion might have been instructive, Lane considered sardonically, if it didn’t make for inconvenience to people on important business like himself and his party. They spent the night at the only motel in Monterey, with the Monster in the room occupied by Carol and the professor, and Burke snoring heavily between nightmares in the room with Lane. When morning came, it developed that there had been so many traffic accidents in Virginia that the governor of West Virginia had ordered the border between the two states closed to traffic. It was illegal, but it was enforced.
Lane abandoned Route Two-twenty and headed east for the Shenandoah Valley. He was stopped by a barrier and guards at Staunton, and navigated narrow country roads around it to be stopped again at Harrisonburg, where a trigger-happy guard put a bullet through the top of the car’s windshield. Burke fainted.
They made a tedious, time-consuming detour around Harrisonburg, and lost three hours trying to get up on the Skyline Drive, which did not pass through any towns and might give them a clear run for a reasonable distance. They didn’t make it. They plodded through more back-country lanes, instead. New Market was tranquil. There were dogs and children in plain sight, and people moved naturally about; there was no sign of anything inconsistent with a perfectly commonplace small town on a commonplace summer day. But Luray was blocked to traffic. Again they wandered interminably along trails with tire-tracks on them, but which had never seen a bulldozer. More than once they forded small brooks and followed meandering signs, only to arrive at a farmhouse beyond which that trail did not go. Then they had to backtrack and try another fork. They had been traveling fourteen exhausting hours when they found Strasburg. It was untouched by the alarm that filled so many other places. They slept there, but at four next morning they were on their way. The only news they heard was from the car radio, which pictured public confusion many times confounded. It developed now that Chicago had not been the only target of a radar-reflecting cloud—Gizmos. The Kansas City stockyards were a shambles. Shipping pens in Texas had been visited by whinings heard in the midst of the bellowing of maddened steers. In the corn belt, cattle fattening for market died in the center of patches of torn-up ground. The St. Louis hog market posed a problem at once in the disposal of dead swine and the defense of the city’s population, should the plague return.
They’d planned to head for Winchester and so to Washington. Professor Warren’s professional reputation was sound. She should have only to explain and offer to demonstrate her discoveries, and everything would be taken care of. But Lane still held his own contact in reserve.
As they pulled out of the sleeping town of Strasburg at four o’clock in the morning, however, an all-night radio reported that the Rock Creek Park Zoo, in Washington, had been visited by a radar-reflecting cloud which came upwind along the Potomac and wiped out the entire display of animals. There were also no pets left in an entire quarter of Washington. The news broadcast said that inhabitants of the city were already streaming out on every highway. They seemed to be especially worried by the fact that planes had tried to break up the cloud with explosives before it reached Washington, and had failed. Bridges and highways were already filled with traffic. Measures were being taken to check the exodus.
When the news report ended, Lane said grimly: “That changes our plans. We don’t go into Washington.”
“But,” said the professor, “I need to go to Washington, Dick. Let me have half an hour’s talk with a competent biologist in the Department of Agriculture and I guarantee—”
“You didn’t hear why Dick doesn’t want to go into Washington,” Carol said.
“There’ll be martial law by daybreak,” Lane said dryly. “They’ll call it a Civil Defense emergency. But they’re going to have to stop people running out of the city. Probably all cities.”
“Day before yesterday,” said Lane, “there were well over a thousand victims of traffic accidents which we know were caused by Gizmos. Yesterday was certainly no better. Did you hear any reference to traffic accidents in that broadcast?”
“No.” The professor was appalled. “Do you think it was so bad they’re censoring the news? They’re afraid to let people leave the cities, and afraid to tell them why?”
“I think,” Lane told her, “that I don’t envy anybody in authority the decisions he has to make. It’s going to occur—it’s already occurred to a lot of people that the radar-reflecting clouds which kill beasts in stockyards and zoos can also kill human beings. People have been killed in cities, so they’ll want to get out. If Gizmos arc killing people on the highways, they should be made to stay at home, but if you tell them the reason, they’ll feel that they’re doomed either way.”
Carol said, “Aunt Ann might call in and have someone come out to meet her and get her information and see what proof we can find.”
Professor Warren said, fuming, “I didn’t think! Of course I can’t take Carol into Washington if the people there are going crazy with fear!”
Lane said carefully, “Not all of them will react that way. There’s a part of the population which will react in an acceptable way to a situation which distresses them. Unfortunately, some of them may have to make decisions and they’ll want to be calm when they make them.”
The car rumbled on for a moment. Carol said unhappily: “Tranquilizers?”
“Exactly,” said Lane. “Precisely like the old tales of seamen breaking into the whisky stores in time of shipwreck. Very helpful, at a time when brains are needed!”
He stopped short. This was half-past four in the morning. There were hours yet to sunrise. The headlight beams bored on ahead. This was Route Eleven, not notable for heavy traffic. They were perhaps ten miles out of Strasburg, and they had not yet met more than two pairs of headlights all the way. Here the highway dipped down, to rise again two hundred yards farther on, a brook and a bridge across it at the bottom of the depression. It was a commonplace spot on an ordinary highway; this was very early morning and a predawn chill was everywhere. There was actually a vague mistiness down in the hollow.
But Lane noticed that the mistiness was not still. It writhed and stirred in a boiling motion. His eyes glanced sharply at the rising part of the road beyond. In the headlight rays it was blurred and wavery. The headlight beams from the car passed through something that distorted the light, like small columns of heated gas. They were doubly disturbed when reflected back.
“Torches!” snapped Lane.
He pressed down on the accelerator, and the car went downhill, gathering speed. It went through the beginning of the mist and the fuzziness. Instantly angry whinings sounded all about. But the car gathered speed on the level bottom place, while the whinings grew shriller and more angry. But sparks flashed inside the car from a brazing torch.
Carol waved it and something flickered into blue flame. There was a stench, and the whinings grew to a keening howl. Something clapped itself over Lane’s nose and lips. He held his breath and drove on furiously, and the car breasted the rise beyond the hollow and roared away on the level highway. Its speed went up and up. It was fifty miles an hour when Carol speared the place before his face, and something screamed and flared.
“Thanks,” said Lane, gasping, as wind whipped away the reek of carrion. “They may follow for a little way, but we’re all right. See how things are in the back.”
The professor wailed: “I could have caught another specimen! But I didn’t have a pillowcase ready!”
“Burke?” said Lane sharply. “You okay?”
Carol swung the torch about. She used it, stabbing emptiness before Burke’s contorted, fear-crazed face. His breath stopped. There was a flicker of light, then, and he collapsed into shuddering limpness.
“That,” said Lane, “is how people in cars on the highway get killed—not in hollows, but anywhere. It disposes of the idea that Gizmos are intelligent and purposeful, but it doesn’t make things look any brighter.”
It didn’t. It only made them more understandable. Now that Gizmos had acquired the instinct to hunt instead of scavenging only, their pattern of action was clear. They were social creatures in the sense that they moved and fed in groups or flocks. As is usual among all social creatures, at any moment there were individuals separated from their fellows, and they would commit individual atrocities. Some, on the other hand, would be surfeited, not interested in hunting. But they all would tend to hunt by night and feed by day. In their native forests they drifted in grisly, faintly whining masses, flowing invisibly between the trees and through the underbrush. In a sense they grazed, in that they sought their subsistence on a broad, deep front, on which they murdered every bird, every animal, every insect. When they found running animals in any number, it was their custom to round them up into terrified groups whose frenzy made them mutually prevent each other’s escape. Then the Gizmos killed them.
It was an admirable device for food gathering. Lane pictured the over-all situation as one in which such masses of invisible horrors flowed slowly and terribly everywhere. They would be attracted from many miles by the scent of the stockyards. They would go blindly to that scent of prey. They had attacked this car because it had disturbed them, but, mindless as they now appeared to be, they killed human beings. They were capable of rage. They furiously attacked any place where one of them was held captive. They acted as if they were capable of enormous vindictiveness.
Rage, indeed, might have substituted for reason to make them trail Lane and the others across the mountains to where Burke had picked them up in the car. Fury over the death-cries of their fellows might have produced the cloud formation over the filling station. It need not have been hatred against them as specific persons; it could have been anger at prey which had turned upon them. They had no fangs to bare, nor any claws to extend. They could perform mass-movements out of emotion as other creatures crouched to spring.
Lane, driving through the dark, did not think of such fine details. He imagined creeping, crawling crowds of Gizmos flowing across the countryside, killing every living creature. If such a swarm should flow into a city…
The first report of such an event came from St. Joseph, Missouri.