The St. Joseph incident did not get into the news reports. But on the outskirts of the town there was a gigantic poultry farm devoted to the raising of fowl for meat rather than the production of eggs. The chickens therefore ranged outdoors, with small buildings in which to roost at night. The fowl-runs extended in a long row beside a highway, to make the maximum display to motorists who passed. There were signs advertising live fowl, dressed fowl, plucked fowl, frozen fowl, and fowl in sections. There was even a group of roasting spits in a window of the sales building where one could order fresh-roasted chickens.
At nine o’clock in the morning frenzy struck the chickens in the farthest of the fowl-runs. At one end of that wire enclosure, chickens suddenly flung themselves crazily about, tumbling end over end, flapping hysterically. Others flapped and squawked madly away from that part of the run. Attendants at the farm went hurriedly to find out what was the matter. Up to this moment, the doings of the Gizmos had been matters St. Joseph had only read and heard about. People were jittery, but not quite scared.
A helper opened a gate into the last yard and went in. Struggling, frantic fowl were piled deep against the end of this particular enclosure. He heard whinings in the air, but he moved to clear away the panicky pile-up of chickens, which might suffocate in the press. He grabbed a flapping, frantic, but silent hen to toss it away from the fence. It did not writhe, it squirmed, its beak open but no sound coming out of it, its eyes glazing. At the same time, the helper heard a strident humming whine very close to him. The chicken in his hands ceased to struggle save for convulsive, dying shudders. There was no reason for it to die, but it seemed to do so.
Then something brushed against his face. Instinctively, he swiped at it with the feathered object in his hand. There was a frantic, high-pitched buzzing whine, and then his breathing ended. He tried to gasp and could not. He stood paralyzed by fright and shock, with the flapping chickens hurtling crazily about him. One struck him in the face and saved his life. Because at the impact the angry whining in his ears rose even higher, and he could breathe.
He was incoherent, but he babbled that things tried to choke him, and the chickens in the next to the farthest run began to die as those in the farthest grew still. Invisible death came very slowly and very deliberately along the long line of fenced enclosures, and foot by foot the chickens in them died.
There were too many witnesses and the succession of events was much too clear for this to be taken for a plague. Those who had stopped to buy chickens, the men who worked at the farm, even a state patrolman saw it. He was the one who linked the whining with the deaths, and he concluded that the chickens were being killed by a cloud of insects which were too small to be seen clearly. His premise was wrong, but his reasoning was sound. He concluded that if one breathed through a cloth, the insects would be kept out of one’s lungs. He tried it, to drive the onlookers out of danger; he was an intelligent and a courageous man, that trooper.
The creeping cloud of suffocation enveloped the entire poultry farm after the state patrolman had gotten the people out of its way. It went on, invisibly, terribly, into the heart of the suburb whose edge touched the farm. There were two human deaths in that suburb. The patrolman tried to alarm everybody. He sent those he warned to warn others. Two stubborn, suspicious individuals refused to stir. He saved all the rest. Two-thirds of a new housing development was enveloped by something nobody could see but which could be heard as a thin, hungrily complaining sound as its cause moved murderously onward.
It occupied six blocks of brand-new houses, with only two human fatalities. But then, as blindly and as mindlessly as it had entered the suburb, the swarm of monsters flowed in its grisly, slow-motion fashion off into woodland nearby, where it killed innumerable wild bees, rabbits, grubs, ants and beetles. Later there was another gruesome find there, too, but it had nothing to do with the Gizmos.
This did not get into the newspapers because the public was already jumpy enough. There were elaborate precautions in force to prevent further alarm. Preventing panic was something that could be done; they couldn’t think of anything else that seemed practical. But the means chosen for the prevention of terror had some odd side effects. For example, it was not possible for Professor Warren to reach anybody in Washington to tell them something even more useful to do.
The acceptance of telephone calls from the country districts—in fact all long-distance calls other than official ones—were stopped. This was to keep panic from being conveyed into the cities from the open country. When Professor Warren tried to make a call to Washington, she was politely told that no trunk lines were available. The same thing happened each of the other six times Lane stopped the car at a back-road garage or store where a telephone might be found.
“We just heard a news broadcast,” he said dryly, when she came out to the car after the seventh attempt. “Now there’s no reference to the trouble in St. Louis or Kansas City. Maybe they think people will forget if they ignore it. And the business in Chicago is played down. It’s said that bacteriologists think they’ve isolated a suspicious germ. Last night it was thought to be a Russian trick! There’s still no mention of any unusual number of traffic deaths. Two-thirds of the broadcast dealt with foreign news.”
“And I can’t get a line to Washington,” said the professor bitterly. “I don’t think we’d be allowed to enter the city anyhow. Drive on, Dick. I give up on trying to attend to this affair reasonably. But we have to do something!”
“We will do something,” promised Lane. “We’ll stay out of cities.”
The professor’s latest failure happened a few miles out of Winchester. She tried yet again in Martinsburg, where there appeared to be no inclination to keep anyone from driving through. They got a meal there which was a very belated breakfast, but no telephone line to Washington.
This was the third day of their attempt to complete what should have been one day’s long drive. It was almost a repetition of the first. They could not go through Hagerstown. They lost hours finding a way on unmarked roads to circle it. Chambersburg was blocked, too, and they had again to make a long detour. Lane was tempted to try the Pennsylvania Turnpike, but he bought gas in a crossroads group of houses called Green Village, and was informed that the Turnpike was closed. “Quarantine or something,” said the man who worked the gas pump.
Lane asked questions. Dairy farms in Chippensburg had lost all their cattle during the night past. Two men had lost their lives with the animals. It occurred to Lane that the relatively small loss of human life was due to the exact fact that the Gizmos were mindless. As scavengers, they’d found food in the carcasses of dead wild creatures. As hunters, they still associated food with fur or feathers or the chitinous shells of insects. They would attack men, but their first instinct and preference was for lesser creatures.
Lane turned east, avoiding main highways. When a good highway appeared, Lane doggedly turned aside or else crossed it quickly and dived into obscure lanes again. Three times he passed through areas in which no bird called or insect sang. Once he passed the still-smoking embers of a farmhouse which had burned without any attempt by anybody to salvage anything. There was a dead horse in the pasture to its left.
In late afternoon squadrons of planes appeared overhead. Once Lane heard a faraway droning, and presently discovered a helicopter hovering in the air. A little later the car reached a hillcrest, from which he saw a billowing puff of smoke spouting up from a highway which was black with cars beyond it.
“Stopping traffic,” observed Lane, “probably from Harrisburg. They would pick a four-lane highway! They’re being stopped so they won’t be killed on the roads. Of course, if a feeding horde of Gizmos came on them stopped as they are—”
He searched out a way and then drove on. Presently he scuttled across the empty part of the blocked road and dived into a dirt lane on the other side. This was between Harrisburg and York, Pennsylvania. The highways nearer Lancaster were practically empty. Either the police had acted more quickly, or there were fewer exit highways to block.
He got northward of the Turnpike by pushing through a minor underpass, and headed east again. It was not sensible to try to pass through Philadelphia or to try to get into New Jersey to the south of it. Near Reading he came upon solid masses of cars crawling away from Philadelphia.
“I’ve got a hunch,” said Lane. “Counting what the news reports have told—and what they haven’t—I have a hunch that my prophecies to Jim Holden have him pretty well convinced that I know what I’m talking about.”
“Holden?” Carol said.
“Friend of mine,” explained Lane. “We’ve hunted together more than once. He’s head of research at Diebert Laboratories. He’s the one we’re headed to see.”
“Jim Holden?” Professor Warren said excitedly. “Is that Dr. James Holden? The one who made the report on adaptation of living tissues for transplanting? Good heavens, Dick! Do you know him?”
“I suppose it’s the same man. Why?”
“Why didn’t you tell me?” demanded the professor. “We’ve wasted time. If I can talk to him for half an hour—knowing my work as he must—he’ll put his laboratory and his staff at my disposal. And with such a team we’ll have a definitive, documented report on Gizmos ready within days, and the whole business will be ended!”
Lane turned in his seat to stare at her. He was honestly amazed. Professor Warren had shared every experience with Gizmos that he had. She’d seen all the horrors he had seen, yet it was suddenly and startlingly clear that as a biologist her concept of Gizmos was totally unlike his. She probably knew more about their metabolism than he could guess, and undoubtedly had a clearer idea of the pattern of motion which kept their gaseous dynamic systems in being. It would be a highly complex system, vastly more complicated than a smoke ring. It could vary for locomotion, for hunting, and in response to stimuli from without. When she thought of Gizmos, she thought of them like that. Lane was a hunter and a fisherman; he thought of the way creatures acted. In consequence, while the professor looked forward to a completed examination of Gizmos, Lane was guessing what they would probably do next.
And it seemed to him the most obvious thing in the world. From the facts that deaths among game animals had been rare in the beginning, and more and more frequent later, Lane had formed an opinion. That really alarming phenomena attributable to Gizmos had turned up within the past week confirmed it. He made a grim evaluation of the fact that until three days ago only people interested in game conservation and animal husbandry were concerned with Gizmo affairs; now there was censorship of news concerning them, restriction of civilian movements, and frantic scurrying for promising courses of conduct, and all the phenomena of war.
The state of affairs made it look as if the Gizmos would be forced to attack cities and human lives everywhere within hours.
The reasoning was absolutely simple. Living creatures with ample food and no enemies increase in number by geometrical progression. If there had been only a hundred Gizmos in the forests of America six months ago, then five months ago there might have been ten thousand, four months ago a million, and three months ago a hundred million. Two months ago ten thousand million Gizmos might have gone totally unseen in the wildernesses of North America. Now a hundred times as many could not stay in the wilds. There wasn’t enough food for them. They had to come out. Domesticated animals would stay their hunger only so long, because it was very highly probable that as they fed they multiplied. All the animals of ploughed ground and pasture would feed them only briefly. Not months. Not weeks. Days. And two days—three—were already gone.
“I was thinking,” said Lane in a careful tone, “that I might possibly be able to reach him before I can get to his place. People might not be allowed to telephone into the cities to tell of tenor outside, but it is conceivable that one can telephone from one small town to another. I’m going to try.”
He stopped at a closed-up country store. Its windows were barred. Its doors were padlocked. A dog growled from under its porch, and a window opened on the floor above. A shotgun barrel peered out. The dog barked angrily.
“Store’s closed,” snapped a Pennsylvania Dutch voice. “Everything is all. Go away or I shoot!”
“Ten dollars,” said Lane, “to use your telephone. You can hold your gun on me while I do it. I do not want to buy anything. I only want to use your phone.”
There was some argument, and it was Carol who made the conclusive appeal. She did not look like the companion of a suspicious character. The professor was the picture of adamant virtue. No woman traveling with undesirable characters would be gotten up like the professor.
Lane made his call. The storekeeper let him in alone, with his shotgun at full cock, and stayed right there while Lane talked. Lane got the Diebert Laboratories through three separate small-town exchanges, and talked to his friend Dr. Jim Holden over a connection which sang and hummed and was otherwise unsatisfactory, but did let him hear the explosive relief in his friend’s voice when he recognized Lane.
Lane’s prophecies had been borne out. All manufacturers of biologicals had been kept informed of all events, for their information when a break in the situation came. They could ask questions. On the basis of Lane’s prophecies, Holden had.
Lane’s prediction that some men would be stricken while operating bulldozers in Minnesota had been borne out. But men smoking cigars or cigarettes were immune while smoking—but only then. Lane had predicted it. This was so far beyond reason that when proved true that the head of the laboratories feverishly waited for more information from Lane.
Lane talked incisively. Holden was eager to listen, prepared to try out anything Lane might suggest. The phone connection was bad and grew worse. The singing of the wires sounded like Gizmos on the line. But Lane was able to tell much, and to give assurance that he was on the way.
When he went back to the car, a housewife was talking to Professor Warren from the upstairs window. As he settled into the driver’s seat again, the woman said with satisfaction:
“Ja. Garlic. My grossmutter used to say that spirits would run from garlic. I try it. Danke!”
Lane started the motor while the Professor muttered defensively:
“It’s true whether it’s scientific or not. And if she calls up her friends and tells them, it may save some lives.” Carol looked hopefully at Lane.
“Holden said,” he told her, “that there’ve been animal deaths near his plant. He’ll try to catch a Gizmo, with everybody smoking cigars. Once he does that, everything’s in line. But we want to get there. Fast! I’ve warned him that a swarm will come running if one Gizmo’s trapped.” He looked at the sky. “It’s late!”
He sent the car down the road with a cloud of dust following it. It was now close to sunset; the time for Gizmos to hunt food was nearer. Their loathsome appetite was greater today than yesterday, and greater tonight than today. By tomorrow—
The urgency which possessed Lane should have been cured by his having reached someone who could do something with what he’d learned. But he seemed to feel continuously more uneasy. The situation was better in one respect; the public might believe in an animal plague, but it also believed in a deadly entity which reflected radar-waves and destroyed animals and men. Therefore there were not many cars moving in the darkness. Fugitives from cities, blocked on the highways by implacable armed men, were afraid to be alone in their vehicles. They gathered in groups. They broke fences and built fires. Others came to them, and more fires were needed, and made. Along the highways on which men were forbidden to flee, those who had tried to run away clustered about great, leaping flames and took comfort from the light and their own numbers. This was a wise thing; the fires did deter the Gizmos—and the smell of men was not their first choice of prey.
So Lane in the old car went hurtling along back roads, and hummed through silent villages, and flung through the darkness on an absurdly roundabout way to the north of Philadelphia, and into New Jersey by a most unlikely way, and then down into the Trenton area by a deserted truck route that nobody seemed to guard.
And they came to the Diebert Laboratories, thirty miles from Trenton. Burke slept noisily in the back seat. But the Monster suddenly gave tongue to terror. He howled in the closed car.
“Holden must have things stirred up,” said Lane. “It does seem as if we ought to be somewhere near the plant.” He peered into the light cast by the car’s headlights. “That sign says to make a right turn.” He swung the car. “There are the buildings ahead, I’d guess. Only—”
He whistled softly. There were the buildings of the pharmaceutical laboratories ahead, with lights inside. The headlights faintly showed the modernistic main building —but it seemed to be blurred and out of focus. The private industrial roadway led straight to the plant, but nothing was distinct. The buildings looked like drowned things regarded through rippling water. Yet there were lights.
Carol lighted a brazing torch. She turned its flame on the perforated burner of a gasoline blowtorch, brought it up to temperature, and turned on the gasoline. It caught with a roar and a fierce blue flame. She handed it to the professor and then prepared a second.
“I don’t know how much longer the torches will run,” she said absorbedly, “but the gasoline ones will run for two hours.”
“I,” said the professor firmly, “shall get out a pillow easel.”
Lane drew a deep breath and headed for the building structure housing hundreds of people immersed in a Gizmo horde many times greater than even the Chicago swarm. They enclosed the entire structure. The humans inside the building would suffocate.
“I think,” said Lane regretfully, “we’ve got to open the car windows. These torches probably give off carbon dioxide. We’d better not breathe too much of it, if we can help it.”
The car went on. The air seemed thick and viscous. It was the Gizmos, of course, drawn to the building in numbers and in density and in sheer monstrous masses such as even Lane had not imagined before.
Carol cranked down the right-hand front window. She thrust a flame out of it.
It leaped up and forked and spread horribly; it seemed that the very sky took fire. And there was suddenly a screaming, unearthly outcry. The air about the car was convulsed as close-packed Gizmos strove to flee, creating whirlwinds and gusts which shook the car. And always there was a gout of fire coming from the right-hand front window, and that flame rose to the burning sky and masses of flame raced madly in all directions. Above all there was a whining and a keening and a sound of horror through which the Monster’s howlings were hardly able to be heard.
Then there was a horrible reek of dead Gizmos, and there ceased to be an upward spout of flame from the torch Carol kept roaring out of the window.
The car went on to the buildings in an enormous silence. Lane honked the horn. Lights came on, outside a door. The four of them got out of the car.
Doctor Holden appeared when the door opened as the bearers of torches reached it.
“It looks like a trick we didn’t think of,” he said blandly. “We’ve been working on something more technical. We loaded a dead cow on a handler-truck, with all of us smoking cigars, and we left it a while and then brought it into a small laboratory we had ready. There were Gizmos—your term, Lane—feeding on the carcass, and we had them where we could work with them. They protested, and their friends gathered. They’ve been protesting for hours, and their friends are still coming. We hadn’t quite solved the problem of the ones outside when you turned up. Come in! Let’s get this business going all over the country. I like the way you do things, Lane.”
Lane heard Professor Warren snort. Carol pressed his arm, confidently, smiling up at him. He introduced Professor Warren.
“How do you do?” said the professor briskly. She extended an object she’d brought from the car. “I have a present for you. A Gizmo, freshly caught in a pillowcase and now confined in a small garbage can. It’s in very good voice…”
It was a near thing, of course. It has since been demonstrated that Gizmos multiplied by an involved sort of gaseous fission, so that when a single Gizmo settled down to a meal of their awful nourishment, two Gizmos rose up at the meal’s end. Their rate of increase was astronomical. When Lane and his party arrived at the laboratories it was literally the last minute when it could be hoped to prevent at least a holocaust of human beings and possibly the complete extermination of animal life.
But it was extraordinarily simple to handle the matter, once it was attacked by technical means—which made it convincing—instead of grimly personal battle with flames and torches. At the laboratory they already had tape recordings of the cries of Gizmos held captive and enraged, and Holden had an open wire to the authorities who’d asked him to stand by. He passed on answers in quick, minute-by-minute succession.
It is a matter of record that Lane arrived at the laboratory a little after eleven p.m. Eastern Daylight Saving Time. Much that Lane had reported was already passed on. By midnight, transcriptions of the Gizmo cries were being made at army bases and military installations and air force fields and civil defense headquarters all over the country. By twelve-thirty those hair-raising noises were being played over public-address systems and wherever loudspeakers could be set up. Loudspeaker trucks posted themselves at the edges of cities and played the siren song of rage.
And Gizmos came. And then they were worked upon by flame throwers, torches, and fireworks. Later the speakers were mounted near great fans whose revolving blades cut through the whirling gaseous dynamic systems and chopped them to bits. That they were lethal to Gizmos was demonstrated by the awful reek downwind. On airport tarmacs, loudspeakers called Gizmos from the sky to be shattered by the blades of idling propellers.
Swarms were tolled to destruction in Newark and Poughkeepsie and Yonkers and Hartford and Boston and Pittsburg. There were monstrous stenches—at which wise men rejoiced—in Tallahassee and Laramie and Salt Lake City and Missoula and San Diego and Omaha and Houston and Cincinnati.
Nobody has ever estimated the maximum number of Gizmos. They were very difficult to wipe out. For weeks, helicopters droned above wildernesses giving out the sounds which, because they expressed frenzied rage, brought frenzied invisible monsters to join them—and to die. There was a report of an isolated band of Gizmos in the Dakotas more than three months later, but they were adequately taken care of.
The war with the Gizmos ended in a victory for the humans, of the only kind which amounts to anything in these modern days. One side was exterminated, which ended the matter. There were some very trivial things which turned up later. Burke, for example, proposed honorable matrimony to Carol. Carol declined. The professor wrote a magnificent book on the fourth kingdom of nature—gaseous—which is sometimes criticized for her indignation at any suggestion that she is imaginative…
When the tumult was over, Lane asked Carol where she lived.
“With Aunt Ann,” said Carol, “wherever that may be.” Lane grimaced. “What,” he asked, “would be a good alibi for me to go wherever that might turn out to be? If-”
Carol said carefully: “I’m not engaged. Or anything.”
Lane drew a deep breath. “Swell!” he said. “We’ve only known each other three days, but I’m concerned about the Monster. Somebody ought to make a home for him. I’ll—well—I’ll make some temporary arrangement for him, while I hang around… Er, my intentions are honorable.”
He grinned, suddenly, and she smiled back.