Dick Lane was the first man to be attacked by Gizmos—it was undoubtedly a small patrol of them—and to live to tell about it in intelligible terms. It happened one day when he trudged a dim trail through mixed mountain laurel and oaks and pine trees on the downward slope of a mountain nobody had ever bothered to name. This was in the mountains of western Virginia, some ten miles from Murfree’s courthouse. He’d been in other places on his present errand, and his bafflement had been as great as it was here, which meant that his frustration was complete. He’d been tracking down the stories of inexplicable deaths of game animals, and some suspected deaths of men. He’d learned nothing tangible. He had dark suspicions, but nothing to justify them, and on this hot summer afternoon he was discouraged, uneasy and depressed.
To a sportsman, and especially a professional writer about field sports, as Lane was, the matter was important; to the rest of the world it was not. But fishermen and hunters made much of good hunting dogs who’d gone apparently crazy and fought empty air, snapping at it while screaming horribly. Most of them died. And there was a pheasant hunter in New Jersey, last fall, who was found dead beside his dead dog in the center of a patch of brush that had been leveled in some sort of frenzy. Neither man nor dog had a single wound of any sort. There were four fishermen found in the Dakotas, alleged to have died of poisoned mushrooms gathered in the wilds. But at least one of the four loathed mushrooms; he wouldn’t have tasted them. And there were cases of experienced guides, scouting the prospects for next-season hunting, who did not return from territory that was wholly familiar to them. One or two were found dead in their scattered blankets, by the ashes of dead fires; others were not found at all. And there were many tales of game animals found dead with the signs of battle all about them. Something unknown was taking toll of game and men.
It was Lane’s profession to go to places where there was good hunting and fishing, and then write articles about it, mostly for the magazine Forest and Field. Before this recent spate of murders in the wilderness, it had been a pleasant one. But Lane was a sportsman before he was a writer, and he was upset by the wanton killing of game—not killing for food, but scornfully leaving the murdered creatures to rot after they had defended themselves gallantly. Forest and Field had taken note of the matter. It was a sportsman’s magazine only, so it was not moved by reports of a ten-year-old boy’s having been found suffocated in Euclid Park, in Cleveland, and of the death of two children picking blackberries on the outskirts of Englewood, New Jersey, and of an elderly couple’s having been found dead in an open car near Sarasota, Florida. These human deaths seemed accidents. Nobody connected them with a common cause. It was Lane and his fellow sportsman who insisted that what was happening to wild creatures and good hunting dogs needed looking into. As a public service, Forest and Field had commissioned Lane to find out what was going on. He’d been at it for months, now, with no results—not even credible suspicions.
So on this summer afternoon he trudged along a sloping mountain trail without expectation of success. He’d come to Murfree County because here the reports were especially persistent and detailed. There’d been a case only ten days ago. A man’s cattle had acted as if insane in the middle of the night. They had fought frenziedly in their stalls and broken down the walls of the barn in their struggling, and then had crashed through the barnyard fence and fled through the night. Eight animals had been involved. Next morning six of them had been found unharmed, but two were dead, without a mark on them. There were also local reports of dead foxes and wild turkeys and raccoons and opossums. Something was killing a lot of game in Murfree County. Hunting wouldn’t be so good this fall. If whatever was happening kept up, there wouldn’t be any hunting.
He’d asked questions and searched for clues here as in other places. He found nothing.
This afternoon found him making his way on foot to ask questions at the last place in Murfree County where he could hope to learn anything new. There was a field biological expedition in the county just then, sponsored by Gale University, and the local citizens observed sardonically that it was studying turkey buzzards. The woman professor in charge was not approved of by Lane’s informants. She wore pants all the time and hadn’t the build for it. Undaunted, Lane was on his way to ask if the expedition had made any observations that might bear on his mission.
The day was singularly perfect. All about him the excessively tumbled mountain country seemed to bake quietly under the sun. The mountains themselves were dark green under a totally blue sky. There had been rain the night before and brooks sang merrily, but the sunshine breaking through the leaves was startlingly hot.
Lane scrambled down a steep slope, with pebbles loosened by his feet bouncing and sliding. He saw the deep valley at the foot of this mountainside, and there was a veiling of faintest green above the red clay of ploughed fields down in the valley. Then he saw the glint of metal in the distance. That would be the trailer—the expedition’s trailer—that he was looking for. It vanished behind a spur of stone as he went on, partly downhill and partly at an angle along the mountain. Presently the ground grew level for a small space. He came to a small natural clearing filled with tall grass, and saw a glint of gray fur in the center of it.
The world was very still. There was next to no air movement. No birds sang. He did not consciously note the fact, but there were not even insect noises in the air: no gnats or mosquitoes hummed around him. He could tell that a vast gulf dropped away to his left, and that to the right the ground sloped up. Above him was a dense forest, whose trees were gnarled and crooked because of the rocky ground. In the clearing it was baking hot.
He felt no uneasiness, no premonition, no hint of danger. He moved toward the bit of fur in the vast stillness. Had it been nighttime, it would have been appalling. But Lane heard the rustling of grass about his feet, and it did not occur to him that the general silence was ominous.
Something invisible touched his face. Again, in darkness this would have been horrifying. But the sun was bright. He brushed the air before him. It felt like a thread of gossamer floating in the sunshine. The touch came again. He brushed impatiently, staring down at his feet. The sight, considering what he’d been working on, was almost familiar—but it was far from gratifying.
There were twenty or thirty dead rabbits in an untidy mass, lying on the ground. They had been dead for days, but there were no flies about them. There were no brilliantly colored butterflies fluttering above the small corpses. They had not been touched by buzzards. This was remarkable. Lane raised his head. The thing he mistook for gossamer touched him a third time. He took out his handkerchief and wiped his face, as he stirred one of the carcasses with his foot.
He heard a faint whining sound he could not identify. The rabbits were dead. That was all. There were no wounds. He stirred another. Discoveries like this had been made before.
He felt eerie, delicate fumblings at his face. He wiped it again with his handkerchief. He stared down at the small dead creatures. It is not natural for rabbits to gather in so close an assembly, especially to die. There is no natural enemy of rabbits which rounds them up to murder them. But he suddenly realized fact that these little furry bodies had received no attention from flies and such things whose function it is to keep the wilderness sweet-smelling and tidy. Nothing had touched these small corpses at all. Then it occurred to Lane, startlingly, that there was no taint in the air. He puzzled over that. The gossamer touches stopped.
Something closed smotheringly over his face, sealing his nostrils and his lips. His forehead was touched by something which pressed against it gently. The contact was all over his face and throat, as if he were enmeshed in invisible cobwebs.
The whining sound he’d heard was sharply distinct—and he couldn’t breathe.
He gasped, or tried to. He could not gasp. Blind panic yammered at him. But one cannot be wholly panicked when blankly amazed. Lane stood still for an instant, trying to fill his lungs with air. He could breathe out. He did. But he could not breathe in. Air would not enter his nostrils and something invisible blanketed his face. He could feel it, though it was neither warm nor cold. He could not breathe through it. He was suffocating.
He staggered, dazed, and beat the air before him. He went stumbling and lurching, his whole conscious purpose that of inhaling, which was impossible. He crashed into brushwood and tripped and fell headlong. His face buried itself in fallen leaves—and here he could breathe! He gasped a deep lungful of air, scented with acrid woods-mould and the odor of dry foliage. Then he struggled up on hands and knees, and his breath shut off. Something blanketed his face once more. It sealed his lips and nose. He fought, and toppled again—and he could breathe.
He lay still, panting, with his face buried in the fallen stuff. An incredible surmise began to form. He felt more fumblings on his neck and ears, delicate touches which made his spine crawl. There was something which wanted him to lift his face so that it could stop his breath.
But he was alone!
Despite the shock of near strangulation, he was filled with a sort of blank astonishment. He lay still, and something fumbled at him; he knew that it wanted him to look up, to rise. It whined impatiently for him to stir. He knew that it intended to kill him, and that he frustrated it by keeping his face buried in dead leaves. It was an invisible thing, and it did not bite or claw or sting, but it fretted because he did not stand up to be suffocated.
Sweat poured out all over him. This was the killer of the wilderness.
The touches stopped.
He lay still and tense. Now, for the first time, he realized the unnatural stillness of the world about him. It was horrifying, this quietude. He strained his ears for sounds of movement by the thing which a moment before had been whining beside his ear. He heard nothing at all. No—very, very faintly he heard the bubbling of a brook nearby. That was all…
A long time later he moved cautiously. There was still no bird call or insect hum. There was no sound at all but the small rustlings his own body made as he moved in the brushwood.
He sat up and stared about with hunted eyes. He was ashen-white. He stared in every direction, slowly and furtively, his eyes assuring him that there was nothing near but tree trunks and brushwood stalks. He got to his feet and began to creep away.
His breath cut off.
There was no warning. There were no fumbling touches, this time. Something clung to his face, whining shrilly, and he could see through it but he could not draw breath, and horror filled him. He staggered back to where dried leaves lay thick upon the ground. He flung himself down and buried his face in them again, and breathed deeply of the leaves.
Presently, his eyes strained, he stood up once more. He held double handfuls of dried leaves before his nostrils and lips. He breathed through them. The smell of woods-mould was strong. He waited, in a sort of desperation. Whatever meant to kill him knew him to be afoot and moving. He could not slip away unperceived. But nothing happened. After a time he dared to move onward down the hillside.
There was no other attempt upon him by anything visible or otherwise. He heard no more high-pitched whines, but the unnatural stillness remained…
A mile away, he was still pale. Two miles away, he was still shaken. He hadn’t fully recovered his normal color when he came out upon a shelving slope and saw the aluminum trailer less than half a mile away. It glittered in the bright sunshine, and beyond it the valley spread out, its trees minute so far below, and all the world very beautiful and serene.
He moved on, and saw something else. There was a curious, foot-high construction of wire screening on the ground. An ample female form in riding breeches lay at full length, squinting through one surface of screening to the other. As Lane drew near, he heard a contralto voice saying disgusted things in pseudoprofane terms.
He coughed, and she raised her head to stare at him. He recognized her. “My name’s Lane,” he said shakily. “Dick Lane. I think you’re Professor Warren. Over in Murfree they told me I’d find you here and you might know something I need to find out.”
“It’s not likely,” said Professor Warren irritably. “But what is it?”
She looked at him peculiarly as he hesitated. Happening upon the dead rabbits had confirmed his darkest suspicions—even those he would not fully admit to himself. He had no explanation yet, but he had a clue which was completely incredible. If he told anybody what he’d experienced, he’d be thought insane.
He named his profession and his connection with Forest and Field, and explained that he was trying to track down something important to sportsmen. Game animals were being killed in a strange manner. Something new and deadly was responsible. He had an extremely improbable idea about the matter, and he hoped that as a biologist and a scientific observer she might have noticed something.
She regarded him oddly. Then she pointed.
“Is that the sort of thing you mean?”
He looked. There was a tiny, pitiful heap of draggled feathers about a tiny skeleton with a sharp beak. There were eggs, befouled by rain. “A partridge,” he said, “dead on its nest. Yes.” He approved of Professor Warren. She noticed things.
“There are half a dozen others like that,” she said, still regarding him with a peculiar expression, “within a quarter of a mile. It struck me as strange. In fact—” She looked at his hands.
Lane realized that he still gripped the clumps of dead leaves he’d held before his face when leaving the clearing of the dead rabbits. He dropped them and said awkwardly: “I had a good reason for that—just now. But I suppose I look like a lunatic.”
Professor Warren grunted inelegantly. “Not quite,” she said. “Of course, holding bouquets of trash while introducing onesself isn’t normal, but I never heard of a lunatic who thought his actions strange. You do. And if you’re concerned with wild life you may be able to help me in some trouble I’m having with buzzards. This business is part of it,” she added dourly, with a wave of her hand toward the enigmatic arrangement of copper screen wire. “Come down to the trailer and have some coffee. What do you know about the manners and customs of buzzards?”
“Very little,” admitted Lane. He knew how they nested—hollow stumps, mostly—and how they defended their nests against intruders. The last was hardly a pleasant subject.
“Come along,” said Professor Warren. She strode briskly downhill, speaking over her shoulder. “I’ve been doing some research on intrasensory substitution. Cases where one sense substitutes for another. Pit-vipers have a heat nerve in their foreheads so they can detect the most trivial of temperature variations, and so find warm-blooded prey in pitch darkness where their eyes can’t work. That’s heat perception instead of light. Bats feel obstacles with their ears. Buzzards have some superior substitute for smell. Put out a dead animal, even covered over with brushwood, or in a pit where it can’t be seen. Buzzards come from everywhere, immediately, even from upwind. They couldn’t possibly smell it upwind. And when they arrive, why then they try to find it with their noses! When the first buzzard comes downwind to bait that’s barely cold, he didn’t smell it! He saw the odor. It’s the only possible explanation. He simply has to be substituting some operation of his optic nerves for the sense of smell. You see?”
Lane hardly heard. Two miles back, something had tried to kill him, and his mind had not yet recovered its “balance. He’d seen nothing. It was impossible, yet it had happened.
“I was getting good results,” said Professor Warren vexedly, “but about ten days ago the buzzards went temperamental on me! Now they float up there, looking for food, and I put out bait which ten days ago they’d have flocked to. And they ignore it. It’s ridiculous! I’ve good proof that a good reek of organic decay can be detected optically. But I have to check through buzzards that it’s really done. And there are dead chickens in a barn yonder—” she waved a large hand—“and the buzzards aren’t interested! There’s a dead cow in a pasture, and they pay no attention! Temperament among buzzards? Or is it those damned dynamic systems I only halfway believe I’ve discovered?”
She turned to scowl at him. He’d stopped. He was staring at a mole—a gopher. It had burrowed up to the open air and died. It looked pathetic, a mere shapeless blob of fur with tiny pinkish claws barely showing. It was untouched by flies or beetles.
“That’s been there for a week,” she said curtly.
“The buzzards,” said Lane painfully, “hadn’t been at some dead rabbits I passed. No blowflies have been at this mole. There was no taint in the air where the rabbits were. But there was something else.”
“I know what happened,” said Lane wryly, “but I can’t believe it. It’s too crazy! But it fits too well into what I asked you.” He stopped. Nobody would believe—
“Hah!” said Professor Warren. “I don’t mind making a fool of myself! It looks to me as if there are some gaseous dynamic systems operating around here in what ought to be good, healthy smells! Only they act like something more. They act like pseudoliving things. And I’m wondering if they’re what’s keeping my buzzards aloft. Dynamic systems, consuming the smells that buzzards ought to see!”
Lane swallowed. Then he said: “What’s happened to the flies around here? And the mosquitos?”
“There’s not one,” said Professor Warren. She stopped short and stared at him. “That’s queer! There haven’t been, not for ten days or so!” Her expression showed puzzlement. “Queer I didn’t realize it!” She abruptly resumed her march toward the trailer.
Lane followed her, frowning. A shadow swept across the ground before him. He jumped. The shadow swept on. It was a buzzard. It swooped on in a long, beautiful glide and swung outward where the next spur jutted from the mountainside. He saw it float out over the broad, sunlit valley floor.
When they were a hundred yards from the trailer, a dog came out from under it and ran toward them. It was not a beautiful dog. It had started out to be a foxhound and apparently had changed its mind on the way. Its tail drooped. It carried its head low, without spirit.
“That’s the Monster,” said Professor Warren briefly. “He’s not ours. He belongs to a poor white family that fled in terror of their own imaginations last week. The Monster stayed behind when they left, probably because we feed him. I don’t think they did.”
The dog cringed a greeting. Professor Warren strode on past him.
“Wait a minute!” said Lane. “They fled from what?” “Nightmares,” boomed the professor. “They said things sat on their chests and took their breaths. They spent their nights with their heads under the bedcovers. Two of their dogs and all their chickens died, and then their cow. Old age, probably, but they ran away whining of magic.”
“Good God!” said Lane, stunned. “Eh?” demanded the professor. She saw his expression. “What’s the matter?”
Lane saw much—too much. He put things together. They fitted. The result was impossible, but so were the facts.
“They—this poor white family,” said Lane, “begin to seem to me very sensible people. I think I can tell you, after all.”
He told her exactly what had happened to him near the pathetic small heap of dead rabbits. It was his profession to tell what he had seen and done; he made a living at it. He knew better than to add details which might make his story more plausible. He told it baldly, factually, without explanation or theory.
“Which,” he finished, “is why I carried dead leaves when I spoke to you. It was the equivalent of having a sheet ready to pull over my head.”
Professor Warren blinked at him. Then she grunted. “Hah! It fits in. Have to be checked, of course. But idiots have called me wildly imaginative before now. I’d enjoy proving something so wild they couldn’t imagine it!” Then she grunted again. “Mr. Lane, I am a desperate woman, just desperate enough to test this absurd story—which I implicitly believe—in the hope of finding out why there has been an outbreak of artistic temperament among the local specimens of Cathartes aura—buzzards to you, sir! You’ll stay to dinner and tell me what you know.” She raised her voice in a bellow. “Carol!” she roared. “Carol! We’ve got company!”
A door opened at one end of the giant aluminum trailer. A girl appeared carrying a wicker bird cage. Her face was troubled. Lane saw her with a sudden, extraordinary clarity. It was as if, somehow, he saw her and the mountains and the sky and valley with much more than the customary vividness.
Lane had come a long way across the mountains, reviewing his own bafflement on the way. Then he’d had an experience which still made his flesh crawl; he was disturbed because he couldn’t believe what he remembered. But now this girl Carol looked completely as a girl should look, and remote from terror and bewilderment and unease. He felt a surprised gratitude that she was here to remind him that the world was good to live in. He regarded her with an astonished satisfaction.
“Aunt Ann,” she said uncomfortably, “I put Pogo outside in his cage because it’s stuffy in the trailer. Then I looked out and didn’t see him on his perch. I went to see, and he was lying on the bottom. There are feathers all about as if he’d been beating against the bars! He’s dead!”
Professor Warren glanced at Lane with startled eyes.
“Pogo,” she said, “is our canary. Or was.” An instant later she said in a brusque voice: “Too bad! I’ll look him over. Carol, this is Dick Lane. He’s having dinner with us. We’re going to talk biology and dynamic systems and ha’nts and goblins and what the hell happened to the mosquitoes that were so bad when we set up camp here. We may touch on why the old cow died. Mr. Lane, this is my niece, Carol Warren.”
The girl nodded to Lane.
“I have a firm conviction,” boomed Professor Warren, “that this young man is going to write, and I’m going to make a learned report on, some theories so wild that they’ll make Baron Munchausen’s best effort sound like a Sunday-morning chapel talk by the dean of women.” She rubbed her hands. “I’ll stir ’em up! If they don’t try to have me certified insane, they’ll get me thrown out of the society for—”
The Monster uttered a sound like a despairing scream. Then he snarled, facing empty air. It was unnatural and horrifying to see him bare his fangs at emptiness while he trembled horribly. He turned slowly, yelping, as if something unseeable moved. Then he snapped and growled furiously. But he was terrified. His yelps were cries of fear. Suddenly he screamed and bolted blindly, snapping at the emptiness about him. He dodged and twisted crazily, making an outcry which was hysteria and fear and the ultimate of panicky ferocity.
Lane felt all his muscles go rigid. Without any doubt, he knew that the Monster heard faint whining sounds, and perhaps had felt faint touches upon his fur, though there was nothing at all to be seen.
“It followed me!” Lane said savagely. Then he snapped to the girl: “Get inside! Fast! Get in the trailer!”
He pushed at the professor while the Monster rolled over, snapping, and then plunged crazily into a tangled mass of briars. There he continued to yelp. Seconds later he scuttled out the far side of the briars and bolted desperately for the trailer. He flung himself through the opened door, almost upsetting Carol as she stood there.
“Inside!” raged Lane. “Get in! Quick! Before it follows!”
His hair stood on end. He thought he heard a faint, shrill, venomous whine. He had the feeling of horror he’d felt back by the dead rabbits, but now he thought of wild things fighting hopelessly in the wilderness, and of the corpses he’d seen. The sound of whining increased, as if it came from more than one source.
He thrust Professor Warren frantically before him as he ripped off his coat and flailed the air with it. Invisible or not, he would know of anything his coat might touch.
“Quick!” he panted. “Hurry! Get inside!”