Professor Warren was chalk-white when the window was safely shut again and the two Gizmos which had got inside were destroyed. Carol herself had killed one by the exact method Lane had used earlier—plucking it from its victim by forming a sack of cloth about it, and then wringing that cloth until there was nothing left inside it to struggle. The professor had been the one attacked. The second Gizmo she’d located by its raging whine and the Monster’s snarls in its direction. She drove it by a lucky stroke of a whipping cloth into the flame of the stove. It died in that flame, itself a pale and lambent flicker of fire as its complex hydrocarbon gases burned.
Now there was darkness outside, and silence again. The inside lights were on and Professor Warren sat weakly still. Carol had recovered much more quickly from the similar attempt to suffocate her. But a younger girl is always more resilient than an older woman; Professor Warren had had security and prestige and authority for so long that she was dazed at the idea of an attempt upon her life. That it had been made by what she considered a biological specimen stunned her. Carol had been able to realize her danger more promptly, and more quickly accept the fact of safety regained.
“It was—stupid of me,” said Professor Warren in a trembling voice. “I couldn’t really believe there was real danger. Even when Carol was—attacked, you got the thing off her so swiftly that I did not truly realize … I am a very stupid old woman. I thought of these horrors as things to be studied, and nothing more.”
“They’re a lot more,” Lane told her. “They’ve been cagey, but I’m sure they’ve killed people before.”
“Appalling!” said the professor. She shuddered. “The only parallel I know to such a clanger appearing suddenly, is the appearance of rabies among bats in the Southern states. That’s been taken care of. The public has been warned. But here—”
Carol said quietly: “That’s not too good a parallel, Aunt Ann. Bats were known, and rabies was known. It had only to be proved that the two had gotten together. This is more difficult. You have to prove that these—things exist. And people who’ve never encountered them are going to find it hard to believe in them.”
“I’ll take care of that!” said the professor. “Let me get to a telephone.”
“I’m afraid,” said Lane, “that that’s a problem. How do we get to a telephone?”
The professor gaped at him. “What do you mean?” Then she said angrily. “Do you mean that these—these creatures—these Gizmos—” She stopped short. She seemed to shrivel a little.
“If they’re not too intelligent,” said Lane, “we will probably be all right. They’ll get tired of hanging around outside. But if they’re really smart, I don’t like the prospects.”
He moved to a window. There was only night outside the trailer, now. He screened his eyes with his hand to peer out into the moonlight. There was the dark mountain against a star-studded sky. To the east and below there was a filmy, glamorous mist which obscured the valley. The darkness was a very picture of tranquility. But it was deathly quiet—until he strained his ears and heard a faint whining, fainter than the humming of a mosquito. But it came from many sources. The Gizmos were waiting. He turned away. Carol searched his face. “You say they’ve killed animals all over the country. Maybe someone else has found out what they are. It might be on a radio news broadcast.”
Lane turned on the trailer’s radio. There was a hum and then the last notes of a hillbilly ballad. An announcer drawled:
“…And that ends the Gourdvine Boys program for today and this is—” a burst of static—“your friendly station in Danville. News follows in a moment, but first—”
Lane breathed, and was astonished at his relief that the situation here was not typical of that of all the world. He sat down. He listened to a commercial for a brand of fertilizer, delivered with immense enthusiasm. Then the news.
He felt better when the news bulletins began with international events. The news was reassuring because it was given first place, and disturbing because such pettinesses were capable of destroying the peace of the world. Political news. Then the day’s assortment of freak items. Radar stations all over the United States were reporting an extraordinary number of “Gizmos.” They were believed to be the basis of many flying-saucer stories. It had been guessed that they were actually areas of extra-high ionization in the air.
Professor Warren said shakily: “Gizmos. That’s what I called these creatures. But—but—if there’s metabolism in gas, there has to be ionization! They can be talking about these horrors!”
She listened tensely, but the subject of Gizmos was dropped. There was local news. A truck driver had been found dead in his truck, ten miles out of Danville. Apparently he’d pulled off the road for a nap, and had never wakened. But the windshield and side windows of the truck’s cab were broken.
The professor wrung her hands. Outside Pittsburg the bodies of two children, missing for a week, had been found. Apparently they had died of exposure shortly after their disappearance, though the weather had been warm and there had been no rain.
Professor Warren wrung her hands. “Gizmos!” she said bitterly.
There was an extraordinary movement of game out of certain forests in Aroostook County, Maine. Wild creatures were found on the highways in flight from their natural habitat. A commercial jet-liner, equipped with radar, had arrived in Kansas City with its pilot and copilot in a cold sweat. Its radar had repeatedly reported flying objects in its path, and the pilot had had to dodge all over the sky to avoid collisions—but he’d seen nothing. This seemed to check with ground radar reports of Gizmos in much greater than their usual number…
“Gizmos,” said Professor Warren, as Lane turned off the radio. “They’re ionization in the air. But they are so much morel The—horrors are alive and they feed on the gases of decay. To use such gases for energy at less than flame temperature, there has to be ionization. I wonder what they’d say if I told them that their radio Gizmos are living dynamic systems in gas? Probably what doctors said when it was suggested that diseases could be caused by germs!”
She relapsed into silence. Carol said quietly: “If they can’t pass through sheeting…”
Outside the trailer the Gizmos waited, ghostly in their tenuousness. They were very frail, in a way. A thousand of them, weighed in air, would hardly move the pointer of a scale. But they were cunning and very deadly. They were also in very many places where their existence was unsuspected.
In New York, for example, there was a pigeon fancier with a small building for nests and a screened exercise pen for his flock of two hundred homing pigeons. Tonight, as Lane and Carol consulted together in western Virginia, there was a small tumult on the roof of the New York apartment house where the pigeon fancier lived. The roof, of course, was deserted at this hour. Nobody noticed the disturbance. It began with very faint whining sounds which the traffic noises of the city drowned out. Presently there were scufflings and frantic flappings. A pigeon fought madly against suffocation. It fluttered desperately against the screen of the enclosure. Presently it was still. A little later another pigeon fought as crazily in the same confined space. The whining sounds grew louder. Other unseeable horrors—Gizmos—floated through the air toward the spot where the struggles went on. They drifted over the rooftops and above the streets which, like canyons, divided the city. They came from nearby parks and shrubbery-filled squares. They clustered about the pen in which pigeons fluttered helplessly and died. Undoubtedly the Gizmos took a certain pleasure in their murders. Dogs enjoy hunting; so do men. But Gizmos had to kill for a relatively long time before they could feed on what they killed. Therefore they secured a delectable pleasure out of the act of murder, which only later would provide them with food. It was a necessary provision of their nature.
There were two hundred pigeons in this particular enclosure. Nobody heard what took place there. Nobody came to investigate. After a certain interval there was a carpet of strangled birds on the floor of the exercise pen. Feathers from their wings, beaten off in their struggles, lay all about. But there was no longer any motion on the rooftop except that whining things which could not be seen drifted away again through the darkness above the buildings and the brightly lighted streets…
Within minutes of the finish of the pigeon massacre, a man turned into his own driveway in a suburb of Memphis, Tennessee. There was much shrubbery on the lawn, and the driveway was bordered by many bushes. The smell of growing things and honeysuckle was in the still air.
There was a movement at the end of the drive. The man’s small white dog had recognized the sound of his master’s car. He came joyously to meet the man. He was clearly visible in the headlights as he trotted, tail wagging, to meet the car. Halfway down the drive, the dog stopped short. He faced the thick brushwood on one side. He bristled. As the car drew near, he snarled. The man braked and opened the car door. Snarling over his shoulder, the dog jumped in. He hopped up on the front seat beside the man. Whining anxiously, he licked his face and then growled ferociously at something in the brushwood.
The man drove on. There were lights in his house. A lamp outside the door winked to brightness. His wife, also, had seen the coming car. As he drove into the garage she appeared in the doorway, smiling. Lights shone upon her, and on the steps, and on the smoothly cropped lawn nearby. It showed the vague shapes of blossoms on the nearer blooming shrubs. She waited for her husband as he and the dog moved toward her.
Then the man felt something like gossamer touch his face. He brushed it away. He heard a thin whine he attributed to a mosquito—and the dog leaped up upon him, snarling and barking and yelping all at once.
The man gasped. His wife cried out. The dog leaped and snapped furiously at the air before his master’s face. Then he turned from the man and made crazy rushes, snapping at empty air. Something seemed to be offering battle. It could not be seen. The dog screamed at it between his growlings. But he fought.
The man’s wife cried to him to come into the house: that the dog had gone mad. He did go into the house, but he looked out at the dog. He almost believed that it had something to fight—but not quite, because the lawn was lighted and there was absolutely nothing to be seen but the frantic, snapping dog.
Then the dog died…
Hundreds of miles from New York and from Tennessee, a young farmer drove his sweetheart homeward after a country dance. He had a reasonably new car whose motor purred satisfactorily. The highway ran near a patch of woodland. Behind this forest there was more and more; for thirty miles northward there was wilderness. But the road itself ran between fields of half-grown corn which stirred and rustled in the moonlight as the car purred on.
The man saw rabbits first, hopping on the road’s hard surface. One often sees a single rabbit when driving at night, but here were many. Then a woodchuck appeared in the headlight beams, waddling across the road. A hundred yards on there was a fox, which turned luminous eyes upon the car and hurried away into the corn. There were more rabbits, squirrels mixed in with them. He saw a second fox, paying no attention to its natural prey. He saw a doe, which the headlights bewildered so that it stood as if fascinated until the car had passed. He saw a skunk. Two fawns, shivering and afraid, fled ahead of the car along the highway. They disturbed a weasel before they rushed out of the light into the brush. There were a brown bear, and a buck deer, gazing about him with a hunted air. He snorted and vanished. He saw more rabbits, by hundreds, hopping across the Toad.
In a mile the speed of the car was reduced to a crawl, and the farmer and his sweetheart were in a state of purest bewilderment. Before them on the concrete—even beyond the headlight rays—there were what seemed to be thousands of shining jewels. They were the eyes of creatures who should have been deep in the woodland. They stared at the car’s lights and flowed across the highway. For nearly ten miles the young farmer and his sweetheart drove at a snail’s pace along this strangely crowded highway. It seemed at times as if the road were carpeted with the animals, large and small, which had lived in the forest to the north. They would have covered square miles if gathered into a single mass, but moving without plan as they did, sometimes half a mile of highway showed only a few of them, while other parts were black with moving, furry bodies.
The young farmer caught his breath as a consequence of this migration struck him. “They’ll eat up all the crops!” he said anxiously. “All these things feeding will be worse than locusts! They’ll eat up everything!” But somehow he could not bring himself to speed up the car and so diminish the number of wild creatures who migrated into the province of men.
This matter was, of course, one to which official attention would be given. An invasion of fields on which crops grew would not be dismissed as unimportant. But there were innumerable other matters which would be ignored: the deaths of cats in towns and cities; the finding of many dead rats upon city dumps, unwounded, yet stiff and cold with bared fangs; and there would be some disturbance over race horses found dead in their stalls…
Lane and Carol discussed possible weapons and possible protection against the Gizmos who definitely had not gone away from the trailer. Professor Warren slept a troubled sleep on a couch which opened into a double bed. There was no thought of relaxation in the ordinary sense. The trailer was beleaguered by things which could not be seen at all unless one knew where to look and understood the significance of a very slight wavering and wobbling of the background behind them.
Presently Lane spoke coldly of the grisly possibilities if there were enough of them, and if they were as cunning and as persistent as they seemed to be. The air in the trailer seemed to grow stale. He felt an angry uneasiness for Carol. He felt that there was something he had neglected which amounted to a near and present danger.
He got up abruptly and went about the living quarters of the biological laboratory vehicle. He checked the doors, as if the Gizmos had strength to move them. He verified that the windows were tightly shut. He made certain that the ventilator above the stove had not been disturbed. Anything that a smoke ring could pass through was suspect. He found nothing wrong, but the hunch persisted. He could not believe all was right. He went into the laboratory end of the trailer and turned on the lights.
There were gossamer touches on his face. He dragged the door shut behind him, because it would have taken longer to close it if he’d passed through first. He dragged at his coat, shouting: “Carol! Professor! Watch out! Gizmos are in!” A steady whining noise sounded all about him. He saw the laboratory clearly, neat and compact. There was a camera mounted on a stand, with an extraordinarily long-focus lens attached to it; it could take a close-up picture from an incredible distance. It pointed at a small opening in the trailer wall. During travel, that opening was closed by an aluminum-faced cover. During the time when such a camera was in daily use, a cardboard shield covered it. The cardboard was one of those convenient makeshifts often used without thought.
Without thought. Because now the cardboard was toppled to the floor. Perhaps the moving of that cardboard by Gizmos was comparable to the shifting of a locomotive by the strength of men, but it had been accomplished. The laboratory was filled with faintly whining things.
Dick Lane leaned back against the door, frantically making sure that it was tightly shut. He gasped his lungs full of air before it could be denied him, and got his coat before his face. Then he shouted again to Carol and the professor that they must not open the door.
He almost exulted in the rage that filled him, because he was confident that now he knew how to handle the beasts. He heard Carol, anxious and frightened. The professor urged him to protect himself as he’d done near the dead rabbits.
Again he shouted through the muffling cloth. The Gizmos couldn’t harm him through cloth. True, there were whining noises in his ears, and gossamer touches upon his forehead and hair. But he glared vengefully above his wadded coat at the seemingly empty room. He shouted again, confidently. He was going to attack the Gizmos with something he’d pick up and use like a flail. They could tack a sheet around the doorway. When he’d cleared the laboratory—or thought he had—he’d open the door, step into the space enclosed by the sheet, and close the door behind him again. It would be like an airlock. If any surviving Gizmo should enter the lock with him, it could be spotted and destroyed. Meanwhile he was safe. There was no hurry.
He stepped forward. He felt stirring resistance, a horrible sensation. He flailed out with one arm, the other holding his coat before his face. Something gave. There was a sickening reek of carrion. He struck again.
Then he realized he was not moving in free air, in which Gizmos floated. He was submerged in Gizmos which had replaced the air. There was no air except what was entrapped by his coat. It was like being in a room packed tightly with balloons filled with unbreathable gas. He could break them, but he could not get air. There was no air. There were only Gizmos. His lungs starved. He panted in the air he had already breathed. It would not support life. It would not let him keep his senses. He began to feel dizzy.
He began to fight blindly to break through the yielding, implacable barrier about him. He heard things smash, but only dimly. It was laboratory apparatus. He heard a window break, but it meant no breath for him. He fought in a dimming horror, panting, struggling with less and less purpose.
He fell, and something whined shrilly, and then he couldn’t even gasp in air that did him no good at all. Consciousness went…
But a long, long time later he was dully aware that he was still alive. He was outside the trailer, and there were stars overhead. He could breathe. He heard Carol sobbing quietly. He stirred faintly, and the professor exclaimed: “He’s alive!”
He mumbled. Presently he could sit up. He heard winnings, but nothing touched him. He said thinly: “What happened?”
“If you want to hear it—” snapped the professor—“if you want to!” She raged. “We’ve been taken prisoner by the Gizmos! They’re intelligent, and we’re their prisoners, and they haven’t killed us yet because we’re something new! We’re human beings who know they exist! So they’re going to experiment with us. We’re guinea pigs for these damned Gizmos to do research with!”