The situation, the atmosphere, and the facts were straight out of an outrageously unreasonable nightmare. There were bright stars overhead. Low on the horizon there was a gibbous moon, risen long after sunset. There were strained, contorted tree shapes on the mountainside. There was the aluminum-bodied trailer, glittering on its moonward side and abysmally black where it cast a shadow. And there was silence—almost.
Winnings sounded very close to his ear, and the hair tended to rise all over his scalp. Carol, straining her eyes to see him, said swiftly: “That’s a signal. A steady whine is when they’re angry. But little whinings—they want us to do something.”
Lane ground his teeth. “Well?”
“You’ve been unconscious a long time. We were sure you were dead. We’ve learned some things. They expect you to move away from them when they touch you.”
There was an infinitely gentle touch at the back of Lane’s neck. He said grimly, unmoving: “Something’s touching me now.”
“Obey it!” said Carol urgently. “Get up! Move!”
Lane sat more grimly still and the touch at the back of his neck was repeated.
“Why?” he demanded.
“They’re studying us,” said Carol. “And Aunt Ann’s studying them! We’ve got to find out what they want, how intelligent they are, how we can fool them or escape them…”
“If they’re studying us,” said Lane furiously, “they’re too intellig—”
His breath cut off. He sat fiercely still, not trying to breathe. The impulse was defiance in the total absence of hope. But as he sat immobile, fiercely ignoring the thing that acted to suffocate him, he realized that to a nonhuman creature the action would be baffling. No lower animal, no bird or beast or insect, would react otherwise than directly to the stoppage of its breath. They would fight for air. A Gizmo would judge of the death of a victim by the cessation of its attempts to breathe. So if Lane held his breath, to a Gizmo he would seem dead-yet not dead, either.
He sat utterly still, his hands clenched.
The blanketing thing moved away. He had not tried to breathe, and therefore it was not necessary to deprive him of air any longer. Lane gasped silently and drew pure air into his lungs. There were thin, elfin sounds in the night. Not whinings, these, but musical notes.
“I held my breath,” he observed coldly, “and it went away.”
Professor Warren said in a strained voice: “Splendid! But don’t overwork it! Carol, you understand the trick?”
Carol said coldly, “Something wants me to get up. I’m going to do it.”
She rose, in the eerie light of the distorted moon. She moved forward, stopped, backed, then turned.
Professor Warren’s voice, strained as before, shook with her anger and humiliation. “Damn them!” she said bitterly. “I can’t be sure whether they’re actually studying us, as we’d study them with half a chance, or whether they’re simply playing with us like a cat with a mouse.”
“Possibly both,” said Lane. “Or it could be something else entirely. An animal doesn’t think like a man.”
“They’re not animals!” snapped the professor. “They’re gas. They’re not even protoplasm! How could they be animals?”
The singular, tense rigidity with which Carol obeyed the orders of invisible things ceased. She came back to the others, trembling.
“They let me go,” she said shakily. “I hate them!”
The professor said, “Did you understand the trick of holding your breath? A carnivorous animal keeps up its attack until its prey ceases to offer resistance to being eaten. These creatures aren’t carnivorous. They’re foetiverous—a good term. It would mean an cater of foul smells. They will keep up their attack until their victim is ready to decay. So when one stops trying to breathe—” She stopped, and filled her lungs. She said curtly: “I’m getting orders now. I shall try it.”
She sat immobile. There was silence. The professor was perhaps five yards from Lane, who sat with clenched hands in the somehow grisly moonlight in a silent world. Nor was there any movement. The professor sat stony-still, while something whined faintly. Lane watched with burning eyes. Carol pressed her hand to her mouth, watching.
After an inordinately long time, the professor breathed again.
“It worked,” she said unsteadily. “Now they’ll talk that over and try to figure out how we can stop breathing and then start up again. At least I suppose they’ll talk it over!”
Carol said, in a faintly apologetic tone: “When you stopped fighting, Dick, back in the trailer, Aunt Ann and I got desperate. So we put sheets over our heads, with holes for our eyes, and we—went in the laboratory to try to help you. We had a sheet to put over your head, too. But there were too many Gizmos. We could breathe, but they closed us in. They even got underneath the sheets, making that awful whine…”
The professor added: “They drowned us—stifled us, by keeping air from us. I collapsed, and Carol did a moment later. Apparently they drew back and let us recover. I thought they’d gone away, satisfied that we were dead. We dragged you out to the open air. We heard no winnings. We tried to make you breathe again. Then they closed in on us once more…” She shuddered. “Three times they stifled us! Three times they drew back before we quite died!” She added abruptly, “They had us, even in the trailer.” “I believe they did,” agreed Lane slowly. “The way they got me, in the laboratory just now—” He stopped short. There were whinings at his ear. Something touched him. He said very grimly, “They know I’m breathing again. I’m obeying, this time, just to make it confusing.”
He rose. He was urged forward. He was halted by a touch on his forehead. He obeyed, while shame filled him that he obeyed even to gain time. He stumbled and fell, and his hands touched dry grass. He seized it, and when he rose, he stuffed dry grass into his pockets.
“I gathered some dry grass,” he said coldly, as he allowed himself to be directed to the right. “I have a lighter. Gather dry stuff if you can. We burned a Gizmo in the trailer!”
Carol began to fumble about her, as the professor gave an inarticulate sound of comprehension. She began to scrabble for dead grass, too.
Lane halted in obedience to a touch on his forehead. He walked backward, at another touch. He heard the rustling of dry straw being gathered.
“I’m wondering,” he said tautly, “if they are trying to train us. They could be trying to panic us. They might want us to run and exhaust ourselves, to make our suffocation easier. If we’re out of breath—”
Something sealed his nose and mouth, somehow deliberately. He dropped to the ground. He lay with his nose against the earth, his arms moving out to gather straw.
There were no more touches. No more whines. It seemed as if the Gizmo which had exercised him had contemptuously flung him to the ground. He shook with fury. But he gathered straw as he went back to the others.
“Here’s my straw,” he said briefly. “I’ve got matches, too, and here—my lighter’s dependable. But we haven’t enough burnable stuff…”
Carol crawled a little distance away. He heard additional rustlings. He stared up at the sky. Stars twinkled. Then he saw a star which wavered and wobbled without twinkling at all. Once he had seen that, he could perceive the distortion of the star field in a nearly circular space. He could see that the wavering moved. He could see, in fact, a Gizmo.
“There’s gasoline in the trailer,” said the professor. He heard her also at work in the tall grass about them. “It’s for the light generator. Two gallons.”
“It’ll help,” said Lane.
They crawled, pulling dry grass. Their small pile became a larger one. There were no more winnings, but there were muted fluting sounds in the air.
“They’re talking us over,” said the professor. With a pile of straw before her, she grew vengeful. “What is the time?”
“Four,” said Lane. “I think this straw will do. Better twist some for handling. I doubt they’ll let us live to daybreak. There’ve been daylight killings, but usually—”
“Yes, they’d hunt by night and feed by day, normally,” Professor Warren said. “The gases they feed on would naturally develop more quickly in hot sunshine.”
There was a sort of moaning somewhere in the night. It could have been made by voices which ordinarily whined. It could have been a sudden sweep of wind among many branches. But it had too unearthly a quality to be anything so natural.
“That,” said Lane, “could be a decision, if they’ve been discussing us.”
The three humans tensed. Lane twisted masses of straw into bundles whose farther ends were loose and frayed, but which had a tightly bunched end to serve as a handle.
“I think they’re moving,” said the professor tautly. “In a body. Toward us.”
“Maybe,” said Carol unsteadily, “they—sent word about us somewhere and waited for orders. And now they’ve got them.”
“Ridiculous!” scoffed the professor.
Lane inconspicuously snapped his cigarette lighter. He held it ready, its flame very small, rising undisturbed in the still air.
He saw the stars waver, toward the south. He looked uphill. Stars wavered there, too. To the east and the north. Overhead there were moving areas in which the stars did not seem to stay still, but to waver erratically to and fro, exactly as if masses of hot gases moved about between the people and the sky.
“They’re closing in,” said Lane curtly. “Overhead and all around.”
He saw a little flare. Professor Warren, bent over, absorbedly struck a safety match on the cover of its packet. Carol waited, her body tense.
Things touched Lane, and the air about him ceased to be. He felt even his clothing stir all over his body as invisible things pressed against it, throbbing and suddenly emitting spiteful, snarling whines. His face and neck felt ticklings like thousands of spider webs thrown to cover and enmesh him. He saw nothing. He heard only the whines. And he could not breathe.
The hand that held the cigarette lighter was untouched. He moved it, to a torch of dry straw. The straw caught and flames leaped up, and the winnings about him seemed to become shrieks, unspeakably eerie and horrible. The air—the Gizmos—touching his body acquired the feel of a ghastly, throbbing wall. The violence of its movement almost toppled him. He waved the torch savagely, and sparks flew in every direction, and there were more ghostly, keening, wailing sounds. Then he could breathe, but the air about him was foul with mephitic odors. He turned triumphantly to the others, to see how the fire was aiding them.
Carol sat tensely with a flaming torch before her. The professor had fallen. Her first match had gone out. Her hands still tried desperately to strike a second, but the brittle bit of cardboard had bent in her grasp.
Lane strode to her and waved his grassy flare about her like someone making mystic conjurations. But it dripped sparks. Things fled, uttering tiny, unearthly shrieks. “I think,” he said savagely, as Professor Warren gasped for the breath that again became possible, “I think we fooled them this time!”
His torch was already down to the hard-twisted handle. He plucked another from his belt and lighted it. It crackled and blazed brightly, and he waved it above his head. The look of things was lunacy: three human beings on the spur of a mountain, menacingly waving torches at the moonlight all about.
“The trailer,” snapped Lane. “We’ve got to get set before we try to get far away.” Carol helped the professor to her feet. “And I thought,” panted the professor, “that they were interesting things to study!”
They made their way toward the trailer. Its electric lights still burned. There was a thin chorus of awful fury all about them. Lane’s torch had burned out, and Carol waved hers until he could light another from it. Then the professor marched ahead, scattering sparks lavishly. They reached the trailer and entered it. They waved torches all about its interior, hearing more small shrieks. Once there was a small impact as something in frantic flight bounced against Lane’s cheek. The professor lighted all four burners of the bottled-gas stove.
“I feel a fondness for flames, now,” she said sardonically.
There was a whimpering, and the Monster crawled from under the couch. Its daytime cover reached down to the floor, and even so slight a barrier had kept Gizmos from entering the space beneath. The Monster, though, was in a pitiable state. He trembled and moaned.
“Temporarily,” said Lane coldly, “we are on top. But I’m wondering how long we can stay there.”
“We have to warn the public,” said the professor. “We have to tell about the existence of these Gizmos and how dangerous they are. That is our first duty. If we can capture one to demonstrate—”
“We did,” said Carol. “We did that once, Aunt Ann!
And it made noises and others came running. We don’t want to keep a horde of them about us, trying to kill us for our prisoner’s sake! That would be too much proof!”
“True. Then we go and make our reports—I to the University, and Dick to his sportsmen’s magazine. They’ll alert the authorities, and there will be a prompt handling of the whole situation!”
Carol looked at Lane. He shrugged.
“We’ll see. I’ll make some firepots. We can’t depend on two gallons of gasoline to last forever, but we can pick up sticks and stuff to keep pots going. Where’s a can opener?”
Carol found one and helped him. He opened three cans of food at random. A firepot is a tin can with its top off, a draught hole in one side near the bottom, and a handle made of wire to sling it from. Small boys make them every fall by some mysterious instinct, and gloriously carry them about for no reason whatever until their parents make them stop for fear of arson. Lane quickly made three of them.
“You can whirl it about your head,” he observed, “with the draught hole forward to blow up the fire. I don’t think Gizmos can face such things as this.”
He demonstrated the whirling of a firepot at the end of its two-foot wire handle. He found a wooden packing box in the trailer and kicked it into pieces no bigger than his hand. Using those fragments, he started a fire in one of the tin firepots. He gave it to Carol. He started a second small blaze in a similar contrivance for the professor. He needed a third for himself. He slung the gasoline can over his shoulder and stuffed his pockets with bits of broken wood. They went out of the trailer, leaving it brightly lighted.
They looked unusual as they struck out across the mountain—a young man in tweedy city clothing, a slim young girl in slacks, and an ample older female in riding breeches and puttees. From time to time they whirled their firepots angrily about their heads, and more than once they stopped and gathered about the Monster, who had rolled over on his back and screamed and snapped at nothingness. At such times they grimly passed small containers of glowing coals close to his body until he whimpered and got to his feet again. Also they gathered earnestly about deadfalls and broke off bark and bits of branches to be carried with them for later use in the firepots.
The mountains reared upward as they trudged. The professor was now filled with vengeful thoughts concerning the doom she would presently bring upon Gizmos. Carol absorbedly kept her firepot alight, though she was instantly attentive to any word from Lane. He led the way, and tried to compose a reasonable account of what he’d learned which would convince people who had not been attacked by Gizmos.
They talked very little as they made their way along the trail. There were places where trees closed overhead and hid the heavens. Here the darkness was intense, and the tiny draught holes of the firepots let out dullish red glows which had to guide them past fallen tree trunks and boulders resting in the way. There was the feel of ghastly things lurking among the trees, and the Monster yelped and howled as he trudged with them, panting, and though there was no sound of movement, they knew that things—Gizmos—accompanied them malevolently through the blackness, hoping for the fires in the little tin cans to go out.
After a long time they came to open spaces, where innumerable stars shone overhead, and they could look for miles across mountains lighted by the misshapen moon. Sometimes they felt the small puffs of an errant night breeze, and in every case its touches seemed like signs of an attack by monstrous, unsubstantial fiends, and they flung their firepots about and scattered sparks in all directions.
They saw no other lights, though it was not likely that they looked out over only uninhabited ground. But also they heard no night birds until a grayish glow appeared very, very far away at the horizon. Carol noticed it first.
“Day’s coming,” she said quietly.
Then they heard, with infinite faintness, the lonely cry of a bird very far away. It had not been murdered, like all things of flesh and blood in the area they had passed through.
“I’m surprised that we’ve lived this long,” said Lane grimly. “I don’t think our troubles are over yet, though.”
The professor said firmly, “I shall get a research team down here immediately. These things are dangerous! They must be taken in hand immediately!”
She made the statement with that unconscious confidence in superiority which human beings have inherited through some thousands of generations. But Lane did not fully share it. He knew that there must be Gizmos nearly everywhere. How many? And would those fragile horrors gain strength in numbers?
Some time later, sunlight glowed upon the mountains, and they cast vast shadows upon each other, and little white clouds in the sky were brilliant in sunshine that still had a trace of pink in it. Grass and foliage glittered with dew, and the air smelled fresh and glorious. Now, birds called to each other from the mountainsides. Somewhere a dog barked. Even insects buzzed in the dawn light.
Professor Warren surveyed the scene. The three had come out of a thicket of mountain laurel, and before them there was a gravel road which seemed to come from nowhere and to lead on to the same destination. There was no house in sight, but there was a steep, grass-grown hillside with patches of red clay showing, which could have been a pasture. A catbird perched on a branch less than thirty feet away and uttered its raucous cry.
The professor looked about her with great satisfaction.
“Birds singing,” she said appreciatively. “I hear bugs. This territory, anyhow, is not occupied by Gizmos. And now we’ve got to get to a long-distance wire and get things in motion.” She said in sudden indignation: “The nerve of those Gizmos!” She dumped the smoking embers of her firepot. “I’ve felt silly all the time I’ve been carrying that! But now we’re safe! Which way should we go?”
Carol started a little at her aunt’s action. She looked mutely at Lane. He shrugged.
“Murfree’s courthouse should be somewhere over yonder,” he said, nodding toward his left. “We’re probably still five or six miles away, though.”
“And my feet hurt!” complained the professor. “I—”
There was a noise in the distance. She stopped, looking avidly toward the source of the sound. It increased and was plainly the motor of an automobile traveling on this highway. It came into view. It was a battered, dark-green car five or six years old.
“We hitch a ride,” said the professor with authority. “I’ve got to get somebody down here with equipment to make a proper study of those monstrosities!”
She waved her arms. The car braked and stopped. The man who drove it regarded them with lively interest.
“Can you give us a lift?” asked Lane.
It would not be wise to start a conversation with a sane person by trying to explain the emergency behind the request.
“Where d’you want to go?” asked the man. “Hop in.”
“We want,” said the professor firmly, “to get to a telephone. A pay telephone, because we have to make some long-distance calls.”
She climbed into the car. There were many parcels in the car, and she rearranged them to make room for herself in the back seat. Carol looked mutely at Lane, indicating the firepot in her hand in which coals still smoldered. He glanced at the Monster; the dog was exhausted from past terror, but he did not seem frightened now.
“I guess it’s all right,” he said slowly. “I’ve still got the gasoline and my lighter. And this car will travel fairly fast.”
She dumped the coals, and he emptied his own. It did not occur to either—not even to the professor—to abandon the queer objects which had been such effective defenses against the Gizmos during the night. The Monster had to be lifted into the car, and then Lane and Carol climbed in. The driver watched them wisely. He shifted the gear lever and the motor roared. The car jolted into motion and its clamor grew less.
The driver said brightly, “You’ll be that professor that’s studying turkey-buzzards back that way. Right?”
“Right,” said the professor.
“And she’s your niece,” said the driver, “and he’s that fellow that writes pieces about hunting.” “Right,” said the professor.
“My name’s Burke,” said the driver. “Glad to meet you. You found out what killed those cows and partridges and foxes and coons and such?”
Lane didn’t answer, and the professor only grunted. She was beginning to realize that in bright sunshine, with birds and insects filling the air with sound, the idea of living creatures which were not flesh and blood, and which suffocated more normal things so that they might gorge on the odors of decay—in bright sunshine an average person might tend to be skeptical. But…
“I found out,” said Burke. “I’m not sure I believe it, but I found out. So I’m leavin’ these parts. Got my luggage right here with me. I’m goin’ some place else.”
“What did you find out?” asked Lane.
“Never mind!” said Burke. “Never mind that! You wouldn’t believe me if I told you!”
He pressed the accelerator. The car picked up speed. It ran onward through the new morning with the hillsides echoing back its roaring. The highway swung right to encircle an out-jutting part of a mountainside, and ran over a narrow bridge spanning a brook all of five feet wide. It turned left again, and then Burke swung off the gravel road and went bumping and bouncing down a still narrower road with a bed of powdery dust. The dust rose in a reddish cloud behind the car. “Nearest telephone’s along this way,” said Burke.
“That’s a new road we were on. This fellow built a fillin’ station where he thought the new road would come, an’ then the highway folks didn’t build it there. He got fooled.”
Lane said in a low tone to Carol: “We should be safe now. It’s unthinkable that Gizmos could travel really fast. Even if they trailed us from the forest, they’d have been left behind now.”
Carol nodded. But her features looked oddly pinched, as if she had a premonition she could not bring herself to mention.
The car swerved around the curving boundary of a cornfield, its trail of swirling dust conspicuous behind it. It swung in to a modern filling station which seemed to belong on a well-traveled road instead of a dusty dirt one. Burke braked on its concrete apron.
“Telephone here,” he reported. “Hi, Sam! I brought you some phone customers.”
The filling station proprietor came out, leisurely. A cat accompanied him. The professor got out of the car and nodded briskly. She could see the phone. She went inside, fumbling in the pockets of her breeches for coins. The Monster lay on the floor of the car, panting. The filling station operator said humorously:
“Seen any more ha’nts?”
Burke said primly: “Hell! I didn’t say I saw anything! Y’ can’t see ’em! They’ll move danglin’ strings, an’ they make noises, an’ they’ll make tracks in flour sprinkled over a buried dead chicken. But y’ can’t see ’em!”
Lane and Carol exchanged startled glances. Then Lane’s face went expressionless. He could see Professor Warren inside the plate-glass window of the filling station. She put coins into the instrument.
“When I see ’em,” said Sam, “I’ll think about believin’ in ’em.”
Professor Warren greeted someone on the telephone. She began to speak, crisply and with authority, into the instrument. She evidently spoke with great precision and with scientific terminology.
“They’ve been killin’ things,” said Burke sagely. “They’re what’s killed off the game people’ve been talkin’ about. They killed those cows in the courthouse a while back.”
Sam said humorously: “They ain’t killed me yet.”
“They’ll get to you,” said Burke firmly. “They’ve been leavin’ us humans alone—so far. I’m not stayin’ around till they start killin’ people. I’m gettin’ out.”
“Scared?” asked Sam incredulously. “Scared of something you can’t see?”
“Yep,” said Burke. “I’m scared of anything I can’t fight. And how’re you goin’ to fight somethin’ you can’t see?”
Inside the station, Professor Warren’s expression turned to one of shock, her face bewildered and crimsoning. Then she bellowed infuriatedly into the transmitter. A sound came through the plate glass. It was the professor’s voice, expressing a violently disparaging opinion of the person at the other end of the line. Then she stopped and jiggled the hook furiously. She slammed down the receiver and came out, raging.
“Idiot!” she barked. “Lunatic! Fool! Imbecile! He pretends to think I’m joking and says it’s bad taste to get him out of bed to listen to a joke! He hung up on me! He says he’s going to complain to the dean!”
She stamped her feet, ready to weep from pure frustration. But at this instant the Monster whimpered. Then he yelped. Then he screamed, and tried to burrow beneath one of the seats of the car. He scratched desperately to make a place to hide, while he howled ever more shrilly and horribly.
By instinct, Lane swept his eyes about as his hand went to the two-gallon gasoline can which so far he had not used at all. Carol gasped and pointed.
Back along the dirt road on which the car had come to this place, there was a cloudlike stirring of the air. Over the top of the growing corn they saw a great movement of dust. At first glance—but only at first—it looked as if another car were on the way here. But this dust cloud was larger than a car could raise, and it was not stirred up to float and then settle back again. This cloud moved as a unit, and it did not merely sweep along the highway. It rolled. It was a monstrous ball of airborne reddish powder which rolled swiftly and terribly onward, at the height of a six-story building. It was unnatural. It was artificial. It was organized. It was horribly, terribly purposeful.
It came swiftly toward the filling station.