Lane jumped out of the car, unscrewing the top of the gasoline can as he moved. He began to pour recklessly, making a fifteen-foot circle of wetness on the dry ground.
“Firepots!” he snapped. “Carol, get ’em, quick! Get inside this circle! Get the others in it!”
He lighted the gasoline he’d spilled. The flame ran around the ring of oil-soaked ground.
The gigantic dust ball swept on. It turned in its path, following the roadway, rolling up to and over the filling station. There it ceased to roll. Instead, it hovered. Dust poured down from it in a blinding, choking downpour. There was a shrill sound in the air, like the keening of a storm wind. There were eddies and currents and violent gusts, in which the gasoline flames leaped and gamboled. There was a duststorm of a thickness and intensity to overwhelm anything, but it was strictly localized. A hundred yards from the filling station in any direction, the air was perfectly calm. There was no stirring of dust. There was no disturbance of the early-morning tranquility. But in the center of the dust cloud …
“In here!” rasped Lane. “Come in here!”
He dragged at Carol, bringing her into the ring of fire. The professor came, stumbling. Lane plunged out through the flames and brought in Burke. The filling station proprietor was down, fighting madly for breath, flailing his arms crazily, suffocating and half buried in dust. Lane broke out again, holding his breath, and dragged at him. The strangling man fought as if he were drowning. And things tugged at Lane. His garments quivered. Gizmos as individuals were the weakest of creatures, but here they seemed to have formed themselves into a greater dynamic system whose parts were Gizmos. Swirling currents composed of the whining horrors twisted and spun madly in a complex fashion which combined their separate strengths into the power of storm winds close to hurricane force.
The owner of the filling station fought the tumbling dust as if it were water in which he was drowning. He caught Lane by the body and tried to climb. Lane himself was strangling…
The reek of burning gasoline struck his nostrils. Carol had scooped up gas-soaked dust in a firepot and bent over him with it. His mouth and nostrils were unsealed, while the squealing about him grew more shrill. But what stuff he had to breathe was an intolerable reek of pure foulness.
He staggered back to the ring of flame, dragging the other man. Carol swung her tin-can torch. They got through to the center of the ring of fire. Dust drifted down in palpable masses. Any other source of flame would have been put out, but the gasoline wetted the dust which fell into it, and flamed even higher as it spread out. The professor, with shaking hands, filled a firepot with burning, gas-soaked dust and whirled it about her head, shouting indistinguishable things above the uproar.
“It’ll burn out soon!” panted Carol in Lane’s ear.
“I know!” he gasped. “Come with me! Swing the firepot! I’ll pump gas out on the ground and light it.”
She caught his hand lest they be separated, and they plunged through the smoky yellow flames. Instantly they were in a monstrous tumult and a storm of blinding, stifling dust. It was partly pure good fortune which made Lane stumble into Burke’s car in the midst of the screaming obscurity about him. Its wheels were already hub-deep in dust. He dragged Carol around the car and fought his way to the gas pumps. He pulled loose a hose and flipped the switch arm so that the pump would start. He lurched away to the limit of the hose’s length-breathing through doubled folds of his coat while Carol swung a firepot—and spurted out a flood of gasoline, letting it pour at full volume on the ground.
Carol cried in his ear: “The firepot’s burned out!”
Things tugged at him. He began to suffocate, even with the coat letting him breathe after a fashion, because he was submerged, enclosed in a fiercely clinging mass of Gizmos.
Then he snapped his lighter. Incredibly, the spilled pool of car fuel caught. There was something like a booming roar, and flames leaped up crazily downwind, and there was a shrieking and a wrenching twist of the massed Gizmos nearby as yellow fire leaped up twenty and thirty feet into the air.
Lane gasped for breath. Carol staggered, panting. He steadied her, and then took the burned-out firepot from her hand and dribbled gasoline into it and lighted it at the booming pond of fire, and threw the flaming sand to right and left. There were more thin screamings.
“That’s the trick!” he panted.
He flung more burning gasoline-soaked dust. Flames went soaring through the close-packed Gizmos of the cloud formation. The greater dynamic system was wounded, as parts of it were ignited and tended to pass their own destruction on to others. Then, still unable to speak for lack of breath, Carol pointed. Lane struggled to drag the gas hose nearer to the ring of fire he’d first made, and made another leaping pool of flame, and a third…
The squealing cloud began to thin. The globular cluster of Gizmos seemed to evaporate, because it ceased to exist as a unit. The dust the separate creatures had carried now drifted downward. The Gizmos themselves became invisible, as before they made themselves into a jinnlike swirling cloud. Perhaps they fled, or perhaps they continued to hover nearby. Lane knew only that they no longer whined and whirled about the filling station, and that the towering mass of dust was now settling tranquilly to the ground.
The scene of the attack had changed remarkably within the past ten minutes. When the car had arrived, there’d been a dusty dirt road leading past a gas-pump platform of concrete. There’d been a very neat, modern filling station, with a workshop and a greasing rack and plate-glass windows all tidy and bright and businesslike. Now there was a great splotch of fallen dust upon the landscape, like a miniature Sahara. From four different spots, four fountains of smoky yellow flame roared upward. Dense black soot rose in columns from the tops of the flames. The filling station was smeared with dust. A dune ran into the workshop. There were rust-red hillocks, one of which almost enclosed the car, and an area a hundred yards across in which no green thing showed: it was pure dry powder, fine as talc.
Staggering, nearly knee-deep in the impalpable stuff, the professor and Burke hauled at something so covered with dust that it was unrecognizable until they had it in the clear. It was Sam, the filling-station proprietor. The professor began to apply artificial respiration, unskillfully but with great earnestness. At her command, Burke helped her. There was a tiny stirring somewhere and the station cat broke the surface of the dust. It sneezed and spat and moved daintily away to more solid ground.
One of the fires began to burn low. The flame ring Lane had made first now went out. They smelled burned gasoline. Lane looked anxiously at Carol. She nodded reassurance. Together, they waded through the yielding dust to where the professor and Burke labored over Sam.
“This affair,” panted the professor, “is a great deal more serious than I imagined. I’m afraid this poor man is dead!”
Burke, working beside her, said profoundly: “You folks must’ve worked things out even better than I did. I wouldn’t’ve thought of fighting ghosts with fire. But it sure chased ’em!”
“And things like this,” the professor panted, “are apt to happen all over the country. I am beginning to feel genuine alarm. We simply have to alert the authorities. We have to set research teams at work to solve the problem these Gizmos present. They—why, they are a menace to everybody! They can do incalculable harm!”
She worked resolutely at the task of trying to revive the owner of the filling-station, Burke, at her side, working with a precision indicating practice at this task.
“If you don’t need help just yet,” said Lane, “I’ll try the phone again. May be able to get a doctor.”
He waded through the dust to the station again. Carol, as if automatically, went with him. He used the telephone, first to try to get a doctor for the owner of the station, and then for long distance. It was incongruous to have so desperately urgent a task to do, and to have the telephone operator break in from time to time, demanding more coins in the phone lest she break off the connection. Toward the end, Carol was handing Lane the coins he needed. Once, he heard the ringing of a cash register bell.
He hung up, his face dark.
“It’s not good?”
“It could hardly be worse,” he said bitterly. “No doctor. There are only two in Murfree. They’re both out on emergency calls. People dead or believed to have died in their sleep. I tried for other doctors nearby. There were a dozen sudden deaths in the county last night, in four families. All the doctors are busy trying to find out what they died of, because it looks contagious.” His voice was ironic. “They’re trying to find out how to protect the other members of the families involved, because they must have been exposed! A sudden disease is a better explanation than mine for the things that happened everywhere last night. It’s easier to believe, anyhow!”
He started for the door. Carol said: “Dick, I had to take change from the cash register, for the telephone.”
He handed her a bill, and she put it in the cash drawer, closed it, and followed him out. The professor had ceased her efforts at artificial respiration and stood wringing her hands. Burke had heaved Sam’s limp form over his shoulder and was struggling through the dust toward the station.
“He’s dead,” said the professor unhappily. “We tried, but—We just thought to look. And he’d breathed in dust. He drowned in dust. He gasped for breath and his lungs filled with it as if it had been water. Nothing can be done—nothing!”
Burke said, “His number was up, that’s all. Those things came, carryin’ dust, an’ they dropped it. They’d’ve managed to put out any fire we made except a gasoline fire. That’s what they had the dust for.” He added, “Somebody must’ve fought ’em with fire before, and they figured out what to do about it.”
“We did,” said Lane grimly. He spoke to the professor. “Gizmos aren’t a local product. They’re nation-wide. There were sudden deaths everywhere last night—hundreds of them. What’s happened here has been happening everywhere, with variations. The official reaction is that some new disease has developed among animals, and that now it’s attacking humans. It’s called a plague, which so far has hardly appeared in cities. People are advised to get rid of their pets, to stay away from any place where there’s wild life, and to wait for bacteriologists and epidemologists to track down the germ and develop immunizing shots against it.”
The professor was appalled. “The idiots!” she raged. “The fools! We’ve got to tell them—”
“No,” said Lane. “We’ve got to show them.”
Burke waded past him with his burden. He put the proprietor inside his filling station. Then he went out to the car and examined it carefully and brushed a six-inch mass of dust from the top of the hood. He brushed at the radiator, then climbed in and started the motor, listening with a critical ear. He nodded, and put it in gear. The car moved slowly through the dust, which flowed almost like a liquid. Its exhaust left a trail on the surface. There were monstrous frozen dust waves made by its wheels. The dunelike coating on its roof slipped and slid and poured downward.
Once clear of the thicker dust deposit, Burke stopped the car again. He got out and came back to the filling station. He came out with a brush and cloths. He began to clean the car, and then wipe the windows to transparency once more. When he had finished, he beat at his own clothing to rid it of dust.
“I’m known to sportsmen as a reasonably truthful writer about hunting,” said Lane, “but that’s not a quick channel to acceptance of our information. This is too serious to waste time persuading people about. Have you better contacts than that?”
The professor wrung her hands. “If they’ve got the idea that it’s a plague,” she said bitterly, “it’ll be ten times harder to make them see sense! There’s nobody as hidebound as a researcher! They talk about teamwork, but it means that nobody dares think anything the rest of the team won’t accept! And I’ve got a reputation for imagination, which is the one thing that scares a scientific mind! They’ll believe anybody but me—anybody with a doctorate, at least!”
Burke approached, still brushing at his clothing. He had an odd air of combined apprehension and zest.
“Me,” he said, “I’m leaving. I figure you people kept me from getting what he got—” he gestured toward the filling station—“and you know plenty that I’d like to know. You knew what to do when they came in a cloud. I’ve got to figure things out, and I want all the information I can get. Want to come along with me?”
“We certainly don’t want to stay here,” Lane said. He turned to the professor again. “Your best bet, of course, is to get back to the University with your facts.”
“Facts? What good are facts? I’ve got to show Gizmos—alive, dead, stuffed and made into microscopic slides for histological examination before anybody with a scientific reputation will agree that a thing can be alive without being flesh and blood. But I’ve had ’em try to strangle me! Those things are dangerous!”
“Look,” said Lane. “I’ve got some friends—a mixed bunch. Some will believe me, but as mere businessmen who hunt and fish, nobody will listen to them any more than to me. But there’s one man—he’s head of a pharmaceutical laboratory in New Jersey. They make antibiotics and such things. We’ve hunted and fished together. It’s not likely he’ll accept all we’ve learned without some proof, but he’ll let me show him the proof—if I can get it to him.” The professor shrugged.
“One more phone call, then,” said Lane, “and we’ll start.” To Burke he said: “We’ll ride with you and tell you what we know. When you want to split off, you’ll let us out at the nearest airfield or railroad station. Does that suit you?”
“You made a bargain,” said Burke expansively. “I’ll fill up the car.”
Lane went back into the filling station, Carol following. He heard a curious scratching sound. Instantly tense, he went to see. It came from an overturned oil drum. He dragged at it and the Monster crawled out: cringing: moaning: trembling in every muscle. He had fled to the darkest, remotest place his terror-stricken instincts could suggest. He had not been killed. The Gizmos this time had concentrated upon the humans.
Lane fumbled for more money for the phone. Matter-of-factly, Carol pressed the “No Sale” button on the cash register. She handed him coins.
“It looks,” said Lane wryly, “as if you agree with Burke that property rights may soon seem ridiculous.”
He dropped a coin into the phone.
Outside, Burke filled the tank of the car. He hunted in the stockroom and found half a dozen of the one-gallon emergency tanks designed to be carried in case one runs out of gas. He filled each one, carefully, and also carried out an armful of cans of motor oil. “I’ve got ideas,” he said. “I’m gettin’ ready for ’em!” Lane heard him in the workshed as the phone connection through Richmond and Washington and Philadelphia went through to New Jersey. The connection was completed. It was twenty minutes before Lane hung up. His jaw was grimly set and his eyes burned. Burke was sitting at the wheel of the car. When Lane came out he said with relief: “I was scared they were comin’ back with a new trick. If they had, I’d’ve had to go off and leave you.”
Lane did not answer. The professor was already in the car. He held the door for Carol, who urged the Monster to climb in. She had practically to lift him. Burke started the motor, and the car moved off.
“They’ll figure,” Burke said zestfully, “that we’ll head back to get to a hard surface road. I’m goin’ to fool ’em. No runnin’ into an ambush for me! Those critters are smart!” He added: “I bet they’re Martians! They could’ve landed a long while ago and been building up their invasion army and studyin’ us, and now they’re ready to take over. But they don’t know us humans!”
The professor said querulously: “Dick, you heard news on the telephone. What was it?”
Lane ground his teeth. He had heard the sort of information which would be sent first to laboratories turning out biologicals. It was news of an outbreak of the plague now believed in, duly credited first to lower animals, and now to men. Lane had heard the official report on an outbreak of sudden death in the village of Serenity, Colorado. And he knew that village.
Some three months back he’d been on the West Coast in his hunt for the uncanny cause of deaths among wild creatures. He’d stopped overnight in the tiny village of Serenity because there’d been several reports of inexplicable forest tragedies nearby. The village nestled in a valley whose floor was higher than the highest tips of the Virginia mountains, and the peaks about it were crowned with eternal snow. Lane remembered it distinctly. Some few miles from the houses, there’d been a grizzly bear and her two cubs found dead in a half-acre of crushed underbrush and toppled small trees. Lane had gone over the battlefield very painstakingly with a Colorado game commission man. They’d found no solution to the death of the bear.
Later, they’d dined in the village on mountain trout and listened to local opinions about that killing and other improbable occurrences the inhabitants of Serenity could report. Lane and the game commission man left the village next morning without even a tentative idea of the cause of any of the occurrences, including the death of the grizzly.
Now, Lane interpreted the news he’d heard in pictures of intolerable detail. He remembered the village: about a hundred houses and three stores. He could see it in his mind’s eye, nestling among the mountains. He could envision it as of the night just past: lights shining in the houses, stars and a slanting moon overhead. There was that tranquil medley of night noises which to all men is assurance of peace and security and calm.
The lights in the houses had almost all winked out when the first disturbance came. At eleven o’clock Mountain Time there were sudden sounds outside the houses. Pet cats fought and spat and clawed. Dogs barked frenziedly, and snarled and yelped as if in terror. There was an extraordinary clamor, quite enough to wake all the inhabitants of the houses.
Lights came on. People went outside with lanterns and flashlights to see what caused the uproar. But the sound grew less as lights began to flicker on, and as moving lanterns shone outdoors. By the time all the village was awake and looking for the cause of alarm among their pets, there was no noise. There was only the sound of human voices calling to dogs and cats, and asking fretful questions of other human voices.
Then someone found his dog. It was dead—unwounded, but with bared teeth and glazed eyes. Someone else found his. Most people did not discover their pets, but all who found a dog or cat found it dead. Every domestic pet left outdoors had died—unnaturally. Nobody thought of the months-past similar death of a grizzly and her cubs.
There was angry discussion across property lines in the village of Serenity. It looked like poison; the few owners who identified their own animals leaped to that conclusion immediately. The inhabitants of Serenity raged at the unknown person responsible for such happenings. But it was near the middle of the night. Citizens growled furiously over the carelessness of somebody who’d left poison about, or the unthinkable villainy of anybody who’d distributed poison to pet animals. Angrily, they went back to bed. They fumed as they went to sleep.
These things were known because a rural mail-carrier left the village at a quarter to midnight, himself growling over the loss of a good dog. He drove through the darkness over mountain trails to a mail distribution center for the semiweekly mail. By going at such an hour, he could be back with it near sunrise and be able to join two friends on a fishing trip into the wilds. He didn’t make it.
Lane saw the later event, in his mind’s eye, as clearly as if he’d been present. Much later in the night, when the village slept again, there were whinings in the air about the houses of Serenity. There were then no lights, so no lights wavered as if units of heated gases passed before them. Stars, though, did shift slightly in their places as faint, shrill whinings moved among the houses. These whinings descended chimneys, and entered open windows, and penetrated screens—as a smoke ring can pass through a screen without destruction—and hovered invisibly in the darkness inside the village homes. Then there was silence, as if by agreement all must wait until an appointed instant.
That instant came. Abruptly, noises rose everywhere. There were shouts among the houses. There were gaspings. Windows smashed here and there as if blindly fighting human beings tried to get the air they were denied by smashing windows. The noise was not at great as when the pets of the village died. It did not even last as long. Presently there was absolute silence once more.
But presently there was a glimmer of light inside one of the houses. A tiny night-light had been overturned. After a while there were flames. They rose, and in time they licked through a roof and leaped and roared in the silent human settlement.
But nobody stirred anywhere, nor called to ask what was the matter. That single house burned to the ground, there among the high mountains, and nobody moved in any of the other silent buildings.
The rural mail carrier found out what had happened when he came back shortly after sunrise.
And Dick Lane, riding in the mountains of western Virginia, swallowed hard as he pictured the reality of what he had been told on the telephone. Hatred filled him, as well as indignation. He would have felt anger if he heard of fish caught wantonly and flung ashore to be left to rot. That would have seemed unconscionable. But the village of Serenity had been destroyed so that men and women and children would serve the Gizmos in that revolting fashion. And Lane, two thousand miles from Serenity, Colorado, trembled with disgust and horror.
Carol looked anxiously at his face.
“Dick—is there something else you’re worried about?”
He shook his head, struggling to bring his hatred under control. Presently he heard Professor Warren explaining just what had been found out. Burke asked surprisingly shrewd questions which had a peculiar slant to them. Burke was a leathery-faced individual with incongruously bright blue eyes. He nodded, as Professor Warren explained.
“First they tried to kill Mr. Lane,” he said with something close to zest, “and when he fooled ’em with dead leaves they followed him. They hadn’t had anybody beat ’em before. And they knew he knew. You see what I’m drivin’ at?”
“No,” said the professor.
“Suppose they’re Martians,” said Burke, with enthusiasm. “Or that they come from Jupiter, or Venus, or somewhere. Suppose they landed in a forest. What’d we do if we landed on Mars or Jupiter and found there was forests with animals in ’em.”
“Let’s not suppose anything of the sort,” snapped the professor. “The facts are preposterous enough!”
Burke grinned. “You don’t get me,” he said. “If we landed on Mars or Jupiter, we’d be cagey. We’d kinda hide ourselves and do some scoutin’. We wouldn’t go around saying, Take us to your leaders.’ We’d make ourselves a hide-out and study what we were up against. We’d try out our guns on the animals. We’d find out if they were good to eat. If we found there were Martians or Jupiterians that were civilized, we’d send back for more men. We’d build up an army. Bein’ a long way from home, we’d live off the animals in the forest where we landed, to save transportation so we could bring in more men. When we got pretty strong, we’d put out some outposts to keep an eye on the natives. We’d make a plan of campaign. We’d keep out of sight till we were ready to take over. Ain’t it so?”
“No,” said the professor indignantly. “If we landed on another planet and found civilized inhabitants there, we’d try to make friends!”
Burke said ironically: “Yeah? That’s what folks did with the Indians, near four hundred years ago? What they did in Africa? Australia? They had natives in those places. Us civilized folk made friends with them?” “It’s not a parallel,” Professor Warren said shortly. “But it might be, to those critters you call Gizmos,” argued Burke. “Just suppose they came from somewhere off Earth, and they’ve been layin’ low, buildin’ up their strength and living off wild game as much as they could to save supplies bein’ brought in. Suppose they’ve been putting advanced bases in the bigger forests. Outposts on the edges. Observation posts in woodlots. If they got a big army here already, they’d have to send out foragin’ parties. Now and then there’d be sentries and little patrols of Gizmos out, hunting food with orders not to bother humans if they could help it, but not to let any get away that suspected there was such things as them.”
“That,” said Professor Warren with asperity, “assumes that the Gizmos are not only intelligent like lower animals on Earth, but intellectual, like men, and that they can reason.”
“Right!” said Burke. He went on with the same peculiar relish: “They’d have to be smart to get here from another world. And you check what’s happened against that idea! Mr. Lane beat off an attack by a foragin’ party with dry leaves. He went off and the patrol followed him. But some of ’em sent off for orders what to do about a man who found out they couldn’t strangle him if he kept dried leaves before his face. They got orders to wait a good chance and kill him when he wasn’t expecting it. They sneaked a spy into the trailer. But you caught and killed that one. Then they tried to break in an’ kill you regardless, but they’d got reinforcements by that time. After a while they did manage to break in. They got all three of you alive. They made up their minds to study you, findin’ out how fast you learned and so on, and keepin’ you alive till they found out all they could. And you turned that trick on them, with fire.”
Carol shuddered; the Monster, lying at her feet, whimpered to himself. “You got away,” pursued Burke, with an odd air of enjoyment. “You waved fire around your heads and they couldn’t face it. Then I came along. And what were the Gizmos doin’? They were sendin’ back to headquarters sayin’ you were even smarter than they’d expected. And they hadn’t a big enough force to handle you, anyway. Maybe Mr. Lane hit on a squad of Gizmos, first. Maybe a battalion was sent to the trailer. But they must’ve sent a division to make a dust storm that’d put out the kind of fires you’d made, and to kill us all because we knew too much.”
He paused. The car went thumping along a long straight stretch of mountain highway. This was a valley among the mountains, and there were pastures and occasional cornfields in view. The sky overhead was very bright and shining.
“The question,” said Burke zestfully, “is how many divisions have they got? How good is their communication system? Have they got a beachhead just here in Murfree County, or are they ready for a general offensive?” He rolled out the technical military terms with satisfaction.
“I’ve read a lot about wars and fightin’. I’m guessing we’ve got a war coming with the Gizmos. It’s goin’ to be a tough fight. There’s going to be a lot of people killed before it’s over. We could even lose! But there’s going to be a lot of advantage to them that know from the start what the Gizmos are and what they can do and what they can’t. I want to be one of those that know. Somebody’s got to lead guerrilla fightin’ against them, wherever they’ve occupied the country. I’m aimin’ to be qualified to do just that!”
He preened himself at the wheel of the clanking car. Lane understood. Burke was one of that considerable part of humanity which enthusiastically believes in anything that’s sufficiently dramatic. In Burke, however, his imagination did not exaggerate the drama he believed in. His assumption of an extraterrestrial origin for the Gizmos was based on pure guess, and an unlikely one at that. His description of a military organization among the Gizmos was pure, exciting fantasy. But, however wrong his assumptions, his estimate of the danger was correct.
“Where’s the proof?” Professor Warren demanded. “Reason requires a nervous system. What kind of nervous system could a Gizmo have? They’ve got something —they find prey, they use cunning. But is it a nervous system?”
Carol stirred. She looked steadily ahead, far down the sunlit valley. Suddenly she gasped. She pointed with an unsteady hand.
Lane ground his teeth. There was a dust cloud moving out from behind a mountainside ahead. It grew thicker as it went rolling across cultivated fields. It moved as an entity, as a dynamic system with every appearance of volition and purpose.
Burke braked, his eyes wide and frightened. He brought the car to a stop. A second dust cloud began to form itself to the left. It began to roll down the mountainside.
It was even larger than the one that had overwhelmed the filling station.
Burke frantically put the car in reverse, to back around and flee in the opposite direction.
“That’s no good,” said Lane. “Ahead’s the best bet. Look back there!”
Two more of the impossibly dense dust clouds were already visible behind the car. One came rolling terribly along the way the car had come; another was gathering substance from a dirt road as it swept across the valley bottom.
The four dust clouds moved to converge upon the stopped car.