The Monster uttered a howling sound which was at once so despairing and so frantic that Lane felt an urge to kick him. But instead he said to Burke: “Give me the wheel. I know how to handle this!”
Burke yielded with alacrity. He fairly popped out the door on the driver’s side and agilely exchanged seats with Lane. His teeth chattered as he cranked the front window tightly shut. Lane put the car in gear ahead and moved toward the giant dust spheres, of which one was already astride the highway a mile ahead as the other rolled horribly downhill to meet it.
“What you going to do?” demanded Burke agitatedly. Lane sent the car ahead at a speed far below its maximum. “I’m going to bet that these Gizmos never drove a car in traffic.”
He was moving more slowly than the pair of globular whirlwinds behind. One of them was already opaque with its burden of dust, while the other rapidly gathered substance as it billowed and whirled across the valley along a twisting dirt road. They seemed to be overtaking the car steadily.
“They’re catching up!” protested Burke shrilly. “They think so—if they think,” said Lane. The sphere ahead and to the left on the mountainside seemed to pause in its rolling, while dust swirled up to thicken it. The one ahead advanced, still blocking the way.
“God!” insisted Burke, “they’re all four goin’ to hit us at the same time!”
Lane grunted. He held down the car to twenty-five miles an hour, while the four globes of destruction accommodated themselves to its pace, maintaining an inexorable rate of closing upon it. Each rolling dust cloud was a full hundred feet in diameter. There were veinings of greater or lesser dust content, where madly moving streams of Gizmos, forming the spheres, were more or less closely packed in their spiraling. The spheres themselves were dynamic systems, as a charging herd of beasts can be. They were organizations capable of greater deadlines than the sum of the deadlinesses of their parts. They were, apparently, even capable of acts of coordination when acting as groups, comparable to the cooperation of individual wolves when running down a deer.
Professor Warren said crisply, “I begin to see the structure of these things. I wish we had a movie camera.”
“If you’ going to let ’em bury us all in dust,” chattered Burke, “you let me outa here! You let me—”
Carol reached past his shoulder and locked the car door.
“Dick knows what he’s doing,” she said. “Be quiet, or he will let you out.”
Burke’s mouth dropped open. Then he realized. A man on foot might not be pursued by a dust cloud composed of a hundred thousand Gizmos. But there were filmy tendrils of lesser denseness clustered about the greater ones. They would be smaller swarms of Gizmos speeding to incorporate themselves in the larger ones. Any of those could separate itself to trail and suffocate a single fugitive. Burke subsided.
“If that thing ahead,” said Lane, “should stop stock-still and drop its load of dust, it would block the highway with a drift we couldn’t possibly get through. That’s why I’m driving slowly,—to keep it coming toward us.”
He sounded calm enough, but his knuckles were white on the steering wheel. He turned his head to estimate the looming red monstrosity on the mountain above. He glanced in the back-view mirror to gauge the speed of the one in pursuit. The fourth, rolling across the lateral dirt road, abandoned the road at a curve and came sweeping across partly green, partly red-clay pasture land.
“I hope,” Lane added, “that this car has a good pick-up, Burke. Our lives depend on it.”
Burke said, “It’s okay,” in a strained voice.
The situation was as nightmarish as any that had gone before. Ahead there was a rolling, writhing rust-red globe the height of half a dozen houses piled one atop the other. It was not a solid thing, but a cloud, and one could see into it a little way. There were veins and cords of circulation; what looked like nerves and sinews and a circulatory system, branching and rebranching and re-combining again. They were, though, merely thicker and denser swirlings of the powdered soil that made the whole thing visible.
It loomed ahead, so close that Lane could not see its top through the windshield. To his left an even greater and more revolting monstrosity rolled down the mountainside. To the right and behind yet other giant ghastlinesses closed in. It seemed that their bulging middles were about to close over the car, to roof it in—and then solid masses of dust would come plummeting down, to bury the car in powder.
But Lane stepped on the accelerator. As the car plunged forward he pressed down harder, and as it still gathered speed he pushed the gas pedal down to the floor board. The car leaped to forty-five, to fifty, to sixty miles an hour. It passed the point toward which the four spheres tended—what should have been a meeting place of the car with all the rolling monstrosities. It swept past that spot into the dust-streaming base of the globe which blocked the highway. But it was swallowed up by one, not overwhelmed by four.
Inside the sphere, there was howling wind and the shrieking whine of Gizmos in uncountable number. The car shuddered. Its windows showed only earth outside, as if it had instantly been buried deep underground. Its throbbing clamor was muted, muffled, dulled. Its wheels rolled over softness. Its windshield wipers flicked back and forth, but their clicking was inaudible in the tumult of squealing of gas horrors and the roaring of many winds—and now, also, the frantic howling of the Monster, who heard Gizmos on every hand and tried to scream and snap and bite in all directions at once.
The car reeled. There was a hissing of dust grains against glass seen in a brownish obscurity, which deepened to pure pitch-black and then became brown again; and then the car came out into the open air, streaming dust on every hand. Lane sent it hurtling down the highway past the mountain.
Those in the car did not see the simultaneous collision of four dust-laden monstrosities because the back window was almost opaque. But they did crash together, and in crashing fused into one, and a sort of writhing chaos rose and wavered and spread out in continuing contortions. It was the height of a ten-story building at its least, and at its greatest it was twice as tall, and as it subsided it covered a space a quarter of a mile square—and the highway was closed by a mass of dust whose dunes rose to thirty feet in height.
On the road beyond, however, the car’s windshield wipers clicked and clacked, making a streaky transparency by which Lane could steer. Here, in the path of the monster he’d bored through, there was dust all over the highway. Everywhere the road was slippery with the fine stuff. But Lane drove like a madman. He could not look behind. He swung around a curve in the road, and the backtrail of the monster ended, and he knew that the car hurtled onward with no longer a betraying plume of dust behind it. Even the Monster’s howling ended. He lay limply, exhausted, on the floor of the car.
Lane said over his shoulder: “Burke, crank down the window and see what you can see behind.”
He drove across a bridge spanning a shallow stream some forty feet in width. The road slanted upward along the side of the mountain, leaving the valley below it.
Burke, his teeth chattering audibly, lowered the window and squinted to the rear.
“There’s what looks like smoke back yonder,” he reported in a trembling voice. “It ain’t stirring much. Looks like it’s settling.”
Lane observed, “That may mean that the Gizmos are confused, or it may simply mean that they’re coming after us without bothering to bring dust with them. They can always pick that up where and when they need it.”
“The Monster doesn’t agree,” the professor said. “He’s quiet. Ergo, no Gizmos—at least not angry ones. And after all, Dick, there must be a limit to the speed the creatures can make. They assuredly aren’t streamlined, and there is a limit to the effort they can make.”
Lane kept the accelerator down to the floor. The car went up and up, nearing the end of a two-mile climb. Carol said, “Are you wondering about their communication system, Dick?”
“I am,” he said with some grimness. “They’re everywhere—I’ve had proof of that. And they’ve proved that they can call enormous numbers of others overnight, anyhow. If they can send messages for help—and we’ve had three examples of it—can they send messages of warning that we must be killed?”
“It is not likely,” said the professor with authority. “It is most improbable.”
Burke pulled in his head from where he had been staring anxiously to the rear.
“They’re out of sight now,” he said with relief. “Maybe we lost ’em. Mr. Lane, d’you think they can send word on ahead for other ones to watch out for us?”
“Most unlikely!” repeated the professor firmly. “Even lower animals can summon aid. Ants can call other ants when they find booty too large for them to handle alone. Other creatures even post sentinels and combine for their mutual defense. But no creature lower than man can transmit the idea of an individual identity.”
Burke was suddenly garrulous with relief because there were no longer any dust clouds in view. “But are Gizmos lower than humans?” he demanded zestfully. “If they came here from Mars or somewhere, they’ve got to be smart. They could be smarter than people.”
“Mr. Burke,” said the professor, “there is a limit to what even I will believe without evidence!”
The road leveled. It ran through a cut between hillsides which rose still higher, though the valley bottom behind it was deep. A few hundred yards on, it disappeared in a downward curve. When they reached the spot where the landscape spread out to their view ahead, the effect would have been breathtaking under other circumstances. They had crossed the last of one range of mountains, and they could see for scores of miles. Everything was green and beautiful. They could sec farmhouses and highways and woodland and villages. To the north a small town—it would be Murfree—sprawled out over a square mile or more. The spires of churches rose above its tree-lined streets. There were rolling pastures, speckled with moving dots of grazing cattle. On the highways there were crawling motes of cars.
Lane started the car down the steep incline. “Either the Gizmos are intelligent, and after us individually for a very good reason, or they’re a weird kind of beast. As beasts of the forests, they may have multiplied until they can’t stay in the wilderness, and have to move out to get food. If the first is true, we’ve got to get mixed up in traffic so they can’t identify us. If they’re really intelligent they might or might not try to wipe out all traffic to get us.”
“I think,” said Carol, looking at him, “that you’ve got to risk it, Dick. If we made sure we were alone when we were killed, our death would do no good to anybody. But if we force the Gizmos to kill us—if they can—in a way that proves they do exist, at least that will be a warning to people who don’t suspect a thing. Even if we have to risk other people’s lives with our own, we’ve got to make sure that the danger from the Gizmos is realized!”
Lane knew he would have to pass through Murfree if he meant to go on to the north. But he had no choice.
Even at the risk of provoking a mass attack by Gizmos on the little town, he had to reach some source of authority—governmental or scientific—which could make use of what he’d discovered. Meanwhile he could make no specific plans without news of the state of things in general,—without news of atrocities that might have been committed, or discoveries about Gizmos that might have been made. He turned on the car radio. It gave forth hillbilly music exclusively. He snapped it off and drove downhill toward the valley.
It was time to go beyond the mere facts that he and the professor and Carol had been forced to learn in order to survive. So far the Gizmos had surprised them in every encounter. Not once had Lane anticipated the next action of the ghostly killers. In each assault the Gizmos had used what should have been an adequate force and a suitable stratagem to accomplish their destruction. In all instances they had increased the force applied and used a new tactic for which the humans should have been unprepared. It was time to try to guess what they might do next.
But that would depend on how intelligent they were, and Lane had no certain knowledge about that. If one considers any living creature by itself, he is apt to assume that it has intelligence close to genius. The lowliest of annelid worms, regarded by itself, performs actions to secure food and to avoid capture and to propagate its race which no mere human intellect could improve upon. Ants show amazing abilities in agriculture and mycology. The leaf-cutter ant cultivates a fungus underground which appears to be as artificial as a grapefruit: it is found nowhere but in the cities of leaf-cutter ants. In fact, ants have not only technologies but a social system with divisions of labor and a hierarchy of functions for different individuals. If human beings knew only one variety of lower animal, on the evidence they would have to believe it as intelligent as humans so far as its interests ran. That posed the problem here. For their own purposes Gizmos acted intelligently. But so do all creatures. And the behavior of Gizmos could not be compared to that of flesh-and-blood animals. If what Gizmos did was an instinctive pattern, they were beasts no matter how brilliant their behavior. If what they did was for the attainment of purposes invented by themselves, it was intelligence in the human meaning of the term. In either case, things looked black. If there had been Gizmos from time beyond remembering, as ancient tales of ghosts and devils seemed to prove, then something had multiplied their numbers so that now they menaced humanity. If Burke was right and they had landed on Earth from some other world, then they must be more intelligent than mankind, and humanity was doomed.
But Lane doggedly would not credit their extraterrestrial origin. It would require them to have ships in which to travel, and it was unthinkable that Gizmos could create or control machinery, or that swarms of spaceships bringing them would have avoided detection by radar. Gizmos themselves were detectable by radar, but as phantoms on the radar screens they were single, they moved at low speed, they were not reported from great heights. More convincingly, creatures capable of using tools and spaceships would be capable of making weapons. Gizmos would not combine themselves into gales of whirling dust if they could commit murder neatly and efficiently with suitable tools. Gizmos did not come from outer space. They were creatures of Earth. But even if Burke’s dramatic description of bases and outposts and foraging parties were correct, it could still be such an organization as an ant city or a swarm of bees.
There was a last possibility, which was most disturbing of all. The Gizmos might be Earth creatures with an unfortunately high intelligence and a long and dishonorable record of having used it. If ancient Gizmos had passed for gods and exacted tribute of burnt victims and spilt blood and foulness in general, their descendants would be no improvement. It was proven they were as ruthless as their forbears. They were lovers of corruption and decay. Current events suggested strongly that they planned to make all Earth a stinking Olympus for their monstrous feasts.
This seemed as plausible as any other idea, though Lane would not give full assent to it. But it seemed quaint, with that theory in mind, to drive presently into a sprawling, sunlit, tree-shaded country town while consciously assuring onesself that one was not being trailed by the spawn of Ares and Vulcan and Ashtaroth, and Baal and Loki and kindred fiends from all other imagined kinds of hell.
In this particular case, there was ground for some sort of uneasiness, anyhow. Lane’s apprehensions increased when he saw a dead cat in a gutter of Murfree’s principal street. He drove steadily on into the business part of town.
Suddenly the professor broke the silence.
“Dick, I want to buy something. Will you stop?”
He parked the car and the professor climbed out and vanished into a grocery store. As they waited Burke seemed to be struggling with strong thoughts.
“I got it worked out, Mr. Lane,” he said at last. “These Gizmos’ve got communications, and reserves, and those dust balls are their mobile armor. They got a chain of command, and division commanders, and they got to have a general staff and a overall plan of campaign. The way they operate is strictly military! You know what they’ll do next, Mr. Lane?”
“I’ve been trying to guess,” Lane said wearily.
“When an army’s going to smash an enemy,” said Burke, his eyes very bright, “first they got to smash the defenses that are set up, ready to use. But we haven’t got any—only us four suspect anything at all. So the invading army can go right on and grab all the territory it can. And then what does it do?”
“Tell me,” said Lane.
“It smashes what it can’t grab!” Burke told him. “It attacks what’d be needed to organize a counterattack.
Factories, railheads, warehouses, communications—it grabs what it can and smashes what the invaded country would need to start to fight back with. That’s strategy! The atackin’ army makes the defendin’ army helpless to fight back. Y’see?”
Lane shook his head.
“These Martians—these Gizmos,” said Burke. “They’re going to grab all the ground they can. With people scattered like they are nobody can fight ’em. They won’t even know they’re there! So the Gizmos take over all the ground outside the cities. Either they’ve done it or they’re doing it! But the scientists who’d have to find out that there are Gizmos and what they’re like live in the cities. It’s in the cities that there’re chemicals and explosives and things to make flame throwers. It’d be in the cities that counterattacks would be figured out and started.”
“Well?” asked Lane.
“The Gizmos got to hit the cities now,” said Burke. “They got to smash our industrial potential.” He savored that phrase with pleasure. “Yes, smash our industrial potential. Turn all the people into refugees. Fill the roads with folks running away from what they think is plague. Keep the government busy trying to organize the evacuation of the cities and trying to feed everybody and lick the plague at the same time, not guessing that what they’re up against is invasion and war!” He said raptly: “They could smash civilization that way! The cities’d be empty and the highways would be full, and the factories’d stop and people’d die in their refugee camps and they’d break out and go somewhere else, and they’d die along the Toads, and they’d try to stay by themselves. They’d go back to bein’ savages! And when it was all over and the Gizmos ruled the earth, they’d go whinin’ through the forest, hunting people. Maybe they’d have kind of hunting preserves for people to live in and be hunted when the Martians felt like it… Maybe they’d keep the empty cities for that, picking out and strangling the people that tried to hide in all empty buildings.”
“That couldn’t happen,” Carol said curtly. “It’s impossible!”
“It could happen,” insisted Burke. “Some places-most places—it will. But there’ll be some places where folks will find out how to defend themselves. Maybe it’ll be only one place, but that’ll be enough. There’ll be a little town where folks are smart enough to make flame throwers and explosives, and they’ll study the Gizmos scientific-like and learn how to kill ’em. And so they’ll stand off the Martians—the Gizmos. And there’ll come a time when they’ve learned plenty and can take the offensive. They’ll go sweeping over the world, fighting the Martians on the land and on the sea, and kill ’em and kill ’em, getting even for the cities the Gizmos destroyed and the countries they murdered.”
Professor Warren came bustling back to the car, carrying filled brown paper bags. She said crisply: “Dick, there’s a hardware store right across the way. Can’t you think of something that would be of use to us in a hardware store?”
Lane started. He got out of the car.
“I’ll be right back,” he said. “You have matches handy?”
“I bought cartons of them,” said the professor. “And some things to make sandwiches with and lighter fluid for you. I was thinking of a possible gasoline torch. Have you money?”
He nodded and went across the street, pausing twice to let a car pass him. His eye caught the waverings of objects seen through the film of hot air next to the hot metal of a car hood and his blood stopped. Only thermal refraction, he decided, but startlingly like a Gizmo.
He went into the hardware store. It was cool, air conditioned. Normally he wouldn’t have noticed even that.
He bought two gasoline blowtorches. The clerk was mildly surprised that he bought two. On the way to the front of the store he saw a portable brazing torch—a tank of compressed gas with a spark maker near the tip. One had only to turn on the gas and strike a spark, and a blue-white flame leaped out. There was even a trigger by which the flame could be increased or diminished. He bought two of those, also. Then he invested in pocket lighters and more fuel for them.
“Is there something else?” asked the clerk.
“I’d like,” said Lane dryly, “to buy some Very pistols, but I’m afraid you wouldn’t have them on hand.”
He went out. Somehow he had a feeling of extreme urgency. He hurried back across the street. It had the leisurely atmosphere of almost any small-town business district. The professor, looking embarrassed, put something out of sight when he appeared. Lane automatically chose Carol as the person to whom to show the mechanism of the brazing torches. Burke watched, but appeared absorbed in other thoughts.
“I see,” said Carol. “It works like this.”
She lighted and handled the torch with competence, and Lane approved of her warmly.
“I forgot,” he said suddenly. “We need a garbage can.”
He went back across the street. His unreasonable feeling of urgency made him short with the clerk who insisted on wrapping the can for him. Back at the car, he learned the professor had gone to another store. Carol said:
“She went to buy some pillowcases. When you mentioned a garbage can she realized that a pillowcase was the thing to use with it. She may get a sheet or two, besides.”
Lane got into the driver’s seat. All about him the people of Murfree went about their business with a comfortable lack of haste. The business district was contained in four blocks, the only part of the town without shade trees. Here the sunshine was already baking hot.
Sitting in the car, Lane felt what amounted to truculent uneasiness, although there had been no sign of Gizmos since the ear came over the pass from the next valley to the east. He waited with growing impatience for the professor’s return. He wanted to get out of town, now. He’d gotten equipment with which they could defend themselves more adequately than before. He didn’t want to be attacked—if they were to be attacked—in the middle of a town whose people would not know what was happening, but only that they died.
A dog trotted across the street, wisely watching the traffic and moving with that matter-of-fact acceptance of the ways of men which is so casual among dogs, and of which no other lower animal seems capable.
Carol followed his eyes. The dog paused in the middle of the street to let a car go by, and trotted the rest of the way. A man on the sidewalk spoke to the dog. It was one of those trivial incidents which seldom happen in a city where dogs have only their masters, no other human acquaintances, to greet them. The dog politely wagged his tail and trotted on.
Lane was still uneasy, but it was necessary to wait. He opened his mouth to speak—
The man on the sidewalk opened his mouth to gasp. He staggered. He beat the air before him. His eyes went panicky; he choked, and fell to his knees. He jerked his head from side to side, his mouth open, fighting crazily against nothingness.
The Monster howled.
“Shut the windows,” snapped Lane.
He was out of the car, rushing for the fallen man. Other people were hurrying to help. Somebody bent over the victim as he collapsed to the street. Lane thrust other figures aside. He snapped his lighter before the face of the semiconscious, panic-crazed man. There was a leaping, momentary, lambent flame. There was a horrible odor. A thin shrill shriek ended before it was well begun. The fallen man could fill his lungs. He did. He gasped for breath which now he could draw in.
The Monster howled again.
Lane said sharply. “I’ve seen this before. If it ever happens to you again, or to anybody else, make a flame. Wave it close! You’ll be able to breathe! Pass it on!”
There was a small crowd of two dozen people, already gathered about the prostrate figure. Others were hastening to see what was the matter. Lane looked about him, and saw blank incomprehension on every face. The group was merely astonished and concerned over what they assumed to be a stroke of some sort, happening to a friend. To them, what Lane had done was completely without rational connection to the emergency it had met.
Then one of them gagged and struggled to breathe. He flailed his arms crazily. He fought against suffocation with stark terror in his eyes. Lane pushed toward that man and waved a flame before his face and behind him somebody else collapsed and there were startled cries. One of the figures hurrying to this spot stopped short and began to fight for breath. And the Monster screamed in the car, and tried to find a place to hide.
He found himself cursing at the things which now, very obviously, descended upon Murfree with lethal intentions. Flight was the only possible recourse, leaving these people to the fate the Gizmos would deal out. But it did not occur to him. Someone collapsed two yards away. The crowd was still bewildered, still unable to realize that danger existed for them as well as the two-no, three—no, four—struggling figures on the ground. Lane flung himself to his knees beside the nearest, and waved the lighter flame, and then his own breath stopped and he waved the small blaze before his own face. But there was another person down, a woman this time, and whinings were loud all about him.
He knew what would come, yet it was impossible not to try to do what he could. He was actually trying to fight a swarm of Gizmos with a pocket lighter. He swept his absurd little flame about and other small flames rose and tiny shrieks sounded.
Then the professor waded into the extremely small space of crazed confusion. Of all imaginable things, she flourished a pillowcase. By her expression she was holding her breath as she thrust the open end of the pillowslip down upon the contorted face of a fallen fat man, now turning purple. The pillowcase billowed. Something was caught in it, throbbing and fluttering horribly inside the cloth. The professor closed the open end of the bag, squeezing it with an air of intense satisfaction modified by the look of someone trying not to breathe. She held the trapped Gizmo triumphantly aloft. It made a frantic whine.
Lane freed his own lips and nostrils of a Gizmo, by burning it. His eyebrows were singed by the flare-up, but the stuff he drew into his lungs was unbreathable. His senses reeled, yet he knew such hatred that it seemed he could go on forever, destroying Gizmos one by one, living on hatred only.
But of course it was not so.