Blue-white flame flashed before Lane’s face. There were small shriekings, and Carol gasped, “Back to the car! Aunt Ann has a prisoner! They’ll follow—maybe—if we drag him out of town!”
She tugged at Lane’s shoulder; again there was a flashing of bluish flame. She’d turned on a brazing torch and worked its spark igniter, and extended the flame to the limit. She cleared space before Lane’s nostrils and lips. A brazing torch was supposed to burn for two hours on a tank of compressed gas, so she used it lavishly. Lane took it from her hands. There were human screams in the street now. A few people ran in panic, with no idea of what they fled from. Some few beat at emptiness, struggling to breathe. There were some already on the ground, strangling. And above there was now a loud whining sound, louder than the human voices. It was overhead, as loud as a storm wind, and of a quality that made the flesh crawl.
Lane fought his way to the car, leaning against violent wind-gusts. The Gizmos were forming themselves into that overwhelming whirling formation, that globular organization which they’d used before to carry dust as a weapon. Against it, Lane played the long flame like a scythe. Once, apparently, the blade of fire penetrated to one of the currents which had been visible in the dust clouds. Fire leaped along that flow.
This swarm was no dust cloud, but it was not quite invisible because the appearance of minor waverings produced by a single Gizmo was multiplied by their number. The tops of nearby houses became blurred. Into that squealing organization of spinning Gizmos, Lane probed fiercely, as whalers in ancient days probed with lances for the vital parts of whales. Once he hit what in a roll-tag dust cloud looked like a surface vein; then the dying Gizmos carried the pale thin flame for forty feet. Suddenly now he struck an artery, and the thinnest and palest of conflagrations leaped along that whining wind and flared up beyond where he could see it. But the swarm broke up.
A horse tied to a farm wagon reared and kicked and fell to the ground. Somebody ran crazily, whipping the air before his face. Someone else, on his knees, battled nothingness and toppled to the sidewalk.
“Open!” cried Carol fiercely. “Open the door!”
The professor was gasping for breath, an expression of complete revulsion on her face. The odor of burned Gizmos was awful. She still had the improbable, inflated, frantically throbbing pillowcase.
Carol beat upon the door of the car. Burke, inside it, tried with shaking hands to fill the gas cup of a blowtorch. He heard nothing, he had closed and locked the car doors in terror. Lane struck the door with the tank of the brazing torch, and the glass cracked, held together only by its shatterproof constitution.
“Open up!” raged Lane, “Or I’ll bum a way in!”
Burke jerked his head up and reached over, his fingers all thumbs. It was seconds before he could pull up the tiny knob which worked the door locks. Carol snatched the door wide.
“Down with the window, Carol,” commanded the professor. “Dick, you’re taking the wheel again. This idiot has cost lives!”
Lane crowded Burke out of the way and started the motor. The professor seated herself stolidly beside the other front door, holding the shrilling, fluttering pillowslip outside.
“Use the flame, Carol,” she snapped. “The monsters are trying to tug my fingers loose. And—”
Her voice cut off. Carol carefully swung the flame that Lane had surrendered to her. She speared the place before her aunt’s face. The professor breathed, squeamishly.
The car moved. It pulled out into the street as the Monster howled and howled.
“Now,” called the professor over the dog’s outcry, “now we make this creature squawk. Keep them from suffocating me, Carol.”
She caught the neck of the pillowslip with her other hand. She twisted it, confining her prisoner more tightly still. And it uttered a frantic buzzing, whining sound which rose in pitch, and rose again.
“Hal” said the professor with confidence. “Now we can make time! I think they’ll follow us!”
Lane swerved to avoid a stopped car. The traffic in the town had been considerable, but the tumult had lasted only minutes. There was a strong tendency for cars to stop to see what was the matter, rather than to flee the spot where other humans might be in trouble. But Lane was leading that trouble away—he hoped. Once, where double-parking blocked the road, he jolted up on a sidewalk and went around the jammed place. The car lurched down again to the pavement of the street.
“Look behind,” Lane ordered, “and see if people are still being attacked.”
“One man’s getting up,” Carol reported, “with people running to him to ask why he fell. There’s another man being helped up.”
“How badly are things blurred?” demanded Lane. “If the whole swarm’s following us…”
There was a pause. He drove at twenty miles an hour. Trees appeared ahead now; the business district was behind them.
“They’re following,” said Carol, composedly. “They aren’t thick at the ground level. I can see clearly there. Most of them are higher. Housetops are fuzzy to look at. Probably most of them are higher still.”
Trees closed over their heads. The car rolled on.
The professor asked, “Do you think I’d better squeeze this thing tighter, Dick? They seem to be with us. I can feel them touching my hands and wrists. And Carol’s keeping a flame playing out the window that seems to be popping them off at a good rate. But they keep after the squalling thing in the pillowcase.”
“Maybe I can speed up a trifle,” said Lane. He did so. It did not occur to him to be astonished at his or the professor’s composure. When one is busy, though, panic is rare. To be doing something about any situation is an excellent tranquilizer.
“Twenty-five miles an hour,” said Lane a moment later. “We’ll time their maximum flight-speed. When they stop fumbling at your hands, we’ll have hit their speed limit.”
The car left the green-shaded streets of Murfree. The cloudless sky and brilliant sunshine on the open fields was an almost dramatic change. Rolling valley and towering mountains made an amazing difference in the feel of the world. There were, now, small buff tings of breeze in the opened front windows of the car, which continued to gather speed.
“They’re barely able to keep up, now,” said the professor briskly. “How fast?”
“Thirty-two, no, thirty-three miles an hour.”
The dusty car rattled less loudly and roared at a lessened tempo. The professor grunted: “Hm. They’re back in force now. I don’t like the feel of their fumbling at my hands. They are nasty creatures, Dick! Carol, is the main swarm still following?”
“They’re still following,” said Carol.
“Find out from Burke,” Lane told her, “where we can stop their chasing us, without being near any town they can vent their spite on.”
Burke had not spoken once since the others forced him to open the car door. He still trembled. Now he said, dry-throated: “I’m—sorry, Mr. Lane, that I didn’t help much back yonder. But I didn’t understand what you were plannin’ to do.”
“That’s all right,” said Lane, with politeness. “The Gizmos attacked Murfree. Professor Warren caught one, and we’re making the others follow us because of its squealing. While they follow us, they can’t kill people we’ve left behind. Now we want to know when to make them stop following us. Somewhere as far as we can get from a village, and, if possible, even a dwelling.”
“Y-yes,” said Burke. But he sat still, frozen. The Monster howled.
“Slap the Monster,” said Lane irritably. “Make him shut up! And tell me where to dump our whining friends.”
“I’ll—try to think, Mr. Lane,” said Burke.
Lane drove on. Clouds banked up ahead. There were flickerings of lightning.
“Looks like a thunderstorm,” said Lane. “I might manage to drive through it. What do Gizmos do in thunderstorms?”
The professor chortled. “It should be a beautiful thing, Dick! A gas metabolism means ionized gases. But when you want to de-ionize a gas you bubble it through water! Rain ought to cut them down to size!”
Lane saw the gray front of falling water appear through a lower place in the westward rampart of the mountains. It advanced over other crests, presenting a long, drapery-like curtain of rain that moved into the valley. The highway forked, and Lane chose the turning that would take the car nearer to the rain.
“Maybe,” said the professor hopefully, “if the rain lets us lose the others, we can keep this one.”
“For a pet, no doubt,” said Lane. “Is it in extra good voice just now, or are the ones behind us getting nearer?”
“Some,” Carol told him, “are going on ahead.”
“Which we can’t allow,” said Lane. “I don’t know how smart they are, but if they’re smart enough they might blind me with dust and get me ditched.” He increased the car’s speed a trifle and headed for the center of the storm area.
Presently there was a rush of wind, bearing dust in curling masses before it; then a gray curtain marched across the land. The car rumbled and rattled between ranks of pine trees which hid everything but the dark clouds overhead and the way ahead.
With a sudden rush the rain arrived. It pattered loudly on the car roof, and washed reddish streaks of wet dust down the back window, and the windshield wipers swept it from one side to the other. The professor cranked up the window beside her, cramping the open end of the pillowcase tightly into place. The inflated bag of cloth flapped and wobbled outside, becoming spotted by the rain. Carol turned off the brazing torch with which she’d been protecting her aunt against attack.
The sound of all the world changed as the car was closed. Rain fell in seeming streaks. The highway surface turned dark and glistening, and a two-inch mist seemed to carpet it. The woodland on either side became almost black. Thunder roared and lightning flashed, and the tires sang and the windshield wipers clicked and the air inside the car became dank and somehow fragrant with odors brought in by the wetness.
“We ought to bring our prisoner in,” said the professor uncomfortably. “We can probably get it into the little garbage can you’ve provided. I’ve decided. Dick, that if I can take this to Washington and show it to some government biologists, there’ll be no difficulty in having this affair taken care of.”
“Perhaps,” said Lane. “But I’m not worried too much about the Gizmos’ health. Let’s let it stay outside.”
He went on. The road curved to the right and went steeply down, returning toward the broader bottom of the valley. There was rain in solid masses, falling on pastureland which now appeared.
They had ridden for a good two miles beyond the last patch of pine trees before, abruptly, they ran out of the rain. Then there was wet red earth on either hand. Ahead, the storm marched toward the north and east. They followed it. The world appeared exactly as usual. But the pillowcase, bouncing and flapping outside the front right-hand window, did not look as resilient as it had some time before.
“I wish you’d stop,” said the professor uneasily, “and let me see what’s happened to my specimen. It doesn’t look as lively as it did. I do want to get this to Washington!”
Lane braked and stopped the car.
“Watch the landscape behind,” he said briefly to Carol. “I’ll watch ahead.” As he heard the professor cranking down her window he reflected that Burke, who owned this car, was reduced to the status of a passenger without voice in the conduct of affairs. He said: “Burke?”
“Y-yes, Mr. Lane,” said Burke, still shakily.
“Haven’t heard from you in some time,” said Lane. “What’s your opinion of the state of things now? Still believe in a military organization of the Gizmos?”
“It looks mighty like it to me, sir,” said Burke unsteadily. “They—wouldn’t want a prisoner carried off that we could learn things from. It’d make ’em stop an attack to try to keep us from carryin’ away a prisoner.”
Professor Warren broke into lamentations. The pillowslip was soaked by rain; the only dry spots were the places where it had been clamped by the window. Now, inside the car, the pillowslip was limp. It was not totally empty; the wet cloth still contained bubbles. None of them, however, was big enough to be a Gizmo.
“It’s dead!” lamented the professor. “And it could have solved everything! We’ll have to catch another!”
She opened the neck of the sack. An intolerable odor of carrion came out. She hastily threw the pillowcase out of the window and panted for clean air. Lane put the car into gear and went on.
For almost an hour there was no tangible evidence that Gizmos existed anywhere but in the area they had left, though Lane knew better. Then they came to a place where they saw four dead cattle on a hillside. The animals were definitely dead, not peacefully reclining and chewing the cud. But that was no positive sign of Gizmos. Lane stopped the car and cut off the motor. He listened. The universe was without sound. No insects. No bird songs. He started the motor once more.
“Not proven,” he said wryly, “but I’d bet that they’re either here or they have been. And it ought to take a lot of Gizmos to kill all the things that chirp and twitter.”
Professor Warren stared at him as if appalled at the idea. And it was a startling thing, once one considered it. Any insect-eating bird captures bugs by hundreds or thousands every day, and there is no acre of open ground without its numerous feathered foragers. Woodlands shelter many more. Swifts and swallows carry on their hunting until late in the twilight, and bats carry on through the dark. It’s hard to realize the number of insects devoured in one acre in one day, and yet the number of insects is not diminished. To depopulate a field of its insect inhabitants is incredible destruction. To destroy also its birds, its field mice, its rabbits, its moles…
“I didn’t realize, Dick,” said the professor querulously, “how many Gizmos there must have been to destroy even the gnats where we had our trailer. Those dust spheres must have had hundreds of thousands of Gizmos in them. Altogether there must be—it is inconceivable how many there must be! And any one of them can kill a human being. Dick, this is a serious business.”
“I’ve been suspecting it for some time,” said Lane dryly, “even if I don’t agree that they are Martians.”
Burke spoke with a sudden return to his former manner of complete confidence and zest.
“Yes, sir! Those Gizmos are Martians, or Jupiterians, or something from space. It stands to reason they don’t belong on Earth! And they’re smart as men. Maybe there was gas-creatures on Earth before they came, like there’d be meat-creatures in the woods on Jupiter or Mars if we went there. But these Gizmos come from off of Earth. They’re smart. They’ve got a civilization, they’ve got military tactics, they’ve got over-all strategy. They got a general plan for conquerin’ Earth, and it looks bad.”
“I’ll agree that it looks bad,” said Lane. “How bad I don’t know. But if they can appear in swarms everywhere, it certainly doesn’t look good!”
The car now moved in a generally northeast direction between lines of green-clad mountains. It had left the thunderstorm far behind. It went along a gravel-surfaced road between strong, tight fences with here and there a farmhouse. Several times they saw cattle alive. Once more Lane stopped the car and the motor, to listen. The sounds of the countryside were perfectly commonplace. Birds flew up from the top strands of the wire fences as the car came near.
“There are birds and bugs again around here,” said Lane.
“And Gizmos,” said Carol quietly.
She pointed. A living partridge flapped and flailed upon the ground. As they watched, it lay still. And Lane, coldly searching, saw grass beyond it quiver slightly, as if there were a bubble of heated gases above the dying bird. He started the motor again.
The death of that particular partridge was an extremely minor episode in the developing state of things. There had been other incidents which were equally indicative of something startlingly unusual.
In a backwoods settlement in Alabama, a colored farmer had secured an herb doctor to put an end to an epidemic among his chickens. Herb doctor is the polite term used by witch doctors when they advertise their services in newspapers. It is commonly believed that they can relieve all situations not caused by a judge or a grand jury. At midnight of the night before, this herb doctor had burned a particularly offensive mess of feathers, roots, gums, dusts, and grisly oddments within the affected chicken house. As it burned, the herb doctor recited mysterious words learned by rote and without individual meaning. Actually they came from the Gulf of Guinea by way of some generations of thaumaturgists, and their original significance was bloodcurdling. A truly horrible reek came out of the musky chicken house. A completely offensive aroma stayed behind. The herb doctor came out of the structure and, coughing, said that thereafter the farmer’s chickens would be completely safe in their shelter.
And they were. The herb doctor had cast a spell to drive away the spirits, the demons, the invisible fiends who caused healthy chickens to be found dead under their roosts each morning. His spells and the fumigation left the living fowl stupefied where they roosted, but his professional assurance was well-founded. Those chickens were now safe against Gizmos. They and their dwelling stank of odors even Gizmos disliked. So the herb doctor had done an efficient and highly professional job of chasing the Gizmos.
There were other irrelevant happenings. There was a sufferer from asthma in Tarzana, California, who waked in the night with a familiar sensation of suffocation, his breath cut off. He felt the wild terror which suffocation produces, but he was more or less accustomed to it. If he heard a thin whining in his ears, he paid no attention. This was a very bad attack. But instead of futile beatings at the air before him, he groped beside his bed as his senses reeled. He had readied a tiny glass capsule placed upon a clean handkerchief. He crushed the capsule and thrust the handkerchief to his face. The pungent smell of amyl nitrate filled the air. Then he could breathe again. There was no gradual improvement in his breathing, as usually happened. One instant he was suffocating, the next instant he was breathing perfectly. The smell of amyl nitrate was objectionably strong. He lay back, wide awake but reassured. His ears rang and his heart pounded from his fright, but he was accustomed to attacks of asthma.
He did not hear a high-pitched whine rise in tone until it was an infinitesimal shriek. It did not occur to him that a Gizmo had shared the fumes of amyl nitrate with him; he had never heard of Gizmos. He probably did not even know that amyl nitrate in the least possible concentration will make an internal-combustion engine backfire itself to destruction. Certainly he did not reason that an entity of gas, with a gas metabolism, would react to the smell of amyl nitrate as a human would react to a bath in nitric acid.
The asthmatic man dozed off presently, very grateful that so severe an asthmatic attack had been so brief.
Such incidents were not numerous. It was typical of the over-all situation, however, that grim occurrences such as the fate of the village of Serenity and slaughterings of domestic animals, were as consistently misunderstood as affairs connected with herb doctors and attacks of “asthma.”
There had been migrations from the forests in Maine and Minnesota and Georgia and Oregon—that is, migrations that had been observed as they took place. Elsewhere, people in innumerable places had seen foxes slinking harriedly through fields of soy beans, and deer warily following each other in places where deer had not been seen in years. There can be no question but that many wild creatures fled from the forests to human-occupied land as if choosing a peril they knew—men—rather than invisible horrors which whined in the wilderness.
And at about the time that Lane drove away from a newly murdered partridge, some thirty miles or so from Murfree, in western Virginia, there was a considerable group of human beings in Minnesota surveying the area the refugee animals occupied.
The news of the exodus had traveled far, long before dawn. There were farmers whose fields had been uninvaded, and there were those whose crops were partly but not wholly ravaged, and some who had found bears in their barnyards that morning. They had come to where county agents were gathering to confer on the problem of what could be done. Valuable crops were endangered by rabbits and woods-mice and deer and groundhogs and hordes of every kind of herbivorous animal. There were fish and game officials, and representatives of the SPCA. There was even a Department of Agriculture man, roused in his hotel room and driven eighty miles to arrive at dawn. He faced a kind of emergency even the Department had never had dumped in its lap before. And of course there were reporters. Most of them were for local newspapers, but there were one or two press association men, come in hope of a news story.
It was a somehow appalling spectacle in the early light. There was a giant cornfield, with green, straight, leafy stalks rising well over a man’s height in mathematically exact furrows which seemed to reach to the horizon. There was a road blocked to traffic by a state policeman’s car parked crosswise. Behind this barrier there were other cars, on the road and off it, with still other cars arriving and people moving forward from them on foot. News of the animal migration had traveled fast.
And there were animals in the com. Rabbits nibbled, and groundhogs gorged, and bears waddled recklessly among the stalks, stripping off half-ripe ears to feast on. Timid deer surged here and there, sometimes brave enough to crop the tenderer corn-leaves, but much more often driven in small bands of spasms of terror in which they knocked down and trampled dozens of times as much as they could have consumed. Here a fox could be seen, dining daintily off something small and bloody, while others of its victim’s kind eddied and hopped within yards. Skunks moved irritably in the press, their plumelike tails already warning of tempers frayed by crowding.
There were noises in the cornfield—animal noises. There were panics and frights and moments of precarious calm at one spot or another. But the cornstalks went down, and the farmer whose crop was vanishing before his eyes talked desperately with the county agents and fish and game officials and the representative of the Department of Agriculture. His family had been evacuated from the farmhouse far up the road. Stock in the barn and barnyard was at the mercy of predators who moved about in bewilderment and suspicion at the quantity of prey about. His hens were subject to weasels. And the tassels of his very fine corn crop dipped and dropped, and there was a steady sound of munching, and small squealings, and gruntings, and hoarse noises which no animals should have made at all.
There was no action. There was only steady, progressive destruction. The humans, both official observers and gaping curiosity seekers, could do nothing but stare. They could say nothing to each other except more or less varied expressions of amazement, surprise, and bewilderment. When the change came, the humans did not notice it at first. It did not begin where there were people. Perhaps only a small part of the animal horde heard the first thin whinings.
The killings of the animals began three-quarters of a mile from the parked state police car. It began in a clump of half a dozen deer, who abruptly went mad with desperation and charged crazily through the crowded rows of corn. They carried vicious, high-pitched whinings with them. Then a bear reared up and fought nothingness. More whinings came, and rabbits kicked convulsively, and skunks used their weapons of defense, and foxes snapped and gave battle to unseen things, and field mice and ground squirrels tried to squeak as they strangled, and even weasels rolled over and over with their demoniac fangs rending only air.
The humans realized what threatened when a spitting fury—a wildcat—plunged blindly through their midst, giving battle to emptiness. Then rabbits hopped among the cars and onlookers, and died in convulsions. Foxes ran blindly among the people, biting furiously at invisible things, and then they collapsed and died as the humans scattered.
The people did not hear the whinings which were all about them. The animals made a dismal, widespread din of despair and defiance and utterly desperate ferocity. But the people made an uproar, too. The congregation of onlookers was instantly a confusion of shouting, struggling participants in the panic. They fled to their own cars, or fought to get into any other they could reach.
They cranked up windows and started motors, and there was immediately a chaos of snarled traffic. Fenders clashed. Horns bellowed. Then cars deserted the roadway and crashed through fences and cut wide swathes in the com, to get around the jam.
In minutes there were only frantic, fugitive dust streaks racing away at top speed, except that there were some stalled cars, and some with tangled bumpers. Their owners struggled to escape by riding upon any one which managed to get into motion.
In half an hour, the press association men were indignantly swearing at staff men in the cities. They’d gotten to the nearest telephones to phone in their stories. The office men regarded the subject of the tales as freak stuff, of no earth-shaking importance. The scale of the phoned narratives made them something else, but by precedent such accounts should later be discredited or at the least scaled down to the possible. But the field men furiously insisted that animal husbandry departments of governments and colleges be queried about this massive outbreak of an animal epidemic. Department of Agriculture offices must be questioned on crop damage. Game officials must be hounded into committing themselves on the danger to human beings from carnivores like wildcats and bears which abandoned their natural haunts. Above all, health departments must be urged into statements on the danger of this animal plague to humans.
As the press association reporters squabbled with skeptical office men, undeniable cases of deaths among the onlookers came to them. A state policeman brought out bodies. Later he would feel cold chills down his back when he realized the chances he’d taken. People who’d gone to see an incredible thing they’d heard about on a party-line phone had died of their curiosity. Their faces were purple and their tongues protruded: they had suffocated.
This was the thing which forced belief. While doctors tried to establish some physical condition which would have caused human beings to suffocate of themselves—because there was no mark of exterior violence on any of the victims—the press association wires began to hum with the story. Helicopters took off with photographers to snap the death scene from the air. Health department emergency crews went racing to find out what had really happened. They would wear respirators and carry elaborate equipment for the securing of biological specimens for research upon the germ or virus responsible for the deaths. The mass of dead animal bodies called for the dispatch of bulldozers to cover up the bodies lest the contagion spread.
But the significance of this happening in Minnesota, to Lane and Professor Warren and Carol in Virginia, was mostly in the lurid headlines it produced. They saw the headlines on a rack outside a drugstore. Lane swerved into a filling station to fill up the car’s tank, and while the pump clattered he went across the street and bought papers.
“I’m going to telephone again,” said Professor Warren desperately, when she’d read the account and seen the pictures. “Those men who run the bulldozers to cover up the carcasses, and those who look for bacteriological material—they’ll disturb the Gizmos at their feeding, as you did those about the dead rabbits. They’ll be angered and attack the men. Somehow I’ve got to make somebody see sense. Sending unwarned men to bury those animals is murder.”
Lane grimaced. Something had drawn his eyes to a distant mountainside, clearly visible from this place on the edge of this small town. He watched the mountainside. There was a vague blurring of the details of the forest on the mountain. The blurring was greatest in the center of a roughly spherical area. It moved, slowly but definitely, far away.
“I’m afraid,” said Lane detachedly, “that their danger is almost unimportant compared to the danger to the rest of us. Look there!”
He pointed. Carol drew in her breath, sharply. The professor looked, and tears of rage and frustration came into her eyes.
“Yes, Mr. Lane,” said Burke, with a complacent and yet uneasy satisfaction. “Everybody’s in plenty of danger. These here Martians or Jupiterians or whatever, are carryin’ out a first-class military plan! That thing on the mountainside is a corps of Gizmos, movin’ to get ready for G-day—Gizmo day. That’s going to be something, when it comes!”