The Gizmos did not attack. On the morning Lane spotted a mass formation of them in motion down a mountain chain, radar throughout the United States reported an unprecedented number of slow-moving blips which did not represent aircraft. They were then explained as areas of extra-high ionization in the atmosphere. And this explanation was quite accurate so far as it went, but like a deplorable number of scientific explanations it did not go far enough. It described the proximate cause of an observed phenomenon and blandly stopped there. There was something more than a condition of ionization involved.
This morning, areas of ionization were numerous and many were extraordinarily large. For a time, there was some concern lest they interfere with regular radar operation. But the Gizmo masses moved at a maximum speed of a little over thirty miles an hour, plus or minus the pull of the wind where they were. A moment’s inspection could distinguish between such a blip on a radar screen and a spot made by a fast-moving plane.
But there were more than five hundred such blips on screens at one time, counting all radar stations. Nobody can guess how many separate groups were involved, though assuredly the total was high in the thousands. Certainly there were massings of Gizmos all over the nation; rather, there was distribution of masses of Gizmos everywhere. But there was still no association of such radar phenomena with outbreaks of plague among domestic and wild animals, the death of the village of Serenity, the slaughter of pets nearly everywhere, and such oddities as an unusual asthmatic attack experienced by a man in Tarzana, California.
The blips made no sort of sense, even when correlated with each other. Had they been spotted in strategic fashion—concentrated at key railroad junction cities, near industrial centers, even near the larger centers of human population—somebody would have suspected a military purpose. Invasion would have seemed credible, though Gizmos themselves were still unknown. But the massing of Gizmos at it appeared on radar screens, with a pattern changing frequently through the day, did not fit into any specific design, and so was not accorded any serious attention.
Near noon, Lane stopped at a country store and put through a call to the friend who headed the research department of a pharmaceutical house. He put it on record that if men did seek bacteriological specimens or move bulldozers to cover up the multitude of dead animals in Minnesota, some of them would fall victims to a supposed plague. He observed that some of those who wore respirators—biologists seeking tissue specimens—would be victims of the death they tried to interpret. But he prophesied that no one would be attacked by the plague if he held a lighted cigar or cigarette in his mouth.
It was a highly reasonable prophecy, but he did not dare say more. After all, less than twenty-four hours had passed since his own first contact with Gizmos, and the actual history of those hours was too fantastic to be believed.
After the phone call, Lane headed east. They traveled a graveled highway, from which the world looked utterly commonplace and comfortable. They saw birds fly up from the roadside, cattle grazing tranquilly on the rolling fields. There were buzzards soaring lazily and effortlessly against the blue.
He looked at Carol, beside him on the front seat, and she smiled at him without words. He looked in the back-view mirror and saw the professor leaning back in her corner, her eyes closed wearily. He saw that Burke’s lips were pursed together and his expression was one of meditation.
“Do you,” asked Lane of Carol, “do you really believe that all this is true?”
“I was just doubting it,” admitted Carol, “but your eyebrows are singed, and there’s a burned place on your shirt.” She smiled again, wryly.
“Mr. Burke thinks we may be lower animals, compared to Gizmos.”
Lane grimaced. “Burke intends to live out an imaginative novel of which he is to be the hero. Of course the hero of a novel never gets killed. I suspect Burke is casting himself as a sort of dragon slayer who’ll lead devoted, admiring followers to victory against the whole tribe of Gizmos.” He raised his voice: “Burke?”
“You’ve been thinking hard. What’s turned up in your mind?”
Burke said zestfully: “I don’t know where the Gizmos are goin’ to start, but I figure it’ll be all of a sudden. It’ll be a surprise attack, smotherin’ the cities with rollin’ masses of Gizmos that’ll sweep in and scatter and swarm into the houses, and folks won’t know what’s happening till they’re massacred.”
“You suggest,” asked Lane mildly, “that the human race will be wiped out?”
“Mighty near,” said Burke with vast confidence. “Mighty near! But there’ll be some that’ll live, and when the Gizmos come after ’em they’ll have machine guns shooting fire, and they’ll spray ’em with incendiary bombs and flame throwers.” He grinned. “They’ll give fireworks to the kids to kill Gizmos with! They’ll make out all right.”
Lane said to Carol: “Fireworks aren’t a bad idea for emergencies. But we need something even better.”
“You don’t think—” Carol hesitated. “You don’t think it will be too bad?”
“It’s already too bad,” said Lane. “For even one human being to be killed by those beasts—for even one good hunting-dog to be killed to make carrion they’ll feed on is intolerable.”
The professor spoke, her eyes still closed. “The problem is to find their former place in an ecological system we never guessed at, and then find out what happened to it. Obviously, they are natives of Earth.”
“Dick thinks they’re the originals of pagan gods,” Carol said.
The professor opened her eyes. “It’s very likely. Remember, Carol, that the myths of Greece and Rome were cleaned up before they were taught you as a dainty cultural subject! The old pagan gods were just as foul as the Gizmos. They’re very likely their ancestors!”
The car rolled on. It was one of forty or fifty-odd million motor vehicles in the United States. This not being a weekend, the majority of them remained at home, but many trucks used the highways, singly or in pairs or in long strings of grumbling might. But where Lane drove there appeared ahead a long trailer-truck backing across the highway to make a turn toward them. Lane slowed. With much effort, the truck managed to make the turn with the aid of a road leading toward a farmhouse. The truck came rumbling back toward Lane. It passed him, the driver waving some cryptic warning.
The meaning of the signal became clear when, just beyond the truck’s turning place, there appeared a barrier in the road. There was a state police officer on guard, and he came to the car as Lane braked to a stop.
“The road’s closed,” he explained. “There’s a bad smashup down in the hollow yonder. A big trailer ran off the road, banged into trees, and blocked the way. Then another one ran into it. You’ll have to go back and take another road. Where are you headed?”
“North,” said Lane. “New Jersey.”
The officer shook his head.
“Sixty’s blocked too. Another big smashup. You’d better go back through Clifton Forge and take Two-twenty. You ought to do all right that way.”
“Thanks,” said Lane. He turned to back into the farm-read to make his turn as the truck had done. Then he culled, “Aren’t there more accidents than usual today?”
The cop said harassedly: “It’s the worst day I ever heard of! There’ve been six bad ones in this county! Worse still, deeper in the mountains. It’s as if everybody driving is drunk!”
The professor put her head out of a back window. “Anybody killed yonder?”
The cop spread out his hands. “Everybody,” he said. Then he added, “And somebody came by and got out of his car to try to help. And he had a heart attack and died, too.”
Lane looked wryly at the professor. Then he shrugged.
“Look!” he said curtly. “We were in Murfree this morning when a funny thing happened. A man dropped down on the street, strangling. It looked like a heart attack, but it wasn’t. Somebody rushed over and waved a burning cigarette lighter before his face. Instantly the choking man could breathe. While that was happening, three or four other people began to choke. The man, whoever it was, cured them the same way. He said that any time such a thing happened, flames would stop the choking, and it did, in Murfree. Something strange is causing what looks like heart attacks. Flames near your face stop them. Try it. The man said nobody ever gets an attack like that if he’s smoking, either. He said to pass the word along.”
The state cop looked unbelieving, but he nodded. Lane gunned the motor. When he was headed back down the road along which he had come, the professor said bitterly: “He didn’t believe a word! And I’m guessing at something more ridiculous still!”
Lane said, “Burke, it looks like you read it wrong. The Gizmos aren’t attacking cities. Not yet. They’re wrecking trucks and cars, and killing people who get out to help.”
Burke’s expression was at once scared and triumphant.
“They’re smashing communications,” he said, “just as I told you. They’ll block all the roads with wrecks so the people in the cities can’t take to their cars. They’ll have to stay right where they’re helpless.”
Lane nodded gravely, but he didn’t believe it. In some ways the Gizmos acted with remarkable intelligence. To round up small animals like rabbits, for example, and kill them only when a considerable number were gathered in a small place, was intelligent behavior. It brought a large store of food to a small area, where many gas-creatures could feed to repletion. More, the area swept clean of game would not remain empty. Other animals would move in, to be rounded up and slaughtered in their turn. Lane began to entertain a suspicion that the Gizmos’ touches upon the three of them outside the trailer might not have been deliberate study. It could have been merely an attempt to round them up, according to Gizmo custom.
But any way you looked at it, such practices were intelligent in their own frame of reference. If Gizmos were free to choose less effective stratagems for their purposes, then to choose the best was intellect, and men had rivals—or superiors—in the Gizmo race. But if Gizmos knew these devices only by instinct, they could not act otherwise.
But in any case there is a vast difference between a beast and a man, and Lane had a stubborn streak. He did not want to admit that anything not human could be his equal as a human. The appalling thing about a ghost or devil, after all, is revolt against the notion that something which is not a man can think. So Lane bogged down on Burke’s basic assumption that Gizmos were thinking beings.
“I tell you, Mr. Lane,” said Burke, with profound gravity and shining eyes, “we better make some better plans than you’ve got! You don’t want to go to New Jersey! Pennsylvania’s the place for us! Find us a little town with some coal mines we can prepare for the women and children to stay safe in, and you and I can teach the men how to fight Gizmos. We can hold out forever!”
Lane grunted. “I believe it’s military theory that a strong offensive is the best defense. If you want to go to Pennsylvania, I’ll find an airport or a railroad station and we’ll say good-by.”
Burke squirmed. “But I need you to help train the men to fight Gizmos! And I need Professor Warren and Miss Carol, too! You got to help me train the folks to stay alive through what’s coming! You and me and the ladies can fix up a town so it can defend itself!”
Lane felt amusement. To Burke, the most dramatic and therefore the most fascinating thing imaginable would be a small town filled with embattled heroes, defying a continent of Gizmos, imagining himself as the leader of the valiant fighting men; Burke was fascinated by such superb drama. He would try ineptly to realize it without ever suspecting that anything could be more important.
“I’m afraid,” said Lane with polite regret, “that we can’t join you. We have the answers to some questions nobody is ready to ask yet. We have to carry on until somebody is desperate enough to accept what we want to give them.”
“Stay with us,” said Lane, “and we’ll give you all the information we have and get. But we’ll leave you whenever you say.”
Near Tacoma, Washington, a diesel trailer-truck with a total weight of thirty-odd tons was passed by another truck going in the opposite direction. The driver of the thirty-ton truck was madly fighting nothingness in his cab, ignoring the wheel. The other truck barely got by him before the undirected thirty-tonner crashed across a sidewalk and through a plank fence and hurtled into an excavation for the foundation of a building. No one was hurt—not even the driver. At least, there was not a scratch on him. But he was dead.
Outside of Detroit, a convoy of fourteen new cars, each with its own driver, moved sedately along. The driver of the lead car in the convoy died, and his car went off the road. Ten of the thirteen other drivers lost control of their slowly-moving cars, too. They crashed. At so conservative a speed, none of the cars was badly damaged, but all the drivers perished seemingly from heart attacks or shock at sight of their dead friends.
In Albuquerque, New Mexico, a freak windstorm was credited with a dust heap across a heavily traveled road, in which cars could be seen with their tops barely breaking the surface. The cars were empty of humans, who had struggled out of the windows when the cars stopped. But none of them escaped. They were found in the dust pile, suffocated.
An inter-city bus pulled into its terminal in Atlanta, Georgia, with a load of hysterical living passengers and three apparently dead men in the back. The three had collapsed, one after another, following a stop by the bus driver to survey a three-car wreck. Passengers had opened windows to look out. Within minutes, one passenger flailed his arms wildly, his face grew purple, and he fell, unconscious. Other passengers tried to be helpful, but it was evident a doctor was needed. The bus driver pushed his vehicle to its topmost speed, to get his stricken passenger to medical care. But before he reached help, two other passengers went into comas after passing through the same symptoms. The rest of the bus occupants were nearly out of control when the bus reached its terminal, where doctors were available.
By midday the reported number of traffic deaths in the United States was put at six hundred, which was par for a long holiday weekend, but not for a midweek forenoon. It was considered very probable that the tally was far from complete. When Lane drove into Clifton Forge for the second time and stopped the car at a restaurant, there was a considerable amount of speculation on the increasing traffic accidents on the radio news broadcasts.
Lane listened grimly, at the restaurant table. There was a phone booth in the restaurant, and while the others ordered their meals, he called again to New Jersey, to the Diebert Pharmaceutical Company, Inc. His friend, the research director, was not available.
“I want to leave a message,” said Lane. “This is important. Write it down word for word, please. This is the message. ‘No excess single-car accidents happened while the driver was smoking.’ It’s from Dick Lane. Can you read it back?” He listened. “Right. It’s important!”
He went back to the table. He told the professor what he’d done.
“That’s just what I should have done!” she explained. “Instead of letting that idiot back at the University think I was a practical joker, I should have made predictions. But I didn’t know what to predict.”
“You could ask for checking observations,” suggested Lane. “Wire to any biologists you know that sportsmen report unusual numbers of game animals found dead. Buzzards are not touching what would ordinarily be most attractive food to them. Say there appears to be a correlation of high mortality in game and a refusal of buzzards to approach bait, all in the same areas. Ask them to verify, and suggest an answer. Have ’em send their answers to my friend, since we’re headed for his laboratory.”
The professor’s expression grew bitter. “I should have realized it,” she protested. “I’ve been saying for years that your typical scientist sees and hears no theory but his own, but he speaks his theory to distraction! I’ve been wanting to tell people what I’ve found out, when what they want to do is tell me! Oh, Dick, I’m afraid I’m a typical scientist! I’ll make out a list of people to wire!”
She began to scribble names on the back of a menu, eating abstractedly when her food came.
Carol smiled at her, and then met Lane’s eyes. But Burke said uneasily: “I don’t get that, Mr. Lane. What’s smoking got to do with automobile drivers? And what have dead animals got to do with it?”
Lane explained that if a flame would destroy a Gizmo, a glowing coal should at least discourage one. The lighted end of a cigar or cigarette being smoked would project into the space a Gizmo must occupy while strangling someone. Hence it would be nearly impossible for a Gizmo to suffocate a man who happened to be smoking.
Burke said, relieved, “I see! That’s important.”
“Dick,” said Carol hesitantly, “wouldn’t an increase in Gizmo food supply increase the number of Gizmos?”
“Probably,” he agreed. “Fish and game outfits work as hard at keeping up the food supply for wild life as at anything else.”
Carol hesitated, as Burke got up and went over to the cashier’s desk of the restaurant. Then she said diffidently: “I’m wondering… I’ve read about a species of parrot in Australia that somehow developed the habit of pecking at sheep’s backs until they got through to the sheep’s kidneys, which they ate, though their normal food was merely what parrots usually eat. They killed thousands of sheep.”
Lane nodded again. Professor Warren looked at her niece with a sudden expectant intentness.
“What’s up, Carol?” she demanded.
“I’ve been wondering,” said Carol, looking from her aunt to Lane, “if that species of parrot multiplied very fast when it found out the unlimited supply of food it could get by killing sheep.”
“Out of the mouths of babes,” exulted the professor. “She’s got the answer, Dick! No physical mutation, only an instinctual one! The parrots needed no new equipment. Any parrot could do the same, but only those parrots did, so they multiplied out of all reason, and killed sheep out of all conscience. They had to be wiped out! That’s the mechanism by which the Gizmos have appeared, Dick. Carol, you’ve solved the problem of the ecological imbalance which has made the Gizmos what they are.”
Her gaze was warmly triumphant, bent upon Carol. But Carol looked uncertainly to Lane for approval. He grinned at her.
“Smart girl!” he said. “Now figure out some more!”
She flushed. Burke came back with his pockets stuffed with cigars. He sat down at the table again.
“I got some cigars,” he said. “You’ll find me puffing pretty steady from now on. You better get yourself some too, Mr. Lane. I don’t know what the ladies’ll do, but if they stay close to us, and we keep puffing—”
“I have a hope in that line,” the professor said darkly, “that may prove even more repugnant. But right now I gloat over what Carol has suggested. Do you see the picture, Dick? The Gizmos were a foetiverous race of foul descent, consuming bad smells. Then one of them, undoubtedly, found out that the process by which they drew evil smells out of carrion could be used to draw foul breath out of an animal’s lungs, and that the animal would die immediately, when an enterprising Gizmo could continue happily to feed. It is an exact parallel to a parrot’s discovering that he could kill a sheep and have a meal. The kidney-eating parrots increased to a multitude; the strangling Gizmos have multiplied into hordes. How or why they contrived their dust clouds I do not know, but from the tales of jinn traveling in clouds like theirs, it is not a novelty to their kind.”
Carol said gently: “But I didn’t say all that, Aunt Ann!”
“It was all implicit in what you did say. Dick, can we send my telegrams now?”
They sent the professor’s telegrams and headed back toward Covington. Highway 220 was not far from Clifton Forge. They had passed over this road only a couple of hours earlier, but much had happened in that interval. There was a station wagon against a tree beside the road, stalled by an impact not even great enough to dent its bumper. Its windows were open, but no one could be seen inside. Lane stopped.
“There are blurrings,” he said grimly. “Give me one of the torches, Carol. We might as well try out our armory again.”
She gave him a blowtorch which had not been used there. It was filled, and its pressure pump worked, but it was not lighted. He checked it and got out of the car, and walked toward the stalled station wagon.
There were very familiar sounds in the air about him. He plucked out his cigarette lighter and snapped it alight, and out again. His breath cut off. Something vicious whined.
He burned the thing with the flame of his lighter. There was a tiny shriek and he grimaced at the smell. He went on, and looked through the car window. He swore, and raised the torch, turning it on. This torch burned gasoline. A small air-pump built up pressure in its tank, which would feed the fluid through a preheated burning tube. But it was not preheated now, so a fine thin stream of gasoline sprayed out for several feet. Most of it evaporated before it touched the ground. Lane snapped his lighter under the near end of the stream.
There was a whoosh and an uprush of fire. He had touched off not only the liquid gasoline, but the vapor of that which had evaporated. There was a stirring of air as invisible things fled away, with thin shrieks.
He opened the station wagon door and made sure of what had happened. He made flashes within, clearing it of Gizmos. He closed the car windows and felt fury as he started heavily back to the car. Halfway there, he heard sounds about him again. He stood still, holding his breath. He felt fumblings all over his body before he sprayed gasoline again and again set it off. There was a flicker of unbearable heat and a dull booming sound, and he stumbled out of the vitiated air and caught a deep breath of something breathable while the high-pitched small screams still sounded.
He reached the car. Burke stared at him, puffing furiously upon a cigar, his face very pale. Carol said anxiously: “Dick! What was it? Were they—” “Yes,” said Lane thickly. “All dead. I won’t tell you any more.”
He climbed into the driver’s seat and drove away, his face a mask of fury, his hands trembling.
“You killed a lot of them,” said the professor, forlorn because she could offer no other comfort. “I should have tried to catch one. But you killed a great many. I saw them flare up.”
“I didn’t kill enough,” said Lane.
Within a mile there was another wreck. Before he turned north he had passed four more.
It was well into the afternoon before he reached Hot Springs. The highway had been a shambles all the way. On the outskirts of Hot Springs there was a barrier across the highway. Men with shotguns and improvised surgeon’s masks waved him to a halt.
“No traffic!” called one of them from a safe distance. “Quarantine! You can’t come through! We’re keeping the plague out of this town! Go back!”