Back | Next
A gust of wind hit the side of George Randal's van and nearly tore the steering wheel out of his hands. He cursed as the vehicle lurched sideways, and wrestled it back into his own lane.
It was a good thing there weren't too many people on the road. It was just a damned good thing that Mingo Road was a four-lane at this point, or he'd have been in the ditch. A mile away, it wasn't, but all the shift traffic from the airline maintenance base, the Rockwell plant and the McDonald-Douglas plant where he worked would have put an intolerable strain on a two-lane road.
The stoplight at Mingo and 163rd turned yellow, and rather than push his luck, he obeyed it, instead of doing an "Okie caution" ("Step on the gas, Fred, she's fixin' to turn red"). This was going to be another typical late spring Oklahoma day. Wind gusting up to 60 per, and rain off and on. Used to be, when he was a kid, it'd be dry as old bones by this late in the season, but not anymore. All the flood-control projects and water-management dams had changed the micro-climate, and it was unlikely this part of Oklahoma would ever see another Dust-Bowl.
Although with winds like this, he could certainly extrapolate what it had been like, back then during the thirties.
The habit of working a mental simulation was so ingrained it was close to a reflex; once the thought occurred, his mind took over, calculating wind-speed, type of dust, carrying capacity of the air. He was so intent on the internal calculations that he hardly noticed when the light turned green, and only the impatient honk of the car behind him jolted him out of his reverie. He pulled the van out into the intersection, and the red sports-car behind him roared around him, driver giving him the finger as he passed.
"You son of a" he noted with satisfaction the MacDac parking permit in the corner of the rear window: the vanity plate was an easy one to remember, "HOTONE." He'd tell a little fib to the guard at the guard shack, and have the jerk cited for reckless driving in the parking-lot. That would go on his work-record, and serve him right, too.
If it hadn't been for the combination of the wind gust and the fool in the red IROC, he would never have noticed the strange behavior of that piece of cardboard in the median strip.
But because of the gust, he knew which direction the wind was coming from. When the IROC screamed right over the center-line, heading straight toward a piece of flattened box, and the box skittered just barely out of the way as if the wind had picked it up and moved it in time, something went off in his brain.
As he came up even to where the box had been, he saw what the thing had been covering; roadkill, a dead 'possum. At that exact moment he knew what had been wrong with the scene a second before, when the box had moved. Because it had moved against the wind.
He cast a startled glance in his rear-view mirror just in time to see the box skitter back, with the wind this time, and stop just covering the dead animal.
That brought all the little calculations going on in his head to a screeching halt. George was an orderly man, a career engineer, whose one fervent belief was that everything could be explained in terms of physics if you had enough data.
Except that this little incident was completely outside his ordered universe.
He was so preoccupied with trying to think of an explanation for the box's anomalous behavior that he didn't remember to report the kid in the sports-car at the guard-shack. He couldn't even get his mind on the new canard specs he'd been so excited about yesterday. Instead he sat at his desk, playing with the CAD/CAM computer, trying to find some way for that box to have done what it did.
And coming up dry. It should not, could not, have moved that way, and the odds against it moving back to exactly the same place where it had left were unbelievable.
He finally grabbed his gym-bag, left his cubicle, and headed for the tiny locker-room MacDac kept for those employees who had taken up running or jogging on their lunch-breaks. Obviously he was not going to get anything done until he checked the site out, and he might just as well combine that with his lunch-time exercise. Today he'd run out on Mingo instead of around the base.
A couple of Air National Guard A-4s cruised by overhead, momentarily distracting him. He'd forgotten exactly where the roadkill had been, and before he was quite ready for it, he was practically on top of it. Suddenly he was no longer quite sure that he wanted to do this. It seemed silly, a fantasy born of too many late-night movies. But as long as he was out here . . .
The box was nowhere in sight. Feeling slightly foolish, he crossed to the median and took a good look at the body.
It was half-eaten, which wasn't particularly amazing. Any roadkill that was relatively fresh was bound to get chewed on.
Except that the last time he'd seen roadkill on the median, it had stayed there until it bloated, untouched. Animals didn't like the traffic; they wouldn't go after carrion in the middle of the road if they could help it.
And there was something wrong with the way the bite-marks looked too. Old Boy Scout memories came back, tracking and identifying animals by signs. . . .
The flesh hadn't been bitten off so much as carved offas if the carcass had been chewed by something with enormous buck teeth, like some kind of carnivorous horse, or beaver. Nothing in his limited experience made marks like that.
As a cold trickle ran down his spine, a rustle in the weeds at the side of the road made him jump. He looked up.
The box was there, in the weeds. He hadn't seen it, half-hidden there, until it had moved. It almost seemed as if the thing was watching him; the way it had a corner poked out of the weeds like a head. . . .
His reaction was stupid and irrational, and he didn't care. He bolted, ran all the way back to the guard-shack with a chill in his stomach that all his running couldn't warm.
He didn't stop until he reached the guard-shack and the safety of the fenced-in MacDac compound, the sanity and rational universe of steel and measurement where nothing existed that could not be simulated on a computer screen.
He slowed to a gentle jog as he passed the shack; he'd have liked to stop, because his heart was pounding so hard he couldn't hear anything, but if he did, the guards would ask him what was wrong. . . .
He waited until he was just out of sight, and then dropped to a walk. He remembered from somewhere, maybe one of his jogging tapes, that it was a bad idea just to stop, that his muscles would stiffen. Actually he had the feeling if he went to his knees on the verge like he wanted to, he'd never get up again.
He reached the sanctuary of his air-conditioned office and slumped down into his chair, still panting. He waited with his eyes closed for his heart to stop pounding, while the sweat cooled and dried in the gust of metallic-flavored air from the vent over his chair. He tried to summon up laughter at himself, a grown man, for finding a flattened piece of cardboard so frightening, but the laughter wouldn't come.
Instead other memories of those days as a Boy Scout returned, of the year he'd spent at camp where he'd learned those meager tracking skills. One of the counselors had a grandfather who wasor so the boy claimeda full Cherokee medicine man. He'd persuaded the old man to make a visit to the camp. George had found himself impressed against his will, as had the rest of the Scouts; the old man still wore his hair in two long, iron-gray braids and a bone necklace under his plain work-shirt. He had a dignity and self-possession that kept all of the rowdy adolescents in awe of him and silent when he spoke.
He'd condescended to tell stories at their campfire several times. Most of them were tales of what his life had been like as a boy on the reservation at the turn of the centurybut once or twice he'd told them bits of odd Indian lore, not all of it Cherokee.
Like the shape-changers. George didn't remember what he'd called them, but he did recall what had started the story. One of the boys had seen I Was A Teen-age Werewolf before he'd come to camp, and he was regaling all of them with a vivid description of Michael Landon's transformation into the monster. The old man had listened, and scoffed. That was no kind of shape-changer, he'd told them scornfully. Then he had launched into a new story.
George no longer recalled the words, but he remembered the gist of it. How the shape-changers would prey upon the Indians in a peculiar fashion; stealing what they wanted by deception. If one wanted meat, for instance, he would transform himself into a hunter's game-bag and wait for the Indian to stuff the "bag" full, then shift back and carry the game off while the hunter's back was turned. If one wanted a new buffalo-robe, he would transform himself into a stretching-frameor if very ambitious, into a tipi, and make off with all of the inhabitant's worldly goods.
"Why didn't they just turn into horses and carry everything off?" he'd wanted to know. The old man had shaken his head. "Because they cannot take a living form," he'd said, "only a dead one. And you do not want to catch them, either. Better for you to pretend it never happened."
But he wouldn't say what would happen if someone did catch the thief at work. He only looked, for a brief instant, very frightened, as if he had not intended to say that much.
George felt suddenly sick. What if these things, these shape-changers, weren't just legend. What could they be living on now? They wouldn't be able to sneak into someone's house and counterfeit a refrigerator.
But there was all that roadkill, enough dead animals along Mingo alone each year to keep someone going, if that someone wasn't too fastidious.
And what would be easier to mimic than an old, flattened box?
He wanted to laugh at himself, but the laughter wouldn't come. This was such a stupid fantasy, built out of nothing but a boy's imagination and a box that didn't behave the way it ought to.
Instead, he only felt sicker, and more frightened. Now he could recall the one thing the old man had said about the creatures and their fear of discovery.
"They do not permit it," he'd said, as his eyes widened in that strange flicker of fear. "They do not permit it."
Finally he just couldn't sit there anymore. He picked up the phone and mumbled something to his manager about feeling sick, grabbed his car keys and headed for the parking lot. Several of the others on the engineering staff looked at him oddly as he passed their desks; the secretary even stopped him and asked him if he felt all right. He mumbled something at her that didn't change her look of concern, and assured her that he was going straight home.
He told himself that he was going to do just that. He even had his turn-signal on for a right-hand turn, fully intending to take the on-ramp at Pine and take the freeway home.
But instead he found himself turning left, where the roadkill was still lying.
He saw it as he came up over the rise; and the box was lying on top of it once again.
Suddenly desperate to prove to himself that this entire fantasy he'd created around a dead 'possum and a piece of cardboard was nothing more than that, he jerked the wheel over and straddled the median, gunning the engine and heading straight for the dingy brown splotch of the flattened box.
There was no wind now; if the thing moved, it would have to do so under its own power.
He floored the accelerator, determined that the thing wasn't going to escape his tires.
It didn't move; he felt a sudden surge of joy
Then the thing struck.
It leapt up at the last possible second, landing with a splat, splayed across his windshield. He had a brief, horrifying impression of some kind of face, flattened and distorted, red eyes and huge, beaver-like teeth as long as his hand
Then it was gone, and the car was out of control, tires screaming, wheel wrenching under his hands.
He pumped his brakesonce, twicethen the pedal went flat to the floor.
And as the car heeled over on two wheels, beginning a high-speed roll that could have only one ending, that analytical part of his mind that was not screaming in terror was calculating just how easy it would be for a pair of huge, chisel-like teeth to shear through a brake-line.
Larry and I wrote this for the Keith Laumer "Bolo" anthology, but it stands pretty well alone. All you have to know is that Bolos are fairly unstoppable, self-aware, intelligent tanks.
Back | Next