She said, "It's okay, everything's going to be fine, baby," but she doubted that he could hear her reassurances above the howling of the wind and the roar of the flames that consumed the house.

Hugging him, feeling him alive against her, Meg was relieved and grateful—and furious. Furious with the rats and with the men who had made those gremlins.

She had once thought that her career as an artist was the most important thing in her life. Then for a while, when she and Jim were first married and struggling to build the ad agency into a thriving business, financial success seemed ever so important. But long ago she had realized that the most important thing in life was family, the caring relationships between husbands and wives, parents and children. In this world beneath Heaven and above Hell, it seemed that irresistible forces were bent on the destruction of the family; disease and death tore loved ones apart; war, bigotry, and poverty dissolved families in the corrosive acids of violence, hatred, want; and sometimes families brought themselves to ruin through base emotions—envy, jealousy, lust. She had lost Jim, half her family, but she had held on to Tommy and to the house that had harbored the memory of Jim. Now the house had been taken from her by those rat-form, man-made gremlins. But she was not going to let them take Tommy, and she was determined to make them pay dearly for what they had already stolen.

She helped Tommy move farther away from the house, into the open where the full force of the wind and cold would probably protect him from the rats. Then she set out alone for the barn at the back of the yard.

The rats would be there. She was certain that they had not immolated themselves. They had left the house after tampering with the furnace and setting the trap for her. She knew that they would not huddle in the open, which left only the barn. She figured that they had constructed a tunnel between the two structures. They must have arrived in mid-afternoon, which gave them time to scout the property and to dig the long, connecting, subterranean passage; they were big, stronger than ordinary rats, so the tunnel would not have been a major project. While she and Tommy had struggled from house to barn to house again, the rats had scampered easily back and forth through the ground beneath them.

Meg went to the barn not just to blast away at the rats out of a need for vengeance. More important, it was the only place where she and Tommy had a hope of surviving the night. With the cut in her left hand, she was limited to one arm with which to pull the sled. She was also in mild shock, and shock was draining. Previously she had realized that pulling the sled out to Black Oak Road in sixty-mile-per-hour winds and subzero cold, then waiting hours until a road crew came by, was a task at the extremity of her endurance; in her current condition, she would not make it, and neither would Tommy. The house was gone, which left only the barn as a shelter, so she would have to take it back from the rats, kill all of them and reclaim her property, if she and her son were to live.

She had no hope that anyone would see the glow of the fire from afar and come inquiring as to the cause. Cascade Farm was relatively isolated, and the cloaking effect of the blizzard would prevent the flames from being seen at much of a distance.

At the open barn door, she hesitated. The lone bulb still burned inside, but the shadows seemed deeper than before. Then, with the wind and the orange light of her burning home at her back, she entered the gremlins' lair.


BEN PARNELL DISCOVERED THAT THE SLOPING MEADOW WAS CUT BY A series of natural, angled drainage channels that made progress difficult. In the nearly blinding tempest of snow, the ground was dangerous, for he often realized that a ditch lay ahead only when he fell into it. Rapid progress across the field was sure to result in a sprained ankle or broken leg, so he and his three men maintained a cautious pace, although the sight of the burning house terrified him.

He knew that the rats had caused the fire. He did not know how or why they had done it, but the timely eruption of the flames could not be a coincidence. Through his mind passed disturbing images of the woman and the boy, their rat-gnawed bodies aflame in the middle of the house.


SHE WAS SCARED. IT WAS AN ODD FEAR THAT DID NOT WEAKEN HER BUT contributed to her strength and determination. A cornered rat would freeze up in panic, but a cornered woman was not always easy prey. It depended on the woman.

Meg walked to the middle of the barn, in front of the jeep. She looked around at the shadowy stalls along the south wall, at the open loft suspended from the front wall—and at the large, empty, and long-unused feed bin in the northeast corner.

She sensed that the rats were present and watching her.

They were not going to reveal themselves while she was armed with the shotgun, yet she had to lure them into the open to shoot them. They were too smart to be enticed with food. So ... if she could not lure them, perhaps she could force them into the open with a few well-placed rounds from the 12-gauge.

She walked slowly down the center of the barn, to the end farthest from the door. As she passed the stalls that had once housed livestock, she peered intently into the shadows, seeking the telltale gleam of small red eyes. At least one or two gremlins must be crouched in those pools of darkness.

Although she saw none of the enemy, she began to fire into the stalls as she moved again toward the front of the barn—blam, blam, blam—three rounds in three of those narrow spaces, a yard-long flare spurting from the muzzle with each hard explosion, the thunderous gunfire echoing off the barn walls. When she fired the third shot, a squealing pair of rats burst from the fourth stall into the better-lighted center of the barn, sprinting toward the cover offered by the disabled Jeep. She pumped two rounds into them, and both were hit, killed, tossed end over end as if they were rags in a typhoon.

She had emptied the Mossberg. Wincing, she dug in her pockets with her injured hand and extracted the four shells, reloading fast. As she jammed the last of the rounds into the magazine, she heard several, high shrieks behind her. She turned. Six large, white rats with misshapen skulls were charging her.

Four of the creatures realized that they were not going to reach her fast enough; they peeled off from the pack and disappeared under the car. Unnerved by the swiftness with which the last two closed the, gap, she fired twice, decisively eliminating them.

She hurried around the jeep in time to see the other four scurry out from under the vehicle and across the floor toward the old feed bin. She fired once, twice, as they vanished into the shadows at the base of that big storage box.

She was out of ammunition. She pumped the Mossberg anyway, as if by that act she could make another shell appear magically in the chamber, but the clackety-clack of the gun's action had a distinctly different sound when the magazine was empty.

Either because they knew what that sound meant as well as she did or because they knew that she had been left with only nine rounds—the five in the shotgun and the four they had not managed to steal from the carton in her bedroom closet—the rats that had vanished under the bin now reappeared. Four pale forms slunk into the wan light from the single, dusty bulb overhead.

Meg reversed her hold on the shotgun, gripping it by the barrel, making a club of it. Trying to ignore the pain in her left palm, she raised the gun over her head.

The rats continued to approach slowly ... then more boldly.

She glanced behind, half expecting to see a dozen other rats encircling her, but evidently there were no more. Just these four. They might as well have numbered a thousand, however, for she knew that she wouldn't be able to club more than one of them before they reached her and crawled up her legs. When they were on her, biting and clawing at her throat and face, she would not be able to deal with even three of them, not with her bare hands.

She glanced at the big open door, but she knew that if she threw the gun down and ran for the safety of the mean winter night, she would not make it before the rats were on her.

As if sensing her terrible vulnerability, the four creatures began to make a queer keening sound of triumph. They lifted their grotesque, malformed heads and sniffed at the air, lashed their thick tails across the floor, and in unison let out a short shriek more shrill than any that Meg had heard from them before.

Then they streaked toward her.

Although she knew that she could never make the door in time, she had to try. If the rats killed her, Tommy would be helpless out there in the snow, with his broken leg. He would freeze to death by morning ... if the rats didn't risk the fury of the storm to go after him.

She turned from the advancing pack, dashed toward the exit, and was startled to see a man silhouetted in the fading but still bright glow of the burning house. He was holding a revolver, and he said, "Get out of the way!"

Meg flung herself to one side, and the stranger squeezed off four quick shots. He hit only one of the rats, because they made small targets for a handgun. The remaining three vanished again into the shadows at the base of the feed bin.

The man hurried to Meg, and she saw that he wasn't a stranger, after all. He had spoken to her at the roadblock. He was still wearing his sheepskin-lined jacket and snow-crusted toboggan cap.

"Are you all right, Mrs. Lassiter?"

"How many of them are there? I killed four, and you killed one, so how many are left?"

"Eight escaped."

"So just those three are left?"

"Yes. Hey, your hand's bleeding. Are you sure you're—"

"I think maybe they've got a tunnel between the barn and the house," she said urgently. "And I've got a hunch the opening to it is around the bottom of that feed bin." She was speaking through clenched teeth and with a fury that surprised her. "They're foul, disgusting, and I want to finish them, all of them, make them pay for taking my home from me, for threatening Tommy, but how can we get at them if they're down there in the ground?"

He pointed to a large truck that had just pulled into the driveway. "We figured when we found the rats, we might have to go after them in a burrow, so among a lot of other things, we have the necessary equipment to pump gas down in their holes."

"I want them dead," she said, frightened by the purity of the anger in her own voice.

Men were pouring out of the back of the big truck, coming toward the barn. Snow—and wind-borne ashes from the collapsing house—slanted through their flashlight beams.

"We'll need the gas," the man in the toboggan cap shouted.

One of the other men answered him.

Shaking with anger and with the fear to which she had not dared give herself until now, Meg went outside to find her son.


SHE AND TOMMY AND DOOFUS SHARED THE WARMTH AND SAFETY OF the truck cab while the men from Biolomech attempted to eradicate the last of the vermin. The boy huddled against her, trembling even after the warm air from the heater had surely chased the chill from his bones.

Doofus was blessed with the greater emotional resilience that arose from being a member of a playful and less intelligent species that lacked a dark imagination, so eventually he slept.

Though they did not think that the rats would follow the tunnel back to the ruined house, some of the Biolomech security men established a cordon around that still-burning structure, prepared to kill any creature that appeared from out of the conflagration. Likewise, a cordon was thrown up around the barn to prevent any escape from that building.

Several times Ben Parnell came to the truck. Meg put down the window, and he stood on the short running board to report on their progress.

Wearing respirators to protect themselves, they pumped a lethal gas into the mouth of the rats' tunnel, which had indeed been located by the feed bin. "We gave 'em a generous dose," Parnell said during one visit. "Enough to saturate a burrow ten times larger than any they've had time to dig. Now we've got to excavate the tunnel until we find the bodies. Shouldn't be too difficult. They won't have gone deep while boring out a passage between the house and the barn, because going deep would've been wasted effort. So we'll start stripping the surface off the ground, the top few inches, digging backwards from the barn wall, across the yard, shearing the top off the tunnel, you see, until we turn them up."

"And if you don't turn them up?" she asked.

"We will. I'm sure we will."

Meg wanted to hate all these men, and she especially wanted to hate Parnell because he was in charge of the search and, therefore, the only authority figure on whom she could vent her anger. But speaking harshly to him—and maintaining her rage in the face of his obvious concern for her and Tommy—was difficult, because she realized that these were not the men responsible for the creation of the rats or for letting them escape. This was just the cleanup crew, ordinary citizens, just like all the ordinary citizens who, down through all the centuries, had been called in to clean up when the big shots screwed up. It was the ordinary citizen who always made the world safe for peace by fighting the current war to the bitter end, always the ordinary citizen whose taxes and labors and sacrifices paved the way for those advancements of civilization for which the politicians stole the credit.

Furthermore, she was touched by the genuine sympathy and understanding that Parnell showed when he learned that her husband had died and that she and Tommy were alone. He spoke of loss and loneliness and longing as if he had known his share of them.

"I heard of this woman once," he said rather enigmatically, leaning in the open truck window, "who lost her only daughter to cancer, and she was so crushed by grief that she had to change her entire life, move on to totally new horizons. She couldn't bear to look at her own husband any more, even though he loved her, because they shared the experience of their daughter, you see, and every time she looked at him ... well, she saw her little daughter again, and was reminded again of the girl's suffering. See, that shared experience, that shared tragedy, was like a trap their relationship just couldn't escape. So ... divorce, a new city, new state ... that was the only solution for her, drastic as it was. But you seem to've handled grief better than that, Mrs. Lassiter. I know how hard it must've been for you these past couple years, but maybe you can take some heart in the fact that, for certain people who don't have your strength, life can be harder."

At ten minutes past eleven that night, two thirds of the way across the yard from the barn to the ruined house, they scraped off another couple of feet from the top of the tunnel and found the three dead rats. They put the bodies side by side on the barn floor, next to the other five that had been shot.

Ben Parnell came to the truck. "I thought maybe you'd want to see them—that we've got all eight of them, I mean."

"I would," she said. "Yes. I'll feel safer."

Meg and Tommy got out of the truck.