From the author: Stephen King once said that he used his writing in the horror genre to confront his worst fears. His philosophy was to call them out, not hide from them. I decided to try this out and got one of my favorite science fiction stories out of it. It first appeared in Analog magazine and was later anthologized in a fantasy anthology from Questar, placed firmly in the midst of actual fantasy stories. Did writing "Hobbits" really help deal with a mother's fears? It did.
After the long drought months, the four days of non-stop rain were especially welcome. Now, mist snuggled around the little frame house like cotton gauze blanket of faery silver. Light from a first floor window stained the gauze with smudges of gold. There was a scene painted in the window -- a scene enacted in a million nurseries, in a thousand childhood tales: A mother bent low over the bed of her child, singing songs, listening to prayers, fielding the endless stream of last minute questions and revelations that seem to pour out of a child's restless mind just at bedtime.
"Will it rain all night?" the little boy asked, eyeing the misty darkness outside.
"I don't know, honey," the mother replied. "It just might."
"Why will it rain all night?"
The mother rolled her eyes and laughed. "It will rain all night if the clouds are full enough of moisture and decide to drop it all on us."
"Why do they want to drop it all on us?"
She had backed herself into a corner on that one. "They don't really want to do anything. They just get heavy with water and when the water is too heavy for them too hold, it falls out of the clouds. Okay?"
He considered that. "Okay.... Mommy?"
"Will there be lightning and thunder and bad dreams like last night?"
His mother made a sympathetic face as she gathered up several stuffed animals and arranged them in the requisite order at his side. "Did you have a bad dream last night, honey?"
"Uh-huh." He nodded, brown eyes solemn and wide. "I dreamed there was this jet with monsters in it and it crashed-ed in our woods."
"Oh? Do you think we should be afraid?"
He made a face. "Naw. It was just a bad dream. I don't care about bad dreams, 'cause I'm a big guy.... Besides, they were just little monsters."
"Oh. Okay. Well, you give me one last kiss and get to sleep. And no bad dreams tonight." She put her arms around him and kissed his ear, loving the feel of those little arms around her neck.
He kissed her cheek, then drew back and gave her Eskimo kisses. "Will you tell Daddy not to watch those movies tonight? They're kind of scary."
"Will do, schmoo," she said, and tucked him in. She checked the night-light and moved to the door. As always, her hand was on the light switch when he said, "Oh, Mommy?"
"I love you, Mommy."
She smiled. "I love you too, baby. G'night."
She turned off the lights.
Out on the rain-soaked hillside in front of the house, the gold light winked out, leaving the mist a sodden grey. Color abandoned the tree trunks, and their leaves and needles melted, silver, into the gauzy mist. Where there had been a patch of light quilted onto the glistening bed of leaves and pine needles that formed the floor of a pocket glade, there was now a pool of darkness. In the middle of that glade, a sopping pile of leaves stirred softly, shedding its deciduous scales. The shape revealed was not so unnatural-looking in the dark of a woody hillside; a twist of root, a jag of rock, a shattered stump it might be ... except for the eyes. The eyes glowed dull amber through matted leaves and blinked at the place where the nursery scene had played.
"You are giving your son nightmares," she accused, pointing a finger at his nose. He looked up over the wire rims of his glasses. "I?"
She nodded. "That thing you were watching the other night -- what was it? -- 'Horror at-'"
"Terror," he corrected. "'Terror at 37,000 Feet'" ... and how could that have given him nightmares? He didn't see it."
"He heard it. And evidently the soundtrack suggested, to that fertile little five-year-old mind, a jet-load of monsters." She crooked her fingers into claws and snatched at his nose.
He caught her wrist and pulled her into his lap, crumpling the magazine he'd been reading. "I doubt there'll be any permanent damage. But, just to be safe, maybe we should can the horror and have a little romance, instead."
"Much healthier," she agreed and kissed him, reaching up to turn off the table lamp.
Behind them, in the dark, the front door rattled and something scutched across the oak surface.
"Rats!" he said and swung her to her feet. "I forgot all about Troll." He turned the light back on and made his way to the door. The scratching and rattling increased, accompanied by a demanding wail. "All right, already!" He swung the door open, admitting a feline blur of alternating grey and black, then closed and locked it. They went straight to bed; Troll went straight to his food dish.
A small boy's days are full of adventure; exploring basement caverns, conquering hillsides and tree stumps, unearthing treasures buried for millennia under rocks and fallen branches. This day, the sky was an overturned silver bowl and the mist hung, suspended from it, in trailing wisps and cottony tufts. Evan was out for the first time in nearly a week and making the most of his freedom. Already he had captured six roly-polies and clutched a jar that was filling up with untenanted snail shells, pebbles, wood chips and bits of mossy bark.
Stick in hand, he examined the front patio, poking and prodding at the crevasses between the bricks. More roly-polies were forthcoming. Bored with that, he moved up onto the gentle slope in the lea of the wood and began turning over rocks and poking wild clumps of leaves (dwarves and trolls) into submission. A particularly interesting clump caught his eye. He immediately imagined a treasure beneath the layer of moldy leaves -- a rusty crown, a giant roly-poly, a frog.
He approached with the stealth of a big-game photographer, stick poised. He poked the clump. It moved -- very slightly, but enough to convince a five-year-old that he had made a great find. He poked again and the pile of arboreal debris collapsed downward, leaving a tantalizing hole.
"Wow!" Little boy eyes sparkled. This was the sort of stuff his Mom and Dad read to him about. This had to be a Hobbit hole or something very much like it. He hunkered down on his knees, ready to dig the sodden fall of leaves away from the cave-in.
"Evan! Ev, honey!"
Concentration broken, he turned his head toward the house. His mother leaned out the front door, looking for him. He dropped his stick and stood.
She saw him in the pocket glen and smiled, waved. "Lunch, honey," she said.
He glanced back at the Hobbit hole.
"Okay." He went resignedly, dragging his feet a little through the leaves, loathe to have to suspend his exploration. At the door, he turned to give the tiny cave one last, longing look. Something fluttered for a moment there, a leaf in the slight breeze, but Evan knew he'd seen the Hobbit wave.
It began raining again during lunch and, mothers being who they are, Evan did not get back to visit the Hobbit hole. He watched it briefly from his bedroom window. The view was good, but the hole merely sat there and refused to be entertaining. He got bored with it and played with his train set and, when his mother took a break from her writing, he had her read to him about Hobbits.
It sat, still, in the slough of decaying vegetation and watched the window. Waves of exhilaration coursed through it. The small creature was staring at it again through the transparent doorway, its face framed in one of the little square panels. Well, not at it, precisely, for it couldn't be seen, hiding, waiting in the leaves. It could feel the small creature's interest, knew how close it had come earlier that day ... only to fail.
Frustration shook the little frame huddled in Evan's Hobbit hole. To come so close and to fail. It sensed in the overhanging clouds and the movement of air masses that there might not be another opportunity like that one for some time. If the rain continued to fall, the small creature would remain locked away inside the domicile. It would have to find a way to reach inside the walls of the structure, for these creatures were the most interesting it had seen since the Landing. They didn't live in the open as other denizens of this place did, and they manipulated their environment like the Great Ones. They communicated in complex audio patterns and they had curiosity.
** Specimens exhibiting complex communications capabilities are especially worthy of study, as this may indicate advanced intelligence. **
It shivered with anticipation and considered how the shell of the domicile was to be breached.
"There's a Hobbit hole in our front yard, Mommy," Evan told her eagerly.
She handed him a stuffed bunny and glanced sideways at his father, who, having completed his part in the bedtime ceremony and delivered the required hugs and kisses, was on his way back to the family room.
He grinned at her. "Hobbits are definitely up your alley, hon," he said. "See you tomorrow, Ev."
Ev waved absently while his mother stuck her tongue out at her husband's retreating back.
"Mommy!" he giggled. "That's not nice!"
She looked hang-dog, pouting her lower lip. "Am I in trouble?"
He gave her a mock-scolding glare, then threw his arms around her neck, nearly toppling her over. "Nope! But, Mommy, I found a Hobbit hole in the yard!"
She made her eyes wide. "Really? Where?"
"There." He wriggled around in her arms and pointed, his finger smudging the glass. "Right outside my window on the hill. See?" She squinted. In the fading grey light all she could see was a small depression in the center of the near circular glade -- a puddle of black amid less-black. "Are you sure that's a Hobbit hole? Maybe that's Rabbit's House."
"Yeah, and that's his front door, huh? Just like in Winnie the Pooh. Do you think I'd get stuck if I tried to go inside?"
"You just might."
He pouted at her. "I was almost going to find out today when you called me for lunch. Then it rained and you wouldn't let me go back out. I left my roly-polies and my shells 'n stuff out there."
"Oh. Sorry about that, kiddo."
"You could go out and get them," he suggested sweetly.
She could never resist those eyes. They were the mirror image of her own and just now they were coy and pleading.
"Oh, all right!" She surrendered and planted a kiss on his nose. "Now, go to sleep so I can get out there before it's completely dark."
She got up and moved to the door, raised her hand to the light switch.
"It's on the edge of the patio," he said.
She paused. "What is?"
"The bowl with the roly-polies!" 'Gee, Mom!' his tone said. 'How could you forget?'
"Oh," she said. "A bowl full of roly-polies. How delicious!"
She could almost hear his nose wrinkle as she flicked off the light. "You don't eat them!" he objected, then, "You don't think Troll would eat them?"
"Somehow, I doubt that. Don't worry. I'll get your roly-polies and add them to your collection."
"And my other stuff? In the jar?"
"And your other stuff in the jar. Now, good night."
By the time she got outside it really was dark. She took a small flashlight, just in case Evan's stuff turned out to be out of range of the front porch light. It wasn't, quite. Glancing over down the patio, she could just see the sheen of the jar on the stone lip that formed one side of "Hobbit Glade."
Smiling, she made her way over to it. She had to turn on her flashlight to check the catch in the bowl. The roly-polies were intact, lying curled like tiny armadillos in the bottom. She picked up the treasures carefully and started to turn around. The flashlight swept the glade and caught something in its beam -- amber beads in a twisted black setting. Reflexively, she turned the light back. The amber beads stared at her from among the leafy cover of Evan's Hobbit hole, then winked out all together.
"Oh-ho!" she murmured, squinting at the sunken bowl. "Hobbits, indeed. I hope we don't have to call an exterminator."
A tapping noise behind her made her jump and spin. In the soft glow of his night-light, she could see Evan at his bedside window. He waved. She held up his treasury then mouthed, "Back to bed, Fred."
He grinned and disappeared, popping out of sight like a gopher down a hole. She cast one last glance at the glade, then went inside. She deposited Evan's roly-polies in the terrarium where he kept his micro-pets, then peeled off her sweater and went into the family room.
"Karen, did you see this?" Her husband emerged from the recesses of his favorite chair, waving the evening paper.
"When would I have had a chance to see that? You've had your clutches on it since you brought it home."
He thrust the front page at her. "Do you believe they've put this tripe on the front page?"
She stared at it, struggling for comprehension. "UFO Landing Site in Pine Valley?" asked the headline. Beneath it, a banner added, "Farmers Claim Missing Livestock as Evidence."
"What?" She blinked, then grabbed the paper. "Oh, this is great!"
"You would think so. Personally, I think it's absurd."
She perched on the arm of his chair. "Well, of course it's absurd. But just think of the possibilities."
"What -- of little green men or big silver robots coming to carry away our livestock? Abduct our children and senior citizens?"
"No. I was just thinking, you know, what if they were accused of it and they were innocent?"
"Innocent by virtue of non-existence? That's an interesting angle."
Karen made a rude noise and turned her attention back to the paper. She read a bit, then grimaced, then shuddered. Finally, handed the paper back. "Not my genre," she said.
"Ah-ha!" He pounced on her squeamishness. "What's the matter, Karen? Can't handle it when the cute little aliens turn out not to be so cute?"
"They haven't turned out to be anything yet -- least of all aliens."
"Oh, come on. I know you. You're still expecting to meet Klaatu or E.T.."
"I don't believe there are aliens in Pine Valley stealing baby animals and-and dissecting them."
"Now, now. What kind of attitude is that for a science fiction writer? There could be aliens. And they could be bad aliens. Twisted, evil."
"That's nonsense. If they've developed the technology necessary to achieve space travel, they must also have attained the spiritual capacity necessary to survive long enough to develop it."
"Oh, but what if not? What if this is a -- uh -- a slave race of some alien intelligence-"
"Or robots. Will you buy robots?"
"Honestly, Matt, I hate it when you play Devil's Advocate." She caught the pleading expression in his eyes and sighed. "Okay, Okay. For the sake of argument, Mr. D.A., yes, I suppose there could be robots."
"Right, or let's say, maniacal descendants of previously intelligent, well-balanced researchers. Now, suppose these minions of a Greater Intelligence go awry and land here and begin looking at the local fauna as specimens ... or even snack food."
"What's to keep that from happening? Who says those UFO abductees aren't telling the literal truth? The Prime Directive is a human concept thought up by one of your crowd, it isn't a Universal Law."
"Yes it is," she returned. "Cosmic Law of Non-Interference: One race of sentient beings shall not interfere with the course of another's evolution or abuse its resources."
"Oh, really? Well, even if there was such a Law, you couldn't expect everybody to abide by it. It's unenforceable. Some nasty old overlord could send a passel of underlings here to carry away our first born."
Karen was shaking her head.
"Because it's a Natural Law."
"Oh, sure. And who's going to enforce this Natural Law?"
"God," she said simply and got up to head for the kitchen.
He followed her. "I hate it when you play Divine Authority," he complained. "What about Hitler? Doesn't Hitler put a monkey wrench in your Cosmic Natural Law, Ms. D.A.?"
"That's entirely different." She poured herself a cup of coffee and glopped in half and half. "We produced Hitler. Humanity did. We're responsible for the forces that go into producing Hitlers."
"So then, if Hitler had been born orbiting Alpha Centauri, he wouldn't be allowed to terrorize humans on Earth."
"Something like that."
"And if he tries?"
"God stops him. One way or another." She went back to the family room with Matt trailing her.
"Oh, I get it. Bring on the thunderbolts, right? No, wait -- too old-fashioned -- how about laser beams?"
Karen glanced at him wryly as she curled up in her fireside rocker to edit a manuscript. "I said it was a natural law, Matthew, not a parlor trick."
"Then how's the law going be enforced?"
"Do I look like God?" she asked rhetorically, then proceeded to ignore him.
It cowered in the hole beneath the leaves, awed by the Thing that had come out of the house -- the Thing with the Light.
Painful. The Light hurt.
It thought now about how it must get inside. It had crawled to the porch the night before when all light within had been extinguished. It had gone to the door and waited on the pad before it, but the door did not open. A security system must be in force, it reasoned, although its finely-tuned audio sensors hadn't detected one. It must use its native talents then. When all lights inside the domicile had gone out, it began to dig.
It was a little after midnight when the first clots of stone began to fall to the basement floor. There was little noise and that might have been the rustle of a pigeon's wings or the drip of water from an aging pipe. In a few minutes the rain of rubble stopped and fluorescent amber eyes peered out of a hole the size of a man's head. The dark within and below was welcome and easily fathomed. It oozed through the hole bonelessly, and dropped to the floor, reorienting once there.
Up now, it reasoned, into the levels above. Up to where They lived, the huge, towering ones and the desired small one. Its digits twitched, blunt, alloy talons whispering with excitement; its olfactory sensors were alert, filtering the overwhelming array of alien odors. They told it nothing -- the variety was too great, too strange. Almost hungry with anticipation, it began to search the dank place for an upward way.
There was an odd sense of familiarity here, and it wondered why, when they had this living place below, the giant beings lived above where there was so much light. Their eyes must be wonderfully strange to allow it. And that strangeness made them desired.
** Specimens from vastly different environments should prove of special interest. **
Near the center of the big, dark, square room, it found a sloping framework that ran to the upper regions. There was a portal at the top of the framework; a portal big enough for the giant ones. It hissed at the thought of them, its lips drawing back from a circle of tiny, inward-curving needles -- gleaming, metallic.
Stuff of light-terrors, those giants were, untouchable. Only the little ones could be taken. Only the young ones could be used.
** A specimen must not exceed the ability of one unit to subdue it preparatory to study. **
Ungainly, galumphing, unused to this kind of motion, it mounted the staircase. It was slow, but nearly silent. At the top of the climb, it reoriented itself again and began to journey through the sleeping house, across the hall, through the family room, toward the room it determined must hold the thing desired.
In the doorway, odors assailed it -- too varied, swirling, confusing. Light speared its eyes -- light from a single point low on the wall. Turning its head away from the light, it sought and located the field of warmth generated by the small creature's body. With that reference, it determined its path across the room.
The little boy, sleeping and dreaming of Hobbits and Moles at tea-parties, turned over onto his back and murmured, "I'd like ice cream, please."
It felt a thrill as the soft sound breathed into its aural membranes. Just up there, just on that lumpy platform, somewhere amid the tortured shapes of bedding and stuffed toys, was the Prize. It caught the edge of the bed and drew itself up; saw, as through a haze, the white shape of the boy. It perched there near his feet, trembling, cringing a little in the glare from the night-light and positioned its augmented teeth, starting the flow of paralyzer into the cartilage behind the needles.
The Thing that reared out of the jumbled shapes on the bed was a creature from the most horrible Nursery light-terror -- blacker than the blackest cave, furred and hideously formed. And the eyes! They glowed red as life's water in the piercing spray of light. The horrible mouth opened on impossibly long fangs and shrieked.
The visitor froze for a moment only, caught in terror's paralysis, then tried to leap away as the small creature sat up and added its voice to the din.
"Mommy! Daddy! There's a rat in my room! Mommy!"
But, the moment was too long, the hideous enemy, too quick.
Karen and Matt reached the family room as a striped blur arced through it and disappeared under a coffee table. Evan appeared in the hallway.
"Mommy! It's a big ol' rat! Troll's got a rat!"
"Oh, God," moaned Karen. "Let him out, Matt. Quick!"
Galvanized by the horrible sounds coming from under the table, Matt obeyed, racing to the front door to open it. "C'mon, Troll. Outside!"
Karen rounded the table. "Psst!" she hissed. "Go on, Troll. Outside!" She clapped her hands.
The cat moved like tiger-striped lightning, his catch clutched in strong feral jaws. He flew across the family room, a furry shot, his victim's gangling, un-rat-like limbs, a blur. Matt slammed the door after him and went to comfort his son, already sobbing into his mother's arms.
"It's all right, Ev, honey. It's gone now. Troll took it away."
The little boy sobs turned to snuffles and finally ceased. Ev drew back from his parents a bit, then wiped his eyes and blinked. "I wonder if he'll leave any bones."
Out on the rain-soaked hillside in front of the house, a gold light winked on, turning the mist to glory. In the center of the patch of light, unnoticed by the family framed in the bedroom window, Troll finished his hero's meal, licked whiskered lips and began to clean himself and purr. There was, between his paws, a tiny pile of metal needles and curving platelets -- the stuff of Dwarves' chain mail shirts and gauntlet gloves. But he was a fastidious cat and left no bones at all.
This story originally appeared in Analog.