A tall figure came out on the ridge above him, cloak flapping. Gray-green. A Russian. Behind him a second soldier appeared, another Russian. Both lifted their guns, aiming.
Hendricks froze. He opened his mouth. The soldiers were kneeling, sighting down the side of the slope. A third figure had joined them on the ridge top, a smaller figure in gray-green. A woman. She stood behind the other two.
Hendricks found his voice. “Stop!” He waved up at them frantically. “I’m—”
The two Russians fired. Behind Hendricks there was a faint pop. Waves of heat lapped against him, throwing him to the ground. Ash tore at his face, grinding into his eyes and nose. Choking, he pulled himself to his knees. It was all a trap. He was finished. He had come to be killed, like a steer. The soldiers and the woman were coming down the side of the ridge toward him, sliding down through the soft ash. Hendricks was numb. His head throbbed. Awkwardly, he got his rifle up and took aim. It weighed a thousand tons; he could hardly hold it. His nose and cheeks stung. The air was full of the blast smell, a bitter acrid stench.
“Don’t fire,” the first Russian said, in heavily accented English.
The three of them came up to him, surrounding him. “Put down your rifle, Yank,” the other said.
Hendricks was dazed. Everything had happened so fast. He had been caught. And they had blasted the boy. He turned his head. David was gone. What remained of him was strewn across the ground.
The three Russians studied him curiously. Hendricks sat, wiping blood from his nose, picking out bits of ash. He shook his head, trying to clear it. “Why did you do it?” he murmured thickly. “The boy.”
“Why?” One of the soldiers helped him roughly to his feet. He turned Hendricks around. “Look.”
Hendricks closed his eyes.
“Look!” The two Russians pulled him forward. “See. Hurry up. There isn’t much time to spare, Yank!”
Hendricks looked. And gasped.
“See now? Now do you understand?”
From the remains of David a metal wheel rolled. Relays, glinting metal. Parts, wiring. One of the Russians kicked at the heap of remains. Parts popped out, rolling away, wheels and springs and rods. A plastic section fell in, half charred. Hendricks bent shakily down. The front of the head had come off. He could make out the intricate brain, wires and relays, tiny tubes and switches, thousands of minute studs—
“A robot,” the soldier holding his arm said. “We watched it tagging you.”
“That’s their way. They tag along with you. Into the bunker. That’s how they get in.”
Hendricks blinked, dazed. “But—”
“Come on.” They led him toward the ridge. “We can’t stay here. It isn’t safe. There must be hundreds of them all around here.”
The three of them pulled him up the side of the ridge, sliding and slipping on the ash. The woman reached the top and stood waiting for them.
“The forward command,” Hendricks muttered. “I came to negotiate with the Soviet—”
“There is no more forward command. They got in. We’ll explain.” They reached the top of the ridge. “We’re all that’s left. The three of us. The rest were down in the bunker.”
“This way. Down this way.” The woman unscrewed a lid, a gray manhole cover set in the ground. “Get in.”
Hendricks lowered himself. The two soldiers and the woman came behind him, following him down the ladder. The woman closed the lid after them, bolting it tightly into place.
“Good thing we saw you,” one of the two soldiers grunted. “It had tagged you about as far as it was going to.”
“Give me one of your cigarettes,” the woman said. “I haven’t had an American cigarette for weeks.”
Hendricks pushed the pack to her. She took a cigarette and passed the pack to the two soldiers. In the corner of the small room the lamp gleamed fitfully. The room was low-ceilinged, cramped. The four of them sat around a small wood table. A few dirty dishes were stacked to one side. Behind a ragged curtain a second room was partly visible. Hendricks saw the corner of a cot, some blankets, clothes hung on a hook.
“We were here,” the soldier beside him said. He took off his helmet, pushing his blond hair back. “I’m Corporal Rudi Maxer. Polish. Impressed in the Soviet Army two years ago.” He held out his hand.
Hendricks hesitated and then shook. “Major Joseph Hendricks.”
“Klaus Epstein.” The other soldier shook with him, a small dark man with thinning hair. Epstein plucked nervously at his ear. “Austrian. Impressed God knows when. I don’t remember. The three of us were here, Rudi and I, with Tasso.” He indicated the woman. “That’s how we escaped. All the rest were down in the bunker.”
“And—and they got in?”
Epstein lit a cigarette. “First just one of them. The kind that tagged you. Then it let others in.”
Hendricks became alert. “The kind? Are there more than one kind?”
“The little boy. David. David holding his teddy bear. That’s Variety Three. The most effective.”
“What are the other types?”
Epstein reached into his coat. “Here.” He tossed a packet of photographs onto the table, tied with a string. “Look for yourself.”
Hendricks untied the string.
“You see,” Rudi Maxer said, “that was why we wanted to talk terms. The Russians, I mean. We found out about a week ago. Found out that your claws were beginning to make up new designs on their own. New types of their own. Better types. Down in your underground factories behind our lines. You let them stamp themselves, repair themselves. Made them more and more intricate. It’s your fault this happened.”
Hendricks examined the photos. They had been snapped hurriedly; they were blurred and indistinct. The first few showed—David. David walking along a road, by himself. David and another David. Three Davids. All exactly alike. Each with a ragged teddy bear.
“Look at the others,” Tasso said.
The next pictures, taken at a great distance, showed a towering wounded soldier sitting by the side of a path, his arm in a sling, the stump of one leg extended, a crude crutch on his lap. Then two wounded soldiers, both the same, standing side by side.
“That’s Variety One. The Wounded Soldier.” Klaus reached out and took the pictures. “You see, the claws were designed to get to human beings. To find them. Each kind was better than the last. They got farther, closer, past most of our defenses, into our lines. But as long as they were merely machines, metal spheres with claws and horns, feelers, they could be picked off like any other object. They could be detected as lethal robots as soon as they were seen. Once we caught sight of them—”
“Variety One subverted our whole north wing,” Rudi said. “It was a long time before anyone caught on. Then it was too late. They came in, wounded soldiers, knocking and begging to be let in. So we let them in. And as soon as they were in they took over. We were watching out for machines….”
“At that time it was thought there was only the one type,” Klaus Epstein said. “No one suspected there were other types. The pictures were flashed to us. When the runner was sent to you, we knew of just one type. Variety One. The big Wounded Soldier. We thought that was all.”
“Your line fell to—”
“To Variety Three. David and his bear. That worked even better.” Klaus smiled bitterly. “Soldiers are suckers for children. We brought them in and tried to feed them. We found out the hard way what they were after. At least, those who were in the bunker.”
“The three of us were lucky,” Rudi said. “Klaus and I were—were visiting Tasso when it happened. This is her place.” He waved a big hand around. “This little cellar. We finished and climbed the ladder to start back. From the ridge we saw. There they were, all around the bunker. Fighting was still going on. David and his bear. Hundreds of them. Klaus took the pictures.”
Klaus tied up the photographs again.
“And it’s going on all along your line?” Hendricks said.
“How about our lines?” Without thinking, he touched the tab on his arm. “Can they—”
“They’re not bothered by your radiation tabs. It makes no difference to them, Russian, American, Pole, German. It’s all the same. They’re doing what they were designed to do. Carrying out the original idea. They track down life, wherever they find it.”
“They go by warmth,” Klaus said. “That was the way you constructed them from the very start. Of course, those you designed were kept back by the radiation tabs you wear. Now they’ve got around that. These new varieties are lead-lined.”
“What’s the other variety?” Hendricks asked. “The David type, the Wounded Soldier—what’s the other?”
“We don’t know.” Klaus pointed up at the wall. On the wall were two metal plates, ragged at the edges. Hendricks got up and studied them. They were bent and dented.
“The one on the left came off a Wounded Soldier,” Rudi said. “We got one of them. It was going along toward our old bunker. We got it from the ridge, the same way we got the David tagging you.”
The plate was stamped: I-V. Hendricks touched the other plate. “And this came from the David type?”
“Yes.” The plate was stamped: III-V.
Klaus took a look at them, leaning over Hendricks’ broad shoulder. “You can see what we’re up against. There’s another type. Maybe it was abandoned. Maybe it didn’t work. But there must be a Second Variety. There’s One and Three.”
“You were lucky,” Rudi said. “The David tagged you all the way here and never touched you. Probably thought you’d get it into a bunker, somewhere.”
“One gets in and it’s all over,” Klaus said. “They move fast. One lets all the rest inside. They’re inflexible. Machines with one purpose. They were built for only one thing.” He rubbed sweat from his lip. “We saw.”
They were silent.
“Let me have another cigarette, Yank,” Tasso said. “They are good. I almost forgot how they were.”
It was night. The sky was black. No stars were visible through the rolling clouds of ash. Klaus lifted the lid cautiously so that Hendricks could look out.
Rudi pointed into the darkness. “Over that way are the bunkers. Where we used to be. Not over half a mile from us. It was just chance Klaus and I were not there when it happened. Weakness. Saved by our lusts.”
“All the rest must be dead,” Klaus said in a low voice. “It came quickly. This morning the Politburo reached their decision. They notified us—forward command. Our runner was sent out at once. We saw him start toward the direction of your lines. We covered him until he was out of sight.”
“Alex Radrivsky. We both knew him. He disappeared about six o’clock. The sun had just come up. About noon Klaus and I had an hour relief. We crept off, away from the bunkers. No one was watching. We came here. There used to be a town here, a few houses, a street. This cellar was part of a big farmhouse. We knew Tasso would be here, hiding down in her little place. We had come here before. Others from the bunkers came here. Today happened to be our turn.”
“So we were saved,” Klaus said. “Chance. It might have been others. We—we finished, and then we came up to the surface and started back along the ridge. That was when we saw them, the Davids. We understood right away. We had seen the photos of the First Variety, the Wounded Soldier. Our Commissar distributed them to us with an explanation. If we had gone another step they would have seen us. As it was we had to blast two Davids before we got back. There were hundreds of them, all around. Like ants. We took pictures and slipped back here, bolting the lid tight.”
“They’re not so much when you catch them alone. We moved faster than they did. But they’re inexorable. Not like living things. They came right at us. And we blasted them.”
Major Hendricks rested against the edge of the lid, adjusting his eyes to the darkness. “Is it safe to have the lid up at all?”
“If we’re careful. How else can you operate your transmitter?”
Hendricks lifted the small belt transmitter slowly. He pressed it against his ear. The metal was cold and damp. He blew against the mike, raising up the short antenna. A faint hum sounded in his ear. “That’s true, I suppose.”
But he still hesitated.
“We’ll pull you under if anything happens,” Klaus said.
“Thanks.” Hendricks waited a moment, resting the transmitter against his shoulder. “Interesting, isn’t it?”
“This, the new types. The new varieties of claws. We’re completely at their mercy, aren’t we? By now they’ve probably gotten into the UN lines, too. It makes me wonder if we’re not seeing the beginning of a now species. The new species. Evolution. The race to come after man.”
Rudi grunted. “There is no race after man.”
“No? Why not? Maybe we’re seeing it now, the end of human beings, the beginning of the new society.”
“They’re not a race. They’re mechanical killers. You made them to destroy. That’s all they can do. They’re machines with a job.”
“So it seems now. But how about later on? After the war is over. Maybe, when there aren’t any humans to destroy, their real potentialities will begin to show.”
“You talk as if they were alive!”
There was silence. “They’re machines,” Rudi said. “They look like people, but they’re machines.”
“Use your transmitter, Major,” Klaus said. “We can’t stay up here forever.”
Holding the transmitter tightly Hendricks called the code of the command bunker. He waited, listening. No response. Only silence. He checked the leads carefully. Everything was in place.
“Scott!” he said into the mike. “Can you hear me?”
Silence. He raised the gain up full and tried again. Only static.
“I don’t get anything. They may hear me but they may not want to answer.”
“Tell them it’s an emergency.”
“They’ll think I’m being forced to call. Under your direction.” He tried again, outlining briefly what he had learned. But still the phone was silent, except for the faint static.
“Radiation pools kill most transmission,” Klaus said, after awhile. “Maybe that’s it.”
Hendricks shut the transmitter up. “No use. No answer. Radiation pools? Maybe. Or they hear me, but won’t answer. Frankly, that’s what I would do, if a runner tried to call from the Soviet lines. They have no reason to believe such a story. They may hear everything I say—”
“Or maybe it’s too late.”
“We better get the lid down,” Rudi said nervously. “We don’t want to take unnecessary chances.”
They climbed slowly back down the tunnel. Klaus bolted the lid carefully into place. They descended into the kitchen. The air was heavy and close around them.
“Could they work that fast?” Hendricks said. “I left the bunker this noon. Ten hours ago. How could they move so quickly?”
“It doesn’t take them long. Not after the first one gets in. It goes wild. You know what the little claws can do. Even one of these is beyond belief. Razors, each finger. Maniacal.”
“All right.” Hendricks moved away impatiently. He stood with his back to them.
“What’s the matter?” Rudi said.
“The Moon Base. God, if they’ve gotten there—”
“The Moon Base?”
Hendricks turned around. “They couldn’t have got to the Moon Base. How would they get there? It isn’t possible. I can’t believe it.”
“What is this Moon Base? We’ve heard rumors, but nothing definite. What is the actual situation? You seem concerned.”
“We’re supplied from the moon. The governments are there, under the lunar surface. All our people and industries. That’s what keeps us going. If they should find some way of getting off Terra, onto the moon—”
“It only takes one of them. Once the first one gets in it admits the others. Hundreds of them, all alike. You should have seen them. Identical. Like ants.”
“Perfect socialism,” Tasso said. “The ideal of the communist state. All citizens interchangeable.”
Klaus grunted angrily. “That’s enough. Well? What next?”
Hendricks paced back and forth, around the small room. The air was full of smells of food and perspiration. The others watched him. Presently Tasso pushed through the curtain, into the other room. “I’m going to take a nap.”
The curtain closed behind her. Rudi and Klaus sat down at the table, still watching Hendricks.
“It’s up to you,” Klaus said. “We don’t know your situation.”
“It’s a problem.” Rudi drank some coffee, filling his cup from a rusty pot. “We’re safe here for awhile, but we can’t stay here forever. Not enough food or supplies.”
“But if we go outside—”
“If we go outside they’ll get us. Or probably they’ll get us. We couldn’t go very far. How far is your command bunker, Major?”
“Three or four miles.”
“We might make it. The four of us. Four of us could watch all sides. They couldn’t slip up behind us and start tagging us. We have three rifles, three blast rifles. Tasso can have my pistol.” Rudi tapped his belt. “In the Soviet army we didn’t have shoes always, but we had guns. With all four of us armed one of us might get to your command bunker. Preferably you, Major.”
“What if they’re already there?” Klaus said.
Rudi shrugged. “Well, then we come back here.”
Hendricks stopped pacing. “What do you think the chances are they’re already in the American lines?”
“Hard to say. Fairly good. They’re organized. They know exactly what they’re doing. Once they start they go like a horde of locusts. They have to keep moving, and fast. It’s secrecy and speed they depend on. Surprise. They push their way in before anyone has any idea.”
“I see,” Hendricks murmured.
From the other room Tasso stirred. “Major?”
Hendricks pushed the curtain back. “What?”
Tasso looked up at him lazily from the cot. “Have you any more American cigarettes left?”
Hendricks went into the room and sat down across from her, on a wood stool. He felt in his pockets. “No. All gone.”
“What nationality are you?” Hendricks asked after awhile.
“How did you get here?”
“This used to be France. This was part of Normandy. Did you come with the Soviet army?”
“Just curious.” He studied her. She had taken off her coat, tossing it over the end of the cot. She was young, about twenty. Slim. Her long hair stretched out over the pillow. She was staring at him silently, her eyes dark and large.
“What’s on your mind?” Tasso said.
“Nothing. How old are you?”
“Eighteen.” She continued to watch him, unblinking, her arms behind her head. She had on Russian army pants and shirt. Gray-green. Thick leather belt with counter and cartridges. Medicine kit.
“You’re in the Soviet army?”
“Where did you get the uniform?”
She shrugged. “It was given to me,” she told him.
“How—how old were you when you came here?”
Her eyes narrowed. “What do you mean?”
Hendricks rubbed his jaw. “Your life would have been a lot different if there had been no war. Sixteen. You came here at sixteen. To live this way.”
“I had to survive.”
“I’m not moralizing.”
“Your life would have been different, too,” Tasso murmured. She reached down and unfastened one of her boots. She kicked the boot off, onto the floor. “Major, do you want to go in the other room? I’m sleepy.”
“It’s going to be a problem, the four of us here. It’s going to be hard to live in these quarters. Are there just the two rooms?”
“How big was the cellar originally? Was it larger than this? Are there other rooms filled up with debris? We might be able to open one of them.”
“Perhaps. I really don’t know.” Tasso loosened her belt. She made herself comfortable on the cot, unbuttoning her shirt. “You’re sure you have no more cigarettes?”
“I had only the one pack.”
“Too bad. Maybe if we get back to your bunker we can find some.” The other boot fell. Tasso reached up for the light cord. “Good night.”
“You’re going to sleep?”
The room plunged into darkness. Hendricks got up and made his way past the curtain, into the kitchen.
And stopped, rigid.
Rudi stood against the wall, his face white and gleaming. His mouth opened and closed but no sounds came. Klaus stood in front of him, the muzzle of his pistol in Rudi’s stomach. Neither of them moved. Klaus, his hand tight around his gun, his features set. Rudi, pale and silent, spread-eagled against the wall.
“What—” Hendricks muttered, but Klaus cut him off.
“Be quiet, Major. Come over here. Your gun. Get out your gun.”
Hendricks drew his pistol. “What is it?”
“Cover him.” Klaus motioned him forward. “Beside me. Hurry!”
Rudi moved a little, lowering his arms. He turned to Hendricks, licking his lips. The whites of his eyes shone wildly. Sweat dripped from his forehead, down his cheeks. He fixed his gaze on Hendricks. “Major, he’s gone insane. Stop him.” Rudi’s voice was thin and hoarse, almost inaudible.
“What’s going on?” Hendricks demanded.
Without lowering his pistol Klaus answered. “Major, remember our discussion? The Three Varieties? We knew about One and Three. But we didn’t know about Two. At least, we didn’t know before.” Klaus’ fingers tightened around the gun butt. “We didn’t know before, but we know now.”
He pressed the trigger. A burst of white heat rolled out of the gun, licking around Rudi.
“Major, this is the Second Variety.”
Tasso swept the curtain aside. “Klaus! What did you do?”
Klaus turned from the charred form, gradually sinking down the wall onto the floor. “The Second Variety, Tasso. Now we know. We have all three types identified. The danger is less. I—”
Tasso stared past him at the remains of Rudi, at the blackened, smouldering fragments and bits of cloth. “You killed him.”
“Him? It, you mean. I was watching. I had a feeling, but I wasn’t sure. At least, I wasn’t sure before. But this evening I was certain.” Klaus rubbed his pistol butt nervously. “We’re lucky. Don’t you understand? Another hour and it might—”
“You were certain?” Tasso pushed past him and bent down, over the steaming remains on the floor. Her face became hard. “Major, see for yourself. Bones. Flesh.”
Hendricks bent down beside her. The remains were human remains. Seared flesh, charred bone fragments, part of a skull. Ligaments, viscera, blood. Blood forming a pool against the wall.
“No wheels,” Tasso said calmly. She straightened up. “No wheels, no parts, no relays. Not a claw. Not the Second Variety.” She folded her arms. “You’re going to have to be able to explain this.”
Klaus sat down at the table, all the color drained suddenly from his face. He put his head in his hands and rocked back and forth.
“Snap out of it.” Tasso’s fingers closed over his shoulder. “Why did you do it? Why did you kill him?”
“He was frightened,” Hendricks said. “All this, the whole thing, building up around us.”
“What, then? What do you think?”
“I think he may have had a reason for killing Rudi. A good reason.”
“Maybe Rudi learned something.”
Hendricks studied her bleak face. “About what?” he asked.
“About him. About Klaus.”