And then the first claws appeared. And overnight the complexion of the war changed.
The claws were awkward, at first. Slow. The Ivans knocked them off almost as fast as they crawled out of their underground tunnels. But then they got better, faster and more cunning. Factories, all on Terra, turned them out. Factories a long way under ground, behind the Soviet lines, factories that had once made atomic projectiles, now almost forgotten.
The claws got faster, and they got bigger. New types appeared, some with feelers, some that flew. There were a few jumping kinds.
The best technicians on the moon were working on designs, making them more and more intricate, more flexible. They became uncanny; the Ivans were having a lot of trouble with them. Some of the little claws were learning to hide themselves, burrowing down into the ash, lying in wait.
And then they started getting into the Russian bunkers, slipping down when the lids were raised for air and a look around. One claw inside a bunker, a churning sphere of blades and metal--that was enough. And when one got in others followed. With a weapon like that the war couldn't go on much longer.
Maybe it was already over.
Maybe he was going to hear the news. Maybe the Politburo had decided to throw in the sponge. Too bad it had taken so long. Six years. A long time for war like that, the way they had waged it. The automatic retaliation discs, spinning down all over Russia, hundreds of thousands of them. Bacteria crystals. The Soviet guided missiles, whistling through the air. The chain bombs. And now this, the robots, the claws-- The claws weren't like other weapons. They were alive, from any practical standpoint, whether the Governments wanted to admit it or not. They were not machines. They were living things, spinning, creeping, shaking themselves up suddenly from the gray ash and darting toward a man, climbing up him, rushing for his throat. And that was what they had been designed to do. Their job.
They did their job well. Especially lately, with the new designs coming up. Now they repaired themselves. They were on their own. Radiation tabs protected the UN troops, but if a man lost his tab he was fair game for the claws, no matter what his uniform. Down below the surface automatic machinery stamped them out. Human beings stayed a long way off. It was too risky; nobody wanted to be around them. They were left to themselves. And they seemed to be doing all right. The new designs were faster, more complex. More efficient.
Apparently they had won the war.
Major Hendricks lit a second cigarette. The landscape depressed him. Nothing but ash and ruins. He seemed to be alone, the only living thing in the whole world. To the right the ruins of a town rose up, a few walls and heaps of debris. He tossed the dead match away, increasing his pace. Suddenly he stopped, jerking up his gun, his body tense. For a minute it looked like-- From behind the shell of a ruined building a figure came, walking slowly toward him, walking hesitantly.
Hendricks blinked. "Stop!"
The boy stopped. Hendricks lowered his gun. The boy stood silently, looking at him. He was small, not very old. Perhaps eight. But it was hard to tell. Most of the kids who remained were stunted. He wore a faded blue sweater, ragged with dirt, and short pants. His hair was long and matted. Brown hair. It hung over his face and around his ears. He held something in his arms.
"What's that you have?" Hendricks said sharply.
The boy held it out. It was a toy, a bear. A teddy bear. The boy's eyes were large, but without expression.
Hendricks relaxed. "I don't want it. Keep it."
The boy hugged the bear again.
"Where do you live?" Hendricks said.
"How many are there?"
"How many of you. How big's your settlement?"
The boy did not answer.
Hendricks frowned. "You're not all by yourself, are you?"
The boy nodded.
"How do you stay alive?"
"What kind of food?"
Hendricks studied him. "How old are you?"
It wasn't possible. Or was it? The boy was thin, stunted. And probably sterile. Radiation exposure, years straight. No wonder he was so small. His arms and legs were like pipecleaners, knobby, and thin. Hendricks touched the boy's arm. His skin was dry and rough; radiation skin. He bent down, looking into the boy's face. There was no expression. Big eyes, big and dark.
"Are you blind?" Hendricks said.
"No. I can see some."
"How do you get away from the claws?"
"The round things. That run and burrow."
"I don't understand."
Maybe there weren't any claws around. A lot of areas were free. They collected mostly around bunkers, where there were people. The claws had been designed to sense warmth, warmth of living things.
"You're lucky." Hendricks straightened up. "Well? Which way are you going? Back--back there?"
"Can I come with you?"
"With me?" Hendricks folded his arms. "I'm going a long way. Miles. I have to hurry." He looked at his watch. "I have to get there by nightfall."
"I want to come."
Hendricks fumbled in his pack. "It isn't worth it. Here." He tossed down the food cans he had with him. "You take these and go back. Okay?"
The boy said nothing.
"I'll be coming back this way. In a day or so. If you're around here when I come back you can come along with me. All right?"
"I want to go with you now."
"It's a long walk."
"I can walk."
Hendricks shifted uneasily. It made too good a target, two people walking along. And the boy would slow him down. But he might not come back this way. And if the boy were really all alone-- "Okay. Come along."
The boy fell in beside him. Hendricks strode along. The boy walked silently, clutching his teddy bear.
"What's your name?" Hendricks said, after a time.
"David Edward Derring."
"David? What--what happened to your mother and father?"
"In the blast."
"How long ago?"
Hendricks slowed down. "You've been alone six years?"
"No. There were other people for awhile. They went away."
"And you've been alone since?"
Hendricks glanced down. The boy was strange, saying very little. Withdrawn. But that was the way they were, the children who had survived. Quiet. Stoic. A strange kind of fatalism gripped them. Nothing came as a surprise. They accepted anything that came along. There was no longer any normal, any natural course of things, moral or physical, for them to expect. Custom, habit, all the determining forces of learning were gone; only brute experience remained.
"Am I walking too fast?" Hendricks said.
"How did you happen to see me?"
"I was waiting."
"Waiting?" Hendricks was puzzled. "What were you waiting for?"
"To catch things."
"What kind of things?"
"Things to eat."
"Oh." Hendricks set his lips grimly. A thirteen year old boy, living on rats and gophers and half-rotten canned food. Down in a hole under the ruins of a town. With radiation pools and claws, and Russian dive-mines up above, coasting around in the sky.
"Where are we going?" David asked.
"To the Russian lines."
"The enemy. The people who started the war. They dropped the first radiation bombs. They began all this."
The boy nodded. His face showed no expression.
"I'm an American," Hendricks said.
There was no comment. On they went, the two of them, Hendricks walking a little ahead, David trailing behind him, hugging his dirty teddy bear against his chest.
About four in the afternoon they stopped to eat. Hendricks built a fire in a hollow between some slabs of concrete. He cleared the weeds away and heaped up bits of wood. The Russians' lines were not very far ahead. Around him was what had once been a long valley, acres of fruit trees and grapes. Nothing remained now but a few bleak stumps and the mountains that stretched across the horizon at the far end. And the clouds of rolling ash that blew and drifted with the wind, settling over the weeds and remains of buildings, walls here and there, once in awhile what had been a road.
Hendricks made coffee and heated up some boiled mutton and bread. "Here." He handed bread and mutton to David. David squatted by the edge of the fire, his knees knobby and white. He examined the food and then passed it back, shaking his head.
"No? Don't you want any?"
Hendricks shrugged. Maybe the boy was a mutant, used to special food. It didn't matter. When he was hungry he would find something to eat. The boy was strange. But there were many strange changes coming over the world. Life was not the same, anymore. It would never be the same again. The human race was going to have to realize that.
"Suit yourself," Hendricks said. He ate the bread and mutton by himself, washing it down with coffee. He ate slowly, finding the food hard to digest. When he was done he got to his feet and stamped the fire out.
David rose slowly, watching him with his young-old eyes.
"We're going," Hendricks said.
Hendricks walked along, his gun in his arms. They were close; he was tense, ready for anything. The Russians should be expecting a runner, an answer to their own runner, but they were tricky. There was always the possibility of a slipup. He scanned the landscape around him. Nothing but slag and ash, a few hills, charred trees. Concrete walls. But someplace ahead was the first bunker of the Russian lines, the forward command. Underground, buried deep, with only a periscope showing, a few gun muzzles. Maybe an antenna.
"Will we be there soon?" David asked.
"Yes. Getting tired?"