"You couldn't tell it was a machine? It talked like a living person? You never suspected?"
"It didn't say much. I noticed nothing unusual.
"It's strange, machines so much like people that you can be fooled. Almost alive. I wonder where it'll end."
"They're doing what you Yanks designed them to do," Tasso said. "You designed them to hunt out life and destroy. Human life. Wherever they find it."
Hendricks was watching Klaus intently. "Why did you ask me? What's on your mind?"
"Nothing," Klaus answered.
"Klaus thinks you're the Second Variety," Tasso said calmly, from behind them. "Now he's got his eye on you."
Klaus flushed. "Why not? We sent a runner to the Yank lines and he comes back. Maybe he thought he'd find some good game here."
Hendricks laughed harshly. "I came from the UN bunkers. There were human beings all around me."
"Maybe you saw an opportunity to get into the Soviet lines. Maybe you saw your chance. Maybe you--"
"The Soviet lines had already been taken over. Your lines had been invaded before I left my command bunker. Don't forget that."
Tasso came up beside him. "That proves nothing at all, Major."
"There appears to be little communication between the varieties. Each is made in a different factory. They don't seem to work together. You might have started for the Soviet lines without knowing anything about the work of the other varieties. Or even what the other varieties were like."
"How do you know so much about the claws?" Hendricks said.
"I've seen them. I've observed them. I observed them take over the Soviet bunkers."
"You know quite a lot," Klaus said. "Actually, you saw very little. Strange that you should have been such an acute observer."
Tasso laughed. "Do you suspect me, now?"
"Forget it," Hendricks said. They walked on in silence.
"Are we going the whole way on foot?" Tasso said, after awhile. "I'm not used to walking." She gazed around at the plain of ash, stretching out on all sides of them, as far as they could see. "How dreary."
"It's like this all the way," Klaus said.
"In a way I wish you had been in your bunker when the attack came."
"Somebody else would have been with you, if not me," Klaus muttered.
Tasso laughed, putting her hands in her pockets. "I suppose so."
They walked on, keeping their eyes on the vast plain of silent ash around them.
The sun was setting. Hendricks made his way forward slowly, waving Tasso and Klaus back. Klaus squatted down, resting his gun butt against the ground.
Tasso found a concrete slab and sat down with a sigh. "It's good to rest."
"Be quiet," Klaus said sharply.
Hendricks pushed up to the top of the rise ahead of them. The same rise the Russian runner had come up, the day before. Hendricks dropped down, stretching himself out, peering through his glasses at what lay beyond.
Nothing was visible. Only ash and occasional trees. But there, not more than fifty yards ahead, was the entrance of the forward command bunker. The bunker from which he had come. Hendricks watched silently. No motion. No sign of life. Nothing stirred.
Klaus slithered up beside him. "Where is it?"
"Down there." Hendricks passed him the glasses. Clouds of ash rolled across the evening sky. The world was darkening. They had a couple of hours of light left, at the most. Probably not that much.
"I don't see anything," Klaus said.
"That tree there. The stump. By the pile of bricks. The entrance is to the right of the bricks."
"I'll have to take your word for it."
"You and Tasso cover me from here. You'll be able to sight all the way to the bunker entrance."
"You're going down alone?"
"With my wrist tab I'll be safe. The ground around the bunker is a living field of claws. They collect down in the ash. Like crabs. Without tabs you wouldn't have a chance."
"Maybe you're right."
"I'll walk slowly all the way. As soon as I know for certain--"
"If they're down inside the bunker you won't be able to get back up here. They go fast. You don't realize."
"What do you suggest?"
Klaus considered. "I don't know. Get them to come up to the surface. So you can see."
Hendricks brought his transmitter from his belt, raising the antenna. "Let's get started."
Klaus signalled to Tasso. She crawled expertly up the side of the rise to where they were sitting.
"He's going down alone," Klaus said. "We'll cover him from here. As soon as you see him start back, fire past him at once. They come quick."
"You're not very optimistic," Tasso said.
"No, I'm not."
Hendricks opened the breech of his gun, checking it carefully. "Maybe things are all right."
"You didn't see them. Hundreds of them. All the same. Pouring out like ants."
"I should be able to find out without going down all the way." Hendricks locked his gun, gripping it in one hand, the transmitter in the other. "Well, wish me luck."
Klaus put out his hand. "Don't go down until you're sure. Talk to them from up here. Make them show themselves."
Hendricks stood up. He stepped down the side of the rise.
A moment later he was walking slowly toward the pile of bricks and debris beside the dead tree stump. Toward the entrance of the forward command bunker.
Nothing stirred. He raised the transmitter, clicking it on. "Scott? Can you hear me?"
"Scott! This is Hendricks. Can you hear me? I'm standing outside the bunker. You should be able to see me in the view sight."
He listened, the transmitter gripped tightly. No sound. Only static. He walked forward. A claw burrowed out of the ash and raced toward him. It halted a few feet away and then slunk off. A second claw appeared, one of the big ones with feelers. It moved toward him, studied him intently, and then fell in behind him, dogging respectfully after him, a few paces away. A moment later a second big claw joined it. Silently, the claws trailed him, as he walked slowly toward the bunker.
Hendricks stopped, and behind him, the claws came to a halt. He was close, now. Almost to the bunker steps.
"Scott! Can you hear me? I'm standing right above you. Outside. On the surface. Are you picking me up?"
He waited, holding his gun against his side, the transmitter tightly to his ear. Time passed. He strained to hear, but there was only silence. Silence, and faint static.
Then, distantly, metallically-- "This is Scott."
The voice was neutral. Cold. He could not identify it. But the earphone was minute.
"Scott! Listen. I'm standing right above you. I'm on the surface, looking down into the bunker entrance."
"Can you see me?"
"Through the view sight? You have the sight trained on me?"
Hendricks pondered. A circle of claws waited quietly around him, gray-metal bodies on all sides of him. "Is everything all right in the bunker? Nothing unusual has happened?"
"Everything is all right."
"Will you come up to the surface? I want to see you for a moment." Hendricks took a deep breath. "Come up here with me. I want to talk to you."
"I'm giving you an order."
"Are you coming?" Hendricks listened. There was no response. "I order you to come to the surface."
Hendricks set his jaw. "Let me talk to Leone."
There was a long pause. He listened to the static. Then a voice came, hard, thin, metallic. The same as the other. "This is Leone."
"Hendricks. I'm on the surface. At the bunker entrance. I want one of you to come up here."
"Why come down? I'm giving you an order!"
Silence. Hendricks lowered the transmitter. He looked carefully around him. The entrance was just ahead. Almost at his feet. He lowered the antenna and fastened the transmitter to his belt. Carefully, he gripped his gun with both hands. He moved forward, a step at a time. If they could see him they knew he was starting toward the entrance. He closed his eyes a moment.
Then he put his foot on the first step that led downward.
Two Davids came up at him, their faces identical and expressionless. He blasted them into particles. More came rushing silently up, a whole pack of them. All exactly the same.
Hendricks turned and raced back, away from the bunker, back toward the rise.
At the top of the rise Tasso and Klaus were firing down. The small claws were already streaking up toward them, shining metal spheres going fast, racing frantically through the ash. But he had no time to think about that. He knelt down, aiming at the bunker entrance, gun against his cheek. The Davids were coming out in groups, clutching their teddy bears, their thin knobby legs pumping as they ran up the steps to the surface. Hendricks fired into the main body of them. They burst apart, wheels and springs flying in all directions. He fired again through the mist of particles.
A giant lumbering figure rose up in the bunker entrance, tall and swaying. Hendricks paused, amazed. A man, a soldier. With one leg, supporting himself with a crutch.
"Major!" Tasso's voice came. More firing. The huge figure moved forward, Davids swarming around it. Hendricks broke out of his freeze. The First Variety. The Wounded Soldier.
He aimed and fired. The soldier burst into bits, parts and relays flying. Now many Davids were out on the flat ground, away from the bunker. He fired again and again, moving slowly back, half-crouching and aiming.
From the rise, Klaus fired down. The side of the rise was alive with claws making their way up. Hendricks retreated toward the rise, running and crouching. Tasso had left Klaus and was circling slowly to the right, moving away from the rise.
A David slipped up toward him, its small white face expressionless, brown hair hanging down in its eyes. It bent over suddenly, opening its arms. Its teddy bear hurtled down and leaped across the ground, bounding toward him. Hendricks fired. The bear and the David both dissolved. He grinned, blinking. It was like a dream.
"Up here!" Tasso's voice. Hendricks made his way toward her. She was over by some columns of concrete, walls of a ruined building. She was firing past him, with the hand pistol Klaus had given her.
"Thanks." He joined her, grasping for breath. She pulled him back, behind the concrete, fumbling at her belt.
"Close your eyes!" She unfastened a globe from her waist. Rapidly, she unscrewed the cap, locking it into place. "Close your eyes and get down."