The first-come scavenger growled throatily and lumbered toward the interlopers, plainly taking heart from their air of harmless stupidity. Behind it, the other scavenger came clattering up the slope to its fellow's aid.
Flame bloomed thunderously from the muzzle of the first one's forward gun. The machine with the torch was flung bodily into the air and went rolling and bouncing down the hill, wheels futilely spinning. The gun roared again, and the exploding shell tore open a flimsy aluminum body from nose to tail. Motors whirred frantically as the pygmies scattered before the charging behemoth. One of them darted witlessly right under the huge treads, and disappeared with a brief screech of crumpling metal.
The fight was over as quickly as it had begun. The scavenger wheeled, snorting, and fired one more shot into the dark after its routed opponents....
Dworn muttered an imprecation under his breath. No chance of frightening the scavengers off now that their blood was up and their differences forgotten; and a lone beetle could scarcely stand up to two of them in a knock down fight. To rush in now would be suicidal.
He gave up the idea of investigating the scene of disaster more closely, and backed stealthily away, keeping to the cover of the rocks. At a safe distance he began circling round, downslope.
What he could and must do now was to locate what was left of his native horde. It had numbered about fifty when he had departed for his wanderyear; a dozen, perhaps more, had died on the mountain tonight. He must seek out the survivors, and help plan retaliation against whatever enemy had dealt them this terrible blow.
Yet something else nagged at his mind, until he halted to gaze achingly once more toward the glowing embers up there, where the scavengers now clanked to and fro about their business.
Dworn recognized that what bothered him was the puzzle of the unidentified little machines that had turned up on the battlefield only to be sent packing. During his yearlong solitary struggle to survive, he had developed an extra sense or two--and in the queerly confident behavior of those buzzing strangers he had scented danger, a trap....
So it happened that he was still looking on at the moment when the trap was sprung.
A star, it seemed, fell almost vertically from the zenith, falling and expanding with the uncanny silence of flight faster than sound. The scavengers had no time to act. Dworn caught one faint glimpse of a winged shape against the sky, limned by the flashes that stabbed from it as it leveled out of its terrific dive.
One scavenger shuddered with the force of a heavy explosion somewhere within it, and subsided, smoking. The other too staggered under crippling impacts, but ground somehow into motion, spinning and sliding crazily down the gravel slope. Then, as the first attacker's shock-wave made the very earth tremble, a second and a third plunged from the black heights, and as the last one rose screeching from its swoop the whole lower face of the hillside boomed into a holocaust of flame and oily smoke. The fleeing scavenger was gone, enveloped somewhere in an acre of fiery hell.
Dworn, two hundred yards away, felt a searing breath of heat, and with a great effort controlled the impulse to whirl round and race for opener ground. He sat still, hands cramped sweating on the beetle's controls, while the sky whistled vindictively with the flight of things that circled in search of further targets.
When, after a seeming eon, their screaming died away, he released held breath in a long sigh. He found himself trembling with reaction. Still he didn't stir. He was ransacking his memory for something he should be able to recall but which eluded him--a myth, perhaps, heard as a child beside the campfires of the horde-- The old men would know; Yold would have known. At thought of his father, the grief and fury rose up again in Dworn, and this time he knew the object of his vengeful anger. There was small doubt now in his mind that those flying machines which struck so swiftly and so murderously had been the beetles' attackers.
But he didn't know what they were. He knew, of course, about the machines called hornets, which could fly and strike at fearful speeds like that, outracing sound. But the hornets flew only in daylight, and made no trouble for the nocturnal race of beetles. These--were something else.
And more--between the deadly night-fliers and the harmless-looking aluminum crawlers he had seen, Dworn sensed some connection, some unnatured symbiosis. He had heard vague rumors about such arrangements, but had half-discounted them; any of the peoples whom he knew at first hand would have scorned to enter into alliance with an alien species.
Lastly, he realized bitterly, he didn't even know where the enemy's lair, their base on the ground, might be....
The moon stood high now. But the Barrier, close at hand now, rose like an immense black wall, folded in shadows, revealing no secrets--walling off the world the beetles knew from the unknown beyond. Involuntarily Dworn shivered. He couldn't be sure--but it seemed to him that the destroyers had come from over the Barrier and had flown back there.
He set his machine in cautious motion again and stole along, making northward and keeping close to the Barrier. It occurred to him that the beetle horde, routed and fleeing, might well have hugged the cliffs for protection against flying foes.
The going here was not easy. The terrain seemed increasingly unfamiliar though he should have known every foot of it. But--he remembered no such tumbled crags, no such great heaps of stony detritus as blocked his way and forced him into long detours....
Finally he halted to take his bearings, and, looking up, discovered what had happened. The black rampart of the Barrier was notched and broken. Sometime in the past year, since Dworn had left this place to begin his wandering, a quarter-mile-wide section of the upper crags, hollowed and loosened by the slow working of millennial erosion, had fallen and spilled millions of tons of rock crashing and shattering onto the slopes below. Here now water would run when the rains fell, and in ten or twenty thousand years, perhaps, a river-course would have completed the breach.
Dworn wondered fleetingly whether any living thing had been here when the cliffs fell. If so, it was buried now, crumbling bone and corroding metal, under the mountain for all time to come.
He set about skirting the rockfall, still searching the ground for traces of beetle wheels. But there were very few wheel or tread marks of any description to be seen--and that was strange in itself.
Impulsively he halted again and listened, his amplifier turned up. He should have heard faroff engine-mutterings, occasional explosions from the desert to the west, where normally the predatory machines and their victims prowled and fought all night long over the sandy tracts and the desolate ridges.... But there was nothing. A silence, vast and unnatural, lay upon the wastes in the shadow of the high plateau.
He looked up again at the fallen rampart of the Barrier. The great landship had opened, as it were, a gateway to the unknown lands in the east--a gateway for what?
There was a strangeness here since last year, and the strangeness crept chillingly into Dworn's blood, made the mountain air seem thin and cold.
As he started again, he noticed yet another curious thing. He was crossing a sandy natural terrace, and the soft soil here was traversed by a row of indented marks that marched in a straight line across the open space. They were scuffed depressions, such as a ricocheting projectile might have made--but oddly regular in shape and spacing, almost, he thought fancifully, like giant footprints, ten feet apart....
Dworn was growing numbed to riddles. He shrugged impatiently and pressed the accelerator again.
He would push on northward for a few more miles, he determined, and if he still found no sign of his people, he would circle back to the south....
The moonlight shadow of the huge tilted boulder ahead was inky. But Dworn was keeping to the shadows by preference, remembering the death from above; so he cut close around the overhanging rock.
Too late to swerve, then, he saw the gleam of something stretched across his path. A metallic glint of deceptively slender strands which, as the beetle rolled headlong into them, snapped taut without breaking, sprang back and flipped the beetle clean over to fetch up against the rock with an ear-shattering bang.
Half-stunned by the suddenness of it and the violence with which he had been flung about, Dworn blurrily saw other cables settling from overhead, coiling almost like living things around his overturned machine. Then he glimpsed something else; stalking monstrously down from the unscalable crag above, its armor glimmering in the moonlight, a machine such as he had never imagined--a machine without wheels or treads, a nightmare moving on jointed steel legs that flexed and found holds for clawed steel feet with the smooth precision of well-oiled pistons. A machine that walked.
Capsized, its vulnerable underside exposed, the beetle was all but helpless. One hope remained. With wooden fingers Dworn groped for the emergency button, found it-- The propellant-charge went off beneath him with a deafening roar. The beetle was hurled upward and sidewise, in an arc that should have brought it down on its wheels again--but the ensnaring cables tightened and held, and Dworn's head slammed against something inside the cabin. The world burst apart into a shower of lights and darkness....
Dworn came awake to a pounding head and blurred light in his eyes. He moved, and sensed that he was bound.
His vision cleared. He saw that he was in a closed, half-darkened chamber--and that discovery alone made him shudder, he who as a free beetle had spent his whole life under desert skies. His feet rested on a floor of hard-packed sand, and his back, behind which his wrists were lashed together was propped uncomfortably against a wall ribbed with metal girders. The room was circular and its walls converged upward, into tangled shadows overhead; the chamber was roughly bottle-shaped.
To one side a door stood ajar, and it was thence that the light streamed, but from where he was Dworn couldn't see into the space beyond.
He tried hard to collect his thoughts. When had everything stopped making sense? When he had first glimpsed the fires that were burning beetles on the mountainside, or....
The converging lines of the wall-girders led his eyes upward. The shadows overhead resolved themselves as he studied them, and Dworn's heart pounded as he commenced to understand what manner of place he was in. The roof of the bottle-shaped chamber--he was sure it must be underground--was no roof, but was the underside of a great machine complex with gear-housings and levers connected with the six powerful metal legs radiating from it, their cleated feet resting on a shelf that encircled the bottle-neck. It squatted there, motionless above him, sealing the entrance to its burrow....
Trapped. For some reason he couldn't guess at, he had been taken alive--his human body, at least; he didn't know what had become of the rest of him, the machine that was part and parcel of him too.
The light suddenly brightened. The door at one side was swinging open.
Dworn blinked at the glare from the lighted room beyond. Against it a figure stood in silhouette, and he saw that it was a woman.
She was slender, not very tall, and her hair was jet-black, a striking frame for a startlingly pale face. Here beneath the earth she must not get much sun.... In that white face her lips were shockingly red, the color of fresh blood. And the nails of her slim white fingers were crimson claws. After a moment, he realized that both must be painted--a strange thing to him, for there was no such practice among beetle women.
She was clad in a coverall suit of much the same design as the green garment Dworn wore according to beetle custom. But her garb was shiny black, and in front, between the swelling mounds of her breasts, was an emblem he did not understand; the shape of an hourglass, in vermilion red.
She stood gazing at him, smiling a little with a curve of scarlet lips that revealed white, sharp-looking teeth. Dworn groped for his voice; but she spoke first.
"Patience, beetle," she said. "I'll attend to you in a moment."
The words had the accent of a strange speech, but they were intelligible. Dworn stared uncomprehendingly at her, mumbled, "Who--what are you?"
She moved nearer and stood smiling down at him. "Why, beetle, don't you know?... I'm the spider who caught you."
"Spi-der?" Dworn fumbled with the unfamiliar word. "I don't--"
Her eyes too were black, very black and intense. She said slowly, "You don't know about spiders, beetle? Strange. It must be that till now there were none of our kind on this side of the Rim."
Dworn's aching head was not serving him well, but a part of his intelligence functioned to grapple with the implication of her words. "The Rim"--that must mean the Barrier, as seen from its eastern side. Then she, and others like her, must have come from beyond the Barrier. A walking machine could descend by the broken path of the landslide.
But "spider"--the word rang some bell deep in his mind, some recollection of childhood's fairytale bogeys perhaps, but he still hadn't succeeded in grasping the memory.
He growled, "I don't know--but if you'd untie my hands, I'd show you what a beetle is."
She eyed him thoughtfully. Then she smiled, showing the sharp little white teeth again. "Presently I'll free you. When it's quite safe. As soon as--" Her hand dipped to a small black case secured to her belt, and came up with a diminutive gleaming object--a slender needle thrusting from a liquid-filled plastic cylinder fitted with a plunger. "Do you know what this is, beetle?"
Dworn glowered silently.
"When I've injected this fluid into your veins, you will have no will of your own left. You'll do what I say, and only what I say--for the rest of your life, beetle!"
Dworn's eyes clung in unwilling fascination to the glittering needle. He said through stiff lips, "Now I remember. Your kind is a legend among my people. The evil women who have no men ... who kill their male children at birth, and trap their mates from among the other races, and kill them, too, when they no longer want them.... Spider!"
His gaze collided squarely with hers, and she needed no skill to read the loathing in it, rendered more violent by her beauty that he could not help but see.
Her eyes dropped first. She clutched the needle and muttered fiercely to herself, "But when you've had the injection, it won't matter. I'll say, 'Love me!' and you'll love me, and 'Die!' and you'll die...."
Dworn stared burningly at the slim figure in black with the scarlet hourglass on her bosom. He was alert again, and his mind was racing. To all appearances he was lost--but something in the spider girl's manner gave him an unreasonable hope.
He said abruptly, "So. Why didn't you use your poison while I was stunned? That would have been easy."
She looked away. "You ask foolish questions, beetle. Naturally, I had to prepare myself according to our customs. I had to paint my face and make myself beautiful...."
He said inspiredly, "You are beautiful."
Her reaction was surprising. She stood gazing raptly at him, lips slightly parted the hypodermic forgotten in her hand. Dworn sensed that had he been unbound, he would have had no trouble overpowering her.
She whispered, "It's true, then!"
And he realized forcibly how young she was--the painted lips made her look much older, and the shadows--which he now saw were also painted on--beneath her eyes. Only a girl, and if she had been one of his own people he would have looked at her twice and more than twice....
But above their heads the great spider-machine's underparts gleamed dully, straddling the sunken den. And the spell lasted only a moment.
The girl straightened her shoulders and took a deep breath. "Why am I talking to a beetle? It's time--"
There was a clang of metal from somewhere in the room beyond. The girl's face reflected sudden fright, beneath its painted mask. She spun round and took two steps toward the inner door, but even as she did so, the door swung wide, and dark figures crowded through it.
The girl cried, with terror and anger in her voice, "What do you mean, coming into my Nest like this? You have no right--"
The interlopers were three in number, and all of them were women, wearing black garments like the girl's, with the red spider symbol on the breast. The one in the lead was elderly, her hair wisped with gray, and her face was lined by years and passions; her eyes were flinty, her mouth thin and cruel. The other two were younger; one was a strapping blonde wench taller than Dworn, who moved with a powerful and formidable grace; the other was short, soft-looking, with a child's pouting mouth and a queer, mad glint in her dark eyes.
The older woman said, "No right? You've had your own Nest for all of three months now, dear Qanya, and already you tell your Mother that she has no right to enter?"
The girl quailed. She retreated step by step until her back was against the wall beside Dworn, and met the old woman's eyes with a look half fright, half defiance.
"But, of course, you have your reasons," the Spider Mother went on bitingly. Her hard eyes stabbed at the bound and helpless Dworn. "Somewhere you managed to catch this, and bring him in without letting anyone know, and paint your face and prepare the needle.... You chose to forget that in times like these there are others of the Family whose claim to a mate has priority over yours!"
"That's true, Mother!" said the tall blonde energetically. The plump girl licked her full lips and said nothing.
"Quiet, Purri!" snapped the Spider Mother. Her eyes raked the girl Qanya again. "Well, and what do you have to say for yourself?"
Qanya's black eyes flashed. "I caught him myself," she blazed. "You've no right--"
"No right, no right," mocked the old woman. "Why, I believe that, if you'd dared, you'd have blocked up the connecting tunnel so we couldn't walk in on you. Who has rights is for me to decide--and for me to decide whether you're whipped and sent back to the young girls' dormitory. Until I've made up my mind--" She turned and frowned thoughtfully at her two companions, jabbed a finger at the tall one. "You, Purri, stay here and see that nothing happens to the catch, and make sure our little Qanya doesn't misbehave. I'm going to my Nest and check over the Family ledger, to settle the question of who's first in line for a mate. We've got to be strict, now that the cursed night-fliers are everywhere and it's been so long since we trapped a presentable male." She eyed Dworn once more, and smiled thinly. "He's a fine youth. Who knows? I might even take him for myself."
Dworn had no stomach for the compliment. Secretly, he was twisting his bound hands behind him, trying to loosen the knots. Those knots had been none too skillfully tied, and given time.... But he had to desist as the tall Purri strode near and stood over him. She cast a glance after the retreating backs of the Spider Mother and her other proteges, then devoted all her attention to Dworn, surveying him in critical silence and with a business-like eye for detail.
Qanya huddled against the wall; her dark eyes were enormous, and tears had streaked the make-up on her cheeks.
Purri nodded satisfiedly. "He'll do," she said matter-of-factly to Qanya. "The Mother should give him to me. It's a choice between me and Marza, really--" She jerked her head toward the door through which the dark, pouting girl had gone--"But Marza doesn't really appreciate a mate. All she cares about is seeing how long she can take to make them die."
Qanya stared hotly at her. She said in a stifled voice, "You're a beast, and Marza is a beast, and--"
"Careful!" said Purri lazily. "If you say anything against the Mother, I'll have to report you." Arms akimbo, she looked scornfully down at the younger girl's tearful face.
Dworn had been right about the knots Qanya had tied. They were slipping. He wrestled in silence, hoping for a little more time.... Then he was sickeningly aware that Qanya was looking toward him, had seen what he was doing. For an instant he froze.
Qanya said hurriedly, "Anyway, you're a beast, Purri. A greedy one. You've had two mates already--why didn't you make them last? And I've not even had one."
"When you're older," said Purri loftily, her back still turned to the struggling beetle, "you'll understand more. But you ought to know from your schooling that there are some races that mate for life--and among them, the males dominate the female. We spiders are above such degrading practices."
Qanya's eyes flicked momentarily to Dworn, who was wrenching at the final knot. "Yes, yes, I know," she said. "But I still say it isn't fair--"
Dworn came catlike to his feet, ignoring the pain of cramped limbs. The cord with which he had been bound was looped in his hands. With a single stride he was upon the unwarned Purri; one hand clamped over her mouth, cutting off outcry, and the other hand whipped the cord tight around her. She fought with the strength of a man, but futilely. Dworn ripped a length of fabric from her clothing and improvised a gag; when he was done, the spider woman could do no more than kick and gurgle a little.
During the brief struggle, Qanya had watched without making a sound, hands pressed against the girdered wall at her back. As Dworn faced her now, breathing hard, he saw fear written large in her face.
She whispered, "Beetle, you won't hurt me?"
Dworn hesitated briefly. There was no doubt she had helped him--if only out of jealousy of the others. But at the same time she was a spider, a natural enemy. And time was desperately vital. In a flash of inspiration, he saw that there was one way to make sure of his escape.
"If you're quiet," he promised, "I won't hurt you. Not much, anyway." Then his arm was about her, pinioning her, while his free hand snaked to her waist and plucked the hypodermic from its case. For a moment she struggled and even tried to bite him, as she saw what he was about to do. Then, clumsily but effectively, he had stabbed the needle into her upper arm and pressed the plunger home.
He felt her stiffen and then relax, shivering, as the drug coursed through her blood. He released her and stepped back, watching her warily.
"How do you like your own medicine, spider?" he demanded harshly.
The girl stood motionless. Her black eyes, fixed on him, seemed to dull as if with sleep.
"Do you hear me?"