"Yes," she said tonelessly.
"Do you obey me if I give you orders?"
Dworn grinned exultantly. It had worked--But there was no time to lose. The Spider Mother might return any moment.
"Where is my machine?"
She answered without expression, "I left it where it was. I didn't want it, I was only seeking a mate."
Dworn sighed with heartfelt relief. He looked upward, toward the spider-machine overhead: "All right. I command you to take me back to the place where you left my beetle."
Qanya turned silently toward a slender steel ladder that rose to the belly of the crouching metal monster. Dworn followed her, his nerves still strung close to the snapping point, but with hope leaping in him.... On the floor, the trussed-up Purri stared up with round eyes and made smothered noises.
They clambered into the spider through a port in its underside, past the engines and the great drums of steel cable which served to snare the spider's prey. The space within was cramped, barely big enough to hold two, and its instruments and controls were bewilderingly strange to Dworn. The tangle of switches and levers that must govern the mechanical legs made no sense at all to him, and he felt a moment of near-panic: if the hypnotic injection's magic should fail, he would be quite helpless here.
Braving it out, he snapped, "Make it go!"
Obediently Qanya touched this and that control. The spider's engine throbbed with power, and its legs straightened, lifting it so quickly as to cause a sinking sensation in the stomach. From overhead came a creaking, and a band of light appeared and widened, grew dazzling as a circular trapdoor opened on daylight.
Dworn caught his breath. He hadn't reckoned with its being daytime; evidently he had been unconscious longer than he had supposed. But he couldn't worry about that.
"Go on!" he rasped. "Outside!"
The machine clambered stiffly out of its burrow; sand crunched under its steel feet. Blinking at the sun, Dworn saw that the trap opened on a stretch of boulder-strewn wasteland; it must not be far from the foot of the great slide. The trapdoor was coated with sand to make it appear only a half-buried rock, and in the near distance were other, closely similar outcroppings that were very likely the entrances to other spiders' burrows.
"Get us away from here! Quick!" ordered Dworn shakily.
Still wordlessly, her face smooth and mask-like, the girl set the walking machine in motion. It moved with a queer rolling gait which made Dworn dizzy, though it stilted over the irregularities of the ground with scarcely a jar. Dworn felt nakedly exposed, riding high above the ground in broad daylight, but he gritted his teeth and tried not to think of the probability of attack by some day-faring marauder. He supposed the spider girl, accustomed likewise to a nocturnal life, would have felt the same fear of the light, if she hadn't been hypnotized.
Under the drug's influence she apparently couldn't speak unless spoken to. However, there were questions he wanted to ask her.
First--"What do you know about the attack on the beetles last night?"
"I know there was a battle," said Qanya flatly, without looking up from the controls. "I didn't see it, but the Mother and some others were prowling at the time, and saw. It was the flying things, which have given us too so much trouble."
That, if true--and he judged that it must be true--confirmed his prior suspicion, and killed another suspicion he had entertained for a little while--that the spiders themselves might have been the ambushers. He demanded, "What do you know about those night-fliers?"
"Very little. We do not know just what they are or where they came from. They began appearing hereabouts only four months ago, which was three months after the Rim collapsed and the Mother decided that we should descend and try the hunting on this side. Since then they've grown more and more numerous. They fly by day as well as by night, and attack everything that moves. They've taken several of our Family, and I think they've made heavy depredations on the peoples that inhabit this region. We spiders would have abandoned the location before now, but we feared to be caught migrating in the open...."
Dworn gazed apprehensively out at the glaring desert that was rolling past the spider windows. The news that the aerial killers also operated by day was most unwelcome. But as yet there was no sign of an enemy.
He said, "The little ground machines--unarmored, made of aluminum. They're allied in some way to the flying ones, aren't they?"
"We think so. Wherever the flying machines have made a kill, the crawlers appear before long to carry away the spoils. And if they're attacked--the fliers come swooping down within minutes to defend or avenge them. So most of the other inhabitants have learned to leave the crawlers alone; it's extremely dangerous to meddle with them."
Dworn could confirm that fact from his own observation.
Evidently the spider folk, even though they came from beyond the Barrier as the mysterious others apparently had too, knew little more than he himself had already discovered. But--there was one more question.
"Do you know," he asked tensely, "where these strangers' home base is? Where do they fly from?"
The girl looked doubtful. "We're sure only that it's somewhere beyond the Rim, where we used to live."
That much, too, he had guessed. Dworn subsided into glum silence, as Qanya impassively guided the machine on its way, covering distance at a surprising speed.
Then, even by the unaccustomed daylight, Dworn recognized first one landmark and then another, and knew they were approaching the spot where he had been trapped last night. A weird return, riding as master in the monstrous machine that had snared him!
As the great tilted rock hove in view, Dworn strained for the first glimpse of his abandoned vehicle. When he saw it, lying still overturned in the shadow of the boulder, he sighed in relief. Its door was ajar, where Qanya must have dragged him stunned from the machine last night ... but it appeared unscathed. The fear at the back of his mind, that scavengers might have happened on it--in which case they would have had it dismantled and carried away by now--was happily unrealized. For that he perhaps had partly to thank the enemy against whom he had sworn vengeance, the flying fiends who had decimated and terrorized the peoples native to this land....
"All right," he ordered. "Stop here!"
The walking machine crunched to a halt, standing almost over the beetle. Dworn looked at the spider girl, then, in irresolution.
In the pitiless daylight she was still piquantly beautiful, though her pale face was still smudged with the remnants of her ceremonial make-up and her eyes were veiled, withdrawn. Yes, she was even desirable.... Dworn put that thought determinedly out of his head. After all, she was an alien and an enemy; she had sought to make a doomed slave of him.
But now that her usefulness to him was over, he didn't know just what to do about her. The sensible thing would be, of course, simply to kill her. Somehow he felt that he couldn't do that. It was one thing to kill in the impersonal fury of machine combat, a different matter when the victim was helpless within your reach.... And he remembered that she had helped him escape.
He could command her to return to her people, to the tender mercies of the Spider Mother--who would know by now of Qanya's part in Dworn's disappearance. Damn it, that would probably be worse than killing her in cold blood! He was wasting time. Angry at himself for his unbeetlelike softness, Dworn postponed deciding what to do with her till he should have inspected his machine and made sure it was in shape to travel.
"Come along," he told the girl gruffly. "Outside."
Once more she obeyed unprotesting. The two clambered out of the belly of the standing spider--Qanya staring before her with sleepwalking fixity, Dworn nervously scanning sky and horizon for hostile machines. The sunlit waste was terrifyingly immense bright, and empty. With a physical ache of yearning he longed for the cramped security of his own machine's cabin.
He brushed past the girl and ran toward the upside-down beetle--he could easily right it with a spare emergency cartridge, and then he would be on his way in a normal world again-- He stopped short with one hand on the beetle's dull-black steel flank. The world seemed to rock around him.
The girl watched him without expression as his face went slack with horror, as he completed his arrested movement and dived into the cabin to confirm the dreadful discovery that first touch had disclosed to him.
When Dworn climbed out he was white and shaking. He took a few steps away from the beetle and sank weakly down on the sunwarmed sand.
"What's the matter?" asked Qanya.
He turned and looked dully at her. He had completely forgotten that she was there.
He said listlessly, "I'm dead."
"Of course you're dead." Her brows puckered faintly as she gazed at him. "Naturally, I drained your fuel tanks last night--"
Dworn surged to his feet and took one step toward her, fists knotted, blown by a gust of fury. She stared levelly back at him, unflinching--and he halted, shoulders drooping. "Ah, what's the use?"
He should have foreseen this--not that it would have done any good if he had. The beetle's fuel supply had been drunk up by the spider now towering over them; and the beetle's engine, even idling at minimum consumption, had used up what little remained in the system, and had stopped. And it was as if Dworn's own lifeblood had been drained and his own heart had stopped beating.
Qanya was still watching him blankly. She said, "Can't you start it again?"
Dworn was jolted by the realization that she genuinely didn't understand that he was dead--that there was no way of restarting an engine once stopped. Until now he had supposed that all races were the same in that respect; but evidently spiders were different. In fact, now he remembered that, when they had entered the spider-vehicle, the girl had pushed a button that apparently started the engine. Spiders, then, died and came to life again every day--a startling notion.
But the beetles--Among the thoughts that tumbled disjointedly through Dworn's head in this awful moment was a clear vision of the night, five years ago, when his machine-existence had begun: when, in the horde's encampment by the sea a thousand miles from here, the beetle's last seam had been welded, and its engine set going with the appropriate ritual of birth.... The sixteen-year-old boy's heart had beaten high and proudly, in tune with the heart of steel and fire that had begun to throb at that moment. And the life expectancy of the two was measured with the same measure, the life of flesh and that of metal indissolubly entwined....
He mumbled dazedly, "I'm dead, do you hear? Dead!"
There was a sudden howling in the sky. Flashing overhead, as the two stood momentarily petrified, went a shrieking flight of half a dozen winged shapes--stubby vanes slanting back from vicious noses, they hurtled low over the desert and vanished swiftly into the distance, dust-devils dancing across the ground in the whirling wind of their passage.
Dworn stared after them, and his eyes narrowed. A new and desperate resolve had begun shaping itself in his mind.
Of the things he had meant to do in life, it was no use thinking any more of rejoining his people. He was dead to them, for sure--not even a beetle any more, but only what was left of one, a ghost.... But a holy duty, stronger than death, remained to him; his father was still unrevenged.
What he could do against a foe so powerful as those who had just passed over, he had no idea--but perhaps a ghost could accomplish what a living man might well deem impossible.
He motioned Qanya peremptorily toward the waiting spider-machine. "Come on. We're taking your machine, and we're going to find them!"
For a moment she seemed to hesitate ... then she obeyed. If her face was paler than usual, Dworn failed to notice it.
The spider-vehicle lurched and swayed, even its marvelous system of shock-absorbers protesting as it climbed steeply, straddling upward from rock to rock.
Dworn clutched at handholds inside the pitching cabin and tried to combat the sympathetic lurching of his stomach. Qanya huddled tensely over the controls, slim hands flashing nimbly to and fro as with incredible deftness she guided the laboring machine.
Dworn risked a glimpse from the turret-windows, then shut his eyes with a rush of giddiness. They were climbing now up the steepest part of the great slide, where the mountainside had collapsed in a chaos of splintered rock and tumbled crags that would have been utterly impassible for any wheeled vehicle. Below them, the sloping valley floor they had left appeared from this height entirely flat and sickeningly far away. And still the cliff-heads frowning above them seemed terribly remote.
"How ... far?" gasped Dworn.
"It can't be very far now to the top," said Qanya, without glancing up from her absorbed concentration. Both their lives were in her hands; a slip, a misstep, and they might fall hundreds of feet among the jagged rocks to their death.
For seconds at a time, the walking machine poised motionless, one or more of its clawed limbs groping for footholds. As it clambered painfully upward, it was hopelessly exposed to attack if it should be sighted from the air.
Dworn, the beetle told himself savagely, you are not only a ghost, you are an insane ghost. Only a madman would have undertaken such a journey.
The cabin heeled wildly as the machine grappled a ledge and, its engine panting at full throttle, levered itself upward a few more feet.
He had commanded the spider girl to find the route by which her people had descended. But twice already they had missed the way and had arrived at dead ends beyond which it was impossible to climb higher; twice they had been forced to descend and search for an easier path. It had been scarcely noon when they started; now the sun was already sinking low.
Dworn could not even be sure that he would find his sworn enemies beyond the Barrier. But the duty of vengeance was all he had left to live for, since what was to have been his triumphal return had ended in bereavement and catastrophe.
And a dead man, thought Dworn bleakly, needs something to live for, even more than other people do.
The world came level again, for the moment. The machine sidled precariously along a narrow ledge girdling an unscalable wall of rock, as Qanya sought a spot to resume the ascent. Dworn winced at the thought that the way might be blocked again. But, no--fifty yards further on, the wall was breached, and toppled boulders formed a perilous but not impossible stairway.
Just as Qanya grasped the levers which would set the spider scrambling upward once more, there was a sound--one grown hatefully familiar to Dworn since the night before, the feverish buzzing of a number of light high-speed engines. He opened his mouth to hiss a warning, but Qanya too had heard. Instantly she guided the spider-machine as close as possible to the cliff, where the hollowed rock afforded some shelter, and twirled a knob that made it sink down, legs folding compactly.
They waited scarcely breathing. A couple of times before they had huddled like this, while flights of the winged enemies whistled over ... but the wingless ones? It seemed impossible that they should be up here, where surely nothing that ran on wheels could travel....
The head of a column of the aluminum crawlers came into view, whirring along the ledge with a confident air of knowing where they were going. One by one, the little machines rolled past within a few feet of the crouching spider, hastening on with an uncanny pre-occupation.
Dworn saw that, like those he had seen earlier, they were of diverse kinds; and several of them, fitted with claws and racks for transporting booty, were heavily laden now with metal plates and girders carved from some larger machine, a roll of caterpillar tread, a slightly bent axle.... The last pygmy in line, whose afterbody was a bloated tank, gurgled as it jolted by, and trailed an aroma of looted fuel.
A few yards beyond the staring watchers, each of the little plunderers pivoted sharply in its turn and without even slackening speed vanished straight into the cliff-face. Dworn and Qanya looked incredulously at one another.
"A tunnel!" Dworn grunted in realization.
That explained one mystery, at least--how, if the winged and wingless strangers' home base was somewhere above the cliffs, the wheeled machines contrived to forage at the foot of the Barrier. They must have one or more inclined tunnels, bored through solid rock for a distance that staggered Dworn's imagination. Emerging at this level, they had found or constructed a passable road the rest of the way to the valley floor.... Now he noticed that the ledge to which the spider had so laboriously climbed showed signs of being an often-used trail, and the cliffs it skirted exhibited in places the raw marks of recent blasting.
"Remember this spot," he told Qanya. "If we should return this same way--there's evidently an easier path down."
She said nothing. Dworn wondered wrily if, in her drug beclouded mind, she was aware of how unlikely it was that either of them would be returning from beyond the Barrier.
A mad enterprise indeed--a ghost and a zombie, going to seek out a foe whose numbers and whose might grew ever more apparent. The tunnel opening here was clear evidence of engineering resources and skill far beyond that of any of the machine races Dworn knew.
Its discovery was no help to them, since it was far too small to admit the spider.
"Go on!" Dworn ordered doggedly. "At least we know now that their dwelling can't be far!"
Qanya glanced briefly sidelong at him, then moved the levers, and the spider rocked upright once more and began to climb.
The sun was low, and the shadows of rocks and dunes in the valley behind them were pointing long blue fingers eastward, when the machine staggered up the last precipitous ascent and stood on level ground at the summit.
Dworn took a deep breath and looked ahead, looked for the first time in his life upon the unknown land beyond the Barrier.
At first glance, it differed little from any of the desert country where he had lived all his life. The ground shelved gradually away from the rocky rim on which they stood; far off, against the darkening eastern sky, blue mountains rose murkily, but between here and the ranges lay a vast shallow depression, an arid sink floored with wind-rippled sand. Perhaps it had been a lake-bed once, before natural or unnatural cataclysms, and the millennial drying-up of all this country, had emptied it of water. Or perhaps--as its circular form suggested--it was one of those other, mysterious depressions which were scattered irregularly across the face of the earth where no lakes had ever been; those, legend said, were scars left by the ancients' wars.
The rich light of the declining sun fell at a shallow angle into the miles-wide bowl and brought out with startling clarity the maze of wheel-tracks, crossing and criss-crossing, which covered its sandy expanse and testified to a fever of recent machine activity there. The light gleamed, too, here and there, upon scurrying metallic shapes, that raced by ones and twos or in trickling columns to and from the center of the bowl, where-- Dworn strained his eyes and his capacity for belief in an effort to make sense of the structures there, miles away. He was not very successful, for the scene was too unlike anything he had ever looked on before.
There were certain races which built stationary dwellings--Dworn knew of the scale-makers who lived, in colonies sometimes of considerable size, beneath individual armored, anchored domes sunk into the face of some impregnable rock; he knew of the sand devils with their pits, and now he had seen also how the spider people nested. But the huge buildings that loomed yonder, lowering and windowless, and the winged things clustering thick on the ground about them, were such as he had never seen in his nomadic life.
Atop a slender tower that spired above the squat structures he could make out something which turned and turned, something like a broad net of lacy wires, revolving steadily from east to west, from north to south. Strange, too, the smooth-surfaced ways that radiated outward in four directions, like an immense cross, broad paved roads that came to abrupt dead ends a mile or more from the central buildings.... After a moment, though, he guessed that those were runways for the aircraft which flew from this place.
The unknown builders were obviously a mighty people, a people who had perfected their peculiar form of organization on a gigantic scale. And a people who acted and thought strangely; for their behavior, as Dworn had observed it, suggested a chilly-blooded and fanatic discipline, a regimentation which he found monstrous and repellent.
Dworn turned questioning eyes on Qanya.
"I don't know what they are," she answered his unspoken query in a voice that faltered. "I remember this valley. But a few months ago it was uninhabited. All this has been built since then."
Dworn hesitated. He was seeing very clearly now just how hopeless this mad expedition was. Nevertheless, he had sworn vengeance, and he could at least perish with honor.
But--Seeing the fear in Qanya's face, it came to him sharply that, after all, she had no part in his blood feud. She had served him well by bringing him this far. The vague plans he had had, of using the spider-machine for an attack on the enemy, stood revealed as rankest folly. Big and powerful as the spider was by ordinary standards, against such as those it could accomplish little more than a man with his bare hands.