Which was what Dworn would be--He stifled further reflection, said crisply: "You can go now. I'll remain here; I have a duty to perform. But you can return--go make your peace with your people, or whatever you like."
Qanya's black eyes met his squarely. "I won't," she said.
"Now see here--" Dworn began, and broke off, thunderstruck.
"B-but," he gulped, "you can't disobey me. The drug, the spider poison--"
"Doesn't work on a born spider. I must have neglected to mention that, naturally, we're all immunized against it." She smiled with a flash of those sharp white teeth.
"Then--then--" Dworn stumbled, feeling his preconceptions tossed helter-skelter. "Then you must have come with me--of your own free will!"
"At first," murmured Qanya, "I knew you'd never trust me unless I pretended ... and I was curious, too, to see how it was to be the one that obeyed. And then ... well, you'd have known, if you'd ever seen how the drug really works. You should have realized, anyway, when I laughed at you.... But you do so love to be masterful don't you?"
For a moment, Dworn's chief emotion was one of quick rage at the revelation of how thoroughly she'd deceived him. Then the anger subsided and left him feeling merely foolish, as he saw that she'd merely let him deceive himself. And, finally--as it came home to him that this girl had followed him of her own choice into exile and great danger--a new and quite unaccustomed feeling flooded in on him, a queer sense of humility.
"I'm sorry," he said confusedly. "I didn't--I don't--understand."
She breathed in a barely audible voice, "You said I was beautiful.... And you hadn't the drug."
From far away, from around the vast, mysterious buildings, came mournful hooting sounds, a sighing and a sobbing as of some mythical monster in torment.
Dworn was rudely recalled to realization of where they were--and of the fact that, as the spider-machine stood poised here on the cliff-edge, it would be starkly visible from over there, seen against the setting sun.
He gave up trying to unsnarl the tangle of his own feelings. He said hurriedly, "But you should go back. There's no time--I have to go on. But there's no reason you should die."
Qanya's face was drawn and determined. "No," she said flatly.
"I don't know what you're talking about. But I won't leave you now...."
The distant sighing rose to a whining roar.
"Quick!" cried Dworn in desperation. "Find cover. I think we've been seen!"
The girl reached for the controls and the spider's engine raced up. But it was already late. Off yonder, along that one of the radiating runways that stretched toward them, something was moving, racing swiftly and more swiftly outward with its long shadow following it.
All at once the moving thing left its shadow behind, and Dworn recognized it for an aircraft taking off.
Then he had to snatch for a handhold as the spider-machine lunged into a dead run. At full speed on the level ground, it could make good time; the ground outside skimmed past at fifty or sixty miles an hour.
Qanya had spied some rocky outcroppings, which might furnish a modicum of shelter, about a mile away and some distance from the brink of the cliffs, and she was heading for them. But the terrain nearer at hand was implacably flat--and the enemy was airborne, a vicious winged shape growing at terrifying speed. Its whistling roar swelled and grew deafening.
Qanya shouted something inaudible and pointed. Dworn understood, and, holding on for dear life in the pitching cabin, clawed his way within reach of the fire-controls. Wrestling with the unfamiliar mechanism, he fought to train the spider's guns on the hurtling attacker.
Puffs of smoke bloomed high in air--but any hit on such a fast-moving target, from so unstable a platform, would have been a miracle. The enemy screeched overhead, and an instant later flame and thunder erupted all around the running spider. The machine stumbled and for a moment seemed going down, but it righted itself and staggered on.
Dworn shook his ringing head and saw the flier banking steeply half a mile away, while a second and a third were climbing against the sky, gaining altitude to dive.
They couldn't last another thirty seconds, couldn't even hope to reach the doubtful cover of the rocks.... Up ahead, two hundred yards, was a low mound, only a few feet high, the only nearby elevation of any sort. And it was plainly artificial, though wind-piled sand had softened its outlines; others like it were scattered around the periphery of the great sink, and Dworn guessed their nature as he saw a column of the aluminum crawlers beginning to emerge from the side of the one just ahead. It must be the other end of a tunnel such as they had discovered among the cliffs....
He nudged Qanya urgently, shouted, "Head for that!"
She gave him a fleeting, wide-eyed look. The mound's low swell could furnish no shelter for the towering spider, and the tunnel mouth was of course much too small to enter. But she veered without slackening speed in the direction indicated.
Dworn abandoned the useless guns. The mound, with a gleaming line of crawlers still parading out of it, swept closer; and at the same time the desert echoed back the screaming onrush of the two new attackers.
Dworn wrenched open the cabin door with one hand. His other arm circled Qanya's waist, dragged her away from the controls. She cried in uncomprehending shock as he swung her before him into the open doorway. They swayed there, high above the speeding ground, wind whipping at them as the spider pounded blindly on.
The mound loomed immediately at hand. Dworn prayed that he had judged the moment right, and with a mighty leap launched both of them out into space.
A pistoning steel leg barely missed them. Even as they fell, the air was torn by explosions as the swooping fliers opened fire.
Dworn hit the ground with almost stunning force. His hold on the girl was broken and he was rolled helplessly over and over by his own momentum. But he fetched up on hands and knees, bruised and breathless but unhurt.
From the corner of his eye he saw Qanya sitting up dizzily, half-buried in the drifted sand that had broken their fall. Apparently she too was uninjured, but she was staring in horrified fascination after her runaway machine.
The spider careened onward, no hand at its controls. It hit the line of crawling little machines coming from underground; it knocked one spinning end over end, and stepped squarely on another, stamping it flat. It recovered its balance amazingly, and loped on, even though one leg was buckling beneath it-- Then it was hit dead-on by what must have been at least a hundred-pound high explosive rocket.
The winged killers shot low overhead with an exultant whoop of jets, peeling off to right and left of the column of smoke that rose and towered where the spider had been struck. Out of the cloud, metal fragments soared glinting upward and arced back to earth, and on the ground, amid smoke and dust, a metal limb was briefly visible, flexing convulsively and growing still.
Dworn heard a smothered sound beside him. A tear rolled down Qanya's smudged cheek, and Dworn thought fuzzily, Even spiders can cry. Only, he corrected, she's not a spider any more she's now just a ghost like me.
If he hadn't been a ghost already, if he hadn't lost his own machine--the idea of jumping clear and saving both their human lives while letting the spider be destroyed would never have occurred to him.
He came to himself, hissed, "Down! Keep low and maybe they'll overlook us!"
They huddled together on the slope of the sandhill, while the victorious flying enemy circled round in a miles-wide sweep and began descending toward their base again, wing-flaps braking them for landing.
And on the ground meanwhile, the crawlers which had come from the tunnel were proceeding on their way, leaving two of their number behind with strange indifference to their own casualties.
"What'll we do?" quavered Qanya.
Dworn had time to take stock of the situation. The tunnel-mound was, as he had seen before, the only cover--and that a poor one--for a considerable distance. It was all of a quarter mile to the edge beyond which the cliffs fell away.
He tried to sound hopeful--whether for Qanya's sake or to keep up his own courage, he could hardly have said. "I think we'll have to stay here, and hope we're not noticed, until it gets dark. Then, maybe--"
Qanya caught her breath sharply and gripped his arm. "Look--there!"
Still far away across the sloping floor of the great bowl, but rapidly approaching from its center, moved a dust cloud. Beneath it, the expiring sunlight glinted on the aluminum shells of at least a score of the ground machines.
Dworn said grimly, "Might have expected it; they'll be coming to look over the scene of action and pick up the pieces. We've one chance; keep out of sight behind this little hill, and maybe they won't investigate too closely."
Qanya nodded, biting her lip. She could reckon as well as he how much that chance was worth.
The buzzing motors came nearer. The two cowering in the lee of the mound, almost without daring to breathe, heard them halt, slow to idling speed one by one a little way off, where the wrecked spider lay. From that spot obscure sounds began rising, thuds and gratings and a shrill hissing noise.
But then--the whine of a single high-speed engine rose again, clear to their hearing. One of the enemy was approaching around the flank of the sandhill.
They crouched motionless, frozen. No hope in either flight or fight; on the open ground, they would be run down in no time, and they had no weapons--even the notion of a weapon, as something apart from the fighting machine that carried it, was alien to their thinking.
The enemy vehicle rolled into full view and nosed slowly along the base of the mound; its motor whining questingly, only a few yards of gentle slope between it and the huddled pair. Its vision-ports glinted redly in the sunset glow, and Dworn could almost feel the raking of murderous eyes from behind them.... Like the other machines of this kind he had seen it was small and without armor--it couldn't weigh more than a couple of thousand pounds, and it carried no guns. From the vantage of his armed and armored beetle, he had regarded its like as flimsy and harmless-looking.... But now he realized for the first time how helpless a mere human was against such a thing, and, with an irrepressible shudder, how easily the grappling and cutting-tools this one was equipped with might be employed for--dismantling--flesh and blood.
The machine paused momentarily. Then its engine revved up again. It rolled on past, giving no sign of excitement, and vanished beyond the hillside.
"Dworn, Dworn, it didn't see us!" Qanya was sobbing with relief.
Dworn was staring after the enemy, brows puzzledly drawn downward. The sounds from the other side of the mound went on uninterrupted--a clangor of metal, the prolonged shrilling of a cutting-torch, where evidently they were at work breaking up the smashed spider-vehicle.
He said huskily, "Something's very queer about them.... Wait. I've got to take a look."
Qanya glanced at him in quick alarm as he started wriggling to the crest of the sandhill. Then she followed silently, and peered over the top beside him.
Twilight was descending, but they could still see easily enough what went on out there. Not a hundred yards away, the little machines swarmed about the spider, bringing their various wrecking equipment into play to dismantle it rapidly under the watchers' eyes. Torches flared, winches tugged at fragments of the shattered monster. An aluminum cylinder with a serrated alligator snout rolled triumphantly away, bearing aloft the shank of a great steel leg....
But Dworn's attention was riveted by what was happening closer at hand. Here, near the tunnel-entrance that opened just below their observation point, lay the two crawlers which the runaway spider had disabled. One of these, the one which had merely been overturned and severely dented, was already being dragged away, wheels still helplessly in the air, by a towing-machine. The other had been smashed beyond repair. Around it several of the new arrivals were busy, callously and efficiently beginning to take it apart.
Dworn watched them at it, and the dreadful suspicion that had budded in his mind ripened into a monstrous certainty.
Aluminum skin was swiftly stripped away; frame members of the same metal were clipped neatly asunder by a machine armed with great shearing jaws. The engine came loose and was hoisted aloft carried dangling away by another specialized machine. In an incredibly short time, little but a bare chassis remained, and that too was being attacked by the salvagers.
And Dworn knew at last beyond all doubt, what manner of things these were.
Beside him he heard a sharp gasp, and turned to put a warning finger on Qanya's lips. He drew her gently back with him, out of view of the activities on the farther side of the mound.
"You understand what that means?"
The girl nodded soberly. "We have the tradition. I think that must be one tradition that all the peoples have in common."
"Then you know what we have to do."
She nodded again.
Between them the word hung unspoken--a word not to be uttered lightly, so awful was it in its connotations, freighted with memories of a terror rooted in the youth of the world.
In the beginning--said the stories--there were the ancients, who were great and powerful beyond the imagining of the latter-day peoples. But the ancients were divided among themselves, for some of them were good and some of them were evil.
So they fought one another, with the terrific weapons of devastation which they owned. And the good triumphed in the end, as it must--though at terrible cost, for in those wars the earth was stripped almost lifeless; searing flame, plague, climatic convulsions wiped out the varied life which once populated the world, and finally there remained only the peoples of the machine, all of whom--diverse though their ways of existence had become, and for all that they lived in ceaseless conflict with each other--were descended from the victors in that primal struggle of men like gods.
But the evil old ones, though they were vanquished and their seed utterly annihilated, had nevertheless found a way to perpetuate their evil upon the earth. For before the last of them died, as a final act of vindictive atrocity, they created the drones....
Qanya was shivering uncontrollably. She whispered, "No one remembers when they last came. Some thought there were none left in the world."
"It's the same among my people," Dworn said hushedly. "There's no record of the drones' having appeared in the time of anyone now living.... But here they are."
From out of sight came the rattle and clank and whine of machines at work. And from farther away, from the direction of the great windowless buildings, there were hootings and throbbing sounds, and from time to time a deep rumbling that shook the earth.
Those noises were somehow unspeakably horrible now--now that they knew there was no one there. No one--nothing but the machines, without feeling or thought, without life, with only the blind meaningless activity of unliving mechanism set in motion and made self-subsisting a thousand or two thousand years ago....
With infinite caution the two humans peeked once again over the summit of the mound. Out there on the flat, the little wingless drones buzzed to and fro with their false seeming of animation, finishing their work.
From around the great buildings, whose interior no living eyes had ever looked upon, lights winked oddly blue through the thickening dusk. They caught glimpses of immense moving machinery, and heard mysterious sounds. Once and again, it seemed that in the open space before the structures a great door opened in the earth, and against a blue light that streamed upward they saw a vast winged shape rise majestically from underground and roll slowly forward into the shadows to join others already ranked there.
"What are they doing?"
"I don't know...." Dworn reflected, grasping at memories of the legends, the traditions he had heard. What he recalled was ominous. "I think I can guess, though. I think they're getting ready to swarm."
Her stifled exclamation was sign enough that she understood.
If the guess was right, the danger was on the verge of being multiplied many times over. Soon now, a swarm of queen ships would take to the air and fly in all directions, sowing the seed of the robot plague broadcast far and wide; one such colonizing vessel, no doubt, had founded this great hive only a few months ago. The things worked fast....
And Dworn's duty, and Qanya's, became all the more clear and urgent. Duty to spread the warning, at whatever risk to themselves. In the face of that, Dworn's mission of personal blood vengeance became unimportant--even if it had been possible to take such vengeance upon a foe with no life to forfeit.
He whispered to Qanya, "The ground machines are about to leave. When they're gone, we'll have to make a break for it." For some reason, as he pondered the distance they must cross to reach the Barrier cliffs, he recalled the strange revolving thing atop the central tower off yonder, turning constantly with its air of restless searching.... He swallowed painfully, repeated, "Have to."
The girl nodded silently. Impulsively Dworn put his arm around her; she pressed close against him. They huddled together like that, finding in one another's living warmth some measure of encouragement against the terror of the falling night in which nothing moved but the lifeless machines.
They watched while the lights glimmered far off across the flats; while a flight of fighter drones took off from there and howled away into the dark on some roving patrol; while, at last, the salvaging machines finished their work and rolled loot-laden away one by one.
More than once while they waited, other columns of the wingless drones entered or emerged from the tunnel mouth at the base of the mound. The tempo of activity in the hive was, if anything, increased as night came on. In the deepening darkness a faint blue glow streamed from the tunnel mouth.
As the whirring of the last salvager receded, Dworn got cautiously to his feet. He said between his teeth, "We'd better move fast, now--"
"Wait," said Qanya tensely. "They'll sight us in the open, and then what chance will we have?"
Dworn tried to make out her expression, but in the darkness her face was only a white blur. "We've got to try. There's no other way."
"Perhaps there is. What about the tunnel?"
Dworn was brought up short; that idea hadn't occurred to him at all. He said slowly, "I see what you mean, It's only big enough for one-way traffic--and the drones evidently have some system of remote control, so that outbound expeditions aren't using it at the same time as returning ones...."
"So, if we wait till some of the wingless ones enter from this end, and hurry through the tunnel close behind them--" Qanya left the sentence uncompleted. Dworn knew she could imagine as well as he what would happen if they failed to time it right, and met a drone column coming from the opposite direction. Still, the sound sense of the girl's ideas was obvious.
"All right," he said. "We'll try it that way."
It was another nerve-fraying wait until a file of ground machines came winding near and vanished one after another into the tunnel.
The two watchers gave them a little time--not too much--to get clear of the entrance. Then Dworn clasped Qanya's hand tightly in his own, and together they plunged down the sliding slope of the sandhill. The tunnel mouth yawned in its side, the bore on which it opened slanting steeply down into the earth, inwardly lit with eery blue light.