Hearts pounding, they raced into the tunnel.
It was an unreal, nightmare flight. The blue shaft curved and descended endlessly. Endlessly ahead of them echoed the snarling of drone engines.
They ran with lungs near to bursting, through air heavy and foul with exhaust gases--trying frantically to keep close behind that engine noise, while it receded inexorably before them. And once and again, amid the tricky tunnel echoes, Dworn was almost sure that other drones had entered and were descending the narrow way behind them, and before his eyes flashed hideous visions of the two of them overtaken and run down, here where there was scarcely room to turn, let alone fight or hide.
The featureless walls were pressing inward to crush them, swimming before eyes filmed with exhaustion, in the blue shimmer which no doubt sufficed for the perceptions of the drones but which hardly served human vision....
The tunnel was in fact perhaps a thousand yards long.
But it seemed as if they had been staggering for a lifetime through the nightmare, through the blue glow, and it scarcely seemed real when a patch of night sky showed through the exit before them, and when they stumbled panting out into the clean cold air of the mountainside, and saw the white radiance of moonrise over the Barrier cliffs above them.
They sank down to catch their breath on a rock not far from the tunnel. They'd made it none too soon--only a minute or two had passed when the night once more buzzed with motor noise, and a column of foraging drones rolled up the trail and plunged at full speed into the mouth of the shaft.
Qanya buried her face against Dworn's shoulder.
"Easy, now," Dworn whispered, patting her with clumsy gentleness. "The worst's over. We made it ... Qanya, darling, we made it!"
She looked up at him and by the moonlight he saw her smile tremulously. She said breathlessly, "Would ... would you mind saying that again, please?"
The moon was already high as they trudged across the rolling desert beyond the foot of the great landslip.
After the tunnel, the rest of the descent had been relatively easy; they had followed the trail used by the wingless drones, being forced off it only once by the passage of a cavalcade of the little marauders. And they had discovered, to their surprise, that the human physique--inferior though it might be to machines in ruggedness, speed, and other respects--was better equipped for traversing rough terrain than the most ingenious vehicle ever constructed.
But both of them, unaccustomed as they were to walking on their own feet, were dead weary. They tramped on doggedly, searching the shadows, hoping to come upon some living machine-creature--of what race, didn't matter now.
So far they had seen only abundant evidence that the drones were abroad in force tonight, preparing perhaps for their swarming time. Drones in the air and on the ground, and once the burnt-out shell of an unidentifiable machine with a crew of the wingless salvagers worrying it, and once the light of fires afar off where the winged ones had made a kill....
Qanya stumbled, and Dworn caught her round the waist as she swayed.
"Tired," she gasped in a little girl's voice, then stiffened her back with a resolute effort.
"We'd better rest--"
"No," she said shakily; and then abruptly: "Listen!"
Not very far away, lost somewhere among the tricky moon-shadows, there was a stealthy crunching. It was coming nearer.
With instinctive caution the two hugged the pool of shadow beside a boulder.
"Spiders!" Qanya recognized them first.
They came prowling out of the shadows, crunching rhythmically across an open moonlit space towards a hollow beyond. One, two, four of them, moving with furtive caution through the perilous night.
They had to be intercepted, the warning given. But it was a critically dangerous moment--suspicious and on edge, they might fire at the first movement they saw.
"Stay here," said Dworn shortly. He thrust Qanya back into the shadows, and walked steadfastly out into the clear moonlight, in the path of the walking spider machines.
He raised one hand on high, palm outward in an immemorial gesture that he could only hope would be seen. He shouted at the top of his voice, "Stop! Don't shoot! I come in peace!"
His heart leaped. The leading spider ground to a halt, and the others behind it. He saw a dim figure move atop the foremost towering machine; and before he could speak again, heard the rasping voice of the Spider Mother herself.
"You! The one who got away--and who seduced one of us from the ways of her ancestors--? What peace can there be between you and us?"
"I bring," cried Dworn clearly, "warning of the Drone."
There was stunned silence.
Dworn sensed the other spiders watching from the height of their machines; and he guessed something of what must be going on in the mind of the fierce old woman staring down at him. She would be wondering if an alien, a mere beetle, would be so far without honor, so anxious to save his own skin, as to lie in such a matter.
Then he felt Qanya's hand in his, and heard her cry out, her voice vibrant and assured: "It is true, Mother! I have seen them too. The night-fliers, the raiders--they are the evil things our legends tell of!"
The great machine took two steps forward and knelt low to the ground. "Come here!" rasped the Spider Mother, and when the two advanced till she could look into their young faces--"You swear to this?"
"We swear!" they said at the same moment.
The Spider Mother's face was like iron. She looked from one to the other slowly.
"Then," she said stiffly and formally, leaning over to extend a wrinkled hand to Dworn, "let there be peace between us ... between me and mine and you and yours, and among all living peace ... till the evil is no more!"
Dworn took the hand, and answered, hurriedly recalling ancient custom: "Till the evil is no more!" And heard Qanya echo the words.
All night the desert was stirring, with a feverish hastening of messengers. These were at first spiders--then, members of a half dozen, a dozen other races, as the word was passed from one people to another--as tribe after tribe of hardbitten, suspicious warriors, fingers, fidgeting on triggers at the open approach of their hereditary mortal foes, heard and were electrified by the news-- The Coming of the Drone!
And hand gripped hand, all feuds were forgotten, the peoples mingled in a common effort of hurried mobilization. The desert land below the cliffs crawled with them, a mixed multitude of constantly increasing numbers, girding themselves for war.
Ferocious predatory machines--spiders, wheel-bugs, scorpions--formidable in their armor and bristling with guns, lay alongside the more pacific slugs and caterpillars and snails which in ordinary times were their natural prey, and were freely fuelled and provisioned out of the stores which normally their possessors would have fought to the death to safeguard against the despoilers....
In the presence of the drones, there were no more natural enmities. For the drones were the Enemy. Their coming meant that all life was kindred; deep in the heritage of every people was the almost instinctive knowledge that, if the drones were not checked as tradition decreed, their blind automatic propagation would end by sweeping every living thing from the face of the Earth.
Toward morning, the chiefs of a score of tribes held council of war in the very shadow of the Barrier. Their consultation was brief; there was no arguable question of what must be done, only of how. And if the drones were about to swarm, they must act promptly. No time to wait for the gathering of more distant peoples; no time to send word to the wasps or the hornets and gain aerial support. They must strike with what they had.
Dworn started awake as a hand touched his shoulder. He sat up, angrily flinging a coverlet from him.
"I didn't intend to sleep!" he muttered, rubbing his eyes and realizing where he was--below ground in the spiders' colony, whither he and Qanya had been taken and where he had been persuaded to lie down and rest a little while the warning was carried by others.
The tall blonde spider, Purri, was grinning maliciously down at him. "Hear the beetle talk! I suppose, after a day spent in what, for you was comparative idleness, you felt like doing something really strenuous ... say going out and demolishing the drones' hive bare handed...?"
Dworn climbed to his feet. With a violent effort he kept from wincing at the protest of stiffened muscles and yesterday's collection of bruises.
"What's going on out there now? Where's Qanya?"
"There's really nothing more you can do, you know. I merely woke you because I thought you'd want to hear that your beetle-folk have been contacted--they'd holed up to lick their wounds about twenty miles south of here--and have joined the fighting force that's getting ready to attack the drones at dawn. As for dear little Qanya, she's sleeping angelically in the next chamber...."
"No, she isn't," said Qanya from the doorway.
"You, too?" said Purri with irritation. "And what do you want, scapegrace?"
Qanya's black eyes narrowed dangerously. She moved forward to Dworn's side and took a grip on his arm. "I might ask what you're doing here disturbing--"
"Both of you, you're wasting time," growled Dworn.
He'd heard with a queer pang that his people--those who remained alive--had been located. Not that it made any real difference, of course. His father was dead, and he, Dworn, was dead too as far as his own kind was concerned. Nor, in this world, was there anywhere else he could turn.
For the present, under the threat of the Drone, that didn't matter. All laws of all peoples were in abeyance for the duration of the great emergency. But once the threat was dissolved, and the old laws resumed their force, the plight of Dworn and of Qanya also would be what it had been--that of outcasts in a world where an outcast had no chance of survival.
Well, it was no use thinking of the future. Dworn said determinedly: "I want to see the end of this business, at least."
"And I!" declared Qanya. "We've earned that right."
Purri eyed them sourly, shrugged. "As you like. I'm in command here while the Mother's busy at the front. I'll see you get transportation up there." Turning toward the door, she glanced sidelong at Dworn.... "You'll have to go separately, since a spider will only carry two. I'm leaving right away myself; you may come with me in my machine--"
"No, he won't," declared Qanya with finality, tightening her hold on Dworn's arm. "He can ride with old Zimka."
Purri stalked through the doorway before them, grumbling to herself, "Why is it the best ones always get away?"
Earlier in the night, climbing spiders--the only machines which could manage the ascent of the toppled Barrier--had scouted the periphery of the drones' fortress, and discovered the sole possible approach to it. At a single spot above the slide, a low ridge made it feasible to surmount the rim and steal out onto the table-land beyond without coming in direct view of the enemy's installations.
Once that was known, the council of chiefs decided on a daring strategy. Up the thousand-foot slope of tumbled rocks below that one vulnerable point, a fantastic supply line was established. One by one, machines from among those massing on the desert below toiled upward until wheels or treads could carry them no further; then they were hoisted bodily over the precipices by the invaluable spiders, who anchored themselves firmly in place with the powerful steel cables they ordinarily used for snaring prey, and used other such cables as pulleys.
Through the remaining hours of darkness the joined forces labored with Herculean devotion to accomplish the seemingly impossible task. There were brushes with the enemy, for the wingless drones still came and went about the mountainside and from time to time their winged kindred flew overhead. But strict orders had gone out to all the allied peoples--avoid opening fire, avoid precipitating a general engagement, and freeze motionless whenever the fliers passed over. This last instruction rested on the observation that the robot predators, with whatever sensory devices they used, apparently had difficulty in spotting anything but a moving target.
In this wise, when dawn began to break, close to three hundred first-line fighting machines of a dozen different species had been raised to the summit of the Barrier. Thence they filtered cautiously out across the plateau, in a great arc moving to enclose the hollow of the drones.
The sky was lightening when Dworn and Qanya settled themselves to watch from the crest of the rocky ridge which had shielded the attacking forces' deployment not far from the brink of the cliffs.
Behind them, the spiders which had brought them here melted stealthily away toward the east, going to take their places in the battle line.
The two were alone once more, looking out over the vast circular depression infested by the enemy, just as they had yesterday at sunset. But today, as the sun rose, the situation was very different. For miles around the circumference of the great hive, there were furtive stirrings, last-minute movements of preparation for the imminent assault. From behind every outcropping and fold of the ground, grim gun-muzzles pointed inward, ready to begin spitting fire when the zero second came.
From here the central buildings of the hive were plainly visible, standing out against the sunrise. Around them moved many of the tireless worker machines; and the parked aircraft seemed more numerous than they had been the night before. Among them a score or more of winged shapes loomed conspicuous for their great size; when you made proper allowance for the distance, you realized that they were immense.
Those would be the queens--loaded and ready to take flight on their one-way journey to found new colonies wherever their evil destiny might lead them. The time of swarming was near.
Dworn scowled darkly, squinting against the light in an effort to judge the enemy's numbers. He grunted, "I hope ..." and bit his lip.
"What's wrong?" said Qanya tensely.
"Nothing.... Only it would have been well if we'd had time to bring up more reinforcements. But don't worry--we'll smash them." He was a little surprised to note that he said "we"--and meant any and all of the machine-peoples, united now in a common cause.
Dworn was bitterly wishing at this moment that he had had his beetle-machine again, and had been able to take an active part. As it was, he didn't even know surely just where in the battle line the beetles had taken up their position.
A distant explosion, a single gunshot, rolled echoless across the flats. It was a signal. Even as the shell hit the ground close to the ranked drone aircraft, motors had begun to pulse and snarl all along the farflung line. The desert began to spew forth attackers. A motley horde of metal things, they darted, stalked, and lumbered from their lurking-places, and as they advanced to the assault the firing commenced in earnest, became a staccato thunder that blanketed but failed to drown out the beginning alarm-wail of a huge mechanical voice from the fortress of the drones.
The enemy was not slow to react. Almost as the first rain of projectiles smashed down among them, jet engines began howling into life, and some of the fighter craft rocked into motion, wheeling out onto the runways.
The encircling attackers well knew the peril of letting any of those pilotless killers get into the air. Shellfire was being concentrated on the airstrips, striving to block them, plow them up with craters.
A fighter drone came roaring out one of the runaways gathering speed and beginning to lift. Dworn followed it with his eyes, feeling sweat spring out on his forehead, repeating under his breath without conscious awareness of what he was saying: "Stop him, stop him--"
Then the enemy craft spun round in the air, belching smoke, came apart and spilled along the runway for a hundred yards. A second, coming close behind it, plowed into the wreckage of its comrade, rolled over and over and became a furiously burning pyre. That strip was blocked.
All round the central hive smoke and flame were rising in innumerable places, from the paved ways and from the open desert. On another launching strip, just visible through the mounting inferno, one of the big queen-craft had sought to take to the air, and had been knocked out by heavy shellfire. Now its upended and blazing hulk tilted slowly over and collapsed burying beneath it several of the little wingless workers. In all the confusion these still scurried hither and yon, oblivious to the bombardment, laboring frantically but futilely to clear away the debris. Their efforts were useless, while the rain of explosives from the tightening ring of assault forces continued adding to the ruin and disorder within the hive....
Dworn sprang to his feet for a better view. He hugged Qanya to him till she gasped for breath, shouted in her ear over the thunder of the barrage, "We've got them!"
Close to the ridge where they stood a line of many-wheeled monsters rolled past--scorpions, moving along the battle front and, whenever the thickening smoke up ahead revealed a target, halting to wheel round and discharge their heavy-caliber tail guns.
Dworn had never liked scorpions, but he watched these with heartfelt approval.
Then he stared, bewilderedly aware that something had gone wrong. The big machines had turned and begun heading toward the ridge, clattering along at their top speed and no longer pausing to fire.
Within moments, Dworn perceived that all the other attackers were doing likewise; everywhere on the blazing battlefield, they had ceased their advance and were scattering to seek cover.
Only then, as the firing slackened, did he realize that the sky had begun to echo with a spiteful screaming of flying things. Against the brightening daylight hurtled some two dozen dark winged shapes ... fighter drones.
Dworn realized they must have been out on patrol, and summoned back by the drones' mysterious means of communication to defend the threatened hive. Now the flight was splitting into groups of two or three, diving to attack at one point and another and flitting away again so swiftly that human reflexes could scarcely act to train a gun.
Dworn glimpsed Qanya's horrified face beside him, and the girl threw her weight against him and dragged him down among the sheltering rocks. Overhead, from out of the sun, shot three of the winged drones. They passed over before the shrieking of their flight could reach the ears, and Dworn caught a glimpse of bombs tumbling earthward. Thunder crashed as the scorpions hugging the ridge threw up a vicious defensive barrage, and was drowned out as the bombs landed all around. The rocks heaved, and dust and splinters showered down from above.
Only a dozen yards away, a scorpion came rumbling up across the crest, its many wheels jolting over the rocks, and halted there, its tail gun weaving angrily as it sought vainly for targets in the sky. Along one of its gray-painted sides was a long bright gash where something had barely glanced from its armor. And Dworn saw, too, the black outline of a mythological arachnid on its observation turret, which signified that the machine belonged to a scorpion chief.
Scarcely knowing what he intended, he shook off Qanya's panic grip and plunged recklessly toward the big machine. As he scrambled over the rugged hilltop, he saw fleetingly what went on in the arena of battle--the allied peoples were being driven back, forced to concentrate their fire power on beating off aerial onslaughts. Meantime, the wingless drones about their beleaguered citadel worked feverishly to clear the way for their fighters that still remained undamaged on the ground.... Within minutes, unless something happened to turn the tide, there would be enough flying drones aloft to break the attack and inflict terrible losses.
Dworn found himself alongside the scorpion, just as its tail gun fired once more. The muzzle blast almost knocked him down, but he clawed his way up the side of the machine and began hammering on the observation turret hatch-cover.
"You in there!" he shouted. "Listen to me--"
The hatch cracked open and a grizzled head peered out, blinking at him with bewilderment and an automatic fierce suspicion. But at a time like this anything human was an ally.
"What's the idea?" demanded the scorpion.
The racket of gunfire and of jets made speech almost impossible. But Dworn pointed out across the sink, shouted: "Fire on the buildings--the central tower! They're controlled from somewhere--"
Luckily the scorpion leader--if that was who he was--was a man of quick understanding. He nodded vigorously and dropped out of sight again into the interior of his vehicle, bawling something to its driver. Dworn dropped off the machine's side as it lurched abruptly into motion. He watched, hardly breathing, as it slid to a halt at the bottom of the hill beside another of its tribe, and with shouts and gestures the word was passed on.