Inside a minute, all the nearby scorpions had begun banging away at the structures some three miles distant. The heavy scorpion guns were quite capable of carrying that far, and their shells had enough punch to do much damage to the buildings or to the central tower which still loomed occasionally visible through the drifting smoke....
But it was only a hope, perhaps even a forlorn hope. Dworn was fairly confident of his guess that the drones possessed some sort of central communication and control system--but it would take a lucky hit to disable that nerve center in time.
Qanya stumbled to his side. She cried something he couldn't hear over the continuous firing, tugged at him and pointed skyward with terror in her eyes.
The flying drones aloft had suddenly abandoned their scattered strafing attacks. With deadly machine-precision they wheeled into a single formation once more, and the whole flight came diving straight at the scorpion battery's position.
Dworn stood rigid, fists clenched at his sides, watching them scream nearer.
He ignored Qanya's pleading with him to take cover. No point to that--the drones' full force would blast the whole ridge to rubble and blanket it with their liquid flame.
At least, the enemy's reaction proved his inspiration correct. He noticed with fierce satisfaction that the scorpions were still doggedly firing....
The foremost drone came on, slanting down the sky until the gaping rocket-ports were plainly visible along its swept-back wings. But those sports still spat no flame. And it came on. It cleared the hilltop by no more than fifty feet, still diving faster than the speed of sound. It hit the desert slope beyond and ricocheted like a great projectile, bursting apart into fiery fragments that strewed themselves for a thousand yards across the rolling plateau.
Dworn picked himself up from among the rocks where he had been flung by the shock-wave of its near passage, and was knocked sprawling again by the earthquake impact of a second drone that thundered headlong into the earth a few hundred feet away, burying itself under a crater like that of a huge bomb.
He glimpsed a third craft going down to the west of them, just missing the rim of the Barrier cliffs and plunging out of sight without a sign of coming out of its dive.
Those which remained in the air were flying aimlessly. Two of them passed over side by side, gradually converging until, a couple of miles away, they locked wings and went spinning down toward the horizon in a deadly embrace.
On the ground, a like confusion had befallen the wingless workers. Their scurrying suddenly lost all its busy, planned efficiency. Some buzzed round and round in drunken circles; others ran head-on into one another, or tumbled into shell-holes to lie futilely spinning their wheels.
A hush descended on the field of battle. After the fury of bombardment and counterattack, the relative silence was deafening.
Dworn got to his feet for the second time and helped Qanya up; he grinned exultantly at her, oblivious of a trickle of blood running down his face where a rock-splinter had hit.
The scorpion lying nearest the foot of the slope opened its hatch-cover. A man climbed out, clasped hands together over his head and stamped on the gray monster's back in an awkward impromptu victory-dance. Cheers rang faintly from far off down the silenced firing-line.
Then--the spell of premature triumph was rudely shattered.
From the direction of the breached and smoking buildings, there rose yet again the soughing roar of jet engines gathering speed. Onto the runway to the west--the only one which the workers had managed to clear before their central control was knocked out--came waddling an enormous winged thing.
Its multiple engines screamed up to a frenzied pitch, and it rolled out along the strip at increasing velocity. Its huge wheels narrowly missed a dead fighter slewed across the way. Its tail went up.
Naturally, the queen ships wouldn't be dependent on the nerve-center of the hive that had spawned them; for each of them carried within itself the full-grown robot brain, the nucleus of a new hive....
Shooting began again raggedly, the gunners caught unawares. Perhaps the great machine was hit--but to stop it would take more than one or two hits.
It reached and passed the end of the runway, its wheels barely clearing the ground as the paved strip ended. Black smoke belched from its engines as it spent fuel lavishly, fighting heavy-laden for altitude. It rocked with the concussion of shells bursting all around it, and then it was soaring out over the Barrier, dipping and rolling perilously in the downdrafts beyond the cliffs. But it steadied and flew on, out of range of the guns, rising and dwindling until it was a speck, a mote vanishing into the western sky....
But no more queens escaped that day. The cannonade resumed with redoubled fury, and the guns did not fall silent until nothing was left to stir amid the gutted and blazing wreckage that had been the citadel of the drones.
Morning wind blew over the plateau, clearing away the reek of battle, bringing air that was cool and clear as it must have been in the morning of the world.
In that breeze like the breath of a new creation, it somehow seemed not at all strange to Dworn that he should be walking in the open under a daylight sky, among a multitude of excited strangers, men and women of all races, who mixed and exchanged greetings, laughed, shouted, slapped one another on the back ... then, perhaps, drew away for a moment with eyes of wonder at their own boldness....
Nor did it seem strange that Dworn strolled round the smoldering drone fortress hand in hand with a girl of the spider (who was by that token his hereditary foe,) and that he turned and kissed this enemy on the mouth, and she returned the kiss.
They stood with arms around one another, on the edge of the jubilant crowd, and looked out across the vast litter of smoking wreckage where scarcely a shell-holed wall stood upright now, from which the Enemy would no longer come to threaten the life of the Earth.
"One got away," said Qanya soberly.
"Yes. Somewhere it will all be to do over again." Dworn glanced toward the empty west, whither the queen flier had disappeared--where, perhaps, by now it would have crash-landed two or three hundred miles away, to spew forth its cargo of pygmy workers and (if the inhabitants or the area where it descended didn't discover and scotch it in time) to construct more workers, fighters, a hive no less formidable than the one that had perished today.
Dworn said, brow thoughtfully furrowed: "But maybe there's a good reason, even for the drones. Maybe they serve a purpose...." He faltered, unable to phrase the idea that had come to him--a thought that was not only unaccustomed but downright heretical. According to tradition the drones were the spawn of ancient evil and themselves wholly evil--but, Dworn was thinking, perhaps their existence produced good if, once in a generation or in ten generations, they came to remind the warring peoples that fundamentally all life was one in its eonlong conflict with no-life.
But he sensed, too, that that idea would take a long, long time to be worked out, to be communicated, to bear fruit....
Qanya's hand pressed his, and she said softly, "I think I know what you mean."
On one impulse they turned their backs to the ruins and gazed out across the throng of people, milling happily about, rejoicing, among the grim war-machines that stood open and abandoned on every hand. Near by, a crew of pill-bugs had tapped containers of the special beverage they brewed for their own use, and were inviting all passers-by to pause and drink.
"Your people are here somewhere," said Qanya. Her eyes on Dworn were troubled. "Over there to the south, I think I saw some beetles parked. Do you want to visit them?"
Dworn sighed. "Your people are here too."
Neither of them moved. They stood silent, their thoughts the same; in a little while now, the Peace of the Drone would be over, and all this celebrating crowd would grow warily quiet, would climb back into their various fighting machines, close the hatches and man the guns and creep away in their separate directions. The world would go its way again, a world in which there was no place left for the two of them....
Dworn blotted the image from his mind's eye and bent to kiss Qanya once more, while the Peace lasted.
A voice called, "Dworn!" A familiar voice--one that couldn't be real, that must be a trick of his ears.
He turned. A little way off stood a small group of people watching them, and in the forefront was a stalwart man of fifty, in the green garment of a beetle with a golden scarab blazoned on his chest-- "Father!" Dworn gasped unbelieving.
They grasped one another's hands and looked into one another's eyes. Dworn was only dimly aware of the others looking on--among them the hard-faced Spider Mother, and the grizzled chief scorpion whose cohorts had struck the decisive blow in the battle.
Yold smiled with a quizzically raised eyebrow. "You thought I was dead, no doubt? You came on the spot where we were attacked and you saw--"
Dworn nodded and gulped. "I couldn't have been mistaken. I saw your machine there, wrecked.... And now I've lost mine." His voice trailed off miserably.
His father gave him a penetrating look. "I see. You're supposing that means everything is over."
The chief smiled again. "When you departed for your wanderyear, you were still a boy, though you'd learned your lessons and your beetle traditions well.... But now you're a man. We don't tell boys everything."
Dworn stared at his father, while understanding dawned like a glory upon him. To live again, the life he'd thought lost-- "So far as I could learn, your beetle was disabled through no fault of your own. In fact, by what these strangers tell me--" Yold nodded towards the Spider Mother and the scorpion chief--"you've proved yourself worthy indeed, over and above the customary testing. Of course, there will be the formality of a rebirth ceremony--which I have to undergo, too, so we can both do so together."
Dworn couldn't speak. Once again he had to remind himself that a beetle warrior didn't weep--not even tears of joy.
Then the Spider Mother spoke up, her voice brittle and metallic. "The girl will naturally be returned to us. After this business, I am going to have to take pains to restore discipline in the Family."
Dworn saw Qanya's desolate face, took one step to the girl's side and put a shielding arm around her. He felt Qanya trembling, and glared at the Spider Mother's implacable face.
"I won't go back!" Qanya cried vehemently. "I'll die first! I never wanted to be a spider, anyway!"
"And I," growled Dworn, "won't let you take her. I won't let her go--" his face was pale, but he went on resolutely--"even if it means I can't return to my own people."
The beetle chief surveyed the two young people gravely, then turned to confront the old woman. He said, "I don't see that you have any further claim on the girl. According to our customs, she too can be 'reborn'--this time into the beetle horde, as one of my people--and my son's."
The head scorpion, looking on, nodded approval and grinned encouragingly at Dworn.
The Spider Mother and the chief exchanged a long, stony look--on either side, the look of a ruler used to command.
"It would be too bad," said Yold softly, "to mar the Peace. But my warriors are within call, and...."
The Spider Mother turned away and spat. "Have it your way. Who wants weaklings in the Family!"
The chief glanced sidelong at Dworn and Qanya, and saw that they were wholly absorbed in one another. With an open-handed gesture he invited the Spider Mother to follow him.
"Shall we go, then," he suggested politely, "and--while the Peace still reigns--find out whether the pill-bugs' beverage is all they claim it is?"
TO CHOKE AN OCEAN.
By J. F. Bone
Gourmets all agree that nothing can beat oysters on the half-shell--not even the armed might of the Terran Confederation!
"Nice that you dropped in," the man in the detention room said. "I never expected a visit from the Consul General. It makes me feel important."
"The Confederation takes an interest in all of its citizens' welfare," Lanceford said. "You are important! Incidentally, how is it going?"
"Not too bad. They treat me all right. But these natives sure are tough on visitors. I've never been checked so thoroughly in all my life--and now this thirty day quarantine! Why, you'd think I was carrying the plague instead of a sample case!"
The chubby little commercial traveller probably had a right to complain, Lanceford thought. After all, a Niobian quarantine station isn't the pleasantest sort of environment. It's not meant to be comfortable, physical discomfort being as good a way as any to discourage casual visitors. The ones who have fortitude enough to stand the entry regulations can get in, but tourists seldom visit Niobe. However, the planet's expanding economy offered a fertile field for salesmen, and men of that stripe would endure far worse hardships than a port of entry in pursuit of the Almighty Credit.
Now this fellow, George Perkins, was a typical salesman. And despite his soft exterior there was a good hard core inside.
Lanceford looked him over and decided that he would last. "You came here of your own free will, didn't you?" he asked.
"If you call a company directive free will," Perkins answered. "I wouldn't come here for a vacation, if that's what you mean. But the commercial opportunities can't be ignored."
"I suppose not, but you can hardly blame the Niobians for being suspicious of strangers. Perhaps there's no harm in you. But they have a right to be sure; they've been burned before." Lanceford uncoiled his lean gray length from the chair and walked over to the broad armorglas window. He stared out at the gloomy view of Niobe's rainswept polar landscape. "You know," he continued, "you might call this Customs Service a natural consequence of uninvestigated visitors." He brooded over the grayness outside. A polar view was depressing--scrubby vegetation, dank grassland, the eternal Niobian rain. He felt sorry for Perkins. Thirty days in this place would be sheer torture.
"It must have been quite some disturbance to result in this." Perkins waved his hand at the barren room. "Sounds like you know something about it."
"I do. In a way you might say that I was responsible for it."
"Would you mind telling me?"
"I wouldn't mind at all." Lanceford looked at his watch. "If I have the time, that is. I'm due to be picked up in an hour, but Niobians have some quaint conceptions of time. So if you want to take a chance that I won't finish--"
"To start with, take a look at that insigne over the door. The whole story's right there."
Perkins eyed the emblem of the Niobian Customs Service. It was a five-pointed star surrounding a circle, superimposed over the typically Terran motto: "Eternal Vigilance is the Price of Safety." He nodded.
"How come the Terran style?" he asked.
"That's part of the story. Actually that insigne's a whole chapter of Niobe's history. But you have to know what it stands for." Lanceford sighed reminiscently. "It began during the banquet that celebrated the signing of the Agreement which made Niobe a member of the Confederation. I was the Director of the BEE's Niobe Division at that time. As a matter of fact, I'd just taken the job over from Alvord Sims. The Old Man had been ordered back to Terra, to take over a job in the Administration, and I was the next man in line.
"The banquet was a flop, of course. Like most mixed gatherings involving different races, it was a compromise affair. Nobody was satisfied. It dragged along in a spirit of suffering resignation--the Niobians quietly enduring the tasteless quality of the food, while the Confederation representatives, wearing unobtrusive nose plugs, suffered politely through the watered-down aroma and taste of the Niobian delicacies. All things being considered, it was moving along more smoothly than it had any right to, and if some moron on the kitchen staff hadn't used tobasco sauce instead of catsup, we'd probably have signed the Agreement and gone on happily ever after.
"But it didn't work out that way.
"Of course it wasn't entirely the kitchen's fault. There had to be some damn fool at the banquet who'd place the bomb where it would do some good. And of course I had to be it." Lanceford grinned. "About the only thing I have to say in my defense is that I didn't know it was loaded!"
Perkins looked at him expectantly as Lanceford paused. "Well, don't stop there," he said. "You've got me interested."
Lanceford smiled good-naturedly and went on.
We held the banquet in the central plaza of Base Alpha. It was the only roofed area on the planet large enough to hold the crowd of high brass that had assembled for the occasion. We don't do things that way now, but fifty years ago we had a lot to learn. In those days, the admission of a humanoid planet into the Confederation was quite an event. The VIP's thought that the native population should be aware of it.
I was sitting between Kron Avar and one of the high brass from the Bureau of Interstellar Trade, a fellow named Hartmann. I had no business being in that rarefied air, since Kron was one of the two First Councilors and Hartmann ranked me by a couple of thousand files on the promotion list. But I happened to be a friend of Kron's, so protocol got stretched a bit in the name of friendship. He and I had been through a lot together when I was a junior explorer with the BEE some ten years before. We'd kept contact with each other ever since. We had both come up the ladder quite a ways, but a Planetary Director, by rights, belonged farther down the table. So there I was, the recipient of one of the places of honor and a lot of dirty looks.
Hartmann didn't think much of being bumped one seat away from the top. He wasn't used to associating with mere directors, and besides, I kept him from talking with Kron about trade relations. Kron was busy rehashing the old days when we were opening Niobe to viscayaculture. Trade didn't interest him very much, and Hartmann interested him less. Niobians are never too cordial to strangers, and he had never seen the BIT man before this meeting.
Anyway, the talk got around to the time he introduced me to vorkum, a native dish that acts as a systemic insect repellant--and tastes like one! And right then I got the bright idea that nearly wrecked Niobe.