Taylor sat back in his chair reading the morning newspaper. The warm kitchen and the smell of coffee blended with the comfort of not having to go to work. This was his Rest Period, the first for a long time, and he was glad of it. He folded the second section back, sighing with contentment.
“What is it?” Mary said, from the stove.
“They pasted Moscow again last night.” Taylor nodded his head in approval. “Gave it a real pounding. One of those R-H bombs. It’s about time.”
He nodded again, feeling the full comfort of the kitchen, the presence of his plump, attractive wife, the breakfast dishes and coffee. This was relaxation. And the war news was good, good and satisfying. He could feel a justifiable glow at the news, a sense of pride and personal accomplishment. After all, he was an integral part of the war program, not just another factory worker lugging a cart of scrap, but a technician, one of those who designed and planned the nerve-trunk of the war.
“It says they have the new subs almost perfected. Wait until they get those going.” He smacked his lips with anticipation. “When they start shelling from underwater, the Soviets are sure going to be surprised.”
“They’re doing a wonderful job,” Mary agreed vaguely. “Do you know what we saw today? Our team is getting a leady to show to the school children. I saw the leady, but only for a moment. It’s good for the children to see what their contributions are going for, don’t you think?”
She looked around at him.
“A leady,” Taylor murmured. He put the newspaper slowly down. “Well, make sure it’s decontaminated properly. We don’t want to take any chances.”
“Oh, they always bathe them when they’re brought down from the surface,” Mary said. “They wouldn’t think of letting them down without the bath. Would they?” She hesitated, thinking back. “Don, you know, it makes me remember--”
He nodded. “I know.”
He knew what she was thinking. Once in the very first weeks of the war, before everyone had been evacuated from the surface, they had seen a hospital train discharging the wounded, people who had been showered with sleet. He remembered the way they had looked, the expression on their faces, or as much of their faces as was left. It had not been a pleasant sight.
There had been a lot of that at first, in the early days before the transfer to undersurface was complete. There had been a lot, and it hadn’t been very difficult to come across it.
Taylor looked up at his wife. She was thinking too much about it, the last few months. They all were.
“Forget it,” he said. “It’s all in the past. There isn’t anybody up there now but the leadys, and they don’t mind.”
“But just the same, I hope they’re careful when they let one of them down here. If one were still hot--”
He laughed, pushing himself away from the table. “Forget it. This is a wonderful moment; I’ll be home for the next two shifts. Nothing to do but sit around and take things easy. Maybe we can take in a show. Okay?”
“A show? Do we have to? I don’t like to look at all the destruction, the ruins. Sometimes I see some place I remember, like San Francisco. They showed a shot of San Francisco, the bridge broken and fallen in the water, and I got upset. I don’t like to watch.”
“But don’t you want to know what’s going on? No human beings are getting hurt, you know.”
“But it’s so awful!” Her face was set and strained. “Please, no, Don.”
Don Taylor picked up his newspaper sullenly. “All right, but there isn’t a hell of a lot else to do. And don’t forget, their cities are getting it even worse.”
She nodded. Taylor turned the rough, thin sheets of newspaper. His good mood had soured on him. Why did she have to fret all the time? They were pretty well off, as things went. You couldn’t expect to have everything perfect, living undersurface, with an artificial sun and artificial food. Naturally it was a strain, not seeing the sky or being able to go any place or see anything other than metal walls, great roaring factories, the plant-yards, barracks. But it was better than being on surface. And some day it would end and they could return. Nobody wanted to live this way, but it was necessary.
He turned the page angrily and the poor paper ripped. Damn it, the paper was getting worse quality all the time, bad print, yellow tint--
Well, they needed everything for the war program. He ought to know that. Wasn’t he one of the planners?
He excused himself and went into the other room. The bed was still unmade. They had better get it in shape before the seventh hour inspection. There was a one unit fine--
The vidphone rang. He halted. Who would it be? He went over and clicked it on.
“Taylor?” the face said, forming into place. It was an old face, gray and grim. “This is Moss. I’m sorry to bother you during Rest Period, but this thing has come up.” He rattled papers. “I want you to hurry over here.”
Taylor stiffened. “What is it? There’s no chance it could wait?” The calm gray eyes were studying him, expressionless, unjudging. “If you want me to come down to the lab,” Taylor grumbled, “I suppose I can. I’ll get my uniform--”
“No. Come as you are. And not to the lab. Meet me at second stage as soon as possible. It’ll take you about a half hour, using the fast car up. I’ll see you there.”
The picture broke and Moss disappeared.
“What was it?” Mary said, at the door.
“Moss. He wants me for something.”
“I knew this would happen.”
“Well, you didn’t want to do anything, anyhow. What does it matter?” His voice was bitter. “It’s all the same, every day. I’ll bring you back something. I’m going up to second stage. Maybe I’ll be close enough to the surface to--”
“Don’t! Don’t bring me anything! Not from the surface!”
“All right, I won’t. But of all the irrational nonsense--”
She watched him put on his boots without answering.
Moss nodded and Taylor fell in step with him, as the older man strode along. A series of loads were going up to the surface, blind cars clanking like ore-trucks up the ramp, disappearing through the stage trap above them. Taylor watched the cars, heavy with tubular machinery of some sort, weapons new to him. Workers were everywhere, in the dark gray uniforms of the labor corps, loading, lifting, shouting back and forth. The stage was deafening with noise.
“We’ll go up a way,” Moss said, “where we can talk. This is no place to give you details.”
They took an escalator up. The commercial lift fell behind them, and with it most of the crashing and booming. Soon they emerged on an observation platform, suspended on the side of the Tube, the vast tunnel leading to the surface, not more than half a mile above them now.
“My God!” Taylor said, looking down the Tube involuntarily. “It’s a long way down.”
Moss laughed. “Don’t look.”
They opened a door and entered an office. Behind the desk, an officer was sitting, an officer of Internal Security. He looked up.
“I’ll be right with you, Moss.” He gazed at Taylor studying him. “You’re a little ahead of time.”
“This is Commander Franks,” Moss said to Taylor. “He was the first to make the discovery. I was notified last night.” He tapped a parcel he carried. “I was let in because of this.”
Franks frowned at him and stood up. “We’re going up to first stage. We can discuss it there.”
“First stage?” Taylor repeated nervously. The three of them went down a side passage to a small lift. “I’ve never been up there. Is it all right? It’s not radioactive, is it?”
“You’re like everyone else,” Franks said. “Old women afraid of burglars. No radiation leaks down to first stage. There’s lead and rock, and what comes down the Tube is bathed.”
“What’s the nature of the problem?” Taylor asked. “I’d like to know something about it.”
“In a moment.”
They entered the lift and ascended. When they stepped out, they were in a hall of soldiers, weapons and uniforms everywhere. Taylor blinked in surprise. So this was first stage, the closest undersurface level to the top! After this stage there was only rock, lead and rock, and the great tubes leading up like the burrows of earthworms. Lead and rock, and above that, where the tubes opened, the great expanse that no living being had seen for eight years, the vast, endless ruin that had once been Man’s home, the place where he had lived, eight years ago.
Now the surface was a lethal desert of slag and rolling clouds. Endless clouds drifted back and forth, blotting out the red Sun. Occasionally something metallic stirred, moving through the remains of a city, threading its way across the tortured terrain of the countryside. A leady, a surface robot, immune to radiation, constructed with feverish haste in the last months before the cold war became literally hot.
Leadys, crawling along the ground, moving over the oceans or through the skies in slender, blackened craft, creatures that could exist where no life could remain, metal and plastic figures that waged a war Man had conceived, but which he could not fight himself. Human beings had invented war, invented and manufactured the weapons, even invented the players, the fighters, the actors of the war. But they themselves could not venture forth, could not wage it themselves. In all the world--in Russia, in Europe, America, Africa--no living human being remained. They were under the surface, in the deep shelters that had been carefully planned and built, even as the first bombs began to fall.
It was a brilliant idea and the only idea that could have worked. Up above, on the ruined, blasted surface of what had once been a living planet, the leady crawled and scurried, and fought Man’s war. And undersurface, in the depths of the planet, human beings toiled endlessly to produce the weapons to continue the fight, month by month, year by year.
“First stage,” Taylor said. A strange ache went through him. “Almost to the surface.”
“But not quite,” Moss said.
Franks led them through the soldiers, over to one side, near the lip of the Tube.
“In a few minutes, a lift will bring something down to us from the surface,” he explained. “You see, Taylor, every once in a while Security examines and interrogates a surface leady, one that has been above for a time, to find out certain things. A vidcall is sent up and contact is made with a field headquarters. We need this direct interview; we can’t depend on vidscreen contact alone. The leadys are doing a good job, but we want to make certain that everything is going the way we want it.”
Franks faced Taylor and Moss and continued: “The lift will bring down a leady from the surface, one of the A-class leadys. There’s an examination chamber in the next room, with a lead wall in the center, so the interviewing officers won’t be exposed to radiation. We find this easier than bathing the leady. It is going right back up; it has a job to get back to.
“Two days ago, an A-class leady was brought down and interrogated. I conducted the session myself. We were interested in a new weapon the Soviets have been using, an automatic mine that pursues anything that moves. Military had sent instructions up that the mine be observed and reported in detail.
“This A-class leady was brought down with information. We learned a few facts from it, obtained the usual roll of film and reports, and then sent it back up. It was going out of the chamber, back to the lift, when a curious thing happened. At the time, I thought--”
Franks broke off. A red light was flashing.
“That down lift is coming.” He nodded to some soldiers. “Let’s enter the chamber. The leady will be along in a moment.”
“An A-class leady,” Taylor said. “I’ve seen them on the showscreens, making their reports.”
“It’s quite an experience,” Moss said. “They’re almost human.”
They entered the chamber and seated themselves behind the lead wall. After a time, a signal was flashed, and Franks made a motion with his hands.
The door beyond the wall opened. Taylor peered through his view slot. He saw something advancing slowly, a slender metallic figure moving on a tread, its arm grips at rest by its sides. The figure halted and scanned the lead wall. It stood, waiting.
“We are interested in learning something,” Franks said. “Before I question you, do you have anything to report on surface conditions?”
“No. The war continues.” The leady’s voice was automatic and toneless. “We are a little short of fast pursuit craft, the single-seat type. We could use also some--”
“That has all been noted. What I want to ask you is this. Our contact with you has been through vidscreen only. We must rely on indirect evidence, since none of us goes above. We can only infer what is going on. We never see anything ourselves. We have to take it all secondhand. Some top leaders are beginning to think there’s too much room for error.”
“Error?” the leady asked. “In what way? Our reports are checked carefully before they’re sent down. We maintain constant contact with you; everything of value is reported. Any new weapons which the enemy is seen to employ--”
“I realize that,” Franks grunted behind his peep slot. “But perhaps we should see it all for ourselves. Is it possible that there might be a large enough radiation-free area for a human party to ascend to the surface? If a few of us were to come up in lead-lined suits, would we be able to survive long enough to observe conditions and watch things?”
The machine hesitated before answering. “I doubt it. You can check air samples, of course, and decide for yourselves. But in the eight years since you left, things have continually worsened. You cannot have any real idea of conditions up there. It has become difficult for any moving object to survive for long. There are many kinds of projectiles sensitive to movement. The new mine not only reacts to motion, but continues to pursue the object indefinitely, until it finally reaches it. And the radiation is everywhere.”
“I see.” Franks turned to Moss, his eyes narrowed oddly. “Well, that was what I wanted to know. You may go.”
The machine moved back toward its exit. It paused. “Each month the amount of lethal particles in the atmosphere increases. The tempo of the war is gradually--”
“I understand.” Franks rose. He held out his hand and Moss passed him the package. “One thing before you leave. I want you to examine a new type of metal shield material. I’ll pass you a sample with the tong.”
Franks put the package in the toothed grip and revolved the tong so that he held the other end. The package swung down to the leady, which took it. They watched it unwrap the package and take the metal plate in its hands. The leady turned the metal over and over.
Suddenly it became rigid.
“All right,” Franks said.
He put his shoulder against the wall and a section slid aside. Taylor gasped--Franks and Moss were hurrying up to the leady!
“Good God!” Taylor said. “But it’s radioactive!”
The leady stood unmoving, still holding the metal. Soldiers appeared in the chamber. They surrounded the leady and ran a counter across it carefully.
“Okay, sir,” one of them said to Franks. “It’s as cold as a long winter evening.”
“Good. I was sure, but I didn’t want to take any chances.”
“You see,” Moss said to Taylor, “this leady isn’t hot at all. Yet it came directly from the surface, without even being bathed.”
“But what does it mean?” Taylor asked blankly.
“It may be an accident,” Franks said. “There’s always the possibility that a given object might escape being exposed above. But this is the second time it’s happened that we know of. There may be others.”
“The second time?”
“The previous interview was when we noticed it. The leady was not hot. It was cold, too, like this one.”
Moss took back the metal plate from the leady’s hands. He pressed the surface carefully and returned it to the stiff, unprotesting fingers.
“We shorted it out with this, so we could get close enough for a thorough check. It’ll come back on in a second now. We had better get behind the wall again.”
They walked back and the lead wall swung closed behind them. The soldiers left the chamber.
“Two periods from now,” Franks said softly, “an initial investigating party will be ready to go surface-side. We’re going up the Tube in suits, up to the top--the first human party to leave undersurface in eight years.”
“It may mean nothing,” Moss said, “but I doubt it. Something’s going on, something strange. The leady told us no life could exist above without being roasted. The story doesn’t fit.”
Taylor nodded. He stared through the peep slot at the immobile metal figure. Already the leady was beginning to stir. It was bent in several places, dented and twisted, and its finish was blackened and charred. It was a leady that had been up there a long time; it had seen war and destruction, ruin so vast that no human being could imagine the extent. It had crawled and slunk in a world of radiation and death, a world where no life could exist.
And Taylor had touched it!
“You’re going with us,” Franks said suddenly. “I want you along. I think the three of us will go.”
Mary faced him with a sick and frightened expression. “I know it. You’re going to the surface. Aren’t you?”
She followed him into the kitchen. Taylor sat down, looking away from her.
“It’s a classified project,” he evaded. “I can’t tell you anything about it.”
“You don’t have to tell me. I know. I knew it the moment you came in. There was something on your face, something I haven’t seen there for a long, long time. It was an old look.”
She came toward him. “But how can they send you to the surface?” She took his face in her shaking hands, making him look at her. There was a strange hunger in her eyes. “Nobody can live up there. Look, look at this!”
She grabbed up a newspaper and held it in front of him.
“Look at this photograph. America, Europe, Asia, Africa--nothing but ruins. We’ve seen it every day on the showscreens. All destroyed, poisoned. And they’re sending you up. Why? No living thing can get by up there, not even a weed, or grass. They’ve wrecked the surface, haven’t they? Haven’t they?“
Taylor stood up. “It’s an order. I know nothing about it. I was told to report to join a scout party. That’s all I know.”
He stood for a long time, staring ahead. Slowly, he reached for the newspaper and held it up to the light.
“It looks real,” he murmured. “Ruins, deadness, slag. It’s convincing. All the reports, photographs, films, even air samples. Yet we haven’t seen it for ourselves, not after the first months...”
“What are you talking about?”
“Nothing.” He put the paper down. “I’m leaving early after the next Sleep Period. Let’s turn in.”
Mary turned away, her face hard and harsh. “Do what you want. We might just as well all go up and get killed at once, instead of dying slowly down here, like vermin in the ground.”
He had not realized how resentful she was. Were they all like that? How about the workers toiling in the factories, day and night, endlessly? The pale, stooped men and women, plodding back and forth to work, blinking in the colorless light, eating synthetics--
“You shouldn’t be so bitter,” he said.
Mary smiled a little. “I’m bitter because I know you’ll never come back.” She turned away. “I’ll never see you again, once you go up there.”
He was shocked. “What? How can you say a thing like that?”
She did not answer.
He awakened with the public newscaster screeching in his ears, shouting outside the building.
“Special news bulletin! Surface forces report enormous Soviet attack with new weapons! Retreat of key groups! All work units report to factories at once!”
Taylor blinked, rubbing his eyes. He jumped out of bed and hurried to the vidphone. A moment later he was put through to Moss.
“Listen,” he said. “What about this new attack? Is the project off?” He could see Moss’s desk, covered with reports and papers.
“No,” Moss said. “We’re going right ahead. Get over here at once.”
“Don’t argue with me.” Moss held up a handful of surface bulletins, crumpling them savagely. “This is a fake. Come on!” He broke off.
Taylor dressed furiously, his mind in a daze.
Half an hour later, he leaped from a fast car and hurried up the stairs into the Synthetics Building. The corridors were full of men and women rushing in every direction. He entered Moss’s office.
“There you are,” Moss said, getting up immediately. “Franks is waiting for us at the outgoing station.”
They went in a Security Car, the siren screaming. Workers scattered out of their way.
“What about the attack?” Taylor asked.
Moss braced his shoulders. “We’re certain that we’ve forced their hand. We’ve brought the issue to a head.”
They pulled up at the station link of the Tube and leaped out. A moment later they were moving up at high speed toward the first stage.
They emerged into a bewildering scene of activity. Soldiers were fastening on lead suits, talking excitedly to each other, shouting back and forth. Guns were being given out, instructions passed.
Taylor studied one of the soldiers. He was armed with the dreaded Bender pistol, the new snub-nosed hand weapon that was just beginning to come from the assembly line. Some of the soldiers looked a little frightened.
“I hope we’re not making a mistake,” Moss said, noticing his gaze.
Franks came toward them. “Here’s the program. The three of us are going up first, alone. The soldiers will follow in fifteen minutes.”
“What are we going to tell the leadys?” Taylor worriedly asked. “We’ll have to tell them something.”
“We want to observe the new Soviet attack.” Franks smiled ironically. “Since it seems to be so serious, we should be there in person to witness it.”
“And then what?” Taylor said.
“That’ll be up to them. Let’s go.”
In a small car, they went swiftly up the Tube, carried by anti-grav beams from below. Taylor glanced down from time to time. It was a long way back, and getting longer each moment. He sweated nervously inside his suit, gripping his Bender pistol with inexpert fingers.
Why had they chosen him? Chance, pure chance. Moss had asked him to come along as a Department member. Then Franks had picked him out on the spur of the moment. And now they were rushing toward the surface, faster and faster.
A deep fear, instilled in him for eight years, throbbed in his mind. Radiation, certain death, a world blasted and lethal--
Up and up the car went. Taylor gripped the sides and closed his eyes. Each moment they were closer, the first living creatures to go above the first stage, up the Tube past the lead and rock, up to the surface. The phobic horror shook him in waves. It was death; they all knew that. Hadn’t they seen it in the films a thousand times? The cities, the sleet coming down, the rolling clouds--
“It won’t be much longer,” Franks said. “We’re almost there. The surface tower is not expecting us. I gave orders that no signal was to be sent.”
The car shot up, rushing furiously. Taylor’s head spun; he hung on, his eyes shut. Up and up...
The car stopped. He opened his eyes.
They were in a vast room, fluorescent-lit, a cavern filled with equipment and machinery, endless mounds of material piled in row after row. Among the stacks, leadys were working silently, pushing trucks and handcarts.
“Leadys,” Moss said. His face was pale. “Then we’re really on the surface.”
The leadys were going back and forth with equipment moving the vast stores of guns and spare parts, ammunition and supplies that had been brought to the surface. And this was the receiving station for only one Tube; there were many others, scattered throughout the continent.
Taylor looked nervously around him. They were really there, above ground, on the surface. This was where the war was.
“Come on,” Franks said. “A B-class guard is coming our way.”
They stepped out of the car. A leady was approaching them rapidly. It coasted up in front of them and stopped, scanning them with its hand-weapon raised.
“This is Security,” Franks said. “Have an A-class sent to me at once.”
The leady hesitated. Other B-class guards were coming, scooting across the floor, alert and alarmed. Moss peered around.
“Obey!” Franks said in a loud, commanding voice. “You’ve been ordered!”
The leady moved uncertainly away from them. At the end of the building, a door slid back. Two A-class leadys appeared, coming slowly toward them. Each had a green stripe across its front.
“From the Surface Council,” Franks whispered tensely. “This is above ground, all right. Get set.”
The two leadys approached warily. Without speaking, they stopped close by the men, looking them up and down.
“I’m Franks of Security. We came from undersurface in order to--”
“This in incredible,” one of the leadys interrupted him coldly. “You know you can’t live up here. The whole surface is lethal to you. You can’t possibly remain on the surface.”
“These suits will protect us,” Franks said. “In any case, it’s not your responsibility. What I want is an immediate Council meeting so I can acquaint myself with conditions, with the situation here. Can that be arranged?”
“You human beings can’t survive up here. And the new Soviet attack is directed at this area. It is in considerable danger.”
“We know that. Please assemble the Council.” Franks looked around him at the vast room, lit by recessed lamps in the ceiling. An uncertain quality came into his voice. “Is it night or day right now?”
“Night,” one of the A-class leadys said, after a pause. “Dawn is coming in about two hours.”
Franks nodded. “We’ll remain at least two hours, then. As a concession to our sentimentality, would you please show us some place where we can observe the Sun as it comes up? We would appreciate it.”
A stir went through the leadys.
“It is an unpleasant sight,” one of the leadys said. “You’ve seen the photographs; you know what you’ll witness. Clouds of drifting particles blot out the light, slag heaps are everywhere, the whole land is destroyed. For you it will be a staggering sight, much worse than pictures and film can convey.”
“However it may be, we’ll stay long enough to see it. Will you give the order to the Council?”
“Come this way.” Reluctantly, the two leadys coasted toward the wall of the warehouse. The three men trudged after them, their heavy shoes ringing against the concrete. At the wall, the two leadys paused.
“This is the entrance to the Council Chamber. There are windows in the Chamber Room, but it is still dark outside, of course. You’ll see nothing right now, but in two hours--”
“Open the door,” Franks said.
The door slid back. They went slowly inside. The room was small, a neat room with a round table in the center, chairs ringing it. The three of them sat down silently, and the two leadys followed after them, taking their places.
“The other Council Members are on their way. They have already been notified and are coming as quickly as they can. Again I urge you to go back down.” The leady surveyed the three human beings. “There is no way you can meet the conditions up here. Even we survive with some trouble, ourselves. How can you expect to do it?”
The leader approached Franks.
“This astonishes and perplexes us,” it said. “Of course we must do what you tell us, but allow me to point out that if you remain here--”
“We know,” Franks said impatiently. “However, we intend to remain, at least until sunrise.”
“If you insist.”
There was silence. The leadys seemed to be conferring with each other, although the three men heard no sound.
“For your own good,” the leader said at last, “you must go back down. We have discussed this, and it seems to us that you are doing the wrong thing for your own good.”
“We are human beings,” Franks said sharply. “Don’t you understand? We’re men, not machines.”
“That is precisely why you must go back. This room is radioactive; all surface areas are. We calculate that your suits will not protect you for over fifty more minutes. Therefore--”
The leadys moved abruptly toward the men, wheeling in a circle, forming a solid row. The men stood up, Taylor reaching awkwardly for his weapon, his fingers numb and stupid. The men stood facing the silent metal figures.
“We must insist,” the leader said, its voice without emotion. “We must take you back to the Tube and send you down on the next car. I am sorry, but it is necessary.”
“What’ll we do?” Moss said nervously to Franks. He touched his gun. “Shall we blast them?”
Franks shook his head. “All right,” he said to the leader. “We’ll go back.”
He moved toward the door, motioning Taylor and Moss to follow him. They looked at him in surprise, but they came with him. The leadys followed them out into the great warehouse. Slowly they moved toward the Tube entrance, none of them speaking.