Illustrated by Ebel
The claws were bad enough in the first place—nasty, crawling little death-robots. But when they began to imitate their creators, it was time for the human race to make peace—if it could!
The Russian soldier made his way nervously up the ragged side of the hill, holding his gun ready. He glanced around him, licking his dry lips, his face set. From time to time he reached up a gloved hand and wiped perspiration from his neck, pushing down his coat collar.
Eric turned to Corporal Leone. “Want him? Or can I have him?” He adjusted the view sight so the Russian’s features squarely filled the glass, the lines cutting across his hard, somber features.
Leone considered. The Russian was close, moving rapidly, almost running. “Don’t fire. Wait.” Leone tensed. “I don’t think we’re needed.”
The Russian increased his pace, kicking ash and piles of debris out of his way. He reached the top of the hill and stopped, panting, staring around him. The sky was overcast, drifting clouds of gray particles. Bare trunks of trees jutted up occasionally; the ground was level and bare, rubble-strewn, with the ruins of buildings standing out here and there like yellowing skulls.
The Russian was uneasy. He knew something was wrong. He started down the hill. Now he was only a few paces from the bunker. Eric was getting fidgety. He played with his pistol, glancing at Leone.
“Don’t worry,” Leone said. “He won’t get here. They’ll take care of him.”
“Are you sure? He’s got damn far.”
“They hang around close to the bunker. He’s getting into the bad part. Get set!”
The Russian began to hurry, sliding down the hill, his boots sinking into the heaps of gray ash, trying to keep his gun up. He stopped for a moment, lifting his fieldglasses to his face.
“He’s looking right at us,” Eric said.
The Russian came on. They could see his eyes, like two blue stones. His mouth was open a little. He needed a shave; his chin was stubbled. On one bony cheek was a square of tape, showing blue at the edge. A fungoid spot. His coat was muddy and torn. One glove was missing. As he ran his belt counter bounced up and down against him.
Leone touched Eric’s arm. “Here one comes.”
Across the ground something small and metallic came, flashing in the dull sunlight of mid-day. A metal sphere. It raced up the hill after the Russian, its treads flying. It was small, one of the baby ones. Its claws were out, two razor projections spinning in a blur of white steel. The Russian heard it. He turned instantly, firing. The sphere dissolved into particles. But already a second had emerged and was following the first. The Russian fired again.
A third sphere leaped up the Russian’s leg, clicking and whirring. It jumped to the shoulder. The spinning blades disappeared into the Russian’s throat.
Eric relaxed. “Well, that’s that. God, those damn things give me the creeps. Sometimes I think we were better off before.”
“If we hadn’t invented them, they would have.” Leone lit a cigarette shakily. “I wonder why a Russian would come all this way alone. I didn’t see anyone covering him.”
Lt. Scott came slipping up the tunnel, into the bunker. “What happened? Something entered the screen.”
Eric brought the view screen around. Scott peered into it. Now there were numerous metal spheres crawling over the prostrate body, dull metal globes clicking and whirring, sawing up the Russian into small parts to be carried away.
“What a lot of claws,” Scott murmured.
“They come like flies. Not much game for them any more.”
Scott pushed the sight away, disgusted. “Like flies. I wonder why he was out there. They know we have claws all around.”
A larger robot had joined the smaller spheres. It was directing operations, a long blunt tube with projecting eyepieces. There was not much left of the soldier. What remained was being brought down the hillside by the host of claws.
“Sir,” Leone said. “If it’s all right, I’d like to go out there and take a look at him.”
“Maybe he came with something.”
Scott considered. He shrugged. “All right. But be careful.”
“I have my tab.” Leone patted the metal band at his wrist. “I’ll be out of bounds.”
He picked up his rifle and stepped carefully up to the mouth of the bunker, making his way between blocks of concrete and steel prongs, twisted and bent. The air was cold at the top. He crossed over the ground toward the remains of the soldier, striding across the soft ash. A wind blew around him, swirling gray particles up in his face. He squinted and pushed on.
The claws retreated as he came close, some of them stiffening into immobility. He touched his tab. The Ivan would have given something for that! Short hard radiation emitted from the tab neutralized the claws, put them out of commission. Even the big robot with its two waving eyestalks retreated respectfully as he approached.
He bent down over the remains of the soldier. The gloved hand was closed tightly. There was something in it. Leone pried the fingers apart. A sealed container, aluminum. Still shiny.
He put it in his pocket and made his way back to the bunker. Behind him the claws came back to life, moving into operation again. The procession resumed, metal spheres moving through the gray ash with their loads. He could hear their treads scrabbling against the ground. He shuddered.
Scott watched intently as he brought the shiny tube out of his pocket. “He had that?”
“In his hand.” Leone unscrewed the top. “Maybe you should look at it, sir.”
Scott took it. He emptied the contents out in the palm of his hand. A small piece of silk paper, carefully folded. He sat down by the light and unfolded it.
“What’s it say, sir?” Eric said. Several officers came up the tunnel. Major Hendricks appeared.
“Major,” Scott said. “Look at this.”
Hendricks read the slip. “This just come?”
“A single runner. Just now.”
“Where is he?” Hendricks asked sharply.
“The claws got him.”
Major Hendricks grunted. “Here.” He passed it to his companions. “I think this is what we’ve been waiting for. They certainly took their time about it.”
“So they want to talk terms,” Scott said. “Are we going along with them?”
“That’s not for us to decide.” Hendricks sat down. “Where’s the communications officer? I want the Moon Base.”
Leone pondered as the communications officer raised the outside antenna cautiously, scanning the sky above the bunker for any sign of a watching Russian ship.
“Sir,” Scott said to Hendricks. “It’s sure strange they suddenly came around. We’ve been using the claws for almost a year. Now all of a sudden they start to fold.”
“Maybe claws have been getting down in their bunkers.”
“One of the big ones, the kind with stalks, got into an Ivan bunker last week,” Eric said. “It got a whole platoon of them before they got their lid shut.”
“How do you know?”
“A buddy told me. The thing came back with—with remains.”
“Moon Base, sir,” the communications officer said.
On the screen the face of the lunar monitor appeared. His crisp uniform contrasted to the uniforms in the bunker. And he was clean shaven. “Moon Base.”
“This is forward command L-Whistle. On Terra. Let me have General Thompson.”
The monitor faded. Presently General Thompson’s heavy features came into focus. “What is it, Major?”
“Our claws got a single Russian runner with a message. We don’t know whether to act on it—there have been tricks like this in the past.”
“What’s the message?”
“The Russians want us to send a single officer on policy level over to their lines. For a conference. They don’t state the nature of the conference. They say that matters of—” He consulted the slip. “—Matters of grave urgency make it advisable that discussion be opened between a representative of the UN forces and themselves.”
He held the message up to the screen for the general to scan. Thompson’s eyes moved.
“What should we do?” Hendricks said.
“Send a man out.”
“You don’t think it’s a trap?”
“It might be. But the location they give for their forward command is correct. It’s worth a try, at any rate.”
“I’ll send an officer out. And report the results to you as soon as he returns.”
“All right, Major.” Thompson broke the connection. The screen died. Up above, the antenna came slowly down.
Hendricks rolled up the paper, deep in thought.
“I’ll go,” Leone said.
“They want somebody at policy level.” Hendricks rubbed his jaw. “Policy level. I haven’t been outside in months. Maybe I could use a little air.”
“Don’t you think it’s risky?”
Hendricks lifted the view sight and gazed into it. The remains of the Russian were gone. Only a single claw was in sight. It was folding itself back, disappearing into the ash, like a crab. Like some hideous metal crab...
“That’s the only thing that bothers me.” Hendricks rubbed his wrist. “I know I’m safe as long as I have this on me. But there’s something about them. I hate the damn things. I wish we’d never invented them. There’s something wrong with them. Relentless little—”
“If we hadn’t invented them, the Ivans would have.”
Hendricks pushed the sight back. “Anyhow, it seems to be winning the war. I guess that’s good.”
“Sounds like you’re getting the same jitters as the Ivans.” Hendricks examined his wrist watch. “I guess I had better get started, if I want to be there before dark.”
He took a deep breath and then stepped out onto the gray, rubbled ground. After a minute he lit a cigarette and stood gazing around him. The landscape was dead. Nothing stirred. He could see for miles, endless ash and slag, ruins of buildings. A few trees without leaves or branches, only the trunks. Above him the eternal rolling clouds of gray, drifting between Terra and the sun.
Major Hendricks went on. Off to the right something scuttled, something round and metallic. A claw, going lickety-split after something. Probably after a small animal, a rat. They got rats, too. As a sort of sideline.
He came to the top of the little hill and lifted his fieldglasses. The Russian lines were a few miles ahead of him. They had a forward command post there. The runner had come from it.
A squat robot with undulating arms passed by him, its arms weaving inquiringly. The robot went on its way, disappearing under some debris. Hendricks watched it go. He had never seen that type before. There were getting to be more and more types he had never seen, new varieties and sizes coming up from the underground factories.
Hendricks put out his cigarette and hurried on. It was interesting, the use of artificial forms in warfare. How had they got started? Necessity. The Soviet Union had gained great initial success, usual with the side that got the war going. Most of North America had been blasted off the map. Retaliation was quick in coming, of course. The sky was full of circling disc-bombers long before the war began; they had been up there for years. The discs began sailing down all over Russia within hours after Washington got it.
But that hadn’t helped Washington.
The American bloc governments moved to the Moon Base the first year. There was not much else to do. Europe was gone; a slag heap with dark weeds growing from the ashes and bones. Most of North America was useless; nothing could be planted, no one could live. A few million people kept going up in Canada and down in South America. But during the second year Soviet parachutists began to drop, a few at first, then more and more. They wore the first really effective anti-radiation equipment; what was left of American production moved to the moon along with the governments.
All but the troops. The remaining troops stayed behind as best they could, a few thousand here, a platoon there. No one knew exactly where they were; they stayed where they could, moving around at night, hiding in ruins, in sewers, cellars, with the rats and snakes. It looked as if the Soviet Union had the war almost won. Except for a handful of projectiles fired off from the moon daily, there was almost no weapon in use against them. They came and went as they pleased. The war, for all practical purposes, was over. Nothing effective opposed them.
And then the first claws appeared. And overnight the complexion of the war changed.
The claws were awkward, at first. Slow. The Ivans knocked them off almost as fast as they crawled out of their underground tunnels. But then they got better, faster and more cunning. Factories, all on Terra, turned them out. Factories a long way under ground, behind the Soviet lines, factories that had once made atomic projectiles, now almost forgotten.
The claws got faster, and they got bigger. New types appeared, some with feelers, some that flew. There were a few jumping kinds.
The best technicians on the moon were working on designs, making them more and more intricate, more flexible. They became uncanny; the Ivans were having a lot of trouble with them. Some of the little claws were learning to hide themselves, burrowing down into the ash, lying in wait.
And then they started getting into the Russian bunkers, slipping down when the lids were raised for air and a look around. One claw inside a bunker, a churning sphere of blades and metal—that was enough. And when one got in others followed. With a weapon like that the war couldn’t go on much longer.
Maybe it was already over.
Maybe he was going to hear the news. Maybe the Politburo had decided to throw in the sponge. Too bad it had taken so long. Six years. A long time for war like that, the way they had waged it. The automatic retaliation discs, spinning down all over Russia, hundreds of thousands of them. Bacteria crystals. The Soviet guided missiles, whistling through the air. The chain bombs. And now this, the robots, the claws—
The claws weren’t like other weapons. They were alive, from any practical standpoint, whether the Governments wanted to admit it or not. They were not machines. They were living things, spinning, creeping, shaking themselves up suddenly from the gray ash and darting toward a man, climbing up him, rushing for his throat. And that was what they had been designed to do. Their job.
They did their job well. Especially lately, with the new designs coming up. Now they repaired themselves. They were on their own. Radiation tabs protected the UN troops, but if a man lost his tab he was fair game for the claws, no matter what his uniform. Down below the surface automatic machinery stamped them out. Human beings stayed a long way off. It was too risky; nobody wanted to be around them. They were left to themselves. And they seemed to be doing all right. The new designs were faster, more complex. More efficient.
Apparently they had won the war.
Major Hendricks lit a second cigarette. The landscape depressed him. Nothing but ash and ruins. He seemed to be alone, the only living thing in the whole world. To the right the ruins of a town rose up, a few walls and heaps of debris. He tossed the dead match away, increasing his pace. Suddenly he stopped, jerking up his gun, his body tense. For a minute it looked like—
From behind the shell of a ruined building a figure came, walking slowly toward him, walking hesitantly.
Hendricks blinked. “Stop!”
The boy stopped. Hendricks lowered his gun. The boy stood silently, looking at him. He was small, not very old. Perhaps eight. But it was hard to tell. Most of the kids who remained were stunted. He wore a faded blue sweater, ragged with dirt, and short pants. His hair was long and matted. Brown hair. It hung over his face and around his ears. He held something in his arms.
“What’s that you have?” Hendricks said sharply.
The boy held it out. It was a toy, a bear. A teddy bear. The boy’s eyes were large, but without expression.
Hendricks relaxed. “I don’t want it. Keep it.”
The boy hugged the bear again.
“Where do you live?” Hendricks said.
“How many are there?”
“How many of you. How big’s your settlement?”
The boy did not answer.
Hendricks frowned. “You’re not all by yourself, are you?”
The boy nodded.
“How do you stay alive?”
“What kind of food?”
Hendricks studied him. “How old are you?”
It wasn’t possible. Or was it? The boy was thin, stunted. And probably sterile. Radiation exposure, years straight. No wonder he was so small. His arms and legs were like pipecleaners, knobby, and thin. Hendricks touched the boy’s arm. His skin was dry and rough; radiation skin. He bent down, looking into the boy’s face. There was no expression. Big eyes, big and dark.
“Are you blind?” Hendricks said.
“No. I can see some.”
“How do you get away from the claws?”
“The round things. That run and burrow.”
“I don’t understand.”
Maybe there weren’t any claws around. A lot of areas were free. They collected mostly around bunkers, where there were people. The claws had been designed to sense warmth, warmth of living things.
“You’re lucky.” Hendricks straightened up. “Well? Which way are you going? Back—back there?”
“Can I come with you?”
“With me?” Hendricks folded his arms. “I’m going a long way. Miles. I have to hurry.” He looked at his watch. “I have to get there by nightfall.”
“I want to come.”
Hendricks fumbled in his pack. “It isn’t worth it. Here.” He tossed down the food cans he had with him. “You take these and go back. Okay?”
The boy said nothing.
“I’ll be coming back this way. In a day or so. If you’re around here when I come back you can come along with me. All right?”
“I want to go with you now.”
“It’s a long walk.”
“I can walk.”
Hendricks shifted uneasily. It made too good a target, two people walking along. And the boy would slow him down. But he might not come back this way. And if the boy were really all alone—
“Okay. Come along.”
The boy fell in beside him. Hendricks strode along. The boy walked silently, clutching his teddy bear.
“What’s your name?” Hendricks said, after a time.
“David Edward Derring.”
“David? What—what happened to your mother and father?”
“In the blast.”
“How long ago?”
Hendricks slowed down. “You’ve been alone six years?”
“No. There were other people for awhile. They went away.”
“And you’ve been alone since?”
Hendricks glanced down. The boy was strange, saying very little. Withdrawn. But that was the way they were, the children who had survived. Quiet. Stoic. A strange kind of fatalism gripped them. Nothing came as a surprise. They accepted anything that came along. There was no longer any normal, any natural course of things, moral or physical, for them to expect. Custom, habit, all the determining forces of learning were gone; only brute experience remained.
“Am I walking too fast?” Hendricks said.
“How did you happen to see me?”
“I was waiting.”
“Waiting?” Hendricks was puzzled. “What were you waiting for?”
“To catch things.”
“What kind of things?”
“Things to eat.”
“Oh.” Hendricks set his lips grimly. A thirteen year old boy, living on rats and gophers and half-rotten canned food. Down in a hole under the ruins of a town. With radiation pools and claws, and Russian dive-mines up above, coasting around in the sky.
“Where are we going?” David asked.
“To the Russian lines.”
“The enemy. The people who started the war. They dropped the first radiation bombs. They began all this.”
The boy nodded. His face showed no expression.
“I’m an American,” Hendricks said.
There was no comment. On they went, the two of them, Hendricks walking a little ahead, David trailing behind him, hugging his dirty teddy bear against his chest.
About four in the afternoon they stopped to eat. Hendricks built a fire in a hollow between some slabs of concrete. He cleared the weeds away and heaped up bits of wood. The Russians’ lines were not very far ahead. Around him was what had once been a long valley, acres of fruit trees and grapes. Nothing remained now but a few bleak stumps and the mountains that stretched across the horizon at the far end. And the clouds of rolling ash that blew and drifted with the wind, settling over the weeds and remains of buildings, walls here and there, once in awhile what had been a road.
Hendricks made coffee and heated up some boiled mutton and bread. “Here.” He handed bread and mutton to David. David squatted by the edge of the fire, his knees knobby and white. He examined the food and then passed it back, shaking his head.
“No? Don’t you want any?”
Hendricks shrugged. Maybe the boy was a mutant, used to special food. It didn’t matter. When he was hungry he would find something to eat. The boy was strange. But there were many strange changes coming over the world. Life was not the same, anymore. It would never be the same again. The human race was going to have to realize that.
“Suit yourself,” Hendricks said. He ate the bread and mutton by himself, washing it down with coffee. He ate slowly, finding the food hard to digest. When he was done he got to his feet and stamped the fire out.
David rose slowly, watching him with his young-old eyes.
“We’re going,” Hendricks said.
Hendricks walked along, his gun in his arms. They were close; he was tense, ready for anything. The Russians should be expecting a runner, an answer to their own runner, but they were tricky. There was always the possibility of a slipup. He scanned the landscape around him. Nothing but slag and ash, a few hills, charred trees. Concrete walls. But someplace ahead was the first bunker of the Russian lines, the forward command. Underground, buried deep, with only a periscope showing, a few gun muzzles. Maybe an antenna.
“Will we be there soon?” David asked.
“Yes. Getting tired?”
David did not answer. He plodded carefully along behind, picking his way over the ash. His legs and shoes were gray with dust. His pinched face was streaked, lines of gray ash in riverlets down the pale white of his skin. There was no color to his face. Typical of the new children, growing up in cellars and sewers and underground shelters.
Hendricks slowed down. He lifted his fieldglasses and studied the ground ahead of him. Were they there, someplace, waiting for him? Watching him, the way his men had watched the Russian runner? A chill went up his back. Maybe they were getting their guns ready, preparing to fire, the way his men had prepared, made ready to kill.
Hendricks stopped, wiping perspiration from his face. “Damn.” It made him uneasy. But he should be expected. The situation was different.
He strode over the ash, holding his gun tightly with both hands. Behind him came David. Hendricks peered around, tight-lipped. Any second it might happen. A burst of white light, a blast, carefully aimed from inside a deep concrete bunker.
He raised his arm and waved it around in a circle.
Nothing moved. To the right a long ridge ran, topped with dead tree trunks. A few wild vines had grown up around the trees, remains of arbors. And the eternal dark weeds. Hendricks studied the ridge. Was anything up there? Perfect place for a lookout. He approached the ridge warily, David coming silently behind. If it were his command he’d have a sentry up there, watching for troops trying to infiltrate into the command area. Of course, if it were his command there would be the claws around the area for full protection.
He stopped, feet apart, hands on his hips.
“Are we there?” David said.
“Why have we stopped?”
“I don’t want to take any chances.” Hendricks advanced slowly. Now the ridge lay directly beside him, along his right. Overlooking him. His uneasy feeling increased. If an Ivan were up there he wouldn’t have a chance. He waved his arm again. They should be expecting someone in the UN uniform, in response to the note capsule. Unless the whole thing was a trap.
“Keep up with me.” He turned toward David. “Don’t drop behind.”
“Up beside me! We’re close. We can’t take any chances. Come on.”
“I’ll be all right.” David remained behind him, in the rear, a few paces away, still clutching his teddy bear.
“Have it your way.” Hendricks raised his glasses again, suddenly tense. For a moment—had something moved? He scanned the ridge carefully. Everything was silent. Dead. No life up there, only tree trunks and ash. Maybe a few rats. The big black rats that had survived the claws. Mutants—built their own shelters out of saliva and ash. Some kind of plaster. Adaptation. He started forward again.
A tall figure came out on the ridge above him, cloak flapping. Gray-green. A Russian. Behind him a second soldier appeared, another Russian. Both lifted their guns, aiming.
Hendricks froze. He opened his mouth. The soldiers were kneeling, sighting down the side of the slope. A third figure had joined them on the ridge top, a smaller figure in gray-green. A woman. She stood behind the other two.
Hendricks found his voice. “Stop!” He waved up at them frantically. “I’m—”
The two Russians fired. Behind Hendricks there was a faint pop. Waves of heat lapped against him, throwing him to the ground. Ash tore at his face, grinding into his eyes and nose. Choking, he pulled himself to his knees. It was all a trap. He was finished. He had come to be killed, like a steer. The soldiers and the woman were coming down the side of the ridge toward him, sliding down through the soft ash. Hendricks was numb. His head throbbed. Awkwardly, he got his rifle up and took aim. It weighed a thousand tons; he could hardly hold it. His nose and cheeks stung. The air was full of the blast smell, a bitter acrid stench.
“Don’t fire,” the first Russian said, in heavily accented English.
The three of them came up to him, surrounding him. “Put down your rifle, Yank,” the other said.
Hendricks was dazed. Everything had happened so fast. He had been caught. And they had blasted the boy. He turned his head. David was gone. What remained of him was strewn across the ground.
The three Russians studied him curiously. Hendricks sat, wiping blood from his nose, picking out bits of ash. He shook his head, trying to clear it. “Why did you do it?” he murmured thickly. “The boy.”
“Why?” One of the soldiers helped him roughly to his feet. He turned Hendricks around. “Look.”
Hendricks closed his eyes.
“Look!” The two Russians pulled him forward. “See. Hurry up. There isn’t much time to spare, Yank!”
Hendricks looked. And gasped.
“See now? Now do you understand?”
From the remains of David a metal wheel rolled. Relays, glinting metal. Parts, wiring. One of the Russians kicked at the heap of remains. Parts popped out, rolling away, wheels and springs and rods. A plastic section fell in, half charred. Hendricks bent shakily down. The front of the head had come off. He could make out the intricate brain, wires and relays, tiny tubes and switches, thousands of minute studs—
“A robot,” the soldier holding his arm said. “We watched it tagging you.”
“That’s their way. They tag along with you. Into the bunker. That’s how they get in.”
Hendricks blinked, dazed. “But—”
“Come on.” They led him toward the ridge. “We can’t stay here. It isn’t safe. There must be hundreds of them all around here.”
The three of them pulled him up the side of the ridge, sliding and slipping on the ash. The woman reached the top and stood waiting for them.
“The forward command,” Hendricks muttered. “I came to negotiate with the Soviet—”
“There is no more forward command. They got in. We’ll explain.” They reached the top of the ridge. “We’re all that’s left. The three of us. The rest were down in the bunker.”
“This way. Down this way.” The woman unscrewed a lid, a gray manhole cover set in the ground. “Get in.”
Hendricks lowered himself. The two soldiers and the woman came behind him, following him down the ladder. The woman closed the lid after them, bolting it tightly into place.
“Good thing we saw you,” one of the two soldiers grunted. “It had tagged you about as far as it was going to.”
“Give me one of your cigarettes,” the woman said. “I haven’t had an American cigarette for weeks.”