If one flew over the city at this time of this day, which was like any other day in the year 3850, one would think all life had disappeared.
Sweeping over the rustless spires, one would search in vain for the sight of human activity. One’s gaze would scan the great ribboned highways that swept over and under each other like the weave of some tremendous loom. But there would be no autocars to see; nothing but the empty lanes and the colored traffic lights clicking out their mindless progressions.
Dipping low and weaving in and out among the glittering towers, one might see the moving walks, the studied revolution of the giant street ventilators, hot in the winter and cool in summer, the tiny doors opening and closing, the park fountains shooting their methodical columns of water into the air.
Farther along, one would flit across the great open field on which the glossy spaceships stood lined before their hangars. Farther yet, one would catch sight of the river, the metal ships resting along shore, delicate froth streaming from their sterns caused by the never-ending operation of their vents.
Again, one would glide over the city proper, seeking some sign of life in the broad avenues, the network of streets, the painstaking pattern of dwellings in the living area, the metal fastness of the commercial section.
The search would be fruitless.
All movement below would be seen to be mechanical. And, knowing what city this was, one’s eyes would stop the search for citizens and seek out those squat metal structures which stood a half mile apart. These circular buildings housed the never-resting machines, the humming geared servants of the city’s people.
These were the machines that did all; cleared the air of impurities, moved the walks and opened the doors, sent their synchronized impulses into the traffic lights, operated the fountains and the spaceships, the river vessels and the ventilators.
These were the machines in whose flawless efficacy the people of the city placed their casual faith.
At the moment, these people were resting on their pneumatic couches in rooms. And the music that seeped from their wall speakers, the cool breezes that flowed from their wall ventilators, the very air they breathed--all these were of and from the machines, the unfailing, the trusted, the infallible machines.
Now there was a buzzing in ears. Now the city came alive.
There was a buzzing, buzzing. From the black swirl of slumber, you heard it. You wrinkled up your classic nose and twitched the twenty neural rods that led to the highways of your extremities.
The sound bore deeper, cut through swaths of snooze and poked an impatient finger in the throbbing matter of your brain. You twisted your head on the pillow and grimaced.
There was no cessation. With stupored hand, you reached out and picked up the receiver. One eye propped open by dint of will, you breathed a weary mutter into the mouthpiece.
“Captain Rackley!” The knifing voice put your teeth on edge.
“Yes,” you said.
“You will report to your company headquarters immediately!”
That swept away sleep and annoyance as a petulant old man brushes chessmen from his board. Stomach muscles drew into play and you were sitting. Inside your noble chest, that throbbing meat ball, source of blood velocity, saw fit to swell and depress with marked emphasis. Your sweat glands engaged in proper activity, ready for action, danger, heroism.
“Is it... ?” you started.
“Report immediately!” the voice crackled, and there was a severe click in your ear.
You, Justin Rackley, dropped the receiver--plunko--in its cradle and leaped from bed in a shower of fluttering bedclothes.
You raced to your wardrobe door and flung it open. Plunging into the depths, you soon emerged with your skintight pants, the tunic for your forty-two chest. You donned said trousers and tunic, flopped upon a nearby seat and plunged your arches into black military boots.
And your face reflected oh-so-grim thoughts. Combing out your thick blond hair, you were sure you knew what the emergency was.
The Rustons! They were at it again!
Awake now, you wrinkled your nose with conscious aplomb. The Rustons made revolting food for thought with their twelve legs, sign of alien progenitors, and their exudation of foul reptilian slime.
As you scurried from your room, leaped across the balustrade and down the stairs, you wondered once again where these awful Rustons had originated, what odious interbreeding produced their monster race. You wondered where they lived, where proliferated their grisly stock, held their meetings of war, began the upward slither to those great Earth fissures from which they massed in attack.
With nothing approaching answers to these endless questions, you ran out of the dwelling and flew down the steps to your faithful autocar. Sliding in, pushing buttons, levers, pedals, what have you, you soon had it darting through the streets toward the broad highway that led to headquarters.
At this time of day, naturally, there were very few people about. In point of fact you saw none. It was only a few minutes later, when you turned sharply and zoomed up the ramp to the highway, that you saw the other autocars whizzing toward the tower five miles distant. You guessed, and were correct in guessing, that they were fellow officers, all similarly ripped from slumber by mobilization.
Buildings flew past as you pushed pedals deeper into their cavities, your face always grim, alive to danger, grand warrior! True, you were not averse to the chance for activity after a month of idleness. But the circumstances were slightly distasteful. To think of the Rustons made a fellow shudder, eh?
What made them pour from their unknown pits? Why did they seek to destroy the machines, let the acid canker of their ooze eat through metal, make the teeth fall off the gears like petals off a dying flower? What was their purpose? Did they mean to ruin the city? Govern its inhabitants? Or slaughter them? Ugly questions, questions without answers.
Well, you thought as you drove into headquarters parking area, thank heaven the Rustons had only managed to get at a few of the outer machines, yours blessedly not included.
They, at least, had no more idea than you where the Great Machine was, that fabulous fountainhead of energy, driver of all machines.
You slid the seat of your military trousers across the seat of the autocar and jumped out into the wide lot. Your black boots clacked as you ran toward the entrance. Other officers were getting out of autocars, too, running across the area. None of them said anything; they all looked grim. Some of them nodded curtly at you as you all stood together in the rising elevator. Bad business, you thought.
With a tug at the groin, the door gave a hydraulic gasp and opened. You stepped out and padded silently down the hall to the high-ceilinged briefing room.
Already the room was almost filled. The young men, invariably handsome and muscular, stood in gregarious formations, discussing the Rustons in low voices. The gray soundproof walls sucked in their comments and returned dead air.
The men gave you a look and a nod when you entered, then returned to their talking. Justin Rackley, captain, that’s you, sat down in a front seat.
Then you looked up. The door to Upper Echelons was jerked open. The General came striding through, a sheaf of papers in his square fist. His face was grim too.
He stepped up on the rostrum and slapped the papers on the thick table which stood there. Then he plumped down on the edge of it and kicked his boot against one of its legs until all your fellow officers had broken up their groups and hurriedly taken seats. With silence creeping over all heads, he pursed his lips and banged a palm on the table surface.
“Gentlemen,” he said with that voice which seemed to issue from an ancient tomb, “once more the city lies in grave danger.”
He then paused and looked capable of handling all emergencies. You hoped that someday you might be General and look capable of handling all emergencies. No reason why not, you thought.
“I will not take up precious time,” the General went on, taking up precious time. “You all know your positions, you all know your responsibilities. When this briefing is concluded, you will report to the arsenal and draw out your ray guns. Always remember that the Rustons must not be allowed to enter the machinery and live. Shoot to kill. The rays are not harmful, repeat, not harmful to the machinery.”
He looked over you eager young men.
“You also know,” he said, “the dangers of Ruston poisoning. For this reason, that the slightest touch of their stingers can lead to abysmal agonies of death, you will be assigned, as you also know, a nurse trained in the combating of systemic poisons. Therefore, after leaving the arsenal, you will report to the Preventive Section.”
He winked, a thoroughly out-of-place wink.
“And remember,” he said, with a broad roll of import in his voice, “this is war! And only war!”
This, of course, brought on appreciative smiles, a smattering of leers and many unmilitary asides. Upon which the General snapped out of his brief role as chuckling confrere and returned to strict autocratic detachment.
“Once assigned a nurse, those of you whose machines are more than fifteen miles from the city will report to the spaceport, there to be assigned a spacecar. All of you will then proceed with utmost dispatch. Questions?”
“I need hardly remind you,” completed the General, “of the importance of this defense. As you are well aware, should the Rustons penetrate our city, spread their ravaging to the core of our machine system, should they--heaven forfend!--locate the Great Machine, we may then expect nothing but the most merciless of butchery. The city would be undone, we would all be annihilated, Man would be overthrown.”
The men looked at him with clenched fists, patriotism lurching through their brains like drunken satyrs, yours included, Justin Rackley.
“That is all,” said the General, waving his hand. “Good shooting.”
He jumped down from the platform and swept through the doorway, the door opening magically a split second before his imperious nose stood to shatter on its surface.
You stood up, muscles tingling. Onward! Save our fair city!
You stepped through the broken ranks. The elevator again, standing shoulder to shoulder with your comrades, a fluttering sense of hyper-awareness coursing your healthy young body.
The arsenal room. Sound lost in the heavily padded interior. You, on line, grim-faced always, shuffling along, weapon bound. A counter; it was like an exchange market. You showed the man your identity card and he handed you a shiny ray gun and a shoulder case of extra ray pellets.
Then you passed through the door and scuffed down the rubberized steps to the Preventive Section. Corpuscles took a carnival ride through your veins.
You were fourth in line and she was fourth in line; that’s how she was assigned to you.
You perused her contours, noting that her uniform, although similar to yours, somehow hung differently on her. This sidetracked martial contemplations for the nonce. Zowie hoopla--your libido clapped its calloused hands.
“Captain Rackley,” said the man, “this is Miss Lieutenant Forbes. She is your only guarantee against death should you be stung by a Ruston. See that she remains close by at all times.”
This seemed hardly an onerous commission and you saluted the man. You then exchanged a flicker of lids with the young lady and intoned a gruff command, relative to departure. This roused the two of you to walk to the elevator.
Riding down in silence, you cast glances at her. Long forgotten threnodies twitched into life in your revitalized brain. You were much taken by the dark ringlets that hung over her forehead and massed on her shoulders like curled black fingers. Her eyes, you noted, were brown and soft as eyes in a dream. And why shouldn’t they be?
Yet something lacked. Some retardation kept bringing you down from ethereal cogitation. Could it, you wondered, be duty? And, remembering what you were out to do, you suddenly feared again. The pink clouds marched away in military formation.
Miss Lieutenant Forbes remained silent until the spacecar which you were assigned was flitting across the sky beyond the outskirts of the city. Then, following your somewhat banal overtures regarding the weather, she smiled her pretty little smile and showed her pretty little dimples.
“I am but sixteen,” she announced.
“Then this is your first time.”
“Yes,” she replied, gazing afar. “I am very frightened.”
You nodded, you patted her knee with what you meant to be a parental manner, but which, post-haste, brought the crimson of modesty flaming into her cheeks.
“Just stay close to me,” you said, trying hard for a double meaning. “I’ll take care of you.”
Primitive, but good enough for sixteen. She blushed more deeply.
The city towers flashed beneath. Far off, like a minute button on the fringes of spiderweb, you saw your machine. You eased the wheel forward; the tiny ship dipped down and began a long glide toward Earth. You kept your eyes on the control board with strict attention, wondering about this strange sense of excitement running pell mell through your body, not knowing whether it presaged combat fatigue of one sort or another.
This was war. The city first. Hola!
The ship floated down to and hovered over the machine as you threw on the air brakes. Slowly, it sank to the roof like a butterfly settling on a flower.
You threw off the switch, heart pounding, all forgotten but the present danger. Grabbing the ray gun, you jumped out and ran to the edge of the roof.
Your machine was beyond the perimeter of the city. There were fields about. Your keen eyes flashed over the ground.
There was no sign of the enemy.
You hurried back to the ship. She was still sitting inside watching you. You turned the knob and the communicator system spilled out its endless drones of information. You stood impatiently until the announcer spoke your machine number and said the Rustons were within a mile of it.
You heard her drawn-in breath and noted the upward cast of frightened eyes in your direction. You turned off the set.