“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.
“OK, 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 synethetics —
“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 Soviets 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.
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