The wind screamed across the peaked roof of the lodge, rattled the windows in their metal frames.

The three remaining robots stood still, listening until the gust died away, as though the noise were made not by the wind but by some enormous beast that had reared up over the building and was intent on tearing it to pieces.

Curanov went on: "When I examined Leeke, I found that he was felled by a sharp blow to the ring cable, just under the head—the kind of blow that would have had to come suddenly from behind and without warning. In a room as well lighted as this, nothing could have gotten behind Leeke without his knowing it was there."

Steffan turned away from the window and said, "Do you think that Leeke was already terminated when ..." His voice trailed away, but in a moment he had found the discipline to go on: "Was he terminated when they dismantled his legs?"

"We can only hope that he was," Curanov said.

Steffan said, "Who could have done such a thing?"

"A man," Tuttle said.

"Or men," Curanov amended.

"No," Steffan said. But his denial was not as adamant as it had been before. "What would they have done with his legs?"

"No one knows what they do with what they take," Curanov said.

Steffan said, "You sound as if Tuttle's convinced you, as if you believe in these creatures."

"Until I have a better answer to the question of who terminated Leeke, I think it's safest to believe in human beings," Curanov explained.

For a time, they were silent.

Then Curanov said, "I think we should start back to Walker's Watch in the morning, first thing."

"They'll think we're immature," Steffan said, "if we come back with wild tales about men prowling around the lodge in the darkness. You saw how disdainful Janus was of others who had made similar reports."

"We have poor, dead Leeke as proof," Tuttle said.0

"Or," Curanov said, "we can say Leeke was terminated in an accident and we're returning because we're bored with the challenge."

"You mean, we wouldn't even have to mention—human beings?" Steffan asked.

"Possibly," Curanov said.

"That would be the best way to handle it, by far," Steffan said. "Then no second-hand reports of our temporary irrationality would get back to the Agency. We could spend much time in the inactivation nooks, until we finally were able to perceive the real explanation of Leeke's termination, which somehow now eludes us. If we meditate long enough, a proper solution is bound to arise. Then, by the time of our next data-vault audits by the Agency, we'll have covered all traces of this illogical reaction from which we now suffer."

"However," Tuttle said, "we might already know the real story of Leeke's death. After all, we've seen the footprints in the snow, and we've seen the dismantled body .... Could it be that men—human beings—really are behind it?"

"No," Steffan said. "That's superstitious nonsense. That's irrational."

"At dawn," Curanov said, "we'll set out for Walker's Watch, no matter how bad the storm is by then."

As he finished speaking, the distant hum of the lodge generator—which was a comforting background noise that never abated—abruptly cut out. They were plunged into darkness.

With snow crusted on their chilled metal skins, they focused three electric torches on the compact generator in its niche behind the lodge. The top of the machine casing had been removed, exposing the complex inner works to the elements..

"Someone's removed the power core," Curanov said.

"But who?" Steffan asked.

Curanov directed the beam of his torch to the ground.

The others did likewise.

Mingled with their own footprints were other prints similar to but not made by any robot: those same, strange tracks that they had seen near the trees in the late afternoon. The same tracks that profusely marked the snow all around Leeke's body.

"No," Steffan said. "No, no, no."

"I think it's best that we set out for Walker's Watch tonight," Curanov said. "I don't think it would any longer be wise to wait until morning." He looked at Tuttle, to whom clung snow in icy clumps. "What do you think?"

"Agreed," Tuttle said. "But I suspect it's not going to be an easy journey. I wish I had all my senses up to full power."

"We can still move fast," Curanov said. "And we don't need to rest, as fleshy creatures must. If we're pursued, we have the advantage."

"In theory," Tuttle said.

"We'll have to be satisfied with that."

Curanov considered certain aspects of the myth: 7. He kills; 8. He can overpower a robot.

* * *

In the lodge, by the eerie light of their hand torches, they bolted on their snowshoes, attached their emergency repair kits, and picked up their maps. The beams of their lamps preceding them, they went outside again, staying together.

The wind beat upon their broad backs while the snow worked hard to coat them in hard-packed, icy suits.

They crossed the clearing, half by dead reckoning and half by the few landmarks that the torches revealed, each wishing to himself that he had his full powers of sight and his radar back in operation again. Soon, they came to the opening in the trees that led down the side of the valley and back toward Walker's Watch. They stopped there, staring into the dark tunnel formed by sheltering pines, and they seemed reluctant to go any farther.

"There are so many shadows," Tuttle said.

"Shadows can't hurt us," Curanov said.

Throughout their association, from the moment they had met one another on the train coming north, Curanov had known that he was the leader among them. He had exercised his leadership sparingly, but now he must take full command. He started forward, into the trees, between the shadows, moving down the snowy slope.

Reluctantly, Steffan followed.

Tuttle came last.

Halfway down toward the valley floor, the tunnel between the trees narrowed drastically. The trees loomed closer, spread their boughs lower. And it was here, in these tight quarters, in the deepest shadows, that they were attacked.

Something howled in triumph, its mad voice echoing above the constant whine of the wind.

Curanov whirled, not certain from which direction the sound had come, lancing the trees with torchlight.

Behind, Tuttle cried out.

Curanov turned as Steffan did, and their torches illuminated the struggling robot.

"It can't be!" Steffan said.

Tuttle had fallen back under the relentless attack of a two-legged creature that moved almost as a robot might move, though it was clearly an animal. It was dressed in furs, its feet booted, and it wielded a metal ax.

It drove the blunted blade at Tuttle's ring cable.

Tuttle raised an arm, threw back the weapon, saved himself—at the cost of a severely damaged elbow joint.

Curanov started forward to help but was stopped as a second of the fleshy beasts delivered a blow from behind. The weapon struck the center of Curanov's back and drove him to his knees.

Curanov fell sideways, rolled, got to his feet in one well-coordinated maneuver. He turned quickly to confront his assailant.

A fleshy face stared back at him from a dozen feet away, blowing steam in the cold air. It was framed in a fur-lined hood: a grotesque parody of a robot face. Its eyes were too small for visual receptors, and they did not glow. Its face was not perfectly symmetrical as it should have been; it was out of proportion, also puffed and mottled from the cold. It did not even shine in the torchlight, and yet ...

... yet ... obvious intelligence abided there. No doubt malevolent intelligence. Perhaps even maniacal. But intelligence nonetheless.

Surprisingly, the monster spoke to Curanov. Its voice was deep, its language full of rounded, softened syllables, not at all like the clattering language the robots spoke to one another.

Abruptly, the beast leaped forward, crying out, and swung a length of metal pipe at Curanov's neck.

The robot danced backward out of range.

The demon came forward.

Curanov glanced at the others and saw that the first demon had backed Tuttle almost into the woods. A third had attacked Steffan, who was barely managing to hold his own.

Screaming, the man before Curanov charged, plowed the end of the pipe into Curanov's chest.

The robot fell hard.

The man came in close, raising his bludgeon.

Man thinks, though he's of flesh ... sleeps as an animal sleeps, devours other flesh, defecates, rots, dies .... He spawns his young in an unmechanical manner, although his young are sentient .... He kills ... he kills ... he overpowers robots, dismantles them, and does monstrous things (what?) with their parts .... He can be killed, permanently, only with a wooden implement ... and if killed in any other manner, he does not die a true death, but at once springs up elsewhere in a new body ....

As the monster swung his club, Curanov rolled, rose, and struck out with his long-fingered hand.

The man's face tore, gave blood.

The demon stepped back, bewildered.

Curanov's terror had changed into rage. He stepped forward and struck out again. And again. Flailing with all his reduced strength, he broke the demon's body, temporarily killed it, leaving the snow spattered with blood.

Turning from his own assailant, he moved on the beast that was after Steffan. Clubbing it from behind, he broke its neck with one blow of his steel hand.

By the time Curanov reached Tuttle and dispatched the third demon, Tuttle had sustained one totally demolished arm, another smashed hand, and damage to the ring cable that, luckily, had not terminated him. With any luck, the three robots would survive.

"I thought I was finished," Tuttle said.

Dazed, Steffan said to Curanov, "You killed all three of them!"

"They would have terminated us," Curanov said. Inside, where they could not see, he was in turmoil.

Steffan said, "But the prime directive from the Central Agency forbids the taking of life—"

"Not quite," Curanov disagreed. "It forbids the taking of life which cannot be restored. Which cannot be restored."

"These lives will be restored?" Steffan asked, looking at the hideous corpses, unable to understand.

"You've seen human beings now," Curanov said. "Do you believe the myths—or do you still scoff?"

"How can I scoff?"

"Then," Curanov said, "if you believe that such demons exist, you must believe what else is said of them." He quoted his own store of data on the subject: "If killed in any other way, by any means other than wood, the man will only appear to be dead. In reality, the moment he drops before his assailant, he springs at once to life elsewhere, unharmed, in a new body."

Steffan nodded, unwilling to argue the point.

Tuttle said, "What now?"

"We continue back to Walker's Watch," Curanov said.

"And tell them what we found?"


"But," Tuttle said, "we can lead them back here, show them these carcasses."

"Look around you," Curanov said. "Other demons are watching from the trees."

A dozen hateful white faces could be seen, leering.

Curanov said, "I don't think they'll attack us again. They've seen what we can do, how we have learned that, with them, the prime directive does not apply. But they're sure to remove and bury the bodies when we've gone."

"We can take a carcass along with us," Tuttle said.

Curanov said, "No. Both of your hands are useless. Steffan's right arm is uncontrollable. I couldn't carry one of those bodies all by myself as far as Walker's Watch, not with my power as reduced as it is."

"Then," Tuttle said, "we still won't tell anyone about what we've seen up here?"

"We can't afford to, if we ever want to be promoted," Curanov said. "Our only hope is to spend a long time in some inactivation nook, contemplating until we've learned to cope with what we've witnessed."

They picked their torches out of the snow and, staying close to one another, started down toward the valley once more.

"Walk slowly and show no fear," Curanov warned.

They walked slowly, but each was certain that his fear was evident to the unearthly creatures crouching in the shadows beneath the pine trees.

They walked all that long night and most of the following day before they reached the station house at Walker's Watch. In that time, the storm died out. The landscape was serene, white, peaceful. Surveying the rolling snowfields, one felt sure that the universe was rational. But Curanov was haunted by one icy realization: If he must believe in specters and other worldly beings like men, then he would never again be able to think of the universe in rational terms.


SOMETIMES YOU CAN BE THE BIGGEST JACKASS WHO EVER LIVED," MY wife said the night that I took Santa Claus away from my son.

We were in bed, but she was clearly not in the mood for either sleep or romance.

Her voice was sharp, scornful. "What a terrible thing to do to a little boy."

"He's seven years old—"

"He's a little boy," Ellen said harshly, though we rarely spoke to each other in anger. For the most part ours was a happy, peaceful marriage.

We lay in silence. The drapes were drawn back from the French doors that opened onto the second-floor balcony, so the bedroom was limned by ash-pale moonlight. Even in that dim glow, even though Ellen was cloaked in blankets, her anger was apparent in the tense, angular position in which she pretended to seek sleep.

Finally she said, "Pete, you used a sledgehammer to shatter a little boy's fragile fantasy, a harmless fantasy, all because of your obsession with—"

"It wasn't harmless," I said patiently. "And I don't have an obsession."

"Yes, you do," she insisted.

"I simply believe in rational—"

"Oh, shut up."

"Won't you even talk to me about it?"

"No. It's pointless."

I sighed. "I love you, Ellen."

She was silent a long while.

Wind soughed in the eaves, an ancient voice.

In the boughs of one of the backyard cherry trees, an owl hooted.

At last Ellen said, "I love you too, but sometimes I want to kick your ass."

I was angry with her because I felt that she was not being fair, that she was allowing her least admirable emotions to overrule her reason. Now, many years later, I would give anything to hear her say that she wanted to kick my ass, and I'd bend over with a smile.