Second Variety

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"Second Variety" is an influential short story by Philip K. Dick first published in Space Science Fiction magazine, in May 1953. It is one of Dick's many stories in which nuclear war has rendered the Earth's surface to an uninhabitable, gray ash pile, and the only things remaining are killer robots. The short story "Jon's World" (1954) revisited the claw-infested world of "Second Variety".


Plot summary

"Second Variety" occurs in the aftermath of an extensive nuclear war between the Soviet Union (sometimes referenced as Russia) and the United Nations. Early Soviet victories forced the North American government and production to flee to a Moon Base, leaving the majority of their troops behind. To counter the almost complete Soviet victory, U.N. technicians develop robots, nicknamed claws—the basic models are "a churning sphere of blades and metal" that ambush their unsuspecting victims "spinning, creeping, shaking themselves up suddenly from the gray ash and darting toward . . . [any warm body]." U.N. forces are protected from the claws by a special radiation-emitting wrist tab. Within six years, the sophisticated and independent claws have destroyed the Soviet forces, repairing and redesigning themselves in automated underground factories run without any human oversight.

The U.N. forces receive a message from the Soviets asking for a policy-level officer to go to them for a gravely urgent conference. The U.N. victory was costlier than they had expected. Major Joseph Hendricks is sent to negotiate with the Soviets. En route to the rendezvous, he meets a small boy named "David" who asks to accompany Hendricks. When they near the Soviet bunker, soldiers immediately kill the boy, revealing him to be a robot. The claws' development program has evolved to develop sophisticated robots identical to humans designed to infiltrate and kill. The three Soviets met by Major Hendricks — Klaus, Rudi and Tasso — reveal that the entire Soviet army and command structure collapsed under the onslaught of the new robots.

From salvaged internal metal identification plates, two varieties are identified: I-V, a wounded soldier, and III-V, David. The II-V—the "second variety"—remains unknown. The different models are produced independently of each other in different factories. The Soviets also reveal that the U.N. protective tabs are ineffective against the new robots. Hendricks attempts to transmit a warning to his H.Q. bunker, but is unable to do so.

During the night, Klaus kills Rudi, mistakenly believing he is the II-V. The next morning, Hendricks and the other two Soviet soldiers return to the U.N. lines. When they reach the bunker, they discover it overrun: a crowd of David and Wounded Soldier model robots attack, but Tasso destroys them with a very powerful hand grenade. Hendricks and Tasso flee, leaving Klaus to the old-style claws. Klaus survives the claws and the bomb blast and rejoins the others. But Tasso blasts Klaus, sending "gears and wheels" flying. Tasso tells Hendricks that Klaus must have been the II-V robot.

Hendricks, suffering from a wounded arm and internal injuries, hopes to escape to the Moon Base. He and Tasso search for a hidden escape rocket, which is revealed as a single-seat spacecraft. Hendricks attempts to leave, but Tasso quickly subdues him. She convinces him to let her leave and send back help. In his injured state, he has no choice but to agree. Hendricks provides Tasso with the signal code needed to find the Moon Base.

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