It was early morning as Bill Humbolt sat by the fire in his cave and studied the map Craig had made of the plateau's mountain. Craig had left the mountain nameless and he dipped his pen in ink to write: Craig Mountains.
It was something he had been expecting to come at any time but the lack of surprise did not diminish the sense of loss. Lake had been the last of the Old Ones, the last of those who had worked and fought and shortened the years of their lives that the Young Ones might have a chance to live. Now he was gone—now a brief era was ended, a valiant, bloody chapter written and finished.
And he was the new leader who would decree how the next chapter should be written, only four years older than the boy who was looking at him with an unconscious appeal for reassurance on his face . . .
"You'd better tell Jim," he said. "Then, a little later, I want to talk to everyone about the things we'll start doing as soon as spring comes."
"You mean, the hunting?" Delmont asked.
"No—more than just the hunting."
He sat for a while after Delmont left, looking back down the years that had preceded that day, back to that first morning on Ragnarok.
He had set a goal for himself that morning when he left his toy bear in the dust behind him and walked beside Julia into the new and perilous way of life. He had promised himself that some day he would watch the Gerns die and beg for mercy as they died and he would give them the same mercy they had given his mother.
As he grew older he realized that his hatred, alone, was a futile thing. There would have to be a way of leaving Ragnarok and there would have to be weapons with which to fight the Gerns. These would be things impossible and beyond his reach unless he had the help of all the others in united, coordinated effort.
To make certain of that united effort he would have to be their leader. So for eleven years he had studied and trained until there was no one who could use a bow or spear quite as well as he could, no one who could travel as far in a day or spot a unicorn ambush as quickly. And there was no one, with the exception of George Ord, who had studied as many textbooks as he had.
He had reached his first goal—he was leader. For all of them there existed the second goal: the hope of someday leaving Ragnarok and taking Athena from the Gerns. For many of them, perhaps, it was only wishful dreaming but for him it was the prime driving force of his life.
There was so much for them to do and their lives were so short in which to do it. For so long as he was leader they would not waste a day in idle wishing . . .
* * *
When the others were gathered to hear what he had to say he spoke to them:
"We're going to continue where the Old Ones had to leave off. We're better adapted than they were and we're going to find metals to make a ship if there are any to be found.
"Somewhere on Ragnarok, on the northwest side of a range similar to the Craig Mountains on the plateau, is a deep valley that the Dunbar Expedition called the Chasm. They didn't investigate it closely since their instruments showed no metals there but they saw strata in one place that was red; an iron discoloration. Maybe we can find a vein there that was too small for them to have paid any attention to. So we'll go over the Craigs as soon as the snow melts from them."
"That will be in early summer," George Ord said, his black eyes thoughtful. "Whoever goes will have to time their return for either just before the prowlers and unicorns come back from the north or wait until they've all migrated down off the plateau."
It was something Humbolt had been thinking about and wishing they could remedy. Men could elude unicorn attacks wherever there were trees large enough to offer safety and even prowler attacks could be warded off wherever there were trees for refuge; spears holding back the prowlers who would climb the trees while arrows picked off the ones on the ground. But there were no trees on the plateau, and to be caught by a band of prowlers or unicorns there was certain death for any small party of two or three. For that reason no small parties had ever gone up on the plateau except when the unicorns and prowlers were gone or nearly so. It was an inconvenience and it would continue for as long as their weapons were the slow-to-reload bows.
"You're supposed to be our combination inventor-craftsman," he said to George. "No one else can compare with you in that respect. Besides, you're not exactly enthusiastic about such hard work as mountain climbing. So from now on you'll do the kind of work you're best fitted for. Your first job is to make us a better bow. Make it like a crossbow, with a sliding action to draw and cock the string and with a magazine of arrows mounted on top of it."
George studied the idea thoughtfully. "The general principle is simple," he said. "I'll see what I can do."
"How many of us will go over the Craig Mountains, Bill?" Dan Barber asked.
"You and I," Humbolt answered. "A three-man party under Bob Craig will go into the Western Hills and another party under Johnny Stevens will go into the Eastern Hills."
He looked toward the adjoining cave where the guns had been stored for so long, coated with unicorn tallow to protect them from rust.
"We could make gun powder if we could find a deposit of saltpeter. We already know where there's a little sulphur. The guns would have to be converted to flintlocks, though, since we don't have what we need for cartridge priming material. Worse, we'd have to use ceramic bullets. They would be inefficient—too light, and destructive to the bores. But we would need powder for mining if we ever found any iron. And, if we can't have metal bullets to shoot the Gerns, we can have bombs to blast them with."
"Suppose," Johnny Stevens said, "that we never do find the metals to make a ship. How will we ever leave Ragnarok if that happens?"
"There's another way—a possible way—of leaving here without a ship of our own. If there are no metals we'll have to try it."
"Why wait?" Bob Craig demanded. "Why not try it now?"
"Because the odds would be about ten thousand to one in favor of the Gerns. But we'll try it if everything else fails."
* * *
George made, altered, and rejected four different types of crossbows before he perfected a reloading bow that met his critical approval. He brought it to where Humbolt stood outside the caves early one spring day when the grass was sending up the first green shoots on the southern hillsides and the long winter was finally dying.
"Here it is," he said, handing Humbolt the bow. "Try it."
He took it, noting the fine balance of it. Projecting down from the center of the bow, at right angles to it, was a stock shaped to fit the grip of the left hand. Under the crossbar was a sliding stock for the right hand, shaped like the butt of a pistol and fitted with a trigger. Mounted slightly above and to one side of the crossbar was a magazine containing ten short arrows.
The pistol grip was in position near the forestock. He pulled it back the length of the crossbar and it brought the string with it, stretching it taut. There was a click as the trigger mechanism locked the bowstring in place and at the same time a concealed spring arrangement shoved an arrow into place against the string.
He took quick aim at a distant tree and pressed the trigger. There was a twang as the arrow was ejected. He jerked the sliding pistol grip forward and back to reload, pressing the trigger an instant later. Another arrow went its way.
By the time he had fired the tenth arrow in the magazine he was shooting at the rate of one arrow per second. On the trunk of the distant tree, like a bristle of stiff whiskers, the ten arrows were driven deep into the wood in an area no larger than the chest of a prowler or head of a unicorn.
"This is better than I hoped for," he said to George. "One man with one of these would equal six men with ordinary bows."
"I'm going to add another feature," George said. "Bundles of arrows, ten to the bundle in special holders, to carry in the quivers. To reload the magazine you'd just slap down a new bundle of arrows, in no more time than it would take to put one arrow in an ordinary bow. I figured that with practice a man should be able to get off forty arrows in not much more than twenty seconds."
George took the bow and went back in the cave to add his new feature. Humbolt stared after him, thinking, If he can make something like that out of wood and unicorn gut, what would he be able to give us if he could have metal?
Perhaps George would never have the opportunity to show what he could do with metal. But Humbolt already felt sure that George's genius would, if it ever became necessary, make possible the alternate plan for leaving Ragnarok.
* * *
The weeks dragged into months and at last enough snow was gone from the Craigs that Humbolt and Dan Barber could start. They met no opposition. The prowlers had long since disappeared into the north and the unicorns were very scarce. They had no occasion to test the effectiveness of the new automatic crossbows in combat; a lack of opportunity that irked Barber.
"Any other time, if we had ordinary bows," he complained, "the unicorns would be popping up to charge us from all directions."
"Don't fret," Humbolt consoled him. "This fall, when we come back, they will be."
They reached the mountain and stopped near its foot where a creek came down, its water high and muddy with melting snows. There they hunted until they had obtained all the meat they could carry. They would see no more game when they went up the mountain's canyons. A poisonous weed replaced most of the grass in all the canyons and the animals of Ragnarok had learned long before to shun the mountain.
They found the canyon that Craig and his men had tried to explore and started up it. It was there that Craig had discovered the quartz and mica and so far as he had been able to tell the head of that canyon would be the lowest of all the passes over the mountain.
The canyon went up the mountain diagonally so that the climb was not steep although it was constant. They began to see mica and quartz crystals in the creek bed and at noon on the second day they passed the last stunted tree. Nothing grew higher than that point but the thorny poison weeds and they were scarce.
The air was noticeably thinner there and their burdens heavier. A short distance beyond they came to a small rock monument; Craig's turn-back point.
The next day they found the quartz crystals in place. A mile farther was the vein the mica had come from. Of the other minerals Craig had hoped to find, however, there were only traces.
The fourth day was an eternity of struggling up the now-steeper canyon under loads that seemed to weigh hundreds of pounds; forcing their protesting legs to carry them fifty steps at a time, at the end of which they would stop to rest while their lungs labored to suck in the thin air in quick, panting breaths.
It would have been much easier to have gone around the mountain. But the Chasm was supposed to be like a huge cavity scooped out of the plateau beyond the mountain, rimmed with sheer cliffs a mile high. Only on the side next to the mountain was there a slope leading down into it.
They stopped for the night where the creek ended in a small spring. There the snow still clung to the canyon's walls and there the canyon curved, offering them the promise of the summit just around the bend as it had been doing all day.
The sun was hot and bright the next morning as they made their slow way on again. The canyon straightened, the steep walls of it flattening out to make a pair of ragged shoulders with a saddle between them.
They climbed to the summit of the saddle and there, suddenly before them, was the other side of the world—and the Chasm.
Far below them was a plateau, stretching endlessly like the one they had left behind them. But the chasm dominated all else. It was a gigantic, sheer-walled valley, a hundred miles long by forty miles wide, sunk deep in the plateau with the tops of its mile-high walls level with the floor of the plateau. The mountain under them dropped swiftly away, sloping down and down to the level of the plateau and then on, down and down again, to the bottom of the chasm that was so deep its floor was half hidden by the morning shadows.
"My God!" Barber said. "It must be over three miles under us to the bottom, on the vertical. Ten miles of thirty-three percent grade—if we go down we'll never get out again."
"You can turn back here if you want to," Humbolt said.
"Turn back?" Barber's red whiskers seemed to bristle. "Who in hell said anything about turning back?"
"Nobody," Humbolt said, smiling a little at Barber's quick flash of anger.
He studied the chasm, wishing that they could have some way of cutting the quartz crystals and making binoculars. It was a long way to look with the naked eye . . .
Here and there the chasm thrust out arms into the plateau. All the arms were short, however, and even at their heads the cliffs were vertical. The morning shadows prevented a clear view of much of the chasm and he could see no sign of the red-stained strata that they were searching for.
In the southwest corner of the chasm, far away and almost imperceptible, he saw a faint cloud rising up from the chasm's floor. It was impossible to tell what it was and it faded away as he watched.
Barber saw it, too, and said, "It looked like smoke. Do you suppose there could be people—or some kind of intelligent things—living down there?"
"It might have been the vapor from hot springs, condensed by the cool morning air," he said. "Whatever it was, we'll look into it when we get there."
The climb down the steep slope into the chasm was swifter than that up the canyon but no more pleasant. Carrying a heavy pack down such a grade exerted a torturous strain upon the backs of the legs.
The heat increased steadily as they descended. They reached the floor of the valley the next day and the noonday heat was so great that Humbolt wondered if they might not have trapped themselves into what the summer would soon transform into a monstrous oven where no life at all could exist. There could never be any choice, of course—the mountains were passable only when the weather was hot.
The floor of the valley was silt, sand and gravel—they would find nothing there. They set out on a circuit of the chasm's walls, following along close to the base.
In many places the mile-high walls were without a single ledge to break their vertical faces. When they came to the first such place they saw that the ground near the base was riddled with queer little pits, like tiny craters of the moon. As they looked there was a crack like a cannon shot and the ground beside them erupted into an explosion of sand and gravel. When the dust had cleared away there was a new crater where none had been before.
Humbolt wiped the blood from his face where a flying fragment had cut it and said, "The heat of the sun loosens rocks under the rim. When one falls a mile in a one point five gravity, it's traveling like a meteor."
They went on, through the danger zone. As with the peril of the chasm's heat, there was no choice. Only by observing the material that littered the base of the cliffs could they know what minerals, if any, might be above them.
On the fifteenth day they saw the red-stained stratum. Humbolt quickened his pace, hurrying forward in advance of Barber. The stratum was too high up on the wall to be reached but it was not necessary to examine it in place—the base of the cliff was piled thick with fragments from it.
He felt the first touch of discouragement as he looked at them. They were a sandstone, light in weight. The iron present was only what the Dunbar Expedition had thought it to be; a mere discoloration.
They made their way slowly along the foot of the cliff, examining piece after piece in the hope of finding something more than iron stains. There was no variation, however, and a mile farther on they came to the end of the red stratum. Beyond that point the rocks were gray, without a vestige of iron.
"So that," Barber said, looking back the way they had come, "is what we were going to build a ship out of—iron stains!"
Humbolt did not answer. For him it was more than a disappointment. It was the death of a dream he had held since the year he was nine and had heard that the Dunbar Expedition had seen iron-stained rock in a deep chasm—the only iron-stained rock on the face of Ragnarok. Surely, he had thought, there would be enough iron there to build a small ship. For eleven years he had worked toward the day when he would find it. Now, he had found it—and it was nothing. The ship was as far away as ever . . .
But discouragement was as useless as iron-stained sandstone. He shook it off and turned to Barber.
"Let's go," he said. "Maybe we'll find something by the time we circle the chasm."
For seven days they risked the danger of death from downward plunging rocks and found nothing. On the eighth day they found the treasure that was not treasure.
They stopped for the evening just within the mouth of one of the chasm's tributaries. Humbolt went out to get a drink where a trickle of water ran through the sand and as he knelt down he saw the flash of something red under him, almost buried in the sand.
He lifted it out. It was a stone half the size of his hand; darkly translucent and glowing in the light of the setting sun like blood.
It was a ruby.
He looked, and saw another gleam a little farther up the stream. It was another ruby, almost as large as the first one. Near it was a flawless blue sapphire. Scattered here and there were smaller rubies and sapphires, down to the size of grains of sand.
He went farther upstream and saw specimens of still another stone. They were colorless but burning with internal fires. He rubbed one of them hard across the ruby he still carried and there was a gritting sound as it cut a deep scratch in the ruby.
"I'll be damned," he said aloud.
There was only one stone hard enough to cut a ruby—the diamond.
* * *
It was almost dark when he returned to where Barber was resting beside their packs.
"What did you find to keep you out so late?" Barber asked curiously.
He dropped a double handful of rubies, sapphires and diamonds at Barber's feet.
"Take a look," he said. "On a civilized world what you see there would buy us a ship without our having to lift a finger. Here they're just pretty rocks.
"Except the diamonds," he added. "At least we now have something to cut those quartz crystals with."
* * *
They took only a few of the rubies and sapphires the next morning but they gathered more of the diamonds, looking in particular for the gray-black and ugly but very hard and tough carbonado variety. Then they resumed their circling of the chasm's walls.
The heat continued its steady increase as the days went by. Only at night was there any relief from it and the nights were growing swiftly shorter as the blue sun rose earlier each morning. When the yellow sun rose the chasm became a blazing furnace around the edge of which they crept like ants in some gigantic oven.
There was no life in any form to be seen; no animal or bush or blade of grass. There was only the barren floor of the chasm, made a harsh green shade by the two suns and writhing and undulating with heat waves like a nightmare sea, while above them the towering cliffs shimmered, too, and sometimes seemed to be leaning far out over their heads and already falling down upon them.
They found no more minerals of any kind and they came at last to the place where they had seen the smoke or vapor.
* * *
There the walls of the chasm drew back to form a little valley a mile long by half a mile wide. The walls did not drop vertically to the floor there but sloped out at the base into a fantastic formation of natural roofs and arches that reached almost to the center of the valley from each side. Green things grew in the shade under the arches and sparkling waterfalls cascaded down over many of them. A small creek carried the water out of the valley, going out into the chasm a little way before the hot sands absorbed it.
They stood and watched for some time, but there was no movement in the valley other than the waving of the green plants as a breeze stirred them. Once the breeze shifted to bring them the fresh, sweet scent of growing things and urge them to come closer.
"A place like that doesn't belong here," Barber said in a low voice. "But it's there. I wonder what else is there?"
"Shade and cool water," Humbolt said. "And maybe things that don't like strangers. Let's go find out."
They watched warily as they walked, their crossbows in their hands. At the closer range they saw that the roofs and arches were the outer remains of a system of natural caves that went back into the valley's walls. The green vegetation grew wherever the roofs gave part-time shade, consisting mainly of a holly-leafed bush with purple flowers and a tall plant resembling corn.
Under some of the roofs the corn was mature, the orange-colored grains visible. Under others it was no more than half grown. He saw the reason and said to Barber:
"There are both warm and cold springs here. The plants watered by the warm springs would grow almost the year around; the ones watered by the cold springs only in the summer. And what we saw from the mountain top would have been vapor rising from the warm springs."
They passed under arch after arch without seeing any life. When they came to the valley's upper end and still had seen nothing it seemed evident that there was little danger of an encounter with any intelligent-and-hostile creatures. Apparently nothing at all lived in the little valley.
Humbolt stopped under a broad arch where the breeze was made cool and moist by the spray of water it had come through. Barber went on, to look under the adjoining arch.
Caves led into the wall from both arches and as he stood there Humbolt saw something lying in the mouth of the nearest cave. It was a little mound of orange corn; lying in a neat pile as though whatever had left it there had intended to come back after it.
He looked toward the other arch but Barber was somewhere out of sight. He doubted that whatever had left the corn could be much of a menace—dangerous animals were more apt to eat flesh than corn—but he went to the cave with his crossbow ready.
He stopped at the mouth of the cave to let his eyes become accustomed to the darkness inside it. As he did so the things inside came out to meet him.
They emerged into full view; six little animals the size of squirrels, each of them a different color. They walked on short hind legs like miniature bears and the dark eyes in the bear-chipmunk faces were fixed on him with intense interest. They stopped five feet in front of him, there to stand in a neat row and continue the fascinated staring up at him.
The yellow one in the center scratched absently at its stomach with a furry paw and he lowered the bow, feeling a little foolish at having bothered to raise it against animals so small and harmless.
Then he half brought it up again as the yellow one opened its mouth and said in a tone that held distinct anticipation:
"I think we'll eat you for supper."
He darted glances to right and left but there was nothing near him except the six little animals. The yellow one, having spoken, was staring silently at him with some curiosity on its furry face. He wondered if some miasma or some scent from the vegetation in the valley had warped his mind into sudden insanity and asked:
It said no more and the next sound was that of Barber hurrying toward him and calling, "Hey—Bill—where are you?"
"Here," he answered, and he was already sure that he knew why the little animal had spoken to him.
Barber came up and saw the six chipmunk-bears. "Six of them!" he exclaimed. "There's one in the next cave—the damned thing spoke to me!"
"I thought so," he replied. "You told it we'd have it for supper and then it said, 'You think you'll do what?' didn't it?"
Barber's face showed surprise. "How did you know that?"
"They're telepathic between one another," he said. "The yellow one there repeated what the one you spoke to heard you say and it repeated what the yellow one heard me say. It has to be telepathy between them."
"Telepathy—" Barber stared at the six little animals, who stared back with their fascinated curiosity undiminished. "But why should they want to repeat aloud what they receive telepathically?"
"I don't know. Maybe at some stage in their evolution only part of them were telepaths and the telepaths broadcasted danger warnings to the others that way. So far as that goes, why does a parrot repeat what it hears?"
There was a scurry of movement behind Barber and another of the little animals, a white one, hurried past them. It went to the yellow one and they stood close together as they stared up. Apparently they were mates . . .
"That's the other one—those are the two that mocked us," Barber said, and thereby gave them the name by which they would be known: mockers.
* * *
The mockers were fresh meat—but they accepted the humans with such friendliness and trust that Barber lost all his desire to have one for supper or for any other time. They had a limited supply of dried meat and there would be plenty of orange corn. They would not go hungry.
They discovered that the mockers had living quarters in both the cool caves and the ones warmed by the hot springs. There was evidence that they hibernated during the winters in the warm caves.
There were no minerals in the mockers' valley and they set out to continue their circuit of the chasm. They did not get far until the heat had become so great that the chasm's tributaries began going dry. They turned back then, to wait in the little valley until the fall rains came.
* * *
When the long summer was ended by the first rain they resumed their journey. They took a supply of the orange corn and two of the mockers; the yellow one and its mate. The other mockers watched them leave, standing silent and solemn in front of their caves as though they feared they might never see their two fellows or the humans again.
The two mockers were pleasant company, riding on their shoulders and chattering any nonsense that came to mind. And sometimes saying things that were not at all nonsense, making Humbolt wonder if mockers could partly read human minds and dimly understand the meaning of some of the things they said.
They found a place where saltpeter was very thinly and erratically distributed. They scraped off all the films of it that were visible and procured a small amount. They completed their circuit and reached the foot of the long, steep slope of the Craigs without finding anything more.
It was an awesome climb that lay before them; up a grade so steep and barred with so many low ledges that when their legs refused to carry them farther they crawled. The heat was still very serious and there would be no water until they came to the spring beyond the mountain's summit. A burning wind, born on the blazing floor of the chasm, following them up the mountain all day. Their leather canteens were almost dry when night came and they were no more than a third of the way to the top.
The mockers had become silent as the elevation increased and when they stopped for the night Humbolt saw that they would never live to cross the mountain. They were breathing fast, their hearts racing, as they tried to extract enough oxygen from the thin air. They drank a few drops of water but they would not touch the corn he offered them.
The white mocker died at midmorning the next day as they stopped for a rest. The yellow one crawled feebly to her side and died a few minutes later.
"So that's that," Humbolt said, looking down at them. "The only things on Ragnarok that ever trusted us and wanted to be our friends—and we killed them."
They drank the last of their water and went on. They made dry camp that night and dreams of cold streams of water tormented their exhausted sleep. The next day was a hellish eternity in which they walked and fell and crawled and walked and fell again.
Barber weakened steadily, his breathing growing to a rattling panting. He spoke once that afternoon, to try to smile with dry, swollen lips and say between his panting gasps, "It would be hell—to have to die—so thirsty like this."
After that he fell with increasing frequency, each time slower and weaker in getting up again. Half a mile short of the summit he fell for the last time. He tried to get up, failed, and tried to crawl. He failed at that, too, and collapsed face down in the rocky soil.
Humbolt went to him and said between his own labored intakes of breath, "Wait, Dan—I'll go on—bring you back water."
Barber raised himself with a great effort and looked up. "No use," he said. "My heart—too much—"
He fell forward again and that time he was very still, his desperate panting no more.
* * *
It seemed to Humbolt that it was half a lifetime later that he finally reached the spring and the cold, clear water. He drank, the most ecstatic pleasure he had ever experienced in his life. Then the pleasure drained away as he seemed to see Dan Barber trying to smile and seemed to hear him say, "It would be hell—to have to die—so thirsty like this."
He rested for two days before he was in condition to continue on his way. He reached the plateau and saw that the woods goats had been migrating south for some time. On the second morning he climbed up a gentle roll in the plain and met three unicorns face to face.
They charged at once, squealing with anticipation. Had he been equipped with an ordinary bow he would have been killed within seconds. But the automatic crossbow poured a rain of arrows into the faces of the unicorns that caused them to swing aside in pain and enraged astonishment. The moment they had swung enough to expose the area just behind their heads the arrows became fatal.
One unicorn escaped, three arrows bristling in its face. It watched him from a distance for a little while, squealing and shaking its head in baffled fury. Then it turned and disappeared over a swell in the plain, running like a deer.
He resumed his southward march, hurrying faster than before. The unicorn had headed north and that could be for but one purpose: to bring enough reinforcements to finish the job.
* * *
He reached the caves at night. No one was up but George Ord, working late in his combination workshop-laboratory.
George looked up at the sound of his entrance and saw that he was alone. "So Dan didn't make it?" he asked.
"The chasm got him," he answered. And then, wearily, "The chasm—we found the damned thing."
"The red stratum—"
"It was only iron stains."
"I made a little pilot smelter while you were gone," George said. "I was hoping the red stratum would be ore. The other prospecting parties—none of them found anything."
"We'll try again next spring," he said. "We'll find it somewhere, no matter how long it takes."
"Our time may not be so long. The observations show the sun to be farther south than ever."
"Then we'll make double use of the time we do have. We'll cut the hunting parties to the limit and send out more prospecting parties. We're going to have a ship to meet the Gerns again."
"Sometimes," George said, his black eyes studying him thoughtfully, "I think that's all you live for, Bill: for the day when you can kill Gerns."
George said it as a statement of a fact, without censure, but Humbolt could not keep an edge of harshness out of his voice as he answered:
"For as long as I'm leader that's all we're all going to live for."
He followed the game south that fall, taking with him Bob Craig and young Anders. Hundreds of miles south of the caves they came to the lowlands; a land of much water and vegetation and vast herds of unicorns and woods goats. It was an exceedingly dangerous country, due to the concentration of unicorns and prowlers, and only the automatic crossbows combined with never ceasing vigilance enabled them to survive.
There they saw the crawlers; hideous things that crawled on multiple legs like three-ton centipedes, their mouths set with six mandibles and dripping a stinking saliva. The bite of a crawler was poisonous, instantly paralyzing even to a unicorn, though not instantly killing them. The crawlers ate their victims at once, however, ripping the helpless and still living flesh from its bones.
Although the unicorns feared the crawlers, the prowlers hated them with a fanatical intensity and made use of their superior quickness to kill every crawler they found; ripping at the crawler until the crawler, in an insanity of rage, bit itself and died of its own poison.
They had taken one of the powerful longbows with them, in addition to their crossbows, and they killed a crawler with it one day. As they did so a band of twenty prowlers came suddenly upon them.
Twenty prowlers, with the advantage of surprise at short range, could have slaughtered them. Instead, the prowlers continued on their way without as much as a challenging snarl.
"Now why," Bob Craig wondered, "did they do that?"
"They saw we had just killed a crawler," Humbolt said. "The crawlers are their enemies and I guess letting us live was their way of showing appreciation."
Their further explorations of the lowlands revealed no minerals—nothing but alluvial material of unknown depth—and there was no reason to stay longer except that return to the caves was impossible until spring came. They built attack-proof shelters in the trees and settled down to wait out the winter.
When they were almost to the caves they came to the barren valley where the Gerns had herded the Rejects out of the cruisers and to the place where the stockade had been. It was a lonely place, the stockade walls fallen and scattered and the graves of Humbolt's mother and all the others long since obliterated by the hooves of the unicorn legions. Bitter memories were reawakened, tinged by the years with nostalgia, and the stockade was far behind them before the dark mood left him.
The orange corn was planted that spring and the number of prospecting parties was doubled.
The corn sprouted, grew feebly, and died before maturity. The prospecting parties returned one by one, each to report no success. He decided, that fall, that time was too precious to waste—they would have to use the alternate plan he had spoken of.
He went to George Ord and asked him if it would be possible to build a hyperspace transmitter with the materials they had.
"It's the one way we could have a chance to leave here without a ship of our own," he said. "By luring a Gern cruiser here and then taking it away from them."
George shook his head. "A hyperspace transmitter might be built, given enough years of time. But it would be useless without power. It would take a generator of such size that we'd have to melt down every gun, knife, axe, every piece of steel and iron we have. And then we'd be five hundred pounds short. On top of that, we'd have to have at least three hundred pounds more of copper for additional wire."
"Get me the metal and we can," George said. He sighed restlessly and there was almost hatred in his eyes as he looked at the inclosing walls of the cave. "You're not the only one who would like to leave our prison. Get me eight hundred pounds of copper and iron and I'll make the transmitter, some way."
Eight hundred pounds of metal . . . On Ragnarok that was like asking for the sun.
The years went by and each year there was the same determined effort, the same lack of success. And each year the suns were farther south, marking the coming of the end of any efforts other than the one to survive.
In the year thirty when fall came earlier than ever before, he was forced to admit to himself the bleak and bitter fact: he and the others were not of the generation that would escape from Ragnarok. They were Earth-born—they were not adapted to Ragnarok and could not scour a world of 1.5 gravity for metals that might not exist.
And vengeance was a luxury he could not have.
A question grew in his mind where there had been only his hatred for the Gerns before. What would become of the future generations on Ragnarok?
With the question a scene from his childhood kept coming back to him; a late summer evening in the first year on Ragnarok and Julia sitting beside him in the warm starlight . . .
"You're my son, Billy," she had said. "The first I ever had. Now, before so very long, maybe I'll have another one."
Hesitantly, not wanting to believe, he had asked, "What some of them said about how you might die then—it won't really happen, will it, Julia?"
"It . . . might." Then her arm had gone around him and she had said, "If I do I'll leave in my place a life that's more important than mine ever was.
"Remember me, Billy, and this evening, and what I said to you, if you should ever be leader. Remember that it's only through the children that we can ever survive and whip this world. Protect them while they're small and helpless and teach them to fight and be afraid of nothing when they're a little older. Never, never let them forget how they came to be on Ragnarok. Someday, even if it's a hundred years from now, the Gerns will come again and they must be ready to fight, for their freedom and for their lives."
He had been too young then to understand how truly she had spoken and when he was old enough his hatred for the Gerns had blinded him to everything but his own desires. Now, he could see . . .
The children of each generation would be better adapted to Ragnarok and full adaptation would eventually come. But all the generations of the future would be potential slaves of the Gern Empire, free only so long as they remained unnoticed.
It was inconceivable that the Gerns should never pass by Ragnarok through all time to come. And when they finally came the slow, uneventful progression of decades and centuries might have brought a false sense of security to the people of Ragnarok, might have turned the stories of what the Gerns did to the Rejects into legends and then into myths that no one any longer believed.
The Gerns would have to be brought to Ragnarok before that could happen.
* * *
He went to George Ord again and said:
"There's one kind of transmitter we could make a generator for—a plain normal-space transmitter, dot-dash, without a receiver."
George laid down the diamond cutting wheel he had been working on.
"It would take two hundred years for the signal to get to Athena at the speed of light," he said. "Then, forty days after it got there, a Gern cruiser would come hell-bent to investigate."
"I want the ones of the future to know that the Gerns will be here no later than two hundred years from now. And with always the chance that a Gern cruiser in space might pick up the signal at any time before then."
"I see," George said. "The sword of Damocles hanging over their heads, to make them remember."
"You know what would happen to them if they ever forgot. You're as old as I am—you know what the Gerns did to us."
"I'm older than you are," George said. "I was nine when the Gerns left us here. They kept my father and mother and my sister was only three. I tried to keep her warm by holding her but the Hell Fever got her that first night. She was too young to understand why I couldn't help her more . . ."
Hatred burned in his eyes at the memory, like some fire that had been banked but had never died. "Yes, I remember the Gerns and what they did. I wouldn't want it to have to happen to others—the transmitter will be made so that it won't."
* * *
The guns were melted down, together with other items of iron and steel, to make the castings for the generator. Ceramic pipes were made to carry water from the spring to a waterwheel. The long, slow job of converting the miscellany of electronic devices, many of them broken, into the components of a transmitter proceeded.
It was five years before the transmitter was ready for testing. It was early fall of the year thirty-five then, and the water that gushed from the pipe splashed in cold drops against Humbolt as the waterwheel was set in motion.
The generator began to hum and George observed the output of it and the transmitter as registered by the various meters he had made.
"Weak, but it will reach the Gern monitor station on Athena," he said. "It's ready to send—what do you want to say?"
"Make it something short," he said. "Make it 'Ragnarok calling.' "
George poised his finger over the transmitting key. "This will set forces in motion that can never be recalled. What we do here this morning is going to cause a lot of Gerns—or Ragnarok people—to die."
"It will be the Gerns who die," he said. "Send the signal."
"Like you, I believe the same thing," George said. "I have to believe it because that's the way I want it to be. I hope we're right. It's something we'll never know."
He began depressing the key.
* * *
A boy was given the job of operating the key and the signal went out daily until the freezing of winter stopped the waterwheel that powered the generator.
The sending of the signals was resumed when spring came and the prospecting parties continued their vain search for metals.
The suns continued moving south and each year the springs came later, the falls earlier. In the spring of forty-five he saw that he would have to make his final decision.
By then they dwindled until they numbered only sixty-eight; the Young Ones gray and rapidly growing old. There was no longer any use to continue the prospecting—if any metals were to be found they were at the north end of the plateau where the snow no longer melted during the summer. They were too few to do more than prepare for what the Old Ones had feared they might have to face—Big Winter. That would require the work of all of them.
Sheets of mica were brought down from the Craigs, the summits of which were deeply buried under snow even in midsummer. Stoves were made of fireclay and mica, which would give both heat and light and would be more efficient than open fireplaces. The innermost caves were prepared for occupation, with multiple doors to hold out the cold and with laboriously excavated ventilation ducts and smoke outlets.
There were sixty of them in the fall of fifty, when all had been done that could be done to prepare for what might come.
* * *
"There aren't many of the Earth-born left now," Bob Craig said to him one night as they sat in the flickering light of a stove. "And there hasn't been time for there to be many of the Ragnarok-born. The Gerns wouldn't get many slaves if they should come now."
"They could use however many they found," he answered. "The younger ones, who are the best adapted to this gravity, would be exceptionally strong and quick on a one-gravity world. There are dangerous jobs where a strong, quick slave is a lot more efficient and expendable than complex, expensive machines."
"And they would want some specimens for scientific study," Jim Lake said. "They would want to cut into the young ones and see how they're built that they're adapted to this one and a half gravity world."
He smiled with the cold mirthlessness that always reminded Humbolt of his father—of the Lake who had been the Constellation's lieutenant commander. "According to the books the Gerns never did try to make it a secret that when a Gern doctor or biologist cuts into the muscles or organs of a non-Gern to see what makes them tick, he wants them to be still alive and ticking as he does so."
Seventeen-year-old Don Chiara spoke, to say slowly, thoughtfully:
"Slavery and vivisection . . . If the Gerns should come now when there are so few of us, and if we should fight the best we could and lose, it would be better for whoever was the last of us left to put a knife in the hearts of the women and children than to let the Gerns have them."
No one made any answer. There was no answer to make, no alternative to suggest.
"In the future there will be more of us and it will be different," he said at last. "On Earth the Gerns were always stronger and faster than humans but when the Gerns come to Ragnarok they're going to find a race that isn't really human any more. They're going to find a race before which they'll be like woods goats before prowlers."
He wondered again as he spoke, as he had wondered so often in the past years, if he had given them all their death sentence when he ordered the transmitter built. Yet, the future generations could not be permitted to forget . . . and steel could not be tempered without first thrusting it into the fire.
* * *
He was the last of the Young Ones when he awoke one night in the fall of fifty-six and found himself burning with the Hell Fever. He did not summon any of the others. They could do nothing for him and he had already done all he could for them.
He had done all he could for them . . . and now he would leave forty-nine men, women and children to face the unknown forces of Big Winter while over them hung the sword he had forged: the increasing danger of detection by the Gerns.
The question came again, sharp with the knowledge that it was far too late for him to change any of it. Did I arrange the execution of my people?
Then, through the red haze of the fever, Julia spoke to him out of the past; sitting again beside him in the summer twilight and saying:
Remember me, Billy, and this evening, and what I said to you . . . teach them to fight and be afraid of nothing . . . never let them forget how they came to be on Ragnarok . . .
She seemed very near and real and the doubt faded and was gone. Teach them to fight . . . never let them forget . . . The men of Ragnarok were only fur-clad hunters who crouched in caves but they would grow in numbers as time went by. Each generation would be stronger than the generation before it and he had set forces in motion that would bring the last generation the trial of combat and the opportunity for freedom. How well they fought on that day would determine their destiny but he was certain, once again, what that destiny would be.
It would be to walk as conquerors before beaten and humbled Gerns.