There was the laughter of children at play, a sound that had not been heard for many months, and someone singing the old, old songs. For a few fleeting hours that day, for the first and last time on Ragnarok, there was the magic of an Earth Christmas.
That night a child was born to Julia, on a pallet of dried grass and prowler skins. She asked for her baby before she died and they let her have it.
"I wasn't afraid, was I?" she asked. "But I wish it wasn't so dark--I wish I could see my baby before I go."
They took the baby from her arms when she was gone and removed from it the blanket that had kept her from learning that her child was still-born.
There were two hundred and fifty of them when the first violent storms of spring came. By then eighteen children had been born. Sixteen were still-born, eight of them deformed by the gravity, but two were like any normal babies on Earth. There was only one difference: the 1.5 gravity did not seem to affect them as much as it had the Earth-born babies.
Lake, himself, married that spring; a tall, gray-eyed girl who had fought alongside the men the night of the storm when the prowlers broke into John Prentiss's camp. And Schroeder married, the last of them all to do so.
That spring Lake sent out two classes of bowmen: those who would use the ordinary short bow and those who would use the longbows he had had made that winter. According to history the English longbowmen of medieval times had been without equal in the range and accuracy of their arrows and such extra-powerful weapons should eliminate close range stalking of woods goats and afford better protection from unicorns.
The longbows worked so well that by mid-spring he could detach Craig and three others from the hunting and send them on a prospecting expedition. Prentiss had said Ragnarok was devoid of metals but there was the hope of finding small veins the Dunbar Expedition's instruments had not detected. They would have to find metal or else, in the end, they would go back into a flint axe stage.
Craig and his men returned when the blue star was a sun again and the heat was more than men could walk and work in. They had traveled hundreds of miles in their circuit and found no metals.
"I want to look to the south when fall comes," Craig said. "Maybe it will be different down there."
They did not face famine that summer as they had the first summer. The diet of meat and dried herbs was rough and plain but there was enough of it.
Full summer came and the land was again burned and lifeless. There was nothing to do but sit wearily in the shade and endure the heat, drawing what psychological comfort they could from the fact that summer solstice was past and the suns were creeping south again even though it would be many weeks before there was any lessening of the heat.
It was then, and by accident, that Lake discovered there was something wrong about the southward movement of the suns.
He was returning from the lookout that day and he realized it was exactly a year since he and the others had walked back to the caves while Bemmon swung on the limb behind them.
It was even the same time of day; the blue sun rising in the east behind him and the yellow sun bright in his face as it touched the western horizon before him. He remembered how the yellow sun had been like the front sight of a rifle, set in the deepest V notch of the western hills-- But now, exactly a year later, it was not in the V notch. It was on the north side of the notch.
He looked to the east, at the blue sun. It seemed to him that it, too, was farther north than it had been although with it he had no landmark to check by.
But there was no doubt about the yellow sun: it was going south, as it should at that time of year, but it was lagging behind schedule. The only explanation Lake could think of was one that would mean still another threat to their survival; perhaps greater than all the others combined.
The yellow sun dropped completely behind the north slope of the V notch and he went on to the caves. He found Craig and Anders, the only two who might know anything about Ragnarok's axial tilts, and told them what he had seen.
"I made the calendar from the data John gave me," Anders said. "The Dunbar men made observations and computed the length of Ragnarok's year--I don't think they would have made any mistakes."
"If they didn't," Lake said, "we're in for something."
Craig was watching him, closely, thoughtfully. "Like the Ice Ages of Earth?" he asked.
Lake nodded and Anders said, "I don't understand."
"Each year the north pole tilts toward the sun to give us summer and away from it to give us winter," Lake said. "Which, of course, you know. But there can be still another kind of axial tilt. On Earth it occurs at intervals of thousands of years. The tilting that produces the summers and winters goes on as usual but as the centuries go by the summer tilt toward the sun grows less, the winter tilt away from it greater. The north pole leans farther and farther from the sun and ice sheets come down out of the north--an Ice Age. Then the north pole's progression away from the sun stops and the ice sheets recede as it tilts back toward the sun."
"I see," Anders said. "And if the same thing is happening here, we're going away from an ice age but at a rate thousands of times faster than on Earth."
"I don't know whether it's Ragnarok's tilt, alone, or if the orbits of the suns around each other add effects of their own over a period of years," Lake said. "The Dunbar Expedition wasn't here long enough to check up on anything like that."
"It seemed to me it was hotter this summer than last," Craig said. "Maybe only my imagination--but it won't be imagination in a few years if the tilt toward the sun continues."
"The time would come when we'd have to leave here," Lake said. "We'd have to go north up the plateau each spring. There's no timber there--nothing but grass and wind and thin air. We'd have to migrate south each fall."
"Yes ... migrate." Anders's face was old and weary in the harsh reflected light of the blue sun and his hair had turned almost white in the past year. "Only the young ones could ever adapt enough to go up the plateau to its north portion. The rest of us ... but we haven't many years, anyway. Ragnarok is for the young--and if they have to migrate back and forth like animals just to stay alive they will never have time to accomplish anything or be more than stone age nomads."
"I wish we could know how long the Big Summer will be that we're going into," Craig said. "And how long and cold the Big Winter, when Ragnarok tilts away from the sun. It wouldn't change anything--but I'd like to know."
"We'll start making and recording daily observations," Lake said. "Maybe the tilt will start back the other way before it's too late."
Fall seemed to come a little later that year. Craig went to the south as soon as the weather permitted but there were no minerals there; only the metal-barren hills dwindling in size until they became a prairie that sloped down and down toward the southern lowlands where all the creatures of Ragnarok spent the winter.
"I'll try again to the north when spring comes," Craig said. "Maybe that mountain on the plateau will have something."
Winter came, and Elaine died in giving him a son. The loss of Elaine was an unexpected blow; hurting more than he would ever have thought possible.
But he had a son ... and it was his responsibility to do whatever he could to insure the survival of his son and of the sons and daughters of all the others.
His outlook altered and he began to think of the future, not in terms of years to come but in terms of generations to come. Someday one of the young ones would succeed him as leader but the young ones would have only childhood memories of Earth. He was the last leader who had known Earth and the civilization of Earth as a grown man. What he did while he was leader would incline the destiny of a new race.
He would have to do whatever was possible for him to do and he would have to begin at once. The years left to him could not be many.
He was not alone; others in the caves had the same thoughts he had regarding the future even though none of them had any plan for accomplishing what they spoke of. West, who had held degrees in philosophy on Earth, said to Lake one night as they sat together by the fire: "Have you noticed the way the children listen when the talk turns to what used to be on Earth, what might have been on Athena, and what would be if only we could find a way to escape from Ragnarok?"
"I've noticed," he said.
"These stories already contain the goal for the future generations," West went on. "Someday, somehow, they will go to Athena, to kill the Gerns there and free the Terran slaves and reclaim Athena as their own."
He had listened to them talk of the interstellar flight to Athena as they sat by their fires and worked at making bows and arrows. It was only a dream they held, yet without that dream there would be nothing before them but the vision of generation after generation living and dying on a world that could never give them more than existence.
The dream was needed. But it, alone, was not enough. How long, on Earth, had it been from the Neolithic age to advanced civilization--how long from the time men were ready to leave their caves until they were ready to go to the stars?
Twelve thousand years.
There were men and women among the Rejects who had been specialists in various fields. There were a few books that had survived the trampling of the unicorns and others could be written with ink made from the black lance tree bark upon parchment made from the thin inner skin of unicorn hides.
The knowledge contained in the books and the learning of the Rejects still living should be preserved for the future generations. With the help of that learning perhaps they really could, someday, somehow, escape from their prison and make Athena their own.
He told West of what he had been thinking. "We'll have to start a school," he said. "This winter--tomorrow."
West nodded in agreement. "And the writings should be commenced as soon as possible. Some of the textbooks will require more time to write than Ragnarok will give the authors."
A school for the children was started the next day and the writing of the books began. The parchment books would serve two purposes. One would be to teach the future generations things that would not only help them survive but would help them create a culture of their own as advanced as the harsh environment and scanty resources of Ragnarok permitted. The other would be to warn them of the danger of a return of the Gerns and to teach them all that was known about Gerns and their weapons.
Lake's main contribution would be a lengthy book: TERRAN SPACESHIPS; TYPES AND OPERATION. He postponed its writing, however, to first produce a much smaller book but one that might well be more important: INTERIOR FEATURES OF A GERN CRUISER. Terran Intelligence knew a little about Gern cruisers and as second-in-command of the Constellation he had seen and studied a copy of that report. He had an excellent memory for such things, almost photographic, and he wrote the text and drew a multitude of sketches.
He shook his head ruefully at the result. The text was good but, for clarity, the accompanying illustrations should be accurate and in perspective. And he was definitely not an artist.
He discovered that Craig could take a pen in his scarred, powerful hand and draw with the neat precision of a professional artist. He turned the sketches over to him, together with the mass of specifications. Since it might someday be of such vital importance, he would make four copies of it. The text was given to a teen-age girl, who would make three more copies of it....
Four days later Schroeder handed Lake a text with some rough sketches. The title was: OPERATION OF GERN BLASTERS.
Not even Intelligence had ever been able to examine a Gern hand blaster. But a man named Schrader, on Venus, had killed a Gern with his own blaster and then disappeared with both infuriated Gerns and Gern-intimidated Venusian police in pursuit. There had been a high reward for his capture....
He looked it over and said, "I was counting on you giving us this."
Only the barest trace of surprise showed on Schroeder's face but his eyes were intently watching Lake. "So you knew all the time who I was?"
"Did anyone else on the Constellation know?"
"You were recognized by one of the ship's officers. You would have been tried in two more days."
"I see," Schroeder said. "And since I was guilty and couldn't be returned to Earth or Venus I'd have been executed on the Constellation." He smiled sardonically. "And you, as second-in-command, would have been my execution's master of ceremonies."
Lake put the parchment sheets back together in their proper order. "Sometimes," he said, "a ship's officer has to do things that are contrary to all his own wishes."
Schroeder drew a deep breath, his face sombre with the memories he had kept to himself.
"It was two years ago when the Gerns were still talking friendship to the Earth government while they shoved the colonists around on Venus. This Gern ... there was a girl there and he thought he could do what he wanted to her because he was a mighty Gern and she was nothing. He did. That's why I killed him. I had to kill two Venusian police to get away--that's where I put the rope around my neck."
"It's not what we did but what we do that we'll live or die by on Ragnarok," Lake said. He handed Schroeder the sheets of parchment. "Tell Craig to make at least four copies of this. Someday our knowledge of Gern blasters may be something else we'll live or die by."
The school and writing were interrupted by the spring hunting. Craig made his journey to the Plateau's snow-capped mountain but he was unable to keep his promise to prospect it. The plateau was perhaps ten thousand feet in elevation and the mountain rose another ten thousand feet above the plateau. No human could climb such a mountain in a 1.5 gravity.
"I tried," he told Lake wearily when he came back. "Damn it, I never tried harder at anything in my life. It was just too much for me. Maybe some of the young ones will be better adapted and can do it when they grow up."
Craig brought back several sheets of unusually transparent mica, each sheet a foot in diameter, and a dozen large water-clear quartz crystals.
"Float, from higher up on the mountain," he said. "The mica and crystals are in place up there if we could only reach them. Other minerals, too--I panned traces in the canyon bottoms. But no iron."
Lake examined the sheets of mica. "We could make windows for the outer caves of these," he said. "Have them double thickness with a wide air space between, for insulation. As for the quartz crystals...."
"Optical instruments," Craig said. "Binoculars, microscopes--it would take us a long time to learn how to make glass as clear and flawless as those crystals. But we have no way of cutting and grinding them."
Craig went to the east that fall and to the west the next spring. He returned from the trip to the west with a twisted knee that would never let him go prospecting again.
"It will take years to find the metals we need," he said. "The indications are that we never will but I wanted to keep on trying. Now, my damned knee has me chained to these caves...."
He reconciled himself to his lameness and confinement as best he could and finished his textbook: GEOLOGY AND MINERAL IDENTIFICATION.
He also taught a geology class during the winters. It was in the winter of the year four on Ragnarok that a nine-year-old boy entered his class; the silent, scar-faced Billy Humbolt.
He was by far the youngest of Craig's students, and the most attentive. Lake was present one day when Craig asked, curiously: "It's not often a boy your age is so interested in mineralogy and geology, Billy. Is there something more than just interest?"
"I have to learn all about minerals," Billy said with matter-of-fact seriousness, "so that when I'm grown I can find the metals for us to make a ship."
"And then?" Craig asked.
"And then we'd go to Athena, to kill the Gerns who caused my mother to die, and my grandfather, and Julia, and all the others. And to free my father and the other slaves if they're still alive."
"I see," Craig said.
He did not smile. His face was shadowed and old as he looked at the boy and beyond him; seeing again, perhaps, the frail blonde girl and the two children that the first quick, violent months had taken from him.
"I hope you succeed," he said. "I wish I was young so I could dream of the same thing. But I'm not ... so let's get back to the identification of the ores that will be needed to make a ship to go to Athena and to make blasters to kill Gerns after you get there."
Lake had a corral built early the following spring, with camouflaged wings, to trap some of the woods goats when they came. It would be an immense forward step toward conquering their new environment if they could domesticate the goats and have goat herds near the caves all through the year. Gathering enough grass to last a herd of goats through the winter would be a problem--but first, before they worried about that, they would have to see if the goats could survive the summer and winter extremes of heat and cold.
They trapped ten goats that spring. They built them brush sunshades--before summer was over the winds would have stripped the trees of most of their dry, brown leaves--and a stream of water was diverted through the corral.
It was all work in vain. The goats died from the heat in early summer, together with the young that had been born.
When fall came they trapped six more goats. They built them shelters that would be as warm as possible and carried them a large supply of the tall grass from along the creek banks; enough to last them through the winter. But the cold was too much for the goats and the second blizzard killed them all.
The next spring and fall, and with much more difficulty, they tried the experiment with pairs of unicorns. The results were the same.
Which meant they would remain a race of hunters. Ragnarok would not permit them to be herdsmen.
The years went by, each much like the one before it but for the rapid aging of the Old Ones, as Lake and the others called themselves, and the growing up of the Young Ones. No woman among the Old Ones could any longer have children, but six more normal, healthy children had been born. Like the first two, they were not affected by the gravity as Earth-born babies had been.
Among the Young Ones, Lake saw, was a distinguishable difference. Those who had been very young the day the Gerns left them to die had adapted better than those who had been a few years older.
The environment of Ragnarok had struck at the very young with merciless savagery. It had subjected them to a test of survival that was without precedent on Earth. It had killed them by the hundreds but among them had been those whose young flesh and blood and organs had resisted death by adapting to the greatest extent possible.
The day of the Old Ones was almost done and the future would soon be in the hands of the Young Ones. They were the ninety unconquerables out of what had been four thousand Rejects; the first generation of what would be a new race.
It seemed to Lake that the years came and went ever faster as the Old Ones dwindled in numbers at an accelerating rate. Anders had died in the sixth year, his heart failing him one night as he worked patiently in his crude little laboratory at carrying on the work started by Chiara to find a cure for the Hell Fever. Barber, trying to develop a strain of herbs that would grow in the lower elevation of the caves, was killed by a unicorn as he worked in his test plot below the caves. Craig went limping out one spring day on the eighth year to look at a new mineral a hunter had found a mile from the caves. A sudden cold rain blew up, chilling him before he could return, and he died of Hell Fever the same day.
Schroeder was killed by prowlers the same year, dying with his back to a tree and a bloody knife in his hand. It was the way he would have wanted to go--once he had said to Lake: "When my times comes I would rather it be against the prowlers. They fight hard and kill quick and then they're through with you. They don't tear you up after you're dead and slobber and gloat over the pieces, the way the unicorns do."
The springs came a little earlier each year, the falls a little later, and the observations showed the suns progressing steadily northward. But the winters, though shorter, were seemingly as cold as ever. The long summers reached such a degree of heat on the ninth year that Lake knew they could endure no more than two or three years more of the increasing heat.
Then, in the summer of the tenth year, the tilting of Ragnarok--the apparent northward progress of the suns--stopped. They were in the middle of what Craig had called Big Summer and they could endure it--just barely. They would not have to leave the caves.
The suns started their drift southward. The observations were continued and carefully recorded. Big Fall was coming and behind it would be Big Winter.
Big Winter ... the threat of it worried Lake. How far to the south would the suns go--how long would they stay? Would the time come when the plateau would be buried under hundreds of feet of snow and the caves enclosed in glacial ice?
There was no way he could ever know or even guess. Only those of the future would ever know.
On the twelfth year only Lake and West were left of the Old Ones. By then there were eighty-three left of the Young Ones, eight Ragnarok-born children of the Old Ones and four Ragnarok-born children of the Young Ones. Not counting himself and West, there were ninety-five of them.