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 had 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 the 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."
"If only they don't come too soon," Craig said.
"That was the chance that had to be taken," he replied.
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.
It was winter of the year eighty-five and the temperature was one hundred and six degrees below zero. Walter Humbolt stood in front of the ice tunnel that led back through the glacier to the caves and looked up into the sky.
It was noon but there was no sun in the starlit sky. Many weeks before the sun had slipped below the southern horizon. For a little while a dim halo had marked its passage each day; then that, too, had faded away. But now it was time for the halo to appear again, to herald the sun's returning.
Frost filled the sky, making the stars flicker as it swirled endlessly downward. He blinked against it, his eyelashes trying to freeze to his lower eyelids at the movement, and turned to look at the north.
There the northern lights were a gigantic curtain that filled a third of the sky, rippling and waving in folds that pulsated in red and green, rose and lavender and violet. Their reflection gleamed on the glacier that sloped down from the caves and glowed softly on the other glacier; the one that covered the transmitter station. The transmitter had long ago been taken into the caves but the generator and waterwheel were still there, frozen in a tomb of ice.
For three years the glacier had been growing before the caves and the plateau's southern face had been buried under snow for ten years. Only a few woods goats ever came as far north as the country south of the caves and they stayed only during the brief period between the last snow of spring and the first snow of fall. Their winter home was somewhere down near the equator. What had been called the Southern Lowlands was a frozen, lifeless waste.
Once they had thought about going to the valley in the chasm where the mockers would be hibernating in their warm caves. But even if they could have gone up the plateau and performed the incredible feat of crossing the glacier-covered, blizzard-ripped Craigs, they would have found no food in the mockers' valley--only a little corn the mockers had stored away, which would soon have been exhausted.
There was no place for them to live but in the caves or as nomads migrating with the animals. And if they migrated to the equator each year they would have to leave behind them all the books and tools and everything that might someday have given them a civilized way of life and might someday have shown them how to escape from their prison.
He looked again to the south where the halo should be, thinking: They should have made their decision in there by now. I'm their leader--but I can't force them to stay here against their will. I could only ask them to consider what it would mean if we left here.
Snow creaked underfoot as he moved restlessly. He saw something lying under the blanket of frost and went to it. It was an arrow that someone had dropped. He picked it up, carefully, because the intense cold had made the shaft as brittle as glass. It would regain its normal strength when taken into the caves---- There was the sound of steps and Fred Schroeder came out of the tunnel, dressed as he was dressed in bulky furs. Schroeder looked to the south and said, "It seems to be starting to get a little lighter there."
He saw that it was; a small, faint paling of the black sky.
"They talked over what you and I told them," Schroeder said. "And about how we've struggled to stay here this long and how, even if the sun should stop drifting south this year, it will be years of ice and cold at the caves before Big Spring comes."
"If we leave here the glacier will cover the caves and fill them with ice," he said. "All we ever had will be buried back in there and all we'll have left will be our bows and arrows and animal skins. We'll be taking a one-way road back into the stone age, for ourselves and our children and their children."
"They know that," Schroeder said. "We both told them."
He paused. They watched the sky to the south turn lighter. The northern lights flamed unnoticed behind them as the pale halo of the invisible sun slowly brightened to its maximum. Their faces were white with near-freezing then and they turned to go back into the caves. "They had made their decision," Schroeder went on. "I guess you and I did them an injustice when we thought they had lost their determination, when we thought they might want to hand their children a flint axe and say, 'Here--take this and let it be the symbol of all you are or all you will ever be.'
"Their decision was unanimous--we'll stay for as long as it's possible for us to survive here."
Howard Lake listened to Teacher Morgan West read from the diary of Walter Humbolt, written during the terrible winter of thirty-five years before: "Each morning the light to the south was brighter. On the seventh morning we saw the sun--and it was not due until the eighth morning!
"It will be years before we can stop fighting the enclosure of the glacier but we have reached and passed the dead of Big Winter. We have reached the bottom and the only direction we can go in the future is up.
"And so," West said, closing the book, "we are here in the caves tonight because of the stubbornness of Humbolt and Schroeder and all the others. Had they thought only of their own welfare, had they conceded defeat and gone into the migratory way of life, we would be sitting beside grass campfires somewhere to the south tonight, our way of life containing no plans or aspirations greater than to follow the game back and forth through the years.
"Now, let's go outside to finish tonight's lesson."
Teacher West led the way into the starlit night just outside the caves, Howard Lake and the other children following him. West pointed to the sky where the star group they called the Athena Constellation blazed like a huge arrowhead high in the east.
"There," he said, "beyond the top of the arrowhead, is where we were going when the Gerns stopped us a hundred and twenty years ago and left us to die on Ragnarok. It's so far that Athena's sun can't be seen from here, so far that it will be another hundred and fifteen years before our first signal gets there. Why is it, then, that you and all the other groups of children have to learn such things as history, physics, the Gern language, and the way to fire a Gern blaster?"
The hand of every child went up. West selected eight-year-old Clifton Humbolt. "Tell us, Clifton," he said.
"Because," Clifton answered, "a Gern cruiser might pass by a few light-years out at any time and pick up our signals. So we have to know all we can about them and how to fight them because there aren't very many of us yet."
"The Gerns will come to kill us," little Marie Chiara said, her dark eyes large and earnest. "They'll come to kill us and to make slaves out of the ones they don't kill, like they did with the others a long time ago. They're awful mean and awful smart and we have to be smarter than they are."
Howard looked again at the Athena constellation, thinking, I hope they come just as soon as I'm old enough to fight them, or even tonight....
"Teacher," he asked, "how would a Gern cruiser look if it came tonight? Would it come from the Athena arrowhead?"
"It probably would," West answered. "You would see its rocket blast, like a bright trail of fire----"
A bright trail of fire burst suddenly into being, coming from the constellation of Athena and lighting up the woods and hills and their startled faces as it arced down toward them.
"It's them!" a treble voice exclaimed and there was a quick flurry of movement as Howard and the other older children shoved the younger children behind them.
Then the light vanished, leaving a dimming glow where it had been.
"Only a meteor," West said. He looked at the line of older children who were standing protectingly in front of the younger ones, rocks in their hands with which to ward off the Gerns, and he smiled in the way he had when he was pleased with them.
Howard watched the meteor trail fade swiftly into invisibility and felt his heartbeats slow from the first wild thrill to gray disappointment. Only a meteor....
But someday he might be leader and by then, surely, the Gerns would come. If not, he would find some way to make them come.
Ten years later Howard Lake was leader. There were three hundred and fifty of them then and Big Spring was on its way to becoming Big Summer. The snow was gone from the southern end of the plateau and once again game migrated up the valleys east of the caves.
There were many things to be done now that Big Winter was past and they could have the chance to do them. They needed a larger pottery kiln, a larger workshop with a wooden lathe, more diamonds to make cutting wheels, more quartz crystals to make binoculars and microscopes. They could again explore the field of inorganic chemistry, even though results in the past had produced nothing of value, and they could, within a few years, resume the metal prospecting up the plateau--the most important project of all.
Their weapons seemed to be as perfect as was possible but when the Gerns came they would need some quick and certain means of communication between the various units that would fight the Gerns. A leader who could not communicate with his forces and coordinate their actions would be helpless. And they had on Ragnarok a form of communication, if trained, that the Gerns could not detect or interfere with electronically: the mockers.
The Craigs were still white and impassable with snow that summer but the snow was receding higher each year. Five years later, in the summer of one hundred and thirty-five, the Craigs were passable for a few weeks.
Lake led a party of eight over them and down into the chasm. They took with them two small cages, constructed of wood and glass and made airtight with the strong medusabush glue. Each cage was equipped with a simple air pump and a pressure gauge.
They brought back two pairs of mockers as interested and trusting captives, together with a supply of the orange corn and a large amount of diamonds. The mockers, in their pressure-maintained cages, were not even aware of the increase in elevation as they were carried over the high summit of the Craigs.
To Lake and the men with him the climb back up the long, steep slope of the mountain was a stiff climb to make in one day but no more than that. It was hard to believe that it had taken Humbolt and Barber almost three days to climb it and that Barber had died in the attempt. It reminded him of the old crossbows that Humbolt and the others had used. They were thin, with a light pull, such as the present generation boys used. It must have required courage for the old ones to dare unicorn attacks with bows so thin that only the small area behind the unicorn's jaws was vulnerable to their arrows....
When the caves were reached, a very gradual reduction of pressure in the mocker cages was started; one that would cover a period of weeks. One pair of mockers survived and had two young ones that fall. The young mockers, like the first generation of Ragnarok-born children of many years before, were more adapted to their environment than their parents were.
The orange corn was planted, using an adaptation method somewhat similar to that used with the mockers. It might have worked had the orange corn not required such a long period of time in which to reach maturity. When winter came only a few grains had formed.
They were saved for next year's seeds, to continue the slow adaptation process.
By the fifth year the youngest generation of mockers was well adapted to the elevation of the caves but for a susceptibility to a quickly fatal form of pneumonia which made it necessary to keep them from exposing themselves to the cold or to any sudden changes of temperature.
Their intelligence was surprising and they seemed to be partially receptive to human thoughts, as Bill Humbolt had written. By the end of the fifteenth year their training had reached such a stage of perfection that a mocker would transmit or not transmit with only the unspoken thought of its master to tell it which it should be. In addition, they would transmit the message to whichever mocker their master's thought directed. Presumably all mockers received the message but only the mocker to whom it was addressed would repeat it aloud.
They had their method of communication. They had their automatic crossbows for quick, close fighting, and their long range longbows. They were fully adapted to the 1.5 gravity and their reflexes were almost like those of prowlers--Ragnarok had long ago separated the quick from the dead.
There were eight hundred and nineteen of them that year, in the early spring of one hundred and fifty, and they were ready and impatient for the coming of the Gerns.
Then the transmitter, which had been in operation again for many years, failed one day.
George Craig had finished checking it when Lake arrived. He looked up from his instruments, remarkably similar in appearance to a sketch of the old George Ord--a resemblance that had been passed down to him by his mother--and said: "The entire circuit is either gone or ready to go. It's already operated for a lot longer than it should have."