"It doesn't matter," Lake said. "It's served its purpose. We won't rebuild it."
George watched him questioningly.
"It's served its purpose," he said again. "It didn't let us forget that the Gerns will come again. But that isn't enough, now. The first signal won't reach Athena until the year two thirty-five. It will be the dead of Big Winter again then. They'll have to fight the Gerns with bows and arrows that the cold will make as brittle as glass. They won't have a chance."
"No," George said. "They won't have a chance. But what can we do to change it?"
"It's something I've been thinking about," he said. "We'll build a hyperspace transmitter and bring the Gerns before Big Winter comes."
"We will?" George asked, lifting his dark eyebrows. "And what do we use for the three hundred pounds of copper and five hundred pounds of iron we would have to have to make the generator?"
"Surely we can find five hundred pounds of iron somewhere on Ragnarok. The north end of the plateau might be the best bet. As for the copper--I doubt that we'll ever find it. But there are seams of a bauxite-like clay in the Western hills--they're certain to contain aluminum to at least some extent. So we'll make the wires of aluminum."
"The ore would have to be refined to pure aluminum oxide before it could be smelted," George said. "And you can't smelt aluminum ore in an ordinary furnace--only in an electric furnace with a generator that can supply a high amperage. And we would have to have cryolite ore to serve as the solvent in the smelting process."
"There's a seam of cryolite in the Eastern Hills, according to the old maps," said Lake. "We could make a larger generator by melting down everything we have. It wouldn't be big enough to power the hyperspace transmitter but it should be big enough to smelt aluminum ore."
George considered the idea. "I think we can do it."
"How long until we can send the signal?" he asked.
"Given the extra metal we need, the building of the generator is a simple job. The transmitter is what will take years--maybe as long as fifty."
"Can't anything be done to make it sooner?" he asked.
"I know," George said. "You would like for the Gerns to come while you're still here. So would every man on Ragnarok. But even on Earth the building of a hyperspace transmitter was a long, slow job, with all the materials they needed and all the special tools and equipment. Here we'll have to do everything by hand and for materials we have only broken and burned-out odds and ends. It will take about fifty years--it can't be helped."
Fifty years ... but that would bring the Gerns before Big Winter came again. And there was the rapidly increasing chance that a Gern cruiser would at any day intercept the first signals. They were already more than halfway to Athena.
"Melt down the generator," he said. "Start making a bigger one. Tomorrow men will go out after bauxite and cryolite and four of us will go up the plateau to look for iron."
Lake selected Gene Taylor, Tony Chiara and Steve Schroeder to go with him. They were well on their way by daylight the next morning, on the shoulder of each of them a mocker which observed the activity and new scenes with bright, interested eyes.
They traveled light, since they would have fresh meat all the way, and carried herbs and corn only for the mockers. Once, generations before, it had been necessary for men to eat herbs to prevent deficiency diseases but now the deficiency diseases, like Hell Fever, were unknown to them.
They carried no compasses since the radiations of the two suns constantly created magnetic storms that caused compass needles to swing as much as twenty degrees within an hour. Each of them carried a pair of powerful binoculars, however; binoculars that had been diamond-carved from the ivory-like black unicorn horn and set with lenses and prisms of diamond-cut quartz.
The foremost bands of woods goats followed the advance of spring up the plateau and they followed the woods goats. They could not go ahead of the goats--the goats were already pressing close behind the melting of the snow. No hills or ridges were seen as the weeks went by and it seemed to Lake that they would walk forever across the endless rolling floor of the plain.
Early summer came and they walked across a land that was green and pleasantly cool at a time when the vegetation around the caves would be burned brown and lifeless. The woods goats grew less in number then as some of them stopped for the rest of the summer in their chosen latitudes.
They continued on and at last they saw, far to the north, what seemed to be an almost infinitesimal bulge on the horizon. They reached it two days later; a land of rolling green hills, scarred here and there with ragged outcroppings of rock, and a land that climbed slowly and steadily higher as it went into the north.
They camped that night in a little vale. The floor of it was white with the bones of woods goats that had tarried too long the fall before and got caught by an early blizzard. There was still flesh on the bones and scavenger rodents scuttled among the carcasses, feasting.
"We'll split up now," he told the others the next morning.
He assigned each of them his position; Steve Schroeder to parallel his course thirty miles to his right, Gene Taylor to go thirty miles to his left, and Tony Chiara to go thirty miles to the left of Taylor.
"We'll try to hold those distances," he said. "We can't look over the country in detail that way but it will give us a good general survey of it. We don't have too much time left by now and we'll make as many miles into the north as we can each day. The woods goats will tell us when it's time for us to turn back."
They parted company with casual farewells but for Steve Schroeder, who smiled sardonically at the bones of the woods goats in the vale and asked: "Who's supposed to tell the woods goats?"
Tip, the black, white-nosed mocker on Lake's shoulder, kept twisting his neck to watch the departure of the others until he had crossed the next hill and the others were hidden from view.
"All right, Tip," he said then. "You can unwind your neck now."
"Unwind--all right--all right," Tip said. Then, with a sudden burst of energy which was characteristic of mockers, he began to jiggle up and down and chant in time with his movements, "All right all right all right all right----"
"Shut up!" he commanded. "If you want to talk nonsense I don't care--but don't say 'all right' any more."
"All right," Tip agreed amiably, settling down. "Shut up if you want to talk nonsense. I don't care."
"And don't slaughter the punctuation like that. You change the meaning entirely."
"But don't say all right any more," Tip went on, ignoring him. "You change the meaning entirely."
Then, with another surge of animation, Tip began to fish in his jacket pocket with little hand-like paws. "Tip hungry--Tip hungry."
Lake unbuttoned the pocket and gave Tip a herb leaf. "I notice there's no nonsensical chatter when you want to ask for something to eat."
Tip took the herb leaf but he spoke again before he began to eat; slowly, as though trying seriously to express a thought: "Tip hungry--no nonsensical."
"Sometimes," he said, turning his head to look at Tip, "you mockers give me the peculiar feeling that you're right on the edge of becoming a new and intelligent race and no fooling."
Tip wiggled his whiskers and bit into the herb leaf. "No fooling," he agreed.
He stopped for the night in a steep-walled hollow and built a small fire of dead moss and grass to ward off the chill that came with dark. He called the others, thinking first of Schroeder so that Tip would transmit to Schroeder's mocker: "Steve?"
"Here," Tip answered, in a detectable imitation of Schroeder's voice. "No luck."
He thought of Gene Taylor and called, "Gene?"
There was no answer and he called Chiara. "Tony--could you see any of Gene's route today?"
"Part of it," Chiara answered. "I saw a herd of unicorns over that way. Why--doesn't he answer?"
"Then," Chiara said, "they must have got him."
"Did you find anything today, Tony?" he asked.
"Nothing but pure andesite. Not even an iron stain."
It was the same kind of barren formation that he, himself, had been walking over all day. But he had not expected success so soon....
He tried once again to call Gene Taylor: "Gene ... Gene ... are you there, Gene?"
There was no answer. He knew there would never be.
The days became weeks with dismaying swiftness as they penetrated farther into the north. The hills became more rugged and there were intrusions of granite and other formations to promise a chance of finding metal; a promise that urged them on faster as their time grew shorter.
Twice he saw something white in the distance. Once it was the bones of another band of woods goats that had huddled together and frozen to death in some early blizzard of the past and once it was the bones of a dozen unicorns.
The nights grew chillier and the suns moved faster and faster to the south. The animals began to migrate, an almost imperceptible movement in the beginning but one that increased each day. The first frost came and the migration began in earnest. By the third day it was a hurrying tide.
Tip was strangely silent that day. He did not speak until the noon sun had cleared the cold, heavy mists of morning. When he spoke it was to give a message from Chiara: "Howard ... last report ... Goldie is dying ... pneumonia...."
Goldie was Chiara's mocker, his only means of communication--and there would be no way to tell him when they were turning back.
"Turn back today, Tony," he said. "Steve and I will go on for a few days more."
There was no answer and he said quickly, "Turn back--turn back! Acknowledge that, Tony."
"Turning back ..." the acknowledgment came. "... tried to save her...."
The message stopped and there was a silence that Chiara's mocker would never break again. He walked on, with Tip sitting very small and quiet on his shoulder. He had crossed another hill before Tip moved, to press up close to him the way mockers did when they were lonely and to hold tightly to him.
"What is it, Tip?" he asked.
"Goldie is dying," Tip said. And then again, like a soft, sad whisper, "Goldie is dying...."
"She was your mate.... I'm sorry."
Tip made a little whimpering sound, and the man reached up to stroke his silky side.
"I'm sorry," he said again. "I'm sorry as hell, little fellow."
For two days Tip sat lonely and silent on his shoulder, no longer interested in the new scenes nor any longer relieving the monotony with his chatter. He refused to eat until the morning of the third day.
By then the exodus of woods goats and unicorns had dwindled to almost nothing; the sky a leaden gray through which the sun could not be seen. That evening he saw what he was sure would be the last band of woods goats and shot one of them.
When he went to it he was almost afraid to believe what he saw.
The hair above its feet was red, discolored with the stain of iron-bearing clay.
He examined it more closely and saw that the goat had apparently watered at a spring where the mud was material washed down from an iron-bearing vein or formation. It had done so fairly recently--there were still tiny particles of clay adhering to the hair.
The wind stirred, cold and damp with its warning of an approaching storm. He looked to the north, where the evening had turned the gray clouds black, and called Schroeder: "Steve--any luck?"
"None," Schroeder answered.
"I just killed a goat," he said. "It has iron stains on its legs it got at some spring farther north. I'm going on to try to find it. You can turn back in the morning."
"No," Schroeder objected. "I can angle over and catch up with you in a couple of days."
"You'll turn back in the morning," he said. "I'm going to try to find this iron. But if I get caught by a blizzard it will be up to you to tell them at the caves that I found iron and to tell them where it is--you know the mockers can't transmit that far."
There was a short silence; then Schroeder said, "All right--I see. I'll head south in the morning."
Lake took a route the next day that would most likely be the one the woods goats had come down, stopping on each ridge top to study the country ahead of him through his binoculars. It was cloudy all day but at sunset the sun appeared very briefly, to send its last rays across the hills and redden them in mockery of the iron he sought.
Far ahead of him, small even through the glasses and made visible only because of the position of the sun, was a spot at the base of a hill that was redder than the sunset had made the other hills.
He was confident it would be the red clay he was searching for and he hurried on, not stopping until darkness made further progress impossible.
Tip slept inside his jacket, curled up against his chest, while the wind blew raw and cold all through the night. He was on his way again at the first touch of daylight, the sky darker than ever and the wind spinning random flakes of snow before him.
He stopped to look back to the south once, thinking, If I turn back now I might get out before the blizzard hits.
Then the other thought came: These hills all look the same. It I don't go to the iron while I'm this close and know where it is, it might be years before I or anyone else could find it again.
He went on and did not look back again for the rest of the day.
By midafternoon the higher hills around him were hidden under the clouds and the snow was coming harder and faster as the wind drove the flakes against his face. It began to snow with a heaviness that brought a half darkness when he came finally to the hill he had seen through the glasses.
A spring was at the base of it, bubbling out of red clay. Above it the red dirt led a hundred feet to a dike of granite and stopped. He hurried up the hillside that was rapidly whitening with snow and saw the vein.
It set against the dike, short and narrow but red-black with the iron it contained. He picked up a piece and felt the weight of it. It was heavy--it was pure iron oxide.
He called Schroeder and asked, "Are you down out of the high hills, Steve?"
"I'm in the lower ones," Schroeder answered, the words coming a little muffled from where Tip lay inside his jacket. "It looks black as hell up your way."
"I found the iron, Steve. Listen--these are the nearest to landmarks I can give you...."
When he had finished he said, "That's the best I can do. You can't see the red clay except when the sun is low in the southwest but I'm going to build a monument on top of the hill to find it by."
"About you, Howard," Steve asked, "what are your chances?"
The wind was rising to a high moaning around the ledges of the granite dike and the vein was already invisible under the snow.
"It doesn't look like they're very good," he answered. "You'll probably be leader when you come back next spring--I told the council I wanted that if anything happened to me. Keep things going the way I would have. Now--I'll have to hurry to get the monument built in time."
"All right," Schroeder said. "So long, Howard ... good luck."