"Where's Freckles?" he asked Jimmy.
"Here," someone said, and came forward with Tip's mate.
He set Freckles on his shoulder and the first searchlight came on, shining down from high up on the cruiser. It lighted up the area around them in harsh white brilliance, its reflection revealing the black shadow that was Sigyn just vanishing behind the ship.
Two more searchlights came on, to illuminate the town. Then the Gerns came.
They poured out through the airlock and down the ramp, there to form in columns that marched forward as still more Gerns hurried down the ramp behind them. The searchlights gleamed on their battle helmets and on the blades of the bayonets affixed to their rifle-like long range blasters. Hand blasters and grenades hung from their belts, together with stubby flame guns.
They were a solid mass reaching halfway to the stockade before the last of them, the commanding officers, appeared. One of them stopped at the foot of the ramp to watch the advance of the punitive force and give the frightened but faithful Tip the first words to transmit to Freckles: "The full force is on its way, Commander."
A reply came, in Freckles' simulation of the metallic tones of a communicator: "The key numbers of the confiscated blasters have been checked and the disturbance rays of the master integrator set. You'll probably have few natives left alive to take as prisoners after those thirteen charges explode but continue with a mopping up job that the survivors will never forget."
So the Gerns could, by remote control, set the total charges of stolen blasters to explode upon touching the firing stud? It was something new since the days of the Old Ones....
He called Chiara and the other groups, quickly, to tell them what he had learned. "We'll get more blasters--ones they can't know the numbers of--when we attack," he finished.
He took the blaster from his belt and laid it on the ground. The front ranks of the Gerns were almost to the wall by then, a column wider than the gap that had been blasted through it, coming with silent purposefulness.
Two blaster beams lanced down from the turrets, to smash at the wall. Dust billowed and thunder rumbled as they swept along. A full three hundred feet of the wall had been destroyed when they stopped and the dust hid the ship and made dim glows of the searchlights.
It had no doubt been intended to impress them with the might of the Gerns but in doing so it hid the Ragnarok forces from the advancing Gerns for a few seconds.
"Jim--black out their lights before the dust clears," he called. "Joe--the horn! We attack now!"
The first longbow arrow struck a searchlight and its glow grew dimmer as the arrow's burden--a thin tube of thick lance tree ink--splattered against it. Another followed---- Then the horn rang out, harsh and commanding, and in the distance a unicorn screamed in answer. The savage cry of a prowler came, like a sound to match, and the attack was on.
He ran with Fenrir beside him and to his left and right ran the others with their prowlers. The lead groups converged as they went through the wide gap in the wall. They ran on, into the dust cloud, and the shadowy forms of the Gerns were suddenly before them.
A blaster beam cut into them and a Gern shouted, "The natives!" Other beams sprang into life, winking like pale blue eyes through the dust and killing all they touched. The beams dropped as the first volley of arrows tore through the massed front ranks, to be replaced by others.
They charged on, into the blue winking of the blasters and the red lances of the flame guns with the crossbows rattling and strumming in answer. The prowlers lunged and fought beside them and ahead of them; black hell-creatures that struck the Gerns too swiftly for blasters to find before throats were torn out; the sound of battle turned into a confusion of raging snarls, frantic shouts and dying screams.
A prowler shot past him to join Fenrir--Sigyn--and he felt Tip dart up to his shoulder. She made a sound of greeting in passing, a sound that was gone as her jaws closed on a Gern.
The dust cloud cleared a little and the searchlights looked down on the scene; no longer brilliantly white but shining through the red-black lance tree ink as a blood red glow. A searchlight turret slid shut and opened a moment later, the light wiped clean. The longbows immediately transformed it into a red glow.
The beam of one of the turret blasters stabbed down, to blaze a trail of death through the battle. It ceased as its own light revealed to the Gern commander that the Ragnarok forces were so intermixed with the Gern forces that he was killing more Gerns than Ragnarok men.
By then the fighting was so hand to hand that knives were better than crossbows. The Gerns fell like harvested corn; too slow and awkward to use their bayonets against the faster Ragnarok men and killing as many of one another as men when they tried to use their blasters and flame guns. From the rear there came the command of a Gern officer, shouted high and thin above the sound of battle: "Back to the ship--leave the natives for the ship's blasters to kill!"
The unicorns arrived then, to cut off their retreat.
They came twenty from the east and twenty from the west in a thunder of hooves, squealing and screaming in their blood lust, with prowlers a black wave going before them. They struck the Gerns; the prowlers slashing lanes through them while the unicorns charged behind, trampling them, ripping into them with their horns and smashing them down with their hooves as they vented the pent up rage of their years of confinement. On the back of each was a rider whose long spear flicked and stabbed into the throats and bellies of Gerns.
The retreat was halted and transformed into milling confusion. He led his own groups in the final charge, the prearranged wedge attack, and they split the Gern force in two.
The ship was suddenly just beyond them.
He gave the last command to Lake and Craig: "Now--into the ship!"
He scooped up a blaster from beside a fallen Gern and ran toward it. A Gern officer was already in the airlock, his face pale and strained as he looked back and his hand on the closing switch. He shot him and ran up the ramp as the officer's body rolled down it.
Unicorn hooves pounded behind him and twenty of them swept past, their riders leaping from their backs to the ramp. Twenty men and fifteen prowlers charged up the ramp as a warning siren shrieked somewhere inside the ship. At the same time the airlocks, operated from the control room, began to slide swiftly shut.
He was through first, with Fenrir and Sigyn. Lake and Craig, together with six men and four prowlers, squeezed through barely in time. Then the airlocks were closed and they were sealed in the ship.
Alarm bells added their sound to the shrieking of the siren and from the multiple-compartments shafts came the whir of elevators dropping with Gern forces to kill the humans trapped inside the ship.
They ran past the elevator shafts without pausing, light and swift in the artificial gravity that was only two-thirds that of Ragnarok. They split forces as long ago planned; three men and four prowlers going with Charley Craig in the attempt to take the drive room, Lake and the other three men going with him in the attempt to take the control room.
They found the manway ladder and began to climb, Fenrir and Sigyn impatiently crowding their heels.
There was nothing on the control room level and they ran down the short corridor that their maps had showed. They turned left, into the corridor that had the control room at its end, and into the concentrated fire of nine waiting Gerns.
Fenrir and Sigyn went into the Gerns, under their fire before they could drop the muzzles of their blasters, with an attack so vicious and unexpected that what would have been a certain and lethal trap for the humans was suddenly a fighting chance.
The corridor became an inferno of blaster beams that cracked and hissed as they met and crossed, throwing little chips of metal from the walls with snapping sounds and going through flesh with sounds like soft tappings. It was over within seconds, the last Gern down and one man still standing beside him, the blond and nerveless Lake.
Thomsen and Barber were dead and Billy West was bracing himself against the wall with a blaster hole through his stomach, trying to say something and sliding to the floor before it was ever spoken.
And Sigyn was down, blood welling and bubbling from a wound in her chest, while Fenrir stood over her with his snarling a raging scream as he swung his head in search of a still-living Gern.
Humbolt and Lake ran on, Fenrir raging beside them, and into the control room.
Six officers, one wearing the uniform of a commander, were gaping in astonishment and bringing up their blasters in the way that seemed so curiously slow to Humbolt. Fenrir, in his fury, killed two of them as Lake's blaster and his own killed three more.
The commander was suddenly alone, his blaster half lifted. Fenrir leaped at his throat and Humbolt shouted the quick command: "Disarm!"
It was something the prowlers had been taught in their training and Fenrir's teeth clicked short of the commander's throat while his paw sent the blaster spinning across the room.
The commander stared at them with his swarthy face a dark gray and his mouth still gaping.
"How--how did you do it?" he asked in heavily accented Terran. "Only two of you----"
"Don't talk until you're asked a question," Lake said.
"Only two of you...." The thought seemed to restore his courage, as sight of the ship had restored Narth's that night, and his tone became threatening. "There are only two of you and more guards will be here to kill you within a minute. Surrender to me and I'll let you go free----"
Lake slapped him across the mouth with a backhanded blow that snapped his head back on his shoulders and split his lip.
"Don't talk," he ordered again. "And never lie to us."
The commander spit out a tooth and held his hand to his bleeding mouth. He did not speak again.
Tip and Freckles were holding tightly to his shoulder and each other, the racing of their hearts like a vibration, and he touched them reassuringly.
"All right now--all safe now," he said.
He called Charley Craig. "Charley--did you make it?"
"We made it to the drive room--two of us and one prowler," Charley answered. "What about you?"
"Norman and I have the control room. Cut their drives, to play safe. I'll let you know as soon as the entire ship is ours."
He went to the viewscreen and saw that the battle was over. Chiara was letting the searchlight burn again and prowlers were being used to drive back the unicorns from the surrendering Gerns.
"I guess we won," he said to Lake.
But there was no feeling of victory, none of the elation he had thought he would have. Sigyn was dying alone in the alien corridor outside. Sigyn, who had nursed beside him and fought beside him and laid down her life for him....
"I want to look at her," he said to Lake.
Fenrir went with him. She was still alive, waiting for them to come back to her. She lifted her head and touched his hand with her tongue as he examined the wound.
It was not fatal--it need not be fatal. He worked swiftly, gently, to stop the bleeding that had been draining her life away. She would have to lie quietly for weeks but she would recover.
When he was done he pressed her head back to the floor and said, "Lie still, Sigyn girl, until we can come to move you. Wait for us and Fenrir will stay here with you."
She obeyed and he left them, the feeling of victory and elation coming to him in full then.
Lake looked at him questioningly as he entered the control room and he said, "She'll live."
He turned to the Gern commander. "First, I want to know how the war is going?"
"I----" The commander looked uncertainly at Lake.
"Just tell the truth," Lake said. "Whether you think we'll like it or not."
"We have all the planets but Earth, itself," the commander said. "We'll have it, soon."
"And the Terrans on Athena?"
"They're still--working for us there."
"Now," he said, "you will order every Gern in this ship to go to his sleeping quarters. They will leave their weapons in the corridors outside and they will not resist the men who will come to take charge of the ship."
The commander made an effort toward defiance: "And if I refuse?"
Lake answered, smiling at him with the smile of his that was no more than a quick showing of teeth and with the savage eagerness in his eyes.
"If you refuse I'll start with your fingers and break every bone to your shoulders. If that isn't enough I'll start with your toes and go to your hips. And then I'll break your back."
The commander hesitated, sweat filming his face as he looked at them. Then he reached out to switch on the all-stations communicator and say into it: "Attention, all personnel: You will return to your quarters at once, leaving your weapons in the corridors. You are ordered to make no resistance when the natives come...."
There was a silence when he had finished and Humbolt and Lake looked at each other, bearded and clad in animal skins but standing at last in the control room of a ship that was theirs: in a ship that could take them to Athena, to Earth, to the ends of the galaxy.
The commander watched them, on his face the blankness of unwillingness to believe.
"The airlocks--" he said. "We didn't close them in time. We never thought you would dare try to take the ship--not savages in animal skins."
"I know," Humbolt answered. "We were counting on you to think that way."
"No one expected any of you to survive here." The commander wiped at his swollen lips, wincing, and an almost child-like petulance came into his tone. "You weren't supposed to survive."
"I know," he said again. "We've made it a point to remember that."
"The gravity, the heat and cold and fever, the animals--why didn't they kill you?"
"They tried," he said. "But we fought back. And we had a goal--to meet you Gerns again. You left us on a world that had no resources. Only enemies who would kill us--the gravity, the prowlers, the unicorns. So we made them our resources. We adapted to the gravity that was supposed to kill us and became stronger and quicker than Gerns. We made allies of the prowlers and unicorns who were supposed to be our executioners and used them tonight to help us kill Gerns. So now we have your ship."
"Yes ... you have our ship." Through the unwillingness to believe on the commander's face and the petulance there came the triumph of vindictive anticipation. "The savages of Ragnarok have a Gern cruiser--but what can they do with it?"
"What can we do with it?" he asked, almost kindly. "We've planned for two hundred years what we can do with it. We have the cruiser and sixty days from now we'll have Athena. That will be only the beginning and you Gerns are going to help us do it."
For six days the ship was a scene of ceaseless activity. Men crowded it, asking questions of the Gern officers and crew and calmly breaking the bones of those who refused to answer or who gave answers that were not true. Prowlers stalked the corridors, their cold yellow eyes watching every move the Gerns made. The little mockers began roaming the ship at will, unable any longer to restrain their curiosity and confident that the men and prowlers would not let the Gerns harm them.
One mocker was killed then; the speckle-faced mocker that could repeat messages verbatim. It wandered into a storage cubicle where a Gern was working alone and gave him the opportunity to safely vent his hatred of everything associated with the men of Ragnarok. He broke its back with a steel bar and threw it, screaming, into the disposal chute that led to the matter converter. A prowler heard the scream and an instant later the Gern screamed; a sound that died in its making as the prowler tore his throat out. No more mockers were harmed.
One Ragnarok boy was killed. Three fanatical Gern officers stole knives from the galley and held the boy as hostage for their freedom. When their demands were refused they cut his heart out. Lake cornered them a few minutes later and, without touching his blaster, disemboweled them with their own knives. He smiled down upon them as they writhed and moaned on the floor and their moans were heard for a long time by the other Gerns in the ship before they died. No more humans were harmed.
They discovered that operation of the cruiser was relatively simple, basically similar to the operation of Terran ships as described in the text book the original Lake had written. Most of the operations were performed by robot mechanisms and the manual operations, geared to the slower reflexes of the Gerns, were easily mastered.
They could spend the forty-day voyage to Athena in further learning and practice so on the sixth day they prepared to depart. The unicorns had been given the freedom they had fought so well for and reconnaissance vehicles were loaned from the cruiser to take their place. Later there would be machinery and supplies of all kinds brought in by freighter ships from Athena.
Time was precious and there was a long, long job ahead of them. They blasted up from Ragnarok on the morning of the seventh day and went into the black sea of hyperspace.
By then the Gern commander was no longer of any value to them. His unwillingness to believe that savages had wrested his ship from him had increased until his compartment became his control room to him and he spent the hours laughing and giggling before an imaginary viewscreen whereon the cruiser's blasters were destroying, over and over, the Ragnarok town and all the humans in it.
But Narth, who had wanted to have them tortured to death for daring to resist capture, became very cooperative. In the control room his cooperation was especially eager. On the twentieth day of the voyage they let him have what he had been trying to gain by subterfuge: access to the transmitter when no men were within hearing distance.
After that his manner abruptly changed. Each day his hatred for them and his secret anticipation became more evident.
The thirty-fifth day came, with Athena five days ahead of them--the day of the execution they had let him arrange for them.
Stars filled the transdimensional viewscreen, the sun of Athena in the center. Humbolt watched the space to the lower left and the flicker came again; a tiny red dot that was gone again within a microsecond, so quickly that Narth in the seat beside him did not see it.
It was the quick peek of another ship; a ship that was running invisible with its detector screens up but which had had to drop them for an instant to look out at the cruiser. Not even the Gerns had ever been able to devise a polarized detector screen.
He changed the course and speed of the cruiser, creating an increase in gravity which seemed very slight to him but which caused Narth to slew heavily in his seat. Narth straightened and he said to him: "Within a few minutes we'll engage the ship you sent for."
Narth's jaw dropped, then came back up. "So you spied on me?"
"One of our Ragnarok allies did--the little animal that was sitting near the transmitter. They're our means of communication. We learned that you had arranged for a ship, en route to Athena, to intercept us and capture us."