"So you know?" Narth asked. He smiled, an unpleasant twisting of his mouth. "Do you think that knowing will help you any?"
"We expect it to," he answered.
"It's a battleship," Narth said. "It's three times the size of this cruiser, the newest and most powerful battleship in the Gern fleet. How does that sound to you?"
"It sounds good," he said. "We'll make it our flagship."
"Your flagship--your 'flagship'!" The last trace of pretense left Narth and he let his full and rankling hatred come through. "You got this cruiser by trickery and learned how to operate it after a fashion because of an animal-like reflex abnormality. For forty-two days you accidental mutants have given orders to your superiors and thought you were our equals. Now, your fool's paradise is going to end."
The red dot came again, closer, and he once more altered the ship's course. He had turned on the course analyzer and it clicked as the battleship's position was correlated with that of its previous appearance. A short yellow line appeared on the screen to forecast its course for the immediate future.
"And then?" he asked curiously, turning back to Narth.
"And then we'll take all of you left alive back to your village. The scenes of what we do to you and your village will be televised to all Gern-held worlds. It will be a valuable reminder for any who have forgotten the penalty for resisting Gerns."
The red dot came again. He punched the BATTLE STATIONS button and the board responded with a row of READY lights.
"All the other Gerns are by now in their acceleration couches," he said. "Strap yourself in for high acceleration maneuvers--we'll make contact with the battleship within two minutes."
Narth did so, taking his time as though it was something of little importance. "There will be no maneuvers. They'll blast the stern and destroy your drive immediately upon attack."
He fastened the last strap and smiled, taunting assurance in the twisted unpleasantness of it. "The appearance of this battleship has very much disrupted your plans to strut like conquering heroes among the slaves on Athena, hasn't it?"
"Not exactly," Humbolt replied. "Our plans are a little broader in scope than that. There are two new cruisers on Athena, ready to leave the shops ten days from now. We'll turn control of Athena over to the humans there, of course, then we'll take the three cruisers and the battleship back by way of Ragnarok. There we'll pick up all the Ragnarok men who are neither too old nor too young and go on to Earth. They will be given training en route in the handling of ships. We expect to find no difficulty in breaking through the Gern lines around Earth and then, with the addition of the Earth ships, we can easily capture all the Gern ships in the solar system."
"'Easily'!" Narth made a contemptuous sneer of the word. "Were you actually so stupid as to think that you biological freaks could equal Gern officers who have made a career of space warfare?"
"We'll far exceed them," he said. "A space battle is one of trying to keep your blaster beams long enough on one area of the enemy ship to break through its blaster shields at that point. And at the same time try to move and dodge fast enough to keep the enemy from doing the same thing to you. The ships are capable of accelerations up to fifty gravities or more but the acceleration limitator is the safeguard that prevents the ship from going into such a high degree of acceleration or into such a sudden change of direction that it would kill the crew.
"We from Ragnarok are accustomed to a one point five gravity and can withstand much higher degrees of acceleration than Gerns or any other race from a one gravity world. To enable us to take advantage of that fact we have had the acceleration limitator on this cruiser disconnected."
"Disconnected?" Narth's contemptuous regard vanished in frantic consternation. "You fool--you don't know what that means--you'll move the acceleration lever too far and kill us all!"
The red dot flicked on the viewscreen, trembled, and was suddenly a gigantic battleship in full view. He touched the acceleration control and Narth's next words were cut off as his diaphragm sagged. He swung the cruiser in a curve and Narth was slammed sideways, the straps cutting into him and the flesh of his face pulled lopsided by the gravity. His eyes, bulging, went blank with unconsciousness.
The powerful blasters of the battleship blossomed like a row of pale blue flowers, concentrating on the stern of the cruiser. A warning siren screeched as they started breaking through the cruiser's shields. He dropped the detector screen that would shield the cruiser from sight, but not from the blaster beams, and tightened the curve until the gravity dragged heavily at his own body.
The warning siren stopped as the blaster beams of the battleship went harmlessly into space, continuing to follow the probability course plotted from the cruiser's last visible position and course by the battleship's robot target tracers.
He lifted the detector screen, to find the battleship almost exactly where the cruiser's course analyzers had predicted it would be. The blasters of the battleship were blazing their full concentration of firepower into an area behind and to one side of the cruiser.
They blinked out at sight of the cruiser in its new position and blazed again a moment later, boring into the stern. He dropped the detector screen and swung the cruiser in another curve, spiraling in the opposite direction. As before, the screech of the alarm siren died as the battleship's blasters followed the course given them by course analyzers and target tracers that were built to presume that all enemy ships were acceleration-limitator equipped.
The cruiser could have destroyed the battleship at any time--but they wanted to capture their flagship unharmed. The maneuvering continued, the cruiser drawing closer to the battleship. The battleship, in desperation, began using the same hide-and-jump tactics the cruiser used but it was of little avail--the battleship moved at known acceleration limits and the cruiser's course analyzers predicted each new position with sufficient accuracy.
The cruiser made its final dash in a tightening spiral, its detector screen flickering on and off. It struck the battleship at a matched speed, with a thump and ringing of metal as the magnetic grapples fastened the cruiser like a leech to the battleship's side.
In that position neither the forward nor stern blasters of the battleship could touch it. There remained only to convince the commander of the battleship that further resistance was futile.
This he did with a simple ultimatum to the commander: "This cruiser is firmly attached to your ship, its acceleration limitator disconnected. Its drives are of sufficient power to thrust both ships forward at a much higher degree of acceleration than persons from one-gravity worlds can endure. You will surrender at once or we shall be forced to put these two ships into a curve of such short radius and at an acceleration so great that all of you will be killed."
Then he added, "If you surrender we'll do somewhat better by you than you did with the humans two hundred years ago--we'll take all of you on to Athena."
The commander, already sick from an acceleration that would have been negligible to Ragnarok men, had no choice.
His reply came, choked with acceleration sickness and the greater sickness of defeat: "We will surrender."
Narth regained consciousness. He saw Humbolt sitting beside him as before, with no Gern rescuers crowding into the control room with shouted commands and drawn blasters.
"Where are they?" he asked. "Where is the battleship?"
"We captured it," he said.
"You captured--a Gern battleship?"
"It wasn't hard," he said. "It would have been easier if only Ragnarok men had been on the cruiser. We didn't want to accelerate to any higher gravities than absolutely necessary because of the Gerns on it."
"You did it--you captured the battleship," Narth said, his tone like one dazed.
He wet his lips, staring, as he contemplated the unpleasant implications of it.
"You're freak mutants who can capture a battleship. Maybe you will take Athena and Earth from us. But"--the animation of hatred returned to his face--"What good will it do you? Did you ever think about that?"
"Yes," he said. "We've thought about it."
"Have you?" Narth leaned forward, his face shining with the malice of his gloating. "You can never escape the consequences of what you have done. The Gern Empire has the resources of dozens of worlds. The Empire will build a fleet of special ships, a force against which your own will be nothing, and send them to Earth and Athena and Ragnarok. The Empire will smash you for what you have done and if there are any survivors of your race left they will cringe before Gerns for a hundred generations to come.
"Remember that while you're posturing in your little hour of glory on Athena and Earth."
"You insist in thinking we'll do as Gerns would do," he said. "We won't delay to do any posturing. We'll have a large fleet when we leave Earth and we'll go at once to engage the Gern home fleet. I thought you knew we were going to do that. We're going to cripple and capture your fleet and then we're going to destroy your empire."
"Destroy the Empire--now?" Narth stared again, all the gloating gone as he saw, at last, the quick and inexorable end. "Now--before we can stop you--before we can have a chance?"
"When a race has been condemned to die by another race and it fights and struggles and manages somehow to survive, it learns a lesson. It learns it must never again let the other race be in position to destroy it. So this is the harvest you reap from the seeds you sowed on Ragnarok two hundred years ago.
"You understand, don't you?" he asked, almost gently. "For two hundred years the Gern Empire has been a menace to our survival as a race. Now, the time has come when we shall remove it."
He stood in the control room of the battleship and watched Athena's sun in the viewscreen, blazing like a white flame. Sigyn, fully recovered, was stretched out on the floor near him; twitching and snarling a little in her sleep as she fought again the battle with the Gerns. Fenrir was pacing the floor, swinging his black, massive head restlessly, while Tip and Freckles were examining with fascinated curiosity the collection of bright medals that had been cleaned out of the Gern commander's desk.
Lake and Craig left their stations, as impatient as Fenrir, and came over to watch the viewscreen with him.
"One day more," Craig said. "We're two hundred years late but we're coming in to the world that was to have been our home."
"It can never be, now," he said. "Have any of us ever thought of that--that we're different to humans and there's no human world we could ever call home?"
"I've thought of it," Lake said. "Ragnarok made us different physically and different in the way we think. We could live on human worlds--but we would always be a race apart and never really belong there."
"I suppose we've all thought about it," Craig said. "And wondered what we'll do when we're finished with the Gerns. Not settle down on Athena or Earth, in a little cottage with a fenced-in lawn where it would be adventure to watch the Three-D shows after each day at some safe, routine job."
"Not back to Ragnarok," Lake said. "With metals and supplies from other worlds they'll be able to do a lot there but the battle is already won. There will be left only the peaceful development--building a town at the equator for Big Winter, leveling land, planting crops. We could never be satisfied with that kind of a life."
"No," he said, and felt his own restlessness stir in protest at the thought of settling down in some safe and secure environment. "Not Athena or Earth or Ragnarok--not any world we know."
"How long until we're finished with the Gerns?" Lake asked. "Ten years? We'll still be young then. Where will we go--all of us who fought the Gerns and all of the ones in the future who won't want to live out their lives on Ragnarok? Where is there a place for us--a world of our own?"
"Where do we find a world of our own?" he asked, and watched the star clouds creep toward them in the viewscreen; tumbled and blazing and immense beyond conception.
"There's a galaxy for us to explore," he said. "There are millions of suns and thousands of worlds waiting for us. Maybe there are races out there like the Gerns--and maybe there are races such as we were a hundred years ago who need our help. And maybe there are worlds out there with things on them such as no man ever imagined.
"We'll go, to see what's there. Our women will go with us and there will be some worlds on which some of us will want to stay. And, always, there will be more restless ones coming from Ragnarok. Out there are the worlds and the homes for all of us."
"Of course," Lake said. "Beyond the space frontier ... where else would we ever belong?"
It was all settled, then, and there was a silence as the battleship plunged through hyperspace, the cruiser running beside her and their drives moaning and thundering as had the drives of the Constellation two hundred years before.
A voyage had been interrupted then, and a new race had been born. Now they were going on again, to Athena, to Earth, to the farthest reaches of the Gern Empire. And on, to the wild, unknown regions of space beyond.
There awaited their worlds and there awaited their destiny; to be a race scattered across a hundred thousand light-years of suns, to be an empire such as the galaxy had never known.
They, the restless ones, the unwanted and forgotten, the survivors.
THE TERRIBLE ANSWER.
By Arthur G. Hill
They came down to Mars ahead of the rest because Larkin had bought an unfair advantage-a copy of the Primary Report. There were seven of them, all varying in appearance, but with one thing in common; in the eyes of each glowed the greed for Empire. They came down in a flash of orange tail-fire and they looked first at the Martians.
"Green," marveled Evans. "What a queer shade of green!"
"Not important," Cleve, the psychologist, replied. "Merely a matter of pigmentation. White, yellow, black, green. It proves only that God loves variety."
"And lord how they grin!"
Cleve peered learnedly. "Doesn't indicate a thing. They were born with those grins. They'll die with them."
Of the seven strong men, Larkin exuded the most power. Thus, his role of leader was a natural one. No man would ever stand in front of Larkin. He said, "To hell with color or the shape of their mouths. What we're after lies inside. Come on. Let's set up a camp."
"For the time being," Cleve cautioned, "we must ignore them. Later-we know what to do. I'll give the nod."
They brought what they needed out of the ship. They brought the plastic tents, broke the small, attached cylinders, and watched the tents bulge up into living quarters. They set up the vapor condenser and it began filling the water tank from the air about them. They plugged a line into the ship and attached it to the tent-line. Immediately the gasses in the plastic tents began to glow and give off both light and heat.
They did many things while the Martians stood silently by with their arms hanging, their splay-feet flat on the ground, their slash-mouths grinning.
The seven sat down to their first meal under the Martian stars and while they ate the rich, delicate foods, they listened to the words of Larkin. "A new empire waiting to be built. A whole planet-virgin-new."
"Not new," Dane, the archeologist, said. "It's older than Earth. It's been worked before."
Larkin waved an impatient hand. "But hardly scratched. It can have risen and fallen a thousand times for all we care. The important thing is the vital ingredient of empire. Is it here? Can it be harnessed? Are we or are we not, on the threshold of wealth, splendor, and progress so great as to take away the breath?"
And as Larkin spoke, all seven men looked at the Martians; looked covertly while appearing to study the rolling plain and the purple ridges far away; the texture of the soil; the color of the sky; the food on their plates; the steaming fragrance of their coffee. They looked at all these things but they studied the Martians.
"Stupid-looking animals," Evans muttered. "Odd though. So like us-yet so different."
At first there had been only a handful of Martians to grin at the landing of the ship. Now they numbered over a hundred, their ranks augmented by stragglers who came to stare with their fellows in happy silence.
"The prospects are excellent," Cleve said. Then he jerked his attention back to Larkin from whom it had momentarily wandered. When Larkin spoke, one listened.
Larkin had been directing his words toward a young man named Smith. Smith had inherited a great deal of money which was fine. But Larkin wasn't too sure of his qualifications otherwise. "-the pyramids," Larkin was saying. "Would they have ever been built if the men up above-the men with vision-had had to worry about a payroll?"
Smith regarded the Martians with not quite the impersonal stare of the other six Earthlings. Once or twice he grinned back at them. "I'll grant the truth of what you say," he told Larkin, "but what good were the pyramids? They're something I could never figure."
Smith had a sardonic twist of mouth that annoyed Larkin. "Let's not quibble, man. I merely used the pyramids as an example. Call them Empire; call them any Empire on Earth from the beginning of known history and let's face facts."
"Facts?" Smith asked. He had been looking at a six-foot-six Martian, thinking what a magnificent specimen he was. If only they'd wipe off those silly grins.
"Yes, facts. The building must be done. It is a law of nature. Man must progress or not. And what empire can arise without free labor? Can we develop this planet at union scale? Impossible! Yet it's crying to be developed."
Cleve knocked the ashes off his cigar and frowned. Being a man of direct action, he inquired. "Do you want your money back, Smith?"
The latter shook his head. "Oh no! Don't get me wrong, gentlemen. I'm for empire first, last and always. And if we can lay the foundations of one on the backs of these stupid creatures, I'm for it."
"I still don't like your-"
"My outspoken manner? Don't give it a thought, old man. I just don't want to be all cloyed up with platitudes. If we're going to chain the children of Israel into the house of bondage, let's get on with it."
"I don't like your attitude," Larkin said stubbornly. "In the long run, it will benefit these people."
"Let's say, rather, that it may benefit their children. I doubt if these jokers will be around very long after we start cracking the whip."
Dane was stirred. "The whip," he murmured. "Symbol of empire." But nobody heard him. They were too busy listening to Larkin and Smith-and watching the Martians.
The Martians stood around grinning, waiting patiently for something to happen. Larkin's attitude toward them had changed again. First there had been curiosity. Then a narrow-eyed calculation; now he regarded them with contempt. The careful, studied checks and tests would be made of course. But Larkin, a man of sure instincts, had already made up his mind.