The musty stench was so strong that Shann could no longer fight the demands of his outraged stomach. He rolled on his side, retching violently until the sour smell of his illness battled the foul odor of the ship. His memories of how he had come into this place were vague; his body was a mass of dull pain, as if he had been scorched. Scorched! Had the Throgs used one of their energy whips to subdue him? The last clear thing he could recall was that slow withdrawal down the cleft inside the skull rock, the Throg not too far away—the sound from the entrance.
A Throg prisoner! Through the pain and the sickness the horror of that bit doubly deep. Terrans did not fall alive into Throg hands, not if they had the means of ending their existence within reach. But his hands and arms were caught behind him in an unbreakable lock, some gadget not unlike the Terran force bar used to restrain criminals, he decided groggily.
The cubby in which he lay was black-dark. But the quivering of the deck and the bulkheads about him told Shann that the ship was in flight. And there could be but two destinations, either the camp where the Throg force had taken over the Terran installations or the mother ship of the raiders. If Thorvald's earlier surmise was true and the aliens were hunting a Terran to talk in the transport, then they were heading for the camp.
And because a man who still lives and who is not yet broken can also hope, Shann began to think ahead to the camp—the camp and a faint, thin chance of escape. For on the surface of Warlock there was a thin chance; in the mother ship of the Throgs none at all.
Thorvald—and the Wyverns! Could he hope for any help from them? Shann closed his eyes against the thick darkness and tried to reach out to touch, somewhere, Thorvald with his disk—or perhaps the Wyvern who had talked of Trav and shared dreams. Shann focused his thoughts on the young Wyvern witch, visualizing with all the detail he could summon out of memory the brilliant patterns about her slender arms, her thin, fragile wrists, those other designs overlaying her features. He could see her in his mind, but she was only a puppet, without life, certainly without power.
Thorvald.... Now Shann fought to build a mental picture of the Survey officer, making his stand at that window, grasping his disk, with the sun bringing gold to his hair and showing the bronze of his skin. Those gray eyes which could be ice, that jaw with the tight set of a trap upon occasion....
And Shann made contact! He touched something, a flickering like a badly tuned tri-dee—far more fuzzy than the mind pictures the Wyvern had paraded for him. But he had touched! And Thorvald, too, had been aware of his contact.
Shann fought to find that thread of awareness again. Patiently he once more created his vision of Thorvald, adding every detail he could recall, small things about the other which he had not known that he had noticed—the tiny arrow-shaped scar near the base of the officer's throat, the way his growing hair curled at the ends, the look of one eyebrow slanting abruptly toward his hairline when he was dubious about something. Shann strove to make a figure as vividly as Logally and Trav had been in the mist of the illusion.
This time Shann was prepared; he did not let that mind image dissolve in his excitement at recapturing the link. "Throg ship," he said the words aloud, over and over, but still he held to his picture of Thorvald.
Only that one word! The thread between them snapped again. Only then did Shann become conscious of a change in the ship's vibration. Were they setting down? And where? Let it be at the camp! It must be the camp!
There was no jar at that landing, just that one second the vibration told him the ship was alive and air-borne, and the next a dead quiet testified that they had landed. Shann, his sore body stiff with tension, waited for the next move on the part of his captors.
He continued to lie in the dark, still queasy from the stench of the cell, too keyed up to try to reach Thorvald. There was a dull grating over his head, and he looked up eagerly—to be blinded by a strong beam of light. Claws hooked painfully under his arms and he was manhandled up and out, dragged along a short passage and pitched free of the ship, falling hard upon trodden earth and rolling over gasping as the seared skin of his body was rasped and abraded.
The Terran lay face up now, and as his eyes adjusted to the light, he saw a ring of Throg heads blotting out the sky as they inspected their catch impassively. The mouth mandibles of one moved with a faint clicking. Again claws fastened in his armpits, brought Shann to his feet, holding him erect.
Then the Throg who had given that order moved closer. His hand-claws clasped a small metal plate surmounted by a hoop of thin wire over which was stretched a web of threads glistening in the sun. Holding that hoop on a level with his mouth, the alien clicked his mandibles, and those sounds became barely distinguishable basic galactic words.
"You Throg meat!"
For a moment Shann wondered if the alien meant that statement literally. Or was it a conventional expression for a prisoner among their land.
"Do as told!"
That was clear enough, and for the moment the Terran did not see that he had any choice in the matter. But Shann refused to make any sign of agreement to either of those two limited statements. Perhaps the beetle-heads did not expect any. The alien who had pulled him to his feet continued to hold him erect, but the attention of the Throg with the translator switched elsewhere.
From the alien ship emerged a second party. The Throg in their midst was unarmed and limping. Although to Terran eyes one alien was the exact counterpart of the other, Shann thought that this one was the prisoner in the skull cave. Yet the indications now suggested that he had only changed one captivity for another and was in disgrace among his kind. Why?
The Throg limped up to front the leader with the translator, and his guards fell back. Again mandibles clicked, were answered, though the sense of that exchange eluded Shann. At one point in the report—if report it was—he himself appeared to be under discussion, for the injured Throg waved a hand-claw in the Terran's direction. But the end to the conference came quickly enough and in a manner which Shann found shocking.
Two of the guards stepped forward, caught at the injured Throg's arms and drew him away, leading him out into a space beyond the grounded ship. They dropped their hold on him, returning at a trot. The officer clicked an order. Blasters were unholstered, and the Throg in the field shriveled under a vicious concentration of cross bolts. Shann gasped. He certainly had no liking for Throgs, but this execution carried overtones of a cold-blooded ferocity which transcended anything he had known, even in the callous brutality of the Dumps.
Limp, and more than a little sick again, he watched the Throg officer turn away. And a moment later he was forced along in the other's wake to the domes of the once Terran camp. Not just to the camp in general, he discovered a minute later, but to that structure which had housed the com unit linking them with ships cruising the solar lanes and with the patrol. So Thorvald had been right; they needed a Terran to broadcast—to cover their tracks here and lay a trap for the transport.
Shann had no idea how much time he had passed among the Wyverns; the transport with its load of unsuspecting settlers might already be in the system of Circe, plotting a landing orbit around Warlock, broadcasting her recognition signal and a demand for a beam to ride her in. Only, this time the Throgs were out of luck. They had picked up one prisoner who could not help them, even if he wanted to do so. The mysteries of the highly technical installations in this dome were just that to Shann Lantee—complete mysteries. He had not the slightest idea of how to activate the machines, let alone broadcast in the proper code.
A cold spot of terror gathered in his middle, spreading outward through his smarting body. For he was certain that the Throgs would not believe that. They would consider his protestations of ignorance as a stubborn refusal to co-operate. And what would happen to him then would be beyond human endurance. Could he bluff—play for time? But what would that time buy him except to delay the inevitable? In the end, that small hope based on his momentary contact with Thorvald made him decide to try that bluff.
There had been changes in the com dome since the capture of the cap. A squat box on the floor sprouted a collection of tubes from its upper surface. Perhaps that was some Throg equivalent of Terran equipment in place on the wide table facing the door.
The Throg leader clicked into his translator: "You call ship!"
Shann was thrust down into the operator's chair, his bound arms still twisted behind him so that he had to lean forward to keep on the seat at all. Then the Throg who had pushed him there, roughly forced a set of com earphones and speech mike onto his head.
"Call ship!" clicked the alien officer.
So time must be running out. Now was the moment to bluff. Shann shook his head, hoping that the gesture of negation was common to both their species.
"I don't know the code," he said aloud.
The Throg's bulbous eyes gazed, at his moving lips. Then the translator was held before the Terran's mouth. Shann repeated his words, heard them reissue as a series of clicks, and waited. So much depended now on the reaction of the beetle-head officer. Would he summarily apply pressure to enforce his order, or would he realize that it was possible that all Terrans did not know that code, and so he could not produce in a captive's head any knowledge that had never been there—with or without physical coercion?
Apparently the latter logic prevailed for the present. The Throg drew the translator back to his mandibles.
"When ship call—you answer—make lip talk your words! Say bad sickness here—need help. Code man dead—you talk in his place. I listen. You say wrong, you die—you die a long time. Hurt bad all that time——"
Clear enough. So he had been able to buy a little time! But how soon before the incoming ship would call? The Throgs seemed to expect it. Shann licked his blistered lips. He was sure that the Throg officer meant exactly what he said in that last grisly threat. Only, would anyone—Throg or human—live very long in this camp if Shann got his warning through? The transport would have been accompanied on the big jump by a patrol cruiser, especially now with Throgs littering deep space the way they were in this sector. Let Shann alert the ship, and the cruiser would know; swift punitive action would be visited on the camp. Throgs could begin to make their helpless prisoner regret his rashness; then all of them would be blotted out together, prisoner and captors alike, when the cruiser came in.
If that was his last chance, he'd play it that way. The Throgs would kill him anyhow, he hadn't the least doubt of that. They kept no long-term Terran prisoners and never had. And at least he could take this nest of devil beetles along with him. Not that the thought did anything to dampen the fear which made him weak and dizzy. Shann Lantee might be tough enough to fight his way out of the Dumps, but to stand up and defy Throgs face-to-face like a video hero was something else. He knew that he could not do any spectacular act; if he could hold out to the end without cracking he would be satisfied.
Two more Throgs entered the dome. They stalked to the far end of the table which held the com equipment, and frequently pausing to consult a Terran work tape set in a reader, they made adjustments to the spotter beam broadcaster. They worked slowly but competently, testing each circuit. Preparing to draw in the Terran transport, holding the large ship until they had it helpless on the ground. The Terran began to wonder how they proposed to take the ship over once they did have it on planet.
Transports were armed for ground fighting. Although they rode in on a beam broadcast from a camp, they were prepared for unpleasant surprises on a planet's surface; such were certainly not unknown in the history of Survey. Which meant that the Throgs had in turn some assault weapon they believed superior, for they radiated confidence now. But could they handle a patrol cruiser ready to fight?
The Throg technicians made a last check of the beam, reporting in clicks to the officer. The alien gave an order to Shann's guard before following them out. A loop of wire rope dropped over the Terran's head, tightened about his chest, dragging him back against the chair until he grunted with pain. Two more loops made him secure in a most uncomfortable posture, and then he was left alone in the com dome.
An abortive struggle against the wire rope taught him the folly of such an effort. He was in deep freeze as far as any bodily movement was concerned. Shann closed his eyes, settled to that same concentration he had labored to acquire on the Throg ship. If there was any chance of the Wyvern communication working again, here and now was the time for it!
Again he built his mental picture of Thorvald, as detailed as he had made it in the Throg ship. And with that to the forefront of his mind, Shann strove to pick up the thread which could link them. Was the distance between this camp and the seagirt city of the Wyverns too great? Did the Throgs unconsciously dampen out that mental reaching as the Wyverns had said they did when they had sent him to free the captive in the skull?
Drops gathered in the unkempt tight curls on his head, trickled down to sting on his tender skin. He was bathed in the moisture summoned by an effort as prolonged and severe as if he labored physically under a hot sun at the top speed of which his body was capable.
Thorvald! But not standing by the window in the Wyvern stronghold! Thorvald with the amethyst of heavy Warlockian foliage at his back. So clear was the new picture that Shann might have stood only a few feet away. Thorvald there, with the wolverines at his side. And behind him sun glinted on the gem-patterned skin of more than one Wyvern.
That demand from the Survey officer, curt, clear—so perfect the word might have rung audibly through the dome.
"The camp!" Shann hurled that back, frantic with fear than once again their contact might fail.
"They want me to call in the transport." He added that.
"Don't know. They have the guide beam set. I'm to say there's illness here; they know I can't code."
All he could see now was Thorvald's face, intent, the officer's eyes cold sparks of steel, bearing the impress of a will as implacable as a Throg's. Shann added his own decision.
"I'll warn the ship off; they'll send in the patrol."
There was no change in Thorvald's expression. "Hold out as long as you can!"
Cold enough, no promise of help, nothing on which to build hope. Yet the fact that Thorvald was on the move, away from the Wyvern city, meant something. And Shann was sure that thick vegetation could be found only on the mainland. Not only was Thorvald ashore, but there were Wyverns with him. Could the officer have persuaded the witches of Warlock to foresake their hands-off policy and join him in an attack on the Throg camp? No promise, not even a suggestion that the party Shann had envisioned was moving in his direction. Yet somehow he believed that they were.
There was a sound from the doorway of the dome. Shann opened his eyes. There were Throgs entering, one to go to the guide beam, two heading for his chair. He closed his eyes again in a last attempt, backed by every remaining ounce of his energy and will.
"Ship's in range. Throgs here."
Thorvald's face, dimmer now, snapped out while a blow on Shann's jaw rocked his head cruelly, made his ears sing, his eyes water. He saw Throgs—Throgs only. And one held the translator.
A tri-jointed arm reached across his shoulder, triggered a lever, pressed a button. The head set cramping his ear let out a sudden growl of sound—the com was . A claw jammed the mike closer to Shann's lips, but also slid in range the webbed loop of the translator.
Shann shook his head at the incoming rattle of code. The Throg with the translator was holding the other head set close to his own ear pit. And the claws of the guard came down on Shann's shoulders in a cruel grip, a threat of future brutality.
The rattle of code continued while Shann thought . This was it! He had to give a warning, and then the aliens would do to him just what the officer had threatened. Shann could not seem to think clearly. It was as if in his efforts to contact Thorvald, he had exhausted some part of his brain, so that now he was dazed just when he needed quick wits the most!
This whole scene had a weird unreality. He had seen its like a thousand times on fiction tapes—the Terran hero menaced by aliens intent on saving ... saving....
Was it out of one of those fiction tapes he had devoured in the past that Shann recalled that scrap of almost forgotten information?
The Terran began to speak into the mike, for there had come a pause in the rattle of code. He used Terran, not basic, and he shaped the words slowly.
"Warlock calling—trouble—sickness here—com officer dead."
He was interrupted by another burst of code. The claws of his guard twisted into the naked flesh of his shoulders in vicious warning.
"Warlock calling—" he repeated. "Need help——"
"Who are you?"
The demand came in basic. On board the transport they would have a list of every member of the Survey team.
"Lantee." Shann drew a deep breath. He was so conscious of those claws on his shoulders, of what would follow.
"This is Mayday!" he said distinctly, hoping desperately that someone in the control cabin of the ship now in orbit would catch the true meaning of that ancient call of complete disaster. "Mayday—beetles—over and out!"