Shann had no answer from the transport, only the continuing hum of a contact still open between the dome and the control cabin miles above Warlock. The Terran breathed slowly, deeply, felt the claws of the Throg bite his flesh as his chest expanded. Then, as if a knife slashed, the hum of that contact was gone. He had time to know a small flash of triumph. He had done it; he had aroused suspicion in the transport.
When the Throg officer clicked to the alien manning the landing beam, Shann's exultation grew. The must have accepted that cut in communication as normal; he was still expecting the Terran ship to drop neatly into his claws.
But Shann's respite was to be very short, only timed by a few breaths. The Throg at the riding beam was watching the indicators. Now he reported to his superior, who swung back to face the prisoner. Although Shann could read no expression on the beetle's face, he did not need any clue to the other's probable emotions. Knowing that his captive had somehow tricked him, the alien would now proceed relentlessly to put into effect the measures he had threatened.
How long before the patrol cruiser would planet? That crew was used to alarms, and their speed was three or four times greater than that of the bulkier transports. If the Throgs didn't scatter now, before they could be caught in one attack....
The wire rope which held Shann clamped to the chair was loosened, and he set his teeth against the pain of restored circulation, This was nothing compared to what he faced; he knew that. They jerked him to his feet, faced him toward the outer door, and propelled him through it with a speed and roughness indicative of their feelings.
The hour was close to dusk and Shann glanced wistfully at promising shadows, though he had given up hope of rescue by now. If he could just get free of his guards, he could at least give the beetle-heads a good run.
He saw that the camp was deserted. There was no sign about the domes that any Throgs sheltered there. In fact, Shann saw no aliens at all except those who had come from the com dome with him. Of course! The rest must be in ambush, waiting for the transport to planet. What about the Throg ship or ships? Those must have been hidden also. And the only hiding place for them would be aloft. There was a chance that the Throgs had so flung away their chance for any quick retreat.
Yes; the aliens could scatter over the countryside and so escape the first blast from the cruiser. But they would simply maroon themselves to be hunted down by patrol landing parties who would comb the territory. The beetles could so prolong their lives for a few hours, maybe a few days, but they were really ended on that moment when the transport cut communication. Shann was sure that the officer, at least, understood that.
The Terran was dragged away from the domes toward the river down which he and Thorvald had once escaped. Moving through the dusk in parallel lines, he caught sight of other Throg squads, well armed, marching in order to suggest that they were not yet alarmed. However, he had been right about the ships—there were no flyers grounded on the improvised field.
Shann made himself as much of a burden as he could. At the best, he could so delay the guards entrusted with his safekeeping; at the worst, he could earn for himself a quick ending by blaster which would be better than the one they had for him. He went limp, falling forward into the trampled grass. There was an exasperated click from the Throg who had been herding him, and the Terran tried not to flinch from a sharp kick delivered by a clawed foot.
Feigning unconsciousness, the Terran listened to the unintelligible clicks exchanged by Throgs standing over him. His future depended now on how deep lay the alien officer's anger. If the beetle-head wanted to carry out his earlier threats, he would have to order Shann's transportation by the fleeing force. Otherwise his life might well end here and now.
Claws hooked once more on Shann. He was boosted up on the horny carapace of a guard, the bonds on his arms taken off and his numbed hands brought forward, to be held by his captor so that he lay helpless, a cloak over the other's hunched shoulders.
The ghost flares of bushes and plants blooming in the gathering twilight gave a limited light to the scene. There was no way of counting the number of Throgs on the move. But Shann was sure that all the enemy ships must have been emptied except for skeleton crews, and perhaps others had been ferried in from their hidden base somewhere in Circe's system.
He could only see a little from his position on the Throg's back, but ahead a ripple of beetle bodies slipped over the bank of the river cut. The aliens were working their way into cover, fitting into the dapple shadows with a skill which argued a long practice in such elusive maneuvers. Did they plan to try to fight off a cruiser attack? That was pure madness. Or, Shann wondered, did they intend to have the Terrans met by one of their own major ships somewhere well above the surface of Warlock?
His bearer turned away from the stream cut, carrying Shann out into that field which had first served the Terrans as a landing strip, then offered the same service to the Throgs. They passed two more parties of aliens on the move, manhandling with them bulky objects the Terran could not identify. Then he was dumped unceremoniously to the hard earth, only to lie there a few seconds before he was flopped over on a framework which grated unpleasantly against his raw shoulders, his wrists and ankles being made fast so that his body was spread-eagled. There was a click of orders; the frame was raised and dropped with a jarring movement into a base, and he was held erect, once more facing the Throg with the translator. This was it! Shann began to regret every small chance he had had to end more cleanly. If he had attacked one of the guards, even with his hands bound, he might have flustered the Throg into retaliatory blaster fire.
Fear made a thicker fog about him than the green mist of the illusion. Only this was no illusion. Shann stared at the Throg officer with sick eyes, knowing that no one ever quite believes that a last evil will strike at him, that he had clung to a hope which had no existence.
The call burst in his head with a painful force. His dazed attention was outwardly on the alien with the translator, but that inner demand had given him a shock.
"Here! Thorvald? Where?"
The other struck in again with an urgent demand singing through Shann's brain.
"Give us a fix point—away from camp but not too far. Quick!"
A fix point—what did the Survey officer mean? A fix point.... For some reason Shann thought of the ledge on which he had lain to watch the first Throg attack. And the picture of it was etched on his mind as clearly as memory could paint it.
"Thorvald——" Again his voice and his mind call were echoes of each other. But this time he had no answer. Had that demand meant Thorvald and the Wyverns were moving in, putting to use the strange distance-erasing power the witches of Warlock could use by desire? But why had they not come sooner? And what could they hope to accomplish against the now scattered but certainly unbroken enemy forces? The Wyverns had not been able to turn their power against one injured Throg—by their own accounting—how could they possibly cope with well-armed and alert aliens in the field?
"You die—slow——" The Throg officer clicked, and the emotionless, toneless translation was all the more daunting for that lack of color. "Your people come—see——"
So that was the reason they had brought him to the landing field. He was to furnish a grisly warning to the crew of the cruiser. However, there the Throgs were making a bad mistake if they believed that his death by any ingenious method could scare off Terran retaliation.
"I die—you follow——" Shann tried to make that promise emphatic.
Did the Throg officer expect the Terran to beg for his life or a quick death? Again he made his threat—straight into the web, hearing it split into clicks.
"Perhaps," the Throg returned. "But you die the first."
"Get to it!" Shann's voice scaled up. He was close to the ragged edge, and the last push toward the breaking point had not been the Throg speech, but that message from Thorvald. If the Survey officer was going to make any move in the mottled dusk, it would have to be soon.
Mottled dusk.... The Throgs had moved a little away from him. Shann looked beyond them to the perimeter of the cleared field, not really because he expected to see any rescuers break from cover there. And when he did see a change, Shann thought his own sight was at fault.
Those splotches of waxy light which marked certain trees, bushes, and scrubby ground-hugging plants were spreading, running together in pools. And from those center cores of concentrated glow, tendrils of mist lazily curled out, as a many-armed creature of the sea might allow its appendages to float in the water which supported it. Tendrils crossed, met, and thickened. There was a growing river of eerie light which spread, again resembling a sea wave licking out onto the field. And where it touched, unlike the wave, it did not retreat, but lapped on. Was he actually seeing that? Shann could not be sure.
Only the gray light continued to build, faster now, its speed of advance matching its increase in bulk. Shann somehow connected it with the veil of illusion. If it was real, there was a purpose behind it.
There was an aroused clicking from the Throgs. A blaster bolt cracked, its spiteful, sickly yellow slicing into the nearest tongue of gray. But that luminous fog engulfed the blast and was not dispelled. Shann forced his head around against the support which held him. The mist crept across the field from all quarters, walling them in.
Running at the ungainly lope which was their best effort at speed were half a dozen Throgs emerging from the river section. Their attitude suggested panic-stricken flight, and when one tripped on some unseen obstruction and went down—to fall beneath a descending tongue of phosphorescence—he uttered a strange high-pitched squeal, thin and faint, but still a note of complete, mindless terror.
The Throgs surrounding Shann were firing at the fog, first with precision, then raggedly, as their bolts did nothing to cut that opaque curtain drawing in about them. From inside that mist came other sounds—noises, calls, and cries all alien to him, and perhaps also to the Throgs. There were shapes barely to be discerned through the swirls; perhaps some were Throgs in flight. But certainly others were non-Throg in outline. And the Terran was sure that at least three of those shapes, all different, had been in pursuit of one fleeing Throg, heading him off from that small open area still holding about Shann.
For the Throgs were being herded in from all sides—the handful who had come from the river, the others who had brought Shann there. And the action of the mist was pushing them into a tight knot. Would they eventually turn on him, wanting to make sure of their prisoner before they made a last stand against whatever lurked in the fog? To Shann's continued relief the aliens seemed to have forgotten him. Even when one cowered back against the very edge of the frame on which the Terran was bound, the beetle-head did not look at this helpless prey.
They were firing wildly, with desperation in every heavy thrust of bolt. Then one Throg threw down his blaster, raised his arms over his head, and voicing the same high wail uttered by his comrade-in-arms earlier, he ran straight into the mist where a shape materialized, closed in behind him, cutting him off from his fellows.
That break demoralized the others. The Throg commander burned down two of his company with his blaster, but three more broke past him to the fog. One of the remaining party reversed his blaster, swung the stock against the officer's carapace, beating him to his knees, before the attacker raced on into the billows of the mist. Another threw himself on the ground and lay there, pounding his claws against the baked earth. While a remaining two continued with stolid precision to fire at the lurking shapes which could only be half seen; and a third helped the officer to his feet.
The Throg commander reeled back against the frame, his musky body scent filling Shann's nostrils. But he, too, paid no attention to the Terran, though his horny arms scraped across Shann's. Holding both of his claws to his head, he staggered on, to be engulfed by a new arm of the fog.
Then, as if the swallowing of the officer had given the mist a fresh appetite, the wan light waved in a last vast billow over the clear area about the frame. Shann felt its substance cold, slimy, on his skin. This was a deadly breath of un-life.
He was weakened, sapped of strength, so that he hung in his bounds, his head lolling forward on his breast. Warmth pressed against him, a warm wet touch on his cold skin, a sensation of friendly concern in his mind. Shann gasped, found that he was no longer filling his lungs with that chill staleness which was the breath of the fog. He opened his eyes, struggling to raise his head. The gray light had retreated, but though a Throg blaster lay close to his feet, another only a yard beyond, there was no sign of the aliens.
Instead, standing on their hind feet to press against him in a demand for his attention, were the wolverines. And seeing them, Shann dared to believe that the impossible could be true; somehow he was safe.
He spoke. And Taggi and Togi answered with eager whines. The mist was withdrawing more slowly than it had come. Here and there things lay very still on the ground.
This time the call came not into his mind but out of the air. Shann made an effort at reply which was close to a croak.
A new shape in the fog was moving with purpose toward him. Thorvald strode into the open, sighted Shann, and began to run.
"What did they——?" he began.
Shann wanted to laugh, but the sound which issued from his dry throat was very little like mirth. He struggled helplessly until he managed to get out some words which made sense.
"... hadn't started in on me yet. You were just in time."
Thorvald loosened the wires which held the younger man to the frame and stood ready to catch him as he slumped forward. And the officer's hold wiped away the last clammy residue of the mist. Though he did not seem able to keep on his feet, Shann's mind was clear.
"What happened?" he demanded.
"The power." Thorvald was examining him hastily but with attention for every cut and bruise. "The beetle-heads didn't really get to work on you——"
"Told you that," Shann said impatiently. "But what brought that fog and got the Throgs?"
Thorvald smiled grimly. The ghostly light was fading as the fog retreated, but Shann could see well enough to note that around the other's neck hung one of the Wyvern disks.
"It was a variation of the veil of illusion. You faced your memories under the influence of that; so did I. But it would seem that the Throgs had ones worse than either of us could produce. You can't play the role of thug all over the galaxy and not store up in the subconscious a fine line of private fears and remembered enemies. We provided the means for releasing those, and they simply raised their own devils to order. Neatest justice ever rendered. It seems that the 'power' has a big kick—in a different way—when a Terran will manages to spark it."
"And you did?"
"I made a small beginning. Also I had the full backing of the Elders, and a general staff of Wyverns in support. In a way I helped to provide a channel for their concentration. Alone they can work 'magic'; with us they can spread out into new fields. Tonight we hunted Throgs as a united team—most successfully."
"But they wouldn't go after the one in the skull."
"No. Direct contact with a Throg mind appears to short-circuit them. I did the contacting; they fed me what I needed. We have the answer to the Throgs now—one answer." Thorvald looked back over the field where those bodies lay so still. "We can kill Throgs. Maybe someday we can learn another trick—how to live with them." He returned abruptly to the present. "You did contact the transport?"
Shann explained what had happened in the com dome. "I think when the ship broke contact that way they understood."
"We'll take it that they did, and be on the move." Thorvald helped Shann to his feet. "If a cruiser berths here shortly, I don't propose to be under its tail flames when it sets down."
The cruiser came. And a mop-up squad patrolled outward from the reclaimed camp, picked up two living Throgs, both wandering witlessly. But Shann only heard of that later. He slept, so deep and dreamlessly that when he roused he was momentarily dazed.
A Survey uniform—with a cadet's badges—lay across the wall seat facing his bunk in the barracks he had left ... how many days or weeks before? The garments fitted well enough, but he removed the insignia to which he was not entitled. When he ventured out he saw half a dozen troopers of the patrol, together with Thorvald, watching the cruiser lift again into the morning sky.
Taggi and Togi, trailing leashes, galloped out of nowhere to hurl themselves at him in uproarious welcome. And Thorvald must have heard their eager whines even through the blast of the ship, for he turned and waved Shann to join him.
"Where is the cruiser going?"
"To punch a Throg base out of this system," Thorvald answered. "They located it—on Witch."
"But we're staying on here?"
Thorvald glanced at him oddly. "There won't be any settlement now. But we have to establish a conditional embassy post. And the patrol has left a guard."
Embassy post. Shann digested that. Yes, of course, Thorvald, because of his close contact with the Wyverns, would be left here for the present to act as liaison officer-in-charge.
"We don't propose," the other was continuing, "to allow to lapse any contact with the one intelligent alien race we have discovered who can furnish us with full-time partnership to our mutual benefit. And there mustn't be any bungling here!"
Shann nodded. That made sense. As soon as possible Warlock would witness the arrival of another team, one slanted this time to the cultivation of an alien friendship and alliance, rather than preparation for Terran colonists. Would they keep him on? He supposed not; the wolverines' usefulness was no longer apparent.
"Don't you know your regulations?" There was a snap in Thorvald's demand which startled Shann. He glanced up, discovered the other surveying him critically. "You're not in uniform——"
"No, sir," he admitted. "I couldn't find my own kit."
"Where are your badges?"
Shann's hand went up to the marks left when he had so carefully ripped off the insignia.
"My badges? I have no rank," he replied, bewildered.
"Every team carries at least one cadet on strength."
Shann flushed. There had been one cadet on this team; why did Thorvald want to remember that?
"Also," the other's voice sounded remote, "there can be appointments made in the field—for cause. Those appointments are left to the discretion of the officer-in-charge, and they are never questioned. I repeat, you are not in uniform, Lantee. You will make the necessary alteration and report to me at headquarters dome. As sole representatives of Terra here we have a matter of protocol to be discussed with our witches, and they have a right to expect punctuality from a pair of warlocks, so get going!"
Shann still stood, staring incredulously at the officer. Then Thorvald's official severity vanished in a smile which was warm and real.
"Get going," he ordered once more, "before I have to log you for inattention to orders."
Shann turned, nearly stumbling over Taggi, and then ran back to the barracks in quest of some very important bits of braid he hoped he could find in a hurry.
STORM OVER WARLOCK
"A satisfying and mature novel which readers will seize upon if they want to enjoy a good adventure story.
"A survey base on a remote planet is wiped out by a raid of Earth's enemies, the Throgs; the only survivor must face the perils of an unexplored planet while trying somehow to strike back at the enemy....
"As always Norton creates both human and alien beings well, and tells a story that you can't stop reading."
—New York Herald Tribune
"UP TO NORTON'S BEST STANDARDS."
The Throg task force struck the Terran survey camp a few minutes after dawn, without warning, and with a deadly precision which argued that the aliens had fully reconnoitered and prepared that attack. Eye-searing lances of energy lashed back and forth across the base with methodical accuracy. And a single cowering witness, flattened on a ledge in the heights above, knew that when the last of those yellow-red bolts fell, nothing human would be left alive down there.
And so Shann Lantee, most menial of the Terrans attached to the camp on the planet Warlock, was left alone and weaponless in the strange, hostile world, the human prey of the aliens from space and the aliens on the ground alike.