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   Chapter 3 TO CLOSE RANKS

Storm Over Warlock By Andre Norton Characters: 17694

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03


Shann made his way at an angle to avoid the smoking pit cradling the wreckage of the Terran ship. There were no signs of life about the Throg plate as he approached. A quarter of its bulk was telescoped back into the rest, and surely none of the aliens could have survived such a smash, tough as they were reputed to be with those horny carapaces serving them in place of more vulnerable human skin.

He sniffed. There was a nauseous odor heavy on the morning air, one which would make a lasting impression on any human nose. The port door in the black ship stood open, perhaps having burst in the impact against the cliff. Shann had almost reached it when a crackle of chain lightning beat across the ground before him, turning the edge of the buckled entrance panel red.

Shann dropped to the ground, drawing his stunner, knowing at the same moment that such a weapon was about as much use in meeting a blaster as a straw wand would be to ward off a blazing coal. A chill numbness held him as he waited for a second blast to charr the flesh between his shoulders. So there had been a Throg survivor, after all.

But as moments passed and the Throg did not move in to make an easy kill, Shann collected his wits. Only one shot! Was the beetle injured, unable to make sure of even an almost defenseless prey? The Throgs seldom took prisoners. When they did....

The Terran's lips tightened. He worked his hand under his prone body, feeling for the hilt of his knife. With that he could speedily remove himself from the status of Throg prisoner, and he would do it gladly if there was no hope of escape. Had there been only one charge left in that blaster? Shann could make half a dozen guesses as to why the other had made no move, but that shot had come from behind him, and he dared not turn his head or otherwise make an effort to see what the other might be doing.

Was it only his imagination, or had that stench grown stronger during the last few seconds? Could the Throg be creeping up on him? Shann strained his ears, trying to catch some sound he could interpret. The few clak-claks that had survived the blast about the ship were shrieking overhead, and Shann made one attempt at counterattack.

He whistled the wolverines' call. The pair had not been too willing to follow him down into this valley, and they had avoided the crater at a very wide circle. But if they would obey him now, he just might have a chance.

There! That had been a sound, and the smell was stronger. The Throg must be coming to him. Again Shann whistled, holding in his mind his hatred for the beetle-head, the need for finishing off that alien. If the animals could pick either thoughts or emotions out of their human companion, this was the time for him to get those unspoken half-orders across.

Shann slammed his hand hard against the ground, sent his body rolling, his stunner up and ready.

And now he could see that grotesque thing, swaying weakly back and forth on its thin legs, yet holding a blaster, bringing that weapon up to center it on him. The Throg was hunched over and perhaps to Taggi presented the outline of some four-footed creature to be hunted. For the wolverine male sprang for the horn-shelled shoulders.

Under that impact that Throg sagged forward. But Taggi, outraged at the nature of creature he had attacked, squalled and retreated. Shann had had his precious seconds of distraction. He fired, the core of the stun beam striking full into the flat dish of the alien's "face."

That bolt, which would have shocked a mammal into insensibility, only slowed the Throg. Shann rolled again, gaining a temporary cover behind the wrecked ship. He squirmed under metal hot enough to scorch his jacket and saw the reflection of a second blaster shot which had been fired seconds late.

Now the Throg had him tied down. But to get at the Terran the alien would have to show himself, and Shann had one chance in fifty, which was better than that of three minutes ago-when the odds had been set at one in a hundred. He knew that he could not press the wolverines in again. Taggi's distaste was too manifest; Shann had been lucky that the animal had made one abortive attack.

Perhaps the Terran's escape and Taggi's action had made the alien reckless. Shann had no clue to the thinking processes of the non-human, but now the Throg staggered around the end of the plate, his digits, which were closer to claws than fingers, fumbling with his weapon. The Terran snapped another shot from his stunner, hoping to slow the enemy down. But he was trapped. If he turned to climb the cliff at his back, the beetle-head could easily pick him off.

A rock hurtled from the heights above, striking with deadly accuracy on the domed, hairless head of the Throg. His armored body crashed forward, struck against the ship, and rebounded to the ground. Shann darted forward to seize the blaster, kicking loose the claws which still grasped it, before he flattened back to the cliff, the strange weapon over his arm, his heart beating wildly.

That rock had not bounded down the mountainside by chance; it had been hurled with intent and aimed carefully at its target. And no Throg would kill one of his fellows. Or would he? Suppose orders had been issued to take a Terran prisoner and the Throg by the ship had disobeyed? Then, why a rock and not a blaster bolt?

Shann edged along until the upslanted, broken side of the Throg flyer provided him with protection from any overhead attack. Under that shelter he waited for the next move from his unknown rescuer.

The clak-claks wheeled closer to earth. One lit boldly on the carapace of the inert Throg, shuffling ungainly along that horny ridge. Cradling the blaster, the Terran continued to wait. His patience was rewarded when that investigating clak-clak took off uttering an enraged snap or two. He heard what might be the scrape of boots across rock, but that might also have come from horny skin meeting stone.

Then the other must have lost his footing not too far above. Accompanied by a miniature landslide of stones and earth, a figure slid down several yards away. Shann waited in a half-crouch, his looted blaster covering the man now getting to his feet. There was no mistaking the familiar uniform, or even the man. How Ragnar Thorvald had reached that particular spot on Warlock or why, Shann could not know. But that he was there, there was no denying.

Shann hurried forward. It had been when he caught his first sight of Thorvald that he realized just how deep his unacknowledged loneliness had bit. There were two Terrans on Warlock now, and he did not need to know why. But Thorvald was staring back at him with the blankness of non-recognition.

"Who are you?" The demand held something close to suspicion.

That note in the other's voice wiped away a measure of Shann's confidence, threatened something which had flowered in him since he had struck into the wilderness on his own. Three words had reduced him again to Lantee, unskilled laborer.

"Lantee. I'm from the camp...."

Thorvald's eagerness was plain in his next question: "How many of you got away? Where are the rest?" He gazed past Shann up the plateau slope as if he expected to see the personnel of the camp sprout out of the cloak of grass along the verge.

"Just me and the wolverines," Shann answered in a colorless voice. He cradled the blaster on his hip, turned a little away from the officer.

"You ... and the wolverines?" Thorvald was plainly startled. "But ... where? How?"

"The Throgs hit very early yesterday morning. They caught the rest in camp. The wolverines had escaped from their cage, and I was out hunting them...." He told his story baldly.

"You're sure about the rest?" Thorvald had a thin steel of rage edging his voice. Almost, Shann thought, as if he could turn that blade of rage against one Shann Lantee for being yet alive when more important men had not survived.

"I saw the attack from an upper ridge," the younger man said, having been put on the defensive. Yet he had a right to be alive, hadn't he? Or did Thorvald believe that he should have gone running down to meet the beetle-heads with his useless stunner? "They used energy beams ... didn't land until it was all over."

"I knew there was something wrong when the camp didn't answer our enter-atmosphere signal," Thorvald said absently. "Then one of those platters jumped us on braking orbit, and my pilot was killed. When we set down on the automatics here I had just time to rig a surprise for any trackers before I took to the hills--"

"The blast got one of them," Shann pointed out.

"Yes, they'd nicked the booster rocket; she wouldn't climb again. But they'll be back here to pick over the remains."

Shann looked at the dead Throg. "Thanks for taking a ha

nd." His tone was as chill as the other's this time. "I'm heading south...."

And, he added silently, I intend to keep on that way. The Throg attack had dissolved the pattern of the Survey team. He didn't owe Thorvald any allegiance. And he had been successfully on his own here since the camp had been overrun.

"South," Thorvald repeated. "Well, that's as good a direction as any right now."

But they were not united. Shann found the wolverines and patiently coaxed and wheedled them into coming with him over a circuitous route which kept them away from both ships. Thorvald went up the cliff, swung down again, a supply bag slung over one shoulder. He stood watching as Shann brought the animals in.

Then Thorvald's arm swept out, his fingers closing possessively about the barrel of the blaster. Shann's own hold on the weapon tightened, and the force of the other's pull dragged him partly around.

"Let's have that--"

"Why?" Shann supposed that because it had been the other's well-aimed rock which had put the Throg out of commission permanently, the officer was going to claim their only spoils of war as personal booty, and a hot resentment flowered in the younger man.

"We don't take that away from here." Thorvald made the weapon his with a quick twist.

To Shann's utter astonishment, the Survey officer walked back to kneel beside the dead Throg. He worked the grip of the blaster under the alien's lax claws and inspected the result with the care of one arranging a special and highly important display. Shann's protest became vocal. "We'll need that!"

"It'll do us far more good right where it is...." Thorvald paused and then added, with impatience roughening his voice as if he disliked the need for making any explanations, "There is no reason for us to advertise our being alive. If the Throgs found a blaster missing, they'd start thinking and looking around. I want to have a breathing spell before I have to play quarry in one of their hunts."

Put that way, his action did make sense. But Shann regretted the loss of an arm so superior to their own weapons. Now they could not loot the plateship either. In silence he turned and started to trudge southward, without waiting for Thorvald to catch up with him.

Once away from the blasted area, the wolverines ranged ahead at their clumsy gallop, which covered ground at a surprising rate of speed. Shann knew that their curiosity made them scouts surpassing any human and that the men who followed would have ample warning of any danger to come. Without reference to his silent trail companion, he sent the animals toward another strip of woodland which would give them cover against the coming of any Throg flyer.

As the hours advanced he began to cast about for a proper night camp. The woods ought to give them a usable site.

"This is a water wood," Thorvald said, breaking the silence for the first time since they had left the wrecks.

Shann knew that the other had knowledge, not only of the general countryside, but of exploring techniques which he himself did not possess, but to be reminded of that fact was an irritant rather than a reassurance. Without answering, the younger man bored on to locate the water promised.

The wolverines found the small lake first and were splashing along its shore when the Terrans caught up. Thorvald went to work, but to Shann's surprise he did not unstrap the force-blade ax at his belt. Bending over a sapling, he pounded away with a stone at the green wood a few inches above the root line until he was able to break through the slender trunk. Shann drew his own knife and bent to tackle another treelet when Thorvald stopped him with an order: "Use a stone on that, the way I did."

Shann could see no reason for such a laborious process. If Thorvald did not want to use his ax, that was no reason that Shann could not put his heavy belt knife to work. He hesitated, ready to set the blade to the outer bark of the tree.

"Look-" again that impatient edge in the officer's tone, the need for explanation seeming to come very hard to the other-"sooner or later the Throgs might just trace us here and find this camp. If so, they are not going to discover any traces to label us Terran--"

"But who else could we be?" protested Shann. "There is no native race on Warlock."

Thorvald tossed his improvised stone ax from hand to hand.

"But do the Throgs know that?"

The implications, the possibilities, in that idea struck home to Shann. Now he began to understand what Thorvald might be planning.

"Now there is going to be a native race." Shann made a statement instead of a question and saw that the other was watching him with a new intentness, as if he had at last been recognized as a person instead of rank and file and very low rank at that-Survey personnel.

"There is going to be a native race," Thorvald affirmed.

Shann resheathed his knife and went to search the pond beach for a suitable stone to use in its place. Even so, he made harder work of the clumsy chopping than Thorvald had. He worried at one sapling after another until his hands were skinned and his breath came in painful gusts from under aching ribs. Thorvald had gone on to another task, ripping the end of a long tough vine from just under the powdery surface of the thick leaf masses fallen in other years.

With this the officer lashed together the tops of the poles, having planted their splintered butts in the ground, so that he achieved a crudely conical erection. Leafy branches were woven back and forth through this framework, with an entrance, through which one might crawl on hands and knees, left facing the lakeside. The shelter they completed was compact and efficient but totally unlike anything Shann had ever seen before, certainly far removed from the domes of the camp. He said so, nursing his raw hands.

"An old form," Thorvald replied, "native to a primitive race on Terra. Certainly the beetle-heads haven't come across its like before."

"Are we going to stay here? Otherwise it is pretty heavy work for one night's lodging."

Thorvald tested the shelter with a sharp shake. The matted leaves whispered, but the framework held.

"Stage dressing. No, we won't linger here. But it's evidence to support our play. Even a Throg isn't dense enough to believe that natives would make a cross-country trip without leaving evidence of their passing."

Shann sat down with a sigh he made no effort to suppress. He had a vision of Thorvald traveling southward, methodically erecting these huts here and there to confound Throgs who might not ever chance upon them. But already the Survey officer was busy with a new problem.

"We need weapons--"

"We have our stunners, a force ax, and our knives," Shann pointed out. He did not add, as he would have liked that they could have had a blaster.

"Native weapons," Thorvald countered with his usual snap. He went back to the beach and crawled about there, choosing and rejecting stones picked out of the gravel.

Shann scooped out a small pit just before their hut and set about the making of a pocket-sized fire. He was hungry and looked longingly now and again to the supply bag Thorvald had brought with him. Dared he rummage in that for rations? Surely the other would be carrying concentrates.

"Who taught you how to make a fire that way?" Thorvald was back from the pond, a selection of round stones about the size of his fist resting between his chest and his forearm.

"It's regulation, isn't it?" Shann countered defensively.

"It's regulation," Thorvald agreed. He set down his stones in a row and then tossed the supply bag over to his companion. "Too late to hunt tonight. But well have to go easy on those rations until we can get more."

"Where?" Did Thorvald know of some supply cache they could raid?

"From the Throgs," the other answered matter of factly.

"But they don't eat our kind of food...."

"All the more reason for them to leave the camp supplies untouched."

"The camp?"

For the first time Thorvald's lips curved in a shadow smile which was neither joyous nor warming. "A native raid on an invaders' camp. What could be more natural? And we'd better make it soon."

"But how can we?" To Shann what the other proposed was sheer madness.

"There was once an ancient service corps on Terra," Thorvald answered, "which had a motto something like this: 'The improbable we do at once; the impossible takes a little longer.' What did you think we were going to do? Sulk around out here in the bush and let the Throgs claim Warlock for one of their pirate bases without opposition?"

Since that was the only future Shann had visualized, he was ready enough to admit the truth, only some shade of tone in the officer's voice kept him from saying so aloud.

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