This etext was produced from Astounding Stories September 1932. Extensive research did not uncover any evidence that the U.S. copyright on this publication was renewed.
Slaves of Mercury
A Complete Novelette
By Nat Schachner
* * * * *
The Space Wanderer Returns
[Sidenote: Hilary returns to find alien diskoids in Earth's stratosphere, and out-world lords patrolling her cities.]
Hilary Grendon piloted his battered, time-worn space flier, the Vagabond, to the smiling Earth that rose rapidly to greet it. Only the instinctive ease of long practise prevented a smash-up, his hands trembled so at the controls.
Home again—the old familiar Earth! He could scarcely believe it! Perhaps it was only a dream, and he'd wake up among the unhuman glittering cylinders of Saturn, shuddering and crawling with the iciness of their fixed regard.
Hilary's eyes blurred with unaccustomed mistiness as he drank in the warm sunlight, the soft green of the grass and the gracious lines of the slender birches as they fluttered their leaves daintily in the unhurrying breeze. How different it all was from the harsh red angularities of Mars!
He was outside, breathing deeply, inhaling the perfumed air with delight. This was the only heaven; beyond—that far-flung immensity of planetary orbs—was hell! He, Hilary Grendon, the carefree, smiling skeptic of old, was a Fundamentalist now.
How long was it since they had started out on the first flight that man had taken into outer space—he and those stanch comrades? Five years? God! Had it been so long? Yet here he was, back on Earth again, the kindly, blessed Earth their eyes had clung to when they were fighting desperately for their lives against the protoplasmic things that inhabited Ganymede.
Hilary brushed a tear away as he thought of those brave, loyal friends. Dick lay as he fell on Saturn, transfixed by an icicle dart; Martin had been engulfed in an unholy maw on Ganymede; Dorn was a frozen idol to the spiral beings of Pluto; and poor Hurley, his fate was the worst of all: his hideously bloated body was swinging in an orbit around Mars, a satellite through all eternity.
He, Hilary Grendon, was the sole survivor of that tremendous Odyssey!
Hilary shook his head vigorously to clear away the flood of recollections. Enough that he had returned. Then a sudden eagerness surged through him, a joyous intensity of emotion. What a story he had to relate—how the Earth people would hang with bated breath upon his adventurings! And Joan—his heart gave a queer leap at the thought of that slender ardent wisp of a girl with her shining head and steady gray eyes. She had promised to wait for him, forever, if need be. She had said it simply, without heroics; yet Hilary knew then that she would keep her promise.
A rush of impatience succeeded the inaction of his memories. He must get to New York at once. He could not wait any longer. Joan first—then Amos Peabody, the venerable President of the United States—to report his return. He smiled at the stupefaction that would greet him. No doubt he had long been given up for dead. The world had been skeptical of the space ship he had invented; had, except for a faithful few, mocked at his plans. Indignantly he had taken his calculations, his blue prints of the spheroid, along with him. If the flight was a success, well and good; if not, they would not be worth much anyway.
In spite of his fever to be off, he carefully locked the controls, sealed the outer air-lock. Hilary Grendon was a methodical man: that was the reason he had survived.
Then he struck across country, walking very fast. He knew where he was: in the wilderness of the Ramapos, some forty miles from New York. Sooner or later, he reasoned, he would strike one of the radiating conveyors that led into the metropolis, or a human being that would set him on the right track.
* * * * *
A half hour's sturdy tramping brought him out of the tangled hills into civilization. There was a glitter of metal and vita-crystal dwellings that stood four-square to the sun and the winds. A broad ribbon-conveyor hurled its shining length in ceaseless rush down the narrow valley. Human beings—normal homely Earth men with the ordinary number of legs and arms, with honest-to-God faces and warm living flesh, were seated on the conveyor-benches as they flashed by. Hilary could have wept with delight. It was two years since he had seen his own kind; two years since Hurley's tragic misstep through the breach in the air-lock made by a meteor as they were nearing Mars.
Hilary leaped on the slow-moving ramp, skilfully worked his way across the graded speed belts until he was on the express conveyor that led straight on to New York.
He sank into a cushioned seat next to an oldish man with iron-gray hair through which the speed of their flight whipped and pulled. Hilary was bursting for real human conversation again; he grinned to himself at the excited astonishment of this impassive stranger if he should announce himself. How should he do it? Should he remark casually without any preamble: "Pardon me for addressing you, sir, but I'm Hilary Grendon, you know." Just like that, and lean back for the inevitable gasp: "What, not the Hilary Grendon!" And he would nod offhandedly as though he had just taken a little trip to Frisco and back.
He stole a sidelong glance at the sternly-etched profile. The man was staring straight in front of him, looking neither to the left nor to the right. It did not seem as if he were aware of Hilary's existence. So with a sigh Hilary decided against that method of approach as a trifle too abrupt.
"Nice day to-day, isn't it?" The sound of his own voice startled him. English was an alien language to his unaccustomed tongue after the hissing syllables of the Martians.
With pathetic eagerness he awaited the inevitable answer to this commonplace introduction; that he might once more hear normal Earth tones in friendly converse, see the smile of greeting on a real Earth face.
But there came no answer. The man continued staring straight ahead, immobile, fixed. There was no slightest turn to the etched profile. It was as if he had not heard.
* * * * *
Hilary felt a sudden surge of anger. Damn discourteous, this first Earthman he had met. What had happened to the old hospitality? Had it passed out while he was roaming the spaces? He leaned over, harsh words tumbling for exit, when suddenly he checked himself. There was something strange about that fierce blank stare. The man's face, too, he saw now, was lined and worn; suffering had left its multitudinous imprint upon an ordinarily rotund countenance.
Hilary shouted suddenly: "Good morning." The man did not answer, nor did he stir from his unvarying pose. Deaf! The returned Earthman suffered swift pity. With gentle forefinger he prodded the man.
The reaction was astounding. The man cowered like a pricked balloon; little strangling moans forced themselves out of clenched teeth. Dumb, too! His face jerked around to the direction of Hilary's gentle prodding. Merciful heavens, the man was blind also! Two vacant red-rimmed sockets stared pitifully at him—the eyeballs were gone, ripped out.
But what struck Hilary particularly was the mortal terror that was depicted on the blind man's face. It was as though he expected some cruel, crippling blow to follow; as though it were the last straw on the back of unmentionable former agonies. Hilary shuddered. It was not good to witness such animal fear. A dark shadow blotted out the brightness of the Earth-day for him. There was something wrong here, something that required a good deal of explanation.
* * * * *
His probing eyes went thoughtfully over the poor cowering wretch. Those careworn features were familiar, somehow. Where had he seen the man before? Suddenly he stiffened, choking an exclamation. The man was bound immovably to his seat. Thin metal links, almost invisible, encircled his feet; held the elbows taut against the fluted columns of the seat-back.
Hilary's space-tanned features hardened; the light gray of his eyes darkened. All the pleasure of his homecoming vanished. The kindly Earth seemed suddenly grown inimical. What had happened in the five long years of his absence? This would have been impossible on the Earth he had known; a man, manifestly the victim of hideous tortures, bound like a wild animal to the seat of a public conveyor.
He went swiftly into action. From the depths of a capacious pocket he fished a sheathed blade of stellite, triply keen; its razor-sharp edge sawed smoothly at the bonds.
In his mounting anger Hilary had paid no attention to the scattering of people occupying the cushioned chairs of the speeding conveyor. But a smothered nearby gasp caused his head to jerk up. He met the incredulous stare of a paunchy, heavy-jowled man seated some chairs away. There was more than incredulity, there was furtive fear in the small beady eyes sunken in folds of fat.
Hilary gave way to unreasoning anger.
"Stop looking like a stuck pig," he called sharply. "Give me a hand with this poor fellow."
The response was surprising. The man got up from his chair precipitately, stark panic written all over him. The sweat oozed from his shiny forehead as he backed cautiously away. He tripped over the edge of the seat behind, and fell. Once more he scrambled to his feet, and as if the fall had released his trembling muscles, he turned and ran, stumbling and dodging across the local conveyors, never once looking back.
* * * * *
Hilary watched his mad flight wonderingly. "Good Lord," he thought, "does my face frighten people so? Maybe I've turned into a Martian."
He turned to appeal to the others on the conveyor, and received another shock. The few men within earshot were already on their feet and moving away from there with unostentatious celerity. Hilary surveyed their receding backs thoughtfully. What was there about himself to frighten grown men out of their wits? Or was it the poor tortured wretch he was trying to release who was responsible for the exodus?
Already the express was almost clear. He saw the deserters throwing themselves guiltily into seats on the local belts, and then he was carried swiftly past. Only one man remained stubbornly in his seat, some fifteen rows back. He was a huge mountain of a man, a giant upon Earth, and there was a strangeness in his wide stare.
Hilary frowned, then shook his head, and dropped down to his task again. The blind man moaned and jerked as he felt the bite of stellite upon his fetters. Hilary made soothing sounds, forgetful that he could not hear, and worked steadily. There was a little clinking noise and the links that bound the arms fell apart. He attacked the leg shackles next.
There was a tap on Hilary's shoulder, light, electric, yet strangely heavy in its implications. Hilary turned his head sharply, saw the landscape blotted out by a huge overshadowing bulk. Five years in a hostile universe had made him cautious. He pivoted on his heels and rose in a single flowing motion, stellite blade ready for instant action.
The Strange Guard
There confronted him the hugest figure of a man he had ever seen. Hilary was not lacking in inches himself—he was well over six feet; but the giant staring quizzically down at him was nearer seven, with shoulders to match. The features of his face were gargantuan in their ruggedness, yet singularly open, while a pair of mild blue eyes, childlike in expression, looked in perpetual wonder out upon the world.
In spite of his annoyance, Hilary instinctively liked the giant.
"What do you want?" he inquired gruffly.
The Colossus surveyed him with his child's eyes.
"Man, you are crazy." He spoke in a deep bass rumble, without emotion or inflection. He was simply stating a fact.
A surge of annoyance swept over the returned wanderer from the far spaces. This was the last straw.
"I may be," he admitted coldly, "but I like my particular form of craziness."
"You know the penalty of course for what you are doing?" the big man inquired unemotionally.
Hilary swore deeply. "Damn the penalties, whatever you mean by that. Here's a man who has been tortured unmercifully—chained like a dog. I intend to free him."
The mild blue eyes contained the hint of a gleam.
"But you know the penalties," he repeated. His murmur sounded like the rumble of a distant earthquake.
Hilary straightened sharply, poked his finger at the midriff of the giant.
"I don't know what you are talking about," he stabbed. "What is the meaning of all this? Who is this unfortunate, and why did everyone disappear as though I had the plague when I sat next to him?"
* * * * *
A look of bewilderment swept over the massive face, bewilderment tinged with a dawning suspicion of the questioner's sanity.
"You mean to say you don't know?" The tone held incredulity.
"I've just told you so," Hilary pointed out. He felt a growing unease.
The giant eyed him closely. "Man, where on earth have you been these last three years?"
Hilary grinned. "I haven't."
"You haven't?" echoed the other. Suspicion hardened the childlike eyes into cold flame. The man was dangerous when aroused. He thrust his jaw down at Hilary. "If you are jesting with me...." He left the sentence unfinished, but the clenching of a huge fist left no doubt as to his intention.
"I am not jesting," Hilary assured him grimly. "I have been away from the Earth for five years. I've just returned."
The great hand clenched tighter. "Now I know you are crazy, or—Who are you?" he ended abruptly.
"Hilary Grendon—Hilary Grendon," rumbled the other in manifest perplexity. It was evident the name meant nothing to him.
This then was the homecoming he had dreamed of in the unfathomable reaches of space. Hilary thought bitterly. Five short years and he was already forgotten. Then the irony of it struck him, and he laughed aloud.
"Yes," he said. "Five years ago I led the Grendon Expedition to explore interplanetary space in the space-ship I had invented. I've come back—alone."
It was amazing to watch long-overlaid memories struggling up through the subconscious. At last the giant spoke.
"Oh, yes," he said meditatively, "I seem to remember something about it." He surveyed Hilary with a new interest. "So you were one of those chaps, eh?"
The explorer admitted it, humbly. Of such are the uses of fame.
"Well, now," said the giant, "that might explain it. Though it sure beats all." And he shook his head as though he still did not understand.
"Who is that man?" Hilary stabbed a forefinger at the blind man, who sat immobile as before, his worn etched face ever to the front. "It's monstrous. Amos Peabody shall hear of it."
The Colossus looked at him mildly.
"That," he said, "is Amos Peabody!"
* * * * *
Silence lay like a live thing between them. Hilary whirled in a kaleidoscope of emotion. Was this wasted, tortured being the portly, dignified President of the United States who had bade him Godspeed at the start of his tremendous journey five years before? His pitying eyes searched the lineaments of the poor wretch. There was no doubt of it now; it was Amos Peabody.
Hilary gripped his informant's arm. His voice was deadly calm. "I want the truth about this, and I want it fast."
"The truth," echoed the big man with strange laughter; "now that is something—"
His eyes widened over Hilary's shoulder. With a swiftness remarkable in one of his bulk he shook off Hilary's restraining grip, caught him by the shoulder and thrust him, all in one motion, into a chair several removed from Peabody. In a trice his huge bulk was safely ensconced in the adjoining one.
Hilary's hand went to the butt of the automatic within his blouse. The giant saw the movement. He leaned forward.
"Don't make a move," he warned, "the guard is coming."
"You'll see fast enough. Appear unconcerned if you value your life. Don't look back."
Hilary complied. His face became an expressionless mask as he lounged in his chair, but his thoughts seethed and boiled. What terrible mystery had enveloped the Earth during his absence? Why was Amos Peabody tortured and made into a public mockery?
There was a slight whirring noise behind him. Heedful of his companion's admonition he relaxed in apparent unconcern, but his hand stole once more to the fold in his blouse. His long fingers rested caressingly upon the butt of his automatic. There were still three good Earth bullets in the chamber.
The whirring ceased. There was a slight jar as of something landing on the speeding conveyor. Yet Hilary did not look back, though his grip tightened. A heavy body stumbled toward them, cursing in strange phrases. It passed from behind, came to a halt before the giant. Hilary shot a sharp glance upward from under veiled lids. An exclamation sprang full-throated to his lips, died unheard under a tremendous effort of his will.
* * * * *
Before them stood a being—it could not be called a man. He was no denizen of the Earth, that was evident, yet Hilary had visited all the planets outward from our own without encountering such a monster.
He hulked before them like a behemoth, even dwarfing Hilary's companion with his enormous stature; but it was noticeable that he supported his weight ill, as if Earth's gravitation was too strong for him. Manlike he was in every essential, but the skin of his face was a pasty dull gray, and ridged and furrowed with warty excrescences. Two enormous pink eyes, unlidded, but capable of being sheathed with a filmy membrane, stared down at them with manifest suspicion. A gray, three-fingered hand held an angled tube significantly. A lens gleamed transparent in the sunlight from the open end.
Hilary did not move under the stare, nor did his companion. The mild blue eyes were childlike as ever. The guard's gaze shifted from them to the trembling figure of Amos Peabody. He bent over him, thrust at him with ungentle hand. The automatic under Hilary's fingers crept farther out from the blouse, but a warning gesture from his companion stopped him.
The guard amused himself with shaking the blind man; then he bent suddenly. He had seen the broken links. With ominous deliberation he turned his vast weight upon them. His baleful pink eyes fastened upon Hilary's companion.
"You!" he growled throatily, "what do you know about this?" He spoke in English, but it was obviously not his native tongue.
Mildly innocent was the giant's face.
"I know nothing, Magnificent," he said humbly. "I am on my way to Great New York on my own insignificant affairs, and I bother my head with nothing else."
"The bonds of this dog, Peabody, have been severed," the guard insisted, "and recently, too. Speak up, Earthman, or—you know the penalty."
"I know the penalty," he answered respectfully, "but I have been seated here only five minutes, and I know nothing of this Peabody."
The guard fingered his tube.
"Let me see your tag," he said suddenly.
* * * * *
* * * * *
The other opened his blouse obediently and exposed a thin copper disk suspended on his chest. The guard tugged at it brutally to bring it within range of his vision. The pull jerked the giant's head forward, and the thin metal strand cut cruelly into the back of his neck. Hilary saw a flush of red sweep like a wave up to his forehead, and the mild blue eyes turned hard like glinting blue pebbles. But not a word escaped his lips.
"Grim Morgan," the guard read, "A46823 Great New York. Pah, what barbarous names you Earthmen have." He shoved the giant back heavily into his seat, and turned his baleful glare upon Hilary.
"You, what do you know about this?"
Grim Morgan interposed hastily. "Nothing, Magnificent. He came on the express conveyor after I did."
The guard's free hand went back. Very deliberately he struck him across the face with three ridged fingers. An angry welt raised.
"That will teach you to keep your mouth shut when not spoken to."
The big man's eyes were mild, but his hands tensed as though they were curled around a throat. He said nothing.
The guard turned to Hilary again. "Answer me," he barked.
"My friend told the truth," Grendon said simply.
"I have none."
Suspicion flared openly in the pink eyes.
"Where is it?"
"I never had one."
"Ah!" There was a world of meaning to the exhalation. "You know of course that every Earthman must be registered. The penalty for non-obedience is—death."
The angled tube came up with the swiftness of light. Grim Morgan cried out sharply, lunged out of his seat. Hilary tore at his gun, knowing sickeningly that the draw would be slower than the action of the strange weapon in the guard's hand.
There was a sneer on the monster as he pressed something on the tube. Hilary's automatic was only half out of his blouse. Grim's lunge would never reach in time. He was too far away.
The Death of Amos Peabody
Just how any inkling of what was happening penetrated the pain-swept consciousness of the blind and deaf President could never be determined. Possibly a thin repercussion of Grim's cry, possibly an intuition that comes to sense-bereft men. But he had jerked spasmodically erect. There was a sharp tinkling as the weakened leg links broke. He threw himself in a queer, awkward movement forward, directly in the path of the tubed weapon. A blinding beam flashed out of the orifice, sheared through Peabody's middle as though he were cut cleanly in half with a gigantic knife. He toppled in two sections to the floor of the conveyor—released from all humiliation, all suffering.
At the same time two other things happened. Grim Morgan hit the guard like a crashing thunderbolt and Hilary's gun barked once. The monster tottered under the impact. A puzzled expression flitted over his pinkish eyes, a filmy sheath spread over them like a veil, and he fell heavily, a neat bullet hole square between his eyes.
Hilary shoved the gun back in his blouse, and stared alternately at the huddled form of the grotesque being and all that remained of Amos Peabody. The old President had saved his life at the cost of his own. Instinctively his hand went up in formal salute to the gallant old man.
Grim Morgan shook him by the shoulder.
"Man," he said quietly, "we have killed a Mercutian guard. Within the hour we shall be dead men too."
Hilary looked up at him sharply.
"A Mercutian," he echoed. "You mean—"
"That for three years now the Earth has been a conquered province of these devils from Mercury," Grim interposed swiftly. "We have committed the unforgivable offense and must pay for it."
* * * * *
Hilary glanced swiftly around. The express conveyor was clear of passengers for over a hundred yards each way. All the people within range had cleared off when Hilary had attempted to release Peabody. The small figure of a man got up from his chair beyond the charmed circle, and was threading his way forward. The local conveyors seemed to be moving backward at graded speeds. Beyond was the open country, gradually thickening into scattered rows of crystal buildings. They were in the suburbs of Great New York. Within ten minutes the conveyor terminal would be reached.
Hilary's eyes flicked speculatively to the tiny cigar-shaped boat in which the dead guard had flown down to them. Its smooth gray-gleaming surface was devoid of wings or other lifting devices. Only a fan-shaped fin projected from the stern like the tail of a fish. The cockpit, if such it could be called, was tiny, just ample enough to accommodate the Mercutian's girth. The sunlight dazzled back from a bewildering jumble of tiny lenses inset in the instrument board. Arranged along the hull, on either side, were larger disks of the same quartz-like material.
"Let's get away in the flier," he said.
"Can't," Grim said. "Those lenses you see on the instrument board are the controls. No one knows how to operate them except the Mercutians. Our people managed to capture a few, but couldn't do a thing with them."
Hilary stared at the motionless flier with interest. "What are those round glass disks stretched along the hull in a double row?" he asked. "They look like burning glasses."
"That's just what they are," said Grim sadly. "The top row are sun-lenses, that throw a terrible ray for a distance of two to three hundred feet. Melts everything in its path—men trees, rocks even. You saw one in action in the sun-tube with which poor old Peabody was cut in half. The lower row of lenses on the flier are search beams."
"Search beams?" Hilary echoed inquiringly.
"Yes. They act like X-rays, more powerful though, and with the further property of rendering everything they touch transparently crystal for depths of ten to fifteen feet. Lead is the only element they can not penetrate. Another secret our scientists can not fathom, so they talk learnedly about the stream of rays polarizing the structure of matter along a uniaxis."
"Can't those lenses be duplicated, and turned as weapons against the Mercutians?"
"No. They are made of a peculiar vitreous material native to Mercury."
"And no one has found out the principle on which they work?"
"Well, there have been theories. We haven't many scientists left, you know. But the most popular one is that these lenses have the power of concentrating the rays of the sun to an almost infinite degree, and then spreading them out again, each individual beam with the concentrated energy of the whole. Some new way of rearranging quanta of energy."
"Hmm!" Hilary's brow was wrinkled. For a long moment he stared and thought.
* * * * *
At last he snapped back to their present situation: the dead guard at their feet, the dismembered body of Amos Peabody, the cowed groups of Earthmen on the speeding conveyors, keeping respectful distances.
"We'd better start moving if we want to get away," he said.
"It's no use." Grim spread his hands resignedly. "We'll have to take our medicine."
Hilary flared angrily. "You're talking nonsense. What's to prevent us from hopping to another platform? There is no other Mercutian in sight."
"No, but there were plenty of Earthmen who saw us."
"They won't tell."
"Oh, won't they?" Grim shook his head quietly. "You don't realize what has happened. Their spirit has been crushed until they are actually slavish in soul as well as in body. They fought bravely enough on the first invasion. Even after the conquest there were plenty of men looking for an opportunity to fight them again. Amos Peabody headed the revolt. It was smothered in blood, so effectually that only slaves are left. Peabody was left as a horrible warning. He was sent from city to city to be exhibited to the populace, unattended on the way, so confident were the Mercutians of the terror they had inspired."
"So you think those Earthmen who saw us will report to their masters," Hilary said slowly.
"I know it—they'll expect to curry favor in return."
Hilary felt a web of circumstance tighten around him. His jaw tautened. Thank the Lord he had been away—on his own. He had not the soul of a slave—yet.
"Won't you fight for your life?" he asked the big man curiously.
A spark lit in the mild blue eyes, died down.
"Yes if there were a chance," he said dully. "But there is none. The whole Earth is honeycombed with their guards. They have fliers, sun weapons, invisible search beams. We'd never elude them."
Hilary snorted impatiently. "We have good Earth brains, haven't we? I've traveled all the outer planets and never met any intelligence equal to that of a man, and I won't admit for a moment that the Mercutians are any exceptions."
A man stepped casually onto the express, took one startled look at the dead guard, at them, and fled precipitately back.
* * * * *
"Another one to spread the alarm," Morgan said grimly. "There'll be a dozen guards dropping down on us in the next five minutes."
"Let's get going then." Hilary was pulling the big man along by main force when he heard a movement in back of them. He stopped, whirled, automatic thrusting its blue nose forward.
The little man who had gotten up before on the express was pushing rapidly toward them.
"Stop." Hilary's voice was harsh with command.
But the little man did not heed. He literally stumbled in his haste, crying: "You've killed a Mercutian."
"What of it, my bantam?" Hilary inquired softly, the muzzle of his gun boring into a lean flat stomach. The little man was actually pressing against the automatic in his excitement.
"What of it?" he shrilled excitedly. "God, all this time I've been waiting to find someone with guts enough to smash one of them. Sir, I'm proud to shake your hand."
He reached over the wicked-looking muzzle, gripped Hilary's fist, still tight on the gun butt, and pumped vigorously. He dropped the hand, swerved on Grim.
"And you too, sir." His little fingers were engulfed in a mighty paw. "I saw it all, I tell you," he babbled. "We've got them on the run. We'll sweep the filthy devils clean off the Earth. We'll annihilate them."
"Whoa there, my little gamecock." Morgan grinned down at the excited little man. "One Mercutian doesn't make a Roman holiday. They're plenty more where he came from. You'd better clear out before they come, or you'll be included in the party."
The little fellow—he was not much more than five feet no inches tall—drew himself up to his full height. "What," he ejaculated, "me desert my friends? Wat Tyler's never had that said of him yet. We stick together, to hell and back again."
Hilary grinned as he slipped the weapon back into his blouse. He was beginning to like this little firebrand. In truth, Grim had rather fairly described him as a gamecock. His stature, the bristly red hair that flamed above a freckled face, the lightest of blue eyes that snapped with excitement, the peculiar strut of him.
"You'll do," he said briefly.
* * * * *
At a safe distance a crowd was gathering, a crowd of Earthmen. Grim surveyed them carefully. They were milling back and forth, but no one dared come closer. "Slaves," he grunted, "not a spark left in them." His eyes swept the heavens. Two faint black specks appeared in the blue distance, from the direction of Great New York.
"They're coming for us," he said quietly.
"Let them," crowed the fiery little bantam, "we'll meet them man to man."
He wrenched the tube from the stiffened fingers of the dead guard, swung it exultingly aloft.
"You little fool," Hilary cried sharply, and struck it down again. "We're not waiting for them. That's suicide. Come. I'm afraid it's too late for you to turn back now. You've been seen with us."
He dashed across the moving belts, Grim and Wat, a grotesquely assorted pair, directly behind him.
Passengers, men and women both, scattered at their approach, stark, servile fear smothering their dulled countenances. Cries arose on all sides. "The Magnificents are coming."
The black specks became larger, forming themselves into swift one-man fliers. The three men pelted across the graded conveyors as hard as they could run. No Earthman tried to stop them; one look at their grim faces would have been a most potent dissuader. And fortunately there were no Mercutians within hailing distance other than the rapidly nearing fliers.
They flung themselves off the last slow-moving platform, panting.
"Which way now?" Hilary asked. His quick eye raked the scene for possible hideouts. They were on a smoothly clipped lawn, heaving gently up to a pretty rambling structure, built on an antique design, pleasingly irregular and nestling to the ground as though it were indigenous to the soil. The walls were modern, though, of vita-crystal, which possessed the peculiar property of permitting all of the beneficial rays of the sun to penetrate, and yet presented a perfectly opaque appearance to the outside world.
No other hiding place was in sight. The lawn stretched smooth on all sides except for a scattering of trees—poor enough cover. The Mercutians were almost directly overhead now, preparing to swoop.
* * * * *
"Our only chance seems to be the house," Hilary answered his own question quietly.
Grim shook his head. "Their search beams can penetrate the vita-crystal walls as though they were transparent glass."
Hilary's heart sank. "Can't help it," he said laconically. "Come on."
The three men broke into a run. It was only a hundred yards, but the Mercutians were coming down fast. They had been seen. A flash as of molten metal gleamed overhead. A blinding ray leaped for the ground, struck viciously a little ahead of the running men. The velvet green grass crisped to ash; the soil underneath scorched.
"Scatter!" Hilary shouted.
Instantly the men spread out. Another blast hissed down at them, so close to Hilary that the heat seared his left side like a red-hot iron. The Mercutians were getting the range. Wat Tyler stopped short with a howl of defiance. He whipped the hand tube he had taken from the dead guard out of his blouse.
"Hide it, you fool!" Hilary yelled back at him. "We don't want them to known we are armed."
Wat obeyed reluctantly. He shook his fist high in the air, and started to run again. It was not an instant too soon, either. A beam slithered down the smoldering air, and the Earth literally boiled under its impact, directly on the spot where Wat had stopped to shake his fist. All about them the terrible rays were slashing now.
But a last desperate burst of speed carried the Earthmen onto a wide enclosed portico, in the old manner. Hilary pounded on the vita-crystal door. It was tightly locked.
* * * * *
"Step back a moment," Morgan rumbled.
Hilary obeyed. The big man spat thoughtfully upon his hands, worked his shoulders tentatively. Then he too retreated to the outermost edge of the portico. Above, the crystal suddenly shattered. Sharp-edged fragments showered down upon them. There was little time to waste.
Grim heaved forward in a slanting rush, right shoulder extended. He crashed into the locked door like a runaway train. There was a grinding noise, a smash of crystal, and his shoulder was through, incased in a halo of bright, sharp edges.
The big man staggered back, his shoulder streaming blood from a hundred cuts. His face was pale and drawn.
"Good fellow," Wat yelled, "even though you are an overgrown ox." He darted in behind the man-mountain like a twisting snake. His deft fingers reached in through the shattered crystal, pressed something on the inside. The door slid into its wall pocket with a sound of grinding glass.
Wat burst into the opened room first, Grim right behind him. Hilary brought up the rear, Grim's great bulk blotting out for the moment any view of the interior.
There was a sudden gasp—a girl's voice.
"Wh—What does this mean?" She was tremulous, yet unafraid.
Hilary stopped suddenly as though brought up against a solid wall. His heart pounded madly. That voice—but it was utterly impossible!
Wat answered, gallantly. "Sorry to annoy you, miss, but they're after us. My partner here's wounded."
"Oh, you poor man." There was quick sympathy in the clear tones. "But who is after you?"
A splintering crash resounded outside.
"The Mercutians, as you no doubt hear," the little man responded with faint irony.
The girl gasped again. "Oh my God!"
There was silence. Hilary strained his ears, yet took care to keep hidden behind Grim's huge frame. What would she do now? It seemed to him as if the whole world depended on her reply.
The girl broke the silence. She had come to a swift decision.
"They must not get you. Go upstairs, quietly, into the chamber on the left of the hall. It's my bedroom. Their search beams can not penetrate it; the walls are draped with lead-encrusted curtains. I'll stay down here and try to throw them off the trail."
Hilary's heart recommenced beating. A gush of joy overwhelmed him. The girl had proven herself.
Grim spoke, for the first time.
"You know the penalty of course, for hiding us."
She did not answer directly. "I can't help it. I can't surrender Earthmen to those beasts. Besides"—there was a catch in her voice—"it does not matter much since—"
Hilary stepped quietly from behind Grim's overshadowing bulk.
The girl's eyes went wide at the sight of him; her slender white hand flew to her throat. She looked as if she had seen a ghost.
"You—you!" she choked. "Hilary!"
* * * * *
She swayed and would have fallen, had Hilary not jumped to catch her. His heart was beating thickly with excess of emotion. Joan Robbins in his arms again—how he prayed for this moment in the icy reaches of interplanetary space. Yet what was she doing here in Bronxville? Her home had always been atop the windswept Robbins Building in Great New York.
Her hand went softly over his features, as though to assure herself that it was really he.
"Oh, my dear," she whispered brokenly. "I had almost given up all hope. Everyone was certain you were lost—long ago."
Whirrings sounded outside.
"Sorry to break up your reunion," Grim interrupted in his bass rumble, "but the Mercutians have landed on the lawn. They'll be in here right away."
Joan tore herself out of Hilary's arms. Her slim straight figure tautened; her velvet soft eyebrows puckered over deep-lit pools.
"Upstairs quickly, all of you," she cried. "I'll manage them somehow."
Hilary said quietly, "I won't leave you alone with those brutes. You go along up, and I'll remain here." The automatic gleamed in his hand.
"No, no," she panted, "you mustn't. You wouldn't have a chance. Leave it to me." She literally pushed them with her little hands to the stairway. "Go, if you love me."
"The girl's right," Grim said, "there's a chance. If not," he shrugged his shoulders, "we can always come down again."
Outside were heavy thuddings on the portico.
"You in there," a heavy alien voice resounded, "open or we blast our way in." The door had been slid back into position.
There was no room for further argument. Very reluctantly Hilary followed his companions up the winding stairway.
At the top of the stairs an entrance slide showed darker on the left. Wat fumbled for a moment until he found the button. The door whirred open, even as they heard Joan's clear voice below: "Come in, Magnificents!" There was a trampling of feet.
The Kidnapping of Joan
The Earthmen moved quickly and quietly into Joan's room. Thin, crinkly draperies of heavy silk impregnated with lead in colloidal solution, covered all the walls, the door itself. But Hilary shot no more than a cursory glance around; he had left the slide slightly ajar; he was listening intently. The gun was in his hand. There were only two bullets in the chambers—all that were left of the thousands of rounds the expedition had started out with. He must not waste them.
The thick rough voice of a Mercutian floated up from below.
"Three Earth slaves came in here. Where did they go?"
"They did," Joan admitted readily. "They frightened me out of my wits. I screamed and they ran through the house and out the back way."
The Mercutian was suspicious.
"Hmm. Funny there's no sign of a struggle here. Nothing is upset."
"They ran out the back way," the girl repeated tonelessly.
"We'll see; but if you are lying...." He said no more, but the pause was significant in its implications.
"I would not lie to the Magnificents."
"Not if you are wise." He seemed to be the leader. He evidently turned to his companion, for there issued a flood of throaty consonants to which the other grunted once. Then the listeners heard his heavy stamping as he walked through the house to the rear. A door whirred; he had gone out.
* * * * *
The remaining Mercutian said suddenly: "He won't find them."
"Why not?" Joan asked, a bit tremulously.
The Mercutian laughed harshly. "Because you lied. You've hid them in the house."
Hilary heard Joan's sudden sharp intake of breath.
"No, no, Magnificent," she cried.
The Mercutian laughed again—a hard cruel laugh. There was no mirth in it.
"All Earthwomen are liars. I know where you hid them. In your bed chamber. The trick is too old already. We may not be able to see through the lead curtains, but we can break down the door. I warned Artok not to permit the use of the lead curtains, but he has a soft streak. He listened to the women's pleadings for privacy. Privacy, pah! A cloak for conspiracies, that's all it comes to. When Gurda returns, we search upstairs and drag out your rats from their hole."
He laughed smugly, pleased with his own cleverness.
"It is not so." Strange how calm Joan sounded. "They are not in the house. Only my dying mother is here. She is bedded upstairs. The doctor ordered absolute quiet. The slightest noise would be fatal."
The Mercutian sneered. "We'll take a look at that dying mother of yours right now."
"You mustn't," the girl panted. "She will die, I tell you."
"And what does it matter to me?"
There was the sound of a struggle, a sharp cry, followed by a dull thud.
* * * * *
Hilary was out through the door like a flash, down the corridor to the head of the stairs with automatic extended. The monster Mercutian was coming heavily up the treads. They saw each other simultaneously.
The Mercutian's pink eyes turned a vicious red; the tube dangling in his hand jerked sharply up. Hilary squeezed the trigger. The gun barked. The Mercutian spun half around with the force of the tearing bullet. The deadly beam from his weapon slithered over the wall, searing a great molten gash in the crystal. He was badly hurt, but he did not fall. Howling with pain and rage, he slewed himself around again, pointed his sun weapon unsteadily upward.
Hilary let him have the other slug. The big body jerked, and fell backward with a crash to the bottom of the stairs, there to lie oddly contorted and still.
There was a thundering rush from the rear of the lower floor, a hoarse throaty cry. Hilary tore down the steps three at a time, Grim and Wat slithering behind him.
The other Mercutian was bending over Joan's semiconscious form, sweeping her into the crook of a huge arm. He shot a startled glance at the down-pouring Earthmen, swerved the girl around, and aimed his tube.
Hilary pulled the trigger as he swerved. There was a sharp click, but no explosion. Hilary cursed and threw himself down. He had forgotten that there were no more bullets. The speeding flash scorched overhead.
Grim and Wat crouched low. Wat's tube, the one he had wrested from the dead guard on the conveyor, was being slowly raised. The Mercutian saw it, shifted the inanimate girl in front of himself, and backed stealthily toward the splintered door.
"Don't shoot," Hilary cried sharply. "You'll kill Joan."
Wat lowered the tube disgustedly. Hilary groaned aloud. If only he had had one more bullet. There was enough of the gigantic body exposed to offer an excellent target to a steel slug without harming Joan, but the sun weapon sent out its beam in a flat spray.
The Mercutian sensed their dilemma as they crouched on the stairs. He laughed unpleasantly as he backed through the doorway, Joan's limp body held straight in front of him.
"Good-by, Earth slaves," he taunted. "I take your pretty Earth maiden with me. In five minutes I return, with others. You cannot escape. Good-by."
He jumped clumsily through the door. The crouching Earthmen heard a click. It had closed behind him.
* * * * *
Hilary and his companions cleared the stairs in almost a single bound. He had snatched the sun-tube out of Wat's hand. Through the splintered slide he saw the Mercutian climbing into his flier, but a great crystal column of the portico intervened. Nevertheless, while Wat fumbled for the button that released the slide, he took a chance. Every split second was precious now. He aimed the weapon, pressed the spring. A white dazzling ray darted fanwise from the orifice. It touched the column, fused it into molten, running glass. But the Mercutian was already in his seat, Joan limp beside him. He was fumbling at the controls.
The door slid open at last. Hilary shot through like a bullet from a rifle. The flier had already taken off on a long slanting rise. A three-fingered hand waved mockingly down at him. Hilary raised his weapon, then lowered it with a groan. The flier was well within range yet, but if he aimed the terrible beam at it, there would be a crash of fused twisted material, and—Joan was in it. What a dilemma! If he didn't shoot, she would be borne away—he dared not think to what horrible fate.
Grim's hand rested lightly on his shoulder as he watched the flier become a faint black speck in the direction of Great New York.
"She was your sweetheart." His gruff voice was oddly gentle.
Hilary brushed a weary hand over his forehead. The Earth, the universe itself, were suddenly dead, meaningless gobs of matter.
"Yes," he said tonelessly. "Five years ago she promised to wait for my return. She kept her word. I found her again—only to lose her."
Grim said quietly: "I too once loved a girl. I joined the last rebellion under Amos Peabody. The Mercutians threatened to seize the wives, sisters, sweethearts of the revolters if they persisted. Many of the men surrendered. I was one of those who refused. When the revolt was over, smothered in flame from their giant sun-tubes, I found that they had made good their threats. My girl was gone, vanished. Two Mercutians had taken her away. She was never found again."
He paused in brooding silence. "They are up to their old tricks again." His eyes were steely blue now. Hilary pressed his hand in silence. They were welded together by a common loss.
Wat Tyler broke in upon them. "If you fellows want to hang around here, I'll be on my way. That Mercutian hyena will be back here with a dozen others just like him in less than no time."
* * * * *
Hilary snapped out of his sorrow. He could not help Joan by having himself captured or killed, nor was it fair to Grim and Wat. They had placed themselves unquestioningly under his leadership. Something else too was growing into burning life in his mind. This was his Earth, his and Grim's and Wat's, and of millions of other normal human beings. The Mercutians were interlopers, brutal conquerors. He would devote his now otherwise meaningless life to driving them off the planet, wiping them out of the solar system. A tall order, yes, but not for nothing had he fought almost single-handed against those other monstrosities on other worlds: Martians, Ganymedans, Saturnians. The Mercutians were no stronger than they. Besides, there was Joan.
"Men," he said crisply, once more the clear-headed commander of his space expedition, "I intend to fight these Mercutian invaders until Earth is free once more, or—I am dead. I have no illusions about the magnitude of the job, of its practical hopelessness. But that does not mean that you two have to throw away your lives also. I am a marked man, without any identification tag. You on the other hand, can get away from here, mingle indistinguishably with the hordes of people in Great New York. You would be safe. Our ways part here, if you desire it so." He added hastily, "I would be the last to blame you."
Grim Morgan and Wat Tyler looked at each other, a great giant of a man and an undersized bantam. Yet some electric spark of sympathy seemed to dart between them, these so dissimilar beings.
Wat elected to be the spokesman. His voice rose shrilly, as it always did when he was laboring under stress of excitement or emotion.
"You won't blame us," he almost squeaked. "Who asked you? Damn it, haven't we consciences of our own? Are we quitters, yellow-bellied Mercutians to quit a pal? Are we, Grim Morgan? Speak, you big ox."
He wheeled abruptly and shook a small fist high in the air. It barely reached under Grim's nose. The big man looked down at the little gamecock unsmilingly.
"No, Wat Tyler, we are not," he said gravely.
Wat turned to Hilary triumphantly.
"There, you see," he crowed, "we stick together. We'll lick those Mercutian monsters; we'll sweep them into the ocean, into space. And what's more, we'll rescue your girl too." He stopped to catch his breath. Grim was nodding slowly. He had not the little man's exuberance. His girl could not be rescued any more, but he could remember.
Hilary's frozen heart warmed into life again. With loyal comrades such as these, even the impossible might be accomplished. Very quietly, without heroics, the three men shook hands. Nothing more, yet they knew that they were bound indissolubly together, as long as there was a gasp of breath in any of them.
* * * * *
Hilary's brain functioned with racing smoothness. In minutes the Mercutians would be back.
"We must find a secure hiding place at once," he said. "Know of any?"
Grim shook his head negatively. "There is none," he spoke slowly. "Their search beams penetrate everything."
"Except lead," Hilary interposed.
"Except lead," he conceded.
"Very well then. We shall have to find a place we can line with lead. In the meantime. I have my space flier up in the Ramapos. If it hasn't been discovered yet, it will be essential to our task. We'll have to get there quickly."
"How?" Wat asked,
"By the conveyors, of course."
"No good," the little man declared. "Mercutian guards will be patrolling them. You have no identification tag. You would be caught."
Hilary considered that. "Suppose you two go on along," he suggested. "Find it and wait for me. I'll manage somehow."
"No," they answered unanimously; "we go together or not at all."
Hilary did not try to argue. He would have replied himself in exactly the same terms. He looked longingly at the abandoned flier of the gray-faced Mercutian, lying cold and still within the house.
"If only we could operate the ship," he said.
Then, characteristically, he dismissed the vain longing and bent to the business in hand. "That means we'll have to make it on foot, and keep under cover all the way. Come on."
As the three men moved rapidly over the great lawn toward the nearest covert, a little wood a quarter of a mile away, the horizon that was Great New York showed silhouetted against the westering sun numerous little black dots. The Mercutians were coming.
Outlaws of Earth
Three days later three footsore, weary, hungry men skulked in the edge of the woods near a little clearing in the Ramapos. For three days they had ducked and dodged and literally burrowed into the ground by day, traveling only at night. Above and around them the noise of pursuit rolled. The Mercutians were persistent.
Speedy one-man fliers patrolled the airways, their search beams casting invisible rays in wide sweeping arcs over the uneven terrain. Wherever they touched, the ground sprang into vivid illumination, crystal clear to depths of ten to fifteen feet. Several times the crystal swath swept breathlessly close to the place where the fugitives crouched in covert. The conveyors carried back and forth armed companies of guards. The Mercutians were making a mighty effort to capture their prey.
But somehow the Earthmen had won through, and eager eyes searched the little glade. Hilary exhaled sharply. The Vagabond, stanch and faithful companion of all his travels, rested immovably on the deep green grass. It had escaped the questing eyes of the Mercutians. The travel lanes did not touch this secluded spot.
"So that's your space ship, eh?" said Grim, surveying the tarnished, pitted spheroid with something of awe.
"Yes," said Hilary lovingly as he unlocked the outer port side. A hasty glance around inside showed that nothing had been touched. Everything was orderly, methodical, just as he had left it.
Grim and Wat examined with interest the banked controls, the polarization apparatus that set up repulsion waves and literally kicked the ship out into space away from the planet against which it had been set.
"Time enough to inspect," Hilary warned them. "Never can tell when those damned Mercutians may spy on us."
* * * * *
He set the polarization controls so that the mere pulling of a switch would send the flier careening off into space. He surveyed the apple-pie order of the interior with vast satisfaction.
"Now let them come," he said, "the Vagabond can show anything that flies a clean pair of heels. Let's eat."
He dragged an aluminum box out of its locker, opened it to disclose a gray funguslike mass. He cut off huge slices and offered it to his companions.
They looked at it doubtfully.
"Ugh," Wat shuddered violently, "I never saw stuff like that before. It doesn't look good." The little man, they soon discovered, had violent discriminations in food.
"Try it." Hilary assured him. "It's a Martian growth, and delicious. We had to live on the land so to speak, on our journey. Our Earth food gave out long before the finish."
Wat looked at it with manifest distaste, but Grim was already wolfing his portion and making little pleased sounds. Wat bit into a portion gingerly, found it tasted somewhat like truffles, and soon was not far behind in gulping it down.
* * * * *
When their appetites had been appeased, Hilary called a council of war.
"First of all," he told them, "we'll have to find a hideout. That presupposes two things: a place large enough to store the Vagabond, and hidden from view, either from the naked eye or their search beams."
"That sounds like a large cavern lined with lead," said Grim.
"And there are none such in this territory," Grim replied quietly.
"I will not move too far from New York," Hilary spoke with determination; "there is Joan...."
Grim looked blank. There was Joan, of course.
Wat got up suddenly. "I know a place," he said, "within a mile of here, and it's not a cave. Come on; I'll show you. I was a Ranger in the Ramapo Game Preserve in the old days."
Hilary asked no more. The polarization switch made contact, and the Vagabond left the Earth with a swift rush. It maneuvered with the ease of an Earth flier. Wat directed him, scanning the rugged tree-clad mountains with eager eye.
"There," he said finally, "set her down right there. Easy."
Hilary saw no break in the uninterrupted line of the mountain, but he followed directions. He had come to have an abounding faith in the little red-haired man.
The space flier eased gently down. Just as it seemed as if it would perforce come to rest upon serrated tree tops, a faint glimmer showed amid the darker green. There was an opening, just barely room for the Vagabond.
* * * * *
Hilary jockeyed skilfully through, kept on descending into a narrow cleft in the slope. The walls rose almost perpendicularly on either side. About fifty feet down there was a sharp turn and the gorge angled downward for another fifty feet. When the flier came to rest at the bottom, it was securely hidden in a slanting cleft, some forty feet wide and several hundred long. A mountain brook brawled at one side, assuring plentiful water. The outside world was absolutely invisible. Perpetual twilight reigned; only a pale dim religious light filtered through.
"Just the thing," Wat exulted. "We'll never be found here, no matter how much they search, unless someone actually stumbles into the opening. There's almost eighty feet of solid rock above us, and their search beams only penetrate about ten to fifteen."
"Splendid." Hilary said. "Now we've got to get to work."
For two days they toiled incessantly. A rope ladder was fabricated to insure ease of entrance and exit without recourse to the ship. Wat, as the least conspicuous, was delegated to scour the countryside and bring in stores of provisions. The bottom of the gorge was leveled off with infinite labor. Rough wood shelters were erected. Spares and electrical equipment to replace worn parts in the Vagabond were also purchased by Wat, in cautious small purchases. It necessitated long trekking through mountain trails, but there was no murmur from him. The search, he reported, seemed to be slackening. Only the routine guards whizzed by on the conveyors, and the usual Mercutian fliers that kept to the regular air lanes.
At last even Hilary was satisfied. He was ready now for the plan that had been slowly forming in his mind during the days of their flight and of work. He was going to attempt a rescue of Joan. She had never left his thoughts once; he was burning with inward anxiety, though his face was a mask to cover his true feelings.
* * * * *
The last evening he sat with the others within one of the wooden shelters. A huge fire of fragrant pine knots blazed up a crude boulder chimney.
"I am going out now to find Joan," he told them quietly.
"When do we start?" asked Wat.
"I am going alone." There was a movement of protest. He checked it at once. "You can understand the reasons. One man can worm his way where three men cannot. It isn't a question of force, of brute strength. Besides, if anything should go wrong, there are still the two of you to carry on—to be the focus of a new revolt. If all of us were caught, there would be no further hope for the Earth."
"It's a hell of a note," Wat grumbled, unconvinced. "There's fighting to be done, and me cooped up here like a sick hen."
"Hilary's right," Grim interposed thoughtfully. "It's a one-man job. We'll have our chance later." He turned on Hilary. "But if anything does happen to you, you understand we won't stay quietly. We'll come—if you are still alive. Promise you will let us know—if you can."
"I'll promise that," Hilary agreed. "There is a way."
He got up and went out of the hut. In a few minutes he was back, holding three small flat disks enmeshed in a spray of fine wires for them to see.
"I've just removed the communication disks from our space suits. Strap them in position on your right shoulder blade, hook the wires—so—and you can talk to me or to each other over distances of one hundred miles. Underneath your clothing they cannot be seen. Should I require your assistance, I'll call, and further, I'll show you both how to run the Vagabond, in case...." His voice trailed.
"Yes, yes, of course," Grim interposed hastily, "but you'll be here to run it when the time comes."
"Perhaps," Hilary smiled faintly. Then he leaned forward. "I've gotten a pretty good idea of what's happened on Earth since I went away, but now I need more details. Otherwise I'll run into things that will surprise me, and that might not be so—pleasant."
They told him, interrupting each other, arguing over details, Hilary interposing questions every now and then.
* * * * *
About a year and a half after Hilary's departure into trackless space, a huge flat diskoid came hovering to the ground near Great New York. It carried a party of Mercutians on a friendly exploration, so they said, once communication could be established between Earth linguists and themselves. They were welcomed, made much of. They seemed friendly enough. At their own request they were whirled over the Earth in Earth planes on a tour of inspection.
When they departed, with much protestation of friendship, they assured President Peabody they would return some day, they and others of their race. Just what hidden threat there was in that promise, no one on Earth realized. It was taken at face value.
Just a year later, almost to the day, the by this time familiar diskoid was seen hovering once more over Great New York. The Mercutians were returning. The people of New York suspected nothing. No troops were rushed to the scene to repel invasion; no guns were trained on the space ship. It was just another friendly visit, and hurried preparations were commenced for a rousing welcome on their landing.
What New York did not know was that simultaneously with the appearance of the Mercutian flier over their city, a hundred others were even then hovering over the strategic capitals of the world. The first Mercutian ambassadors had put to good advantage that hurried tour of inspection.
No one was alarmed. Each capital city thought itself signally honored by the reappearance of the lone Mercutian over it. The plan was clever, the timing perfect.
At a signal flashed through the ether, things started happening.
The great diskoids, hovering high in the stratosphere, suddenly blazed into blinding light. To the dazzled onlookers below, a new sun seemed to have been born. A truncated cone of flame leaped downward. The diskoid was the apex, the spreading base all of Great New York. The sheeted brilliance enveloped the doomed city. It was a holocaust. New York became a roaring furnace. Stone and steel heated to incandescence.
The affrighted people had no chance for their lives. Like moths in a flame they died on the streets, in the ovens of their homes, in the steaming rivers into which they had thrown themselves to escape the awful heat. There were few survivors, only those who happened to be inside the giant skyscrapers, protected by many thicknesses of crystal and steel.
* * * * *
As Great New York went, so went a hundred other cities. The Earth was caught unawares, but the governments, the people, responded nobly. Troops were mobilized hurriedly, preparations rushed for warfare.
But the Earthmen did not have a chance. The great sinister diskoids moved methodically over the Earth, high in the stratosphere, where the futile Earth planes could not reach them, and sent the terrible blaze of destruction down unerringly upon armies, cities, towns.
It was over soon. One after another, the Earth governments capitulated. America was the last—old Amos Peabody vowed he would rather go down to utter destruction than yield—but he was out-voted in Council. It was pure slaughter otherwise, without a chance to fight back.
At once the Mercutians set up their government. The Earth was turned into a colony. The leader of the invaders, the son of the Mercutian emperor, became Viceroy, with absolute powers. Sooner or later, it was their intention to transport the entire Mercutian race to the Earth, and make it their permanent home. Mercury was not an ideal place to live on; in the restricted area around the poles where life was possible, terrific storms alternated with furnace droughts, to which the hottest part of the Sahara was an Arctic paradise. No wonder the first Mercutian expedition had broached the subject of Earth as an easy conquest when they returned.
The Mercutians treated the Earth people as slaves. Their rule was brutal and arrogant in the extreme. The Earth people revolted, under the leadership of Amos Peabody. Weaponless, except for small hidden stores of rifles and revolvers—the Mercutians had cannily disarmed their slaves—they fought desperately with axes, knives, clubs, anything, against the overlords.
The result could have been expected. The rebellion was smothered in blood and fire. The bravest of the Earthmen died in battle, or were executed afterwards. The slaves, the weaklings, were left. Old Amos Peabody was treated as Hilary had seen. He was exhibited in city after city as a public warning.
* * * * *
Hilary's blood was boiling as the terrible narration went on and on. But his face was calm, immovable.
"How do the diskoids operate?" he asked.
"Something like the sun rays on the one-man fliers," Grim told him, "only vastly more powerful. They are not limited in range, for one thing. It took only one, fifty miles up in the stratosphere, to destroy all New York. I saw the one that first spied on the Earth. It was about five hundred feet in diameter, made of the same vitreous material, and shaped like a huge lens. No doubt, besides being a space ship, it is just that. The sun's light flashes through it, is rearranged into terrible burning rays, and sears all in its path."
"Hm'm!" Hilary meditated. "So everything the Mercutians have in the way of weapons and armament depends directly on the sun's rays."
"Yes," Grim agreed. "After all, you must remember that with Mercury exposed as it is to the fierce heat of the sun, it would be only natural for them to develop weapons that utilized its rays."
"Then the tubes and the fliers cannot operate at night?"
"Yes, because then they receive the reflected waves from the diskoids that are stationed out in space, in eternal sunlight."
Hilary considered this a moment.
"Where do you think it possible Joan was taken?" he changed the subject abruptly.
"It is hard to say," Grim answered slowly. "But your best chance would be with the Viceroy himself. There have been rumors—when pretty girls disappear."
Hilary's jaw set hard.
"I think I'll interview His Mercutian Magnificence," he said. "Where are his quarters?"
"The Robbins Building."
"Good Lord, that's Joan's...." So that was why Joan was up in the Bronxville suburb. "What happened to her father, Martin Robbins?"
"Executed after the revolt," Wat interposed. "Your girl must have escaped, otherwise she'd have been treated then like the other girls whose relatives had fought."
Hilary smiled unaccountably, the first smile since Joan had been taken. He knew the Robbins Building well; he had been a frequent visitor there in the old days. There were surprises in store for His Nibs the Mercutian....
Mutterings of Revolt
The next morning, as dawn burst over the mountain tops, he started on his perilous mission. But no one who knew Hilary Grendon would have recognized him in the meek, shambling, slightly bent Earth slave who climbed the last rung of the rope ladder out of the hidden gorge.
He had changed his clothes for an old, space-worn suit that one of his former comrades could never have any further use for. The skilful application of wood ash and powdered charcoal to the hollows around the eyes, the pits beneath the cheekbones, gave him a gaunt, careworn appearance, suitable to an Earthman too brow-beaten to dream of defying his overlords.
Wat, who had artistically applied the make-up, viewed his handiwork with admiration. "You'll do," he grinned. "The way you look, even a little fellow like me would be perfectly safe in spitting upon you."
Before he went, he explained the mechanism of the Vagabond thoroughly to his friends. Finally they nodded; they would know how to work the controls.
There was the question of weapons. The captured sun-tube was out of the question; it could not be secreted beneath the dark-blue blouse. Hilary fondled his automatic wistfully.
"If only I had some bullets," he sighed.
"Hell, man, I know where you can get plenty," said Wat. There was a hidden cache, not far from where they were, stored against the day. There were still some brave spirits left on Earth who hoped and plotted. Wat had been one of them. Hilary's spirits rose immeasurably. With his gun loaded he could face the whole Mercutian planet.
* * * * *
Hilary made the return journey to Great New York in an hour. He wormed his way carefully to the nearest conveyor, and made his way openly to the express platform, secure in his disguise.
There was an air of unrest, of tension in the air. The Earth passengers no longer sat dully, apathetically, as they were whizzed along. Little groups buzzed together, excited, gesticulating.
Hilary unostentatiously joined one. There was a sudden silence as he sank quietly into his seat, glances of uneasy suspicion. But he looked thoroughly innocuous, and the chief whisperer felt emboldened to resume the thread of his interrupted discourse.
"There are men left on Earth," he mouthed secretively to the little circle of heads. "The Mercutians went down like animals—fifteen of them killed, I hear. The whole company of guards retreated in a hurry"—he paused for greater effect, and continued slowly and impressively—"from—three—Earthmen."
Hilary raised his head sharply. They were discussing his exploit, evidently. With exaggerations of course. That was inevitable.
"Yes, sir," the speaker proceeded, "that shows you. These damned Mercutians are not invulnerable. They can be overcome, chased off the Earth. But we've got to be men, not slaves."
High excitement shone in the surrounding faces.
"But we ain't got no weapons," a small, weak-chinned man protested.
The other spat carefully: "No weapons, huh? Man, I could show you—"
A dark, silent man standing uninterestedly next to him jabbed him in the ribs. The orator gulped and stammered: "I—I mean—"
"Psst," someone hissed hurriedly, "the Mercutians."
* * * * *
Three giant Mercutian guards, their sun-tubes at the ready, stumbled heavily down the aisles of the express, sagging with the pull of Earth's gravitation. Their gray, warted faces were black as thunderclouds.
They stopped before the hastily scattered group.
"You heard the orders," the hugest one barked: "no congregating of Earth slaves on the conveyors or elsewhere. Next time you disobey, I'll ray you. You understand?"
"Yes, Magnificent," the weak-chinned man muttered hurriedly.
But the little knot reformed immediately after the guards had passed on.
"Magnificents!" The first speaker spat viciously. "I'd like to wring their necks."
Hilary shifted unobtrusively to another excited cluster. There the same procedure was followed. A quiet-voiced man was talking, lauding the exploit of the three embattled Earthmen, skillfully and subtly enkindling enthusiasm, raising wholesome doubts as to the invulnerability of the hated Mercutians.
Numerous patrols of guards stalked up and down the conveyors, arrogant, manifestly itching for a pretext to ray the conquered. But the Earthmen gave them no opportunity. The groups melted at their approach into meek, vacuous individuals; reformed instantly as they moved on. And there were no informers. The Earthmen had resumed their almost forgotten Earth solidarity in fronting the invaders.
* * * * *
Hilary watched the restless shifting groups with a glow of pride. This was his work, the spark he had kindled was being fanned into a steady blaze. These whisperers, these exhorters, who were they? Members of an underground organization? Possibly. Wat and Grim had both belonged to loose circles, vague and shifting in membership. Possibly they were coalescing now, joining up into a world-wide organization. He hoped so. It would make his task easier, it also helped restore his pride in being an Earthman. He had almost thought that this supine listless race of his was not worth rescuing.
He reached the terminal in Great New York without untoward incident. No one challenged this meek, shabby-looking Earthman. The Mercutians gave him barely a glance; the Earthmen disregarded him when they whispered together. Hilary was content; he was not seeking undue notice.
The terminal was the scene of unwonted activity. The conveyors were disgorging crowds of Earthmen, grim, determined-looking individuals. They scattered purposefully through the various exits of the huge building. Hilary noted with interest that there were no women, no children, on the constantly incoming expresses.
The Mercutians were massing, too. The terminal was crowded with guards. They stalked heavily about, shouldering their Earth slaves rudely out of the way, sending them sprawling with sudden quick shoves. It would take only an untoward word, a false movement, to start a massacre. The Mercutians were deliberately trying to egg them on.
But the Earthmen took the abuse, the physical violence, quietly. They picked themselves up, disappeared through the exits, giving way to new arrivals. Once Hilary caught a gleam of familiar steel in the unbuttoned recess of a man's blouse pocket. He smiled. There were untoward events impending.
But first he must take care of his own private matter. Joan was a captive in the hands of the Mercutian Viceroy. What was his name? Wat had told him. That was it—Artok.
* * * * *
He was out in the street now, a wide vita-crystal paved thoroughfare, one of the many that radiated from the terminal like the spokes of a wheel. On either side was an upflung spray of tall receding towers, dazzling in the sunshine.
It struck Hilary suddenly. There had been bright unclouded skies during the days since his arrival. Only at night had it rained, like clockwork: every night for fifteen minutes immediately after midnight. A light steady shower that ceased as suddenly as it sprang up. It was unusual. This was April in the Spring of 2348 and April was always a month of showery heavens. Had the Mercutians, accustomed to the blazing light of their own planet, deliberately managed some way to create perpetual sunshine on Earth? Very likely, considering the clockwork night showers, no doubt for the purpose of preventing droughts. There was the matter of weapons and power, too. They all depended on the sun.
Hilary took the inside moving platform. It would take him to the Robbins Building. The street was black with people, surging back and forth, restless, ominous.
Mercutians stalked purposefully along, in companies of ten. Their guttural voices were harsh with command. The Earthmen scattered out of their way. Those who were not nimble enough were knocked down, trampled underfoot.
One Earthman, braver than the rest, or more foolish, gave vent to a scream of rage, when a young girl, with whom he was arm in arm, was wrested brutally away. His fist shot out, caught the leering guard flush on his chin.
The Mercutian staggered, then bellowed with rage. His tube flashed upward. The Earthman's eyes opened wide as with wonder, then he collapsed, cut cleanly in half.
There was a full-throated growl from the jammed thoroughfare, a sudden surging forward. But the guards, reinforced by others, had their tubes lifted, ominous, death-dealing. The crowd ebbed back hastily.
* * * * *
Hilary had joined the first rush. His blood pounded in his veins at the unprovoked brutality. For a hasty moment he visioned the commencement of the revolt. But as the mob retreated before the weapons, his brain cooled. The time was not ripe yet. It would be pure slaughter. Besides, there was Joan.
Once more he was the meek, downtrodden slave. He got off the platform, shambled over to the Robbins Building, an imposing pile of vita-crystal. It rose high into the air, overtopping even the great Memorial Tower. Martin Robbins had been wealthy, very much so. He had been a physicist of world repute, and this building was a monument to his inventive genius. The top floors were devoted to marvelously equipped laboratories. On the roof were the living quarters—dwelling of many rooms surrounded by an alpine garden. All Great New York stretched beneath. In the distance the green waters of the Atlantic dazzled in the sunshine.
Hilary knew the layout well. It had been his second home before.... He put the bitter thoughts determinedly behind him. There was work ahead. The stooped, hollow-cheeked creature shambled aimlessly up to the entrance. It was filled with Mercutian guards.
He edged his way along, hoping to pass through unnoticed.
"Here, you," a burly Mercutian barred his way, "get out of here before I ray you."
* * * * *
Hilary seemed to shrivel together in mortal terror. He turned to slink out again. The guard had him by the shoulder, was propelling him with ungentle paws toward the exit. Hilary let himself be shoved.
A cold curt voice spoke a sharp command:
"What have you there?"
Where had Hilary heard that voice before?
The pushing guard spun him around hastily.
"He was trying to get into the building, Cor Urga," he said respectfully. "These damned Earth slaves are everywhere under foot. It's time we rayed a few to teach them a lesson."
Hilary found himself gazing at the gray saturnine countenance that had burnt itself into his memory. Urga—the Mercutian who had kidnaped Joan! His muscles tensed suddenly for a quick spring, then relaxed. He must play the game.
Urga looked him over carefully, puzzled.
"Strange," he grunted, "I've seen this fellow before, but I cannot remember where."
Hilary was taut. Would he be recognized?
But the Mercutian Cor—in Earth terms, Captain of a Hundred—shook his head finally, and turned away. The disguise had held up.
"All these Earth slaves look alike. This one is a particularly poor specimen. Turn him loose. If he tries to come in again, kill him.
"Get," the guard growled viciously, and sent Hilary sprawling out into the street to the muttering accompaniment of the seething Earth crowds. The temper of the people was rapidly reaching the explosion point.
* * * * *
But Hilary picked himself up, meekly brushed himself off, and melted unostentatiously into the moving crowd. He desired no undue attention.
Strangely enough, there were no Mercutians in sight. Only the surging, growling Earthmen. Hilary felt their mysterious disappearance to be ominous—as though they had been warned by some secret signal. Something terrible was about to happen. He must get to that certain passageway he knew, and quickly. If only it were not guarded.
A cry went up about him, a yell of many voices.
"The Mercutians are coming."
Hilary whirled. Down the street, issuing from the terminal, deployed a full regiment of guards, bowed under the strong pull of the Earth, but formidable enough. Sun-tubes glinted dangerously. A stentorian voice reached him. "Clear the streets, you Earth dogs," it roared. "You're been warned enough. One minute to obey and I'll burn you all down."
A babel of excited voices went up. The crowds farther down, near the advancing Mercutians, melted into a wild scramble. Men trampled each other underfoot in a mad attempt to reach safety before the minute's expiration.
Where Hilary had paused, there was a milling indecisiveness. Men were already quietly edging their way toward adjoining buildings, into side thoroughfares; others were more belligerent.
"Kill the bloody beasts!" a man suddenly screamed near Hilary, drawing a pistol from beneath his blouse. He waved it frantically in the air. There was an ugly surge, a low-throated growl. It needed very little for the mob to get out of hand and hurl itself upon the steadily approaching Mercutian regiment.
Hilary acted swiftly. He caught the man's pistol arm, thrust it down sharply out of sight. A quick wrench, and the gun was in his own hand. The man, wild-eyed, opened his mouth to shout.
"Shut up," Hilary hissed fiercely. "Are you mad? You wouldn't have a chance. They'd ray us all clean out of existence." He thrust the pistol back into the man's blouse. "Wait; our chance will come."
"Oh, my God! Look!" someone screamed.
A command shattered the air; the tubes of the Mercutians uplifted; a blinding sheet of flame blazed solidly down the street. The minute's grace was up.
* * * * *
Even at this distance, the heat scorched and seared. There were many unfortunates caught farther down, men who had had no chance to seek safety in time. They melted in the furnace blast as though they were bits of metal in an electric arc.
"Run for your lives!" the shout went up. All thought of resistance was gone. It was every one for himself. The man with the gun was the first to run. Hilary found himself caught in the mad rush. The Mercutians were pounding along methodically raying in front of them.
Hilary was thrust into a little eddy of men to one side. It swirled and shoved. The entrance of the Pullman Building loomed ahead. The sight of it gave Hilary new vigor. That was his destination. If only he could make it.
He straightened out of his stoop, squared his shoulders. The next instant a human battering ram crashed through the twirling, yelling mob. Head down, right shoulder and elbow working in unison, a path magically opened where no path had been before. Every second was precious now. The heat of the tubes was engulfing him in waves, raising little blisters on the unprotected skin.
Hilary plunged into the open entrance of the Pullman Building. It was packed with humanity, struggling for the lift platforms, to take them to the upper stories, out of reach of the awful rays. Hilary was thankful for that. His destination was beneath, in the sub-levels. A moving escalator led downward. It was deserted.
A fierce, wild screaming arose outside, screams that gurgled and died horribly. Hilary felt sick inside. The full blast of the rays had reached the milling crowd. It would be a hideous and merciless slaughter.
* * * * *
Hilary's gray eyes burned, his lips set in a straight, hard line. The beasts would pay for this. He shot down the escalator at full speed. A spray of passageways met him. He did not hesitate. He chose the one farthest to the left and dashed along its winding length until he came to a dead end. The vita-crystal gleamed blankly back at him.
But Hilary knew what he was doing. Long ago Martin Robbins had told him of the secret connection between the two adjoining buildings. A passageway that led between the outer and inner shells of crystal walls; lifts that shot smoothly to the laboratories and pent-apartments on the roofs of the two structures. For Simeon Pullman had been a close friend of Robbins; a fellow physicist, in fact. They interchanged theories, results of experiments, and found this swift connection most convenient.
Both men were dead now—Pullman as the result of a premature explosion, and Robbins, executed by the Mercutians. But the secret passageway remained.
Hilary pressed the secret spring he knew of. A gleaming oblong of crystal slid silently open. He went in without hesitation and the slide closed with a little whir behind him.
A low tunnel confronted him, just barely high enough for him to move without stooping. The walls here were of burnished metal, glowing with impregnated cold-light. It was empty, silent. Evidently it had been undisturbed for years. The Mercutians had not discovered this secret way then.
* * * * *
The tunnel slanted downward for several hundred yards, then turned sharply upward until a vita-crystal wall barred the way. Hilary could hear vague sounds from the other side. He was in the Robbins Building. He turned to the left, where a shaft stretched upward, completely enclosed by crystal walls. A thin oblong edging showed the platform beneath. He stepped on it, hesitated for a moment. There were two control buttons; one that stopped the lift in the laboratory, the other in the sleeping room that once was Martin Robbins'.
Hilary decided in favor of the penthouse; there was less chance of a present occupant of the room. If there was—he shrugged his shoulders and loosened the automatic in his blouse. He pressed the button.
The platform shot smoothly upward, up, up, thrusting a thousand feet up. At length it came to a gliding halt. Hilary knew he was on the roof now, in the interior of the wall making one side of the sleep-apartment. The vita-crystal gleamed mockingly opaque at him. If only he could see through; if only he had a Mercutian search beam now. Was there someone in the room on the other side of the wall? He strained his ears to listen, but the crystal was pretty much sound-proof.
Very quietly Hilary drew his gun, broke it, examined the chamber. The six bullets lay snug. He snapped it back in position, held the automatic butt against his side, reached over and pressed the release button.
* * * * *
The slide whirred open. Hilary waited a second, tense, ready to shoot at the slightest sound. His eyes bored through the oblong. Nothing was in sight except the luxurious furnishings he remembered so well; nothing stirred. But his vision was limited to that part of the room framed by the slide. With infinite caution he peered out, his searching gaze flicking swiftly, around the sleep-apartment. It was a man's room with built in divans, automatic sleep-spray, wall rack to hold illuminated book sheets, magnified so as to be read comfortably from a reclining position on the divan—in short, the usual ordered luxuries of a well-furnished sleep-room.
It was empty—but the divan was touseled, certain small things disarranged. Someone used this room. Hilary stepped out, leaving the slide behind him open in case of an enforced retreat. He paused to think. Where could Joan be held prisoner—if, and it was a big if—she were really here. He ran over the possibilities.
The laboratories were out of the question. The great master room then. No doubt Artok, the Viceroy, had installed himself there. It was regally magnificent. That might repay a visit. A bold scheme flashed across his mind. Seize Artok himself, abduct him into the secret passage, and compel him to disclose Joan's whereabouts, give her up. Hilary smiled grimly. Sheerly suicidal, yes, but he was desperate now, and there seemed no other way.
Gun shifted back into his blouse, with his right hand thrust in, on the butt, he glided softly out of the chamber. No one was in sight. The passageway seemed oddly deserted. Possibly the staff had been attracted to the outer rim of the terrace by the commotion below.
At the end of the passageway, facing him, was the master room. Another swift look about, and Hilary was moving down the long corridor, close to the wall, his footfalls deadened by the soft composition rug.
Slowly, very slowly, he pressed the button to release the slide. It slid open at a barely perceptible rate. As the slender crack widened, Hilary, looked in, taking care to keep his body to one side.
In the Hands of the Mercutians
A Mercutian was lolling in a reclining chair, his gray, warty face turned half away from Hilary. He was rather undersized for a Mercutian, standing not more than seven feet, and his gray, unwieldy body was heavy and gross as though thickened with good living and debauch. A fleshy three-fingered hand was pounding vehemently on the arm of the chair. His guttural roughened voice came clearly to the listener. He was talking to someone unseen from the angle of the slowly widening slit. He was annoyed.
"For the last time I give you the opportunity," the Mercutian howled—in English. "If you refuse I turn you over to Urga; he wants you."
The crack in the door had widened perceptibly. Hilary's heart gave a tremendous leap. Disclosed to his vision was a figure standing opposite the Mercutian, slim, defiant, proud—Joan.
What unimaginable luck! The automatic leaped like a live thing into, his hand. He crouched, the blood pounding in his temples, waiting for the slide to come completely open. He dared not reach over for the button control to shift the speed; the movement might be heard inside.
The path was clear now. Overpower the Mercutian, escape with Joan down the deserted corridors back to the secret passageway, emerge below, return to their hideout in the Ramapos and plan for revolt. It was all as simple as that.
* * * * *
"We must have these Earth slaves," the Mercutian continued, unheeding. "They, must be made an example of. They are responsible for the unrest. They have killed Magnificents; and the Earth fools think they can do the same. They will find out their error soon enough. But as long as those three live, so long will the slaves hope, and plot."
"I cannot tell you anything about them," Joan said monotonously. It was evident that this was not the first time she had said so.
"Yes you can," the Mercutian said as softly as his gutturals would permit. "There is one in particular you know a great deal about. Urga told me. A long-lost lover, no?" His gray-ridged countenance contorted into a thick disgusting leer.
"There it something mysterious about him. He has no identification tag; he releases Peabody; seems not to know the penalties. He has a pistol, a forbidden weapon; he dares to kill a Magnificent; he eggs on two others, ordinary Earth slaves to join him; he disappears out of sight, in spite of all search." He was shouting now, pounding the chair arm with complete loss of dignity. "Who is he, where does he come from, where did he go? Answer me?"
The girl faced him boldly.
"You are afraid of him, Viceroy," she challenged. "You fear his example. He has shown what a brave man can do; the Earth people will follow him. The Mercutians are not invulnerable."
"Yes," the Viceroy said heavily. He was talking more to himself. Then he realized his mistake. "No, of course not," he growled hurriedly. "Enough of this. You tell me what I want to know or I call Urga in."
Joan's face went white, but she faced him unflinchingly.
"I do not know where he is, and if I did, I would not tell you."
"Very well then." The Viceroy leaned over to the table.
The slide was completely open now.
"I wouldn't call anyone if I were you."
* * * * *
The Viceroy whirled in his chair at the sound of the calm Earth voice, calm yet deadly in its implications. He found himself staring into the stubby opening of an Earth automatic, a forbidden weapon. The hand that held it was steady, and the gray eyes that bored into his were hard as pebbles.
There was a smothered gasp from Joan. "Hilary."
"Yes; come to take you away." He spoke swiftly. "We have no time to waste, Joan. Is there any binding material in the room?"
"I—I believe there is. Dad always kept odds and ends in the store chest near the bookshelves."
"Go and get it then. We'll truss up his most Mercutian Magnificence—No you don't," Hilary said harshly; "keep your hands in front of you and don't move."
The Viceroy was stealthily reaching for the sun-tube dangling from his belt. He jerked his hand back, a cold sweat beading his forehead. Hilary's finger had compressed on the trigger; the slightest extra pressure meant flaming death.
"That's better," Hilary approved.
"You shall pay for this," howled the Mercutian, finding voice again. "You shall suffer a hundred deaths in one."
"Softly," Hilary grinned. "Just a little while ago you were very anxious to meet me. Now that I'm here you don't seem overmuch pleased." Joan was rummaging frantically in the open chest.
The Viceroy started, his unlidded pink eyes opened wider. But he was careful to keep his hands in plain view.
"You are the Earth dog who killed the Magnificents."
"I wouldn't call names," Hilary advised. "It might be unhealthy. But I am that very individual. And I trust"—he bowed mockingly-"to have more notches on my gun before I am through."
"You—you—shall be taken to Mercury. My father has special places for such as you." Joan was coming now swiftly with lengths of wire, soft thick material for swathing.
"Get me there first," Hilary said indifferently. "Gag him, Joan, so he can't open his ugly mouth any more. Then tie him up, well."
Joan thrust the gag into the thick gash of a mouth, choking off a torrent of imprecations in the guttural Mercutian tongue. Then she proceeded to truss him, expertly, efficiently.
"Good job," Hilary approved. "Now with your kind permission, Most Viceregal Magnificence, we shall go." He bowed mockingly. "Come, Joan."
"Not so fast, Earth slave." A cold saturnine voice resounded like the clang of doom behind him. He whirled, shifting his gun swiftly for a quick shot.
A little gush of heat caught his trigger hand as the index finger contracted desperately. The smarting pain tore the pistol out of his hand. It dropped to the floor, unheeded. Hilary found himself staring into the gross unpleasant face of Urga, a sun-tube trained directly at his midriff.