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He had s.n.a.t.c.hed 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 b.u.t.ton 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 gla.s.s. 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 s.p.a.ce 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? d.a.m.n 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 gamec.o.c.k 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 s.p.a.ce. 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 s.p.a.ce 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 gra.s.s. It had escaped the questing eyes of the Mercutians. The travel lanes did not touch this secluded spot.
"So that's your s.p.a.ce 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 s.p.a.ce away from the planet against which it had been set.
"Time enough to inspect," Hilary warned them. "Never can tell when those d.a.m.ned Mercutians may spy on us."