"We--we are going back to our village," Erick muttered, staring down, his hands folded. "We were in the City, and now we are going home."
One of the soldiers spoke into a mouthpiece. He clicked it off and put it away.
"Come with me," the Leiter said. "We're taking you in. Hurry along."
"In? Back to the City?"
One of the soldiers laughed. "The City is gone," he said. "All that's left of it you can put in the palm of your hand."
"But what happened?" Mara said.
"No one knows. Come on, hurry it up!"
There was a sound. A soldier came quickly out of the darkness. "A Senior Leiter," he said. "Coming this way." He disappeared again.
"A Senior Leiter." The soldiers stood waiting, standing at a respectful attention. A moment later the Senior Leiter stepped into the light, a black-clad old man, his ancient face thin and hard, like a bird's, eyes bright and alert. He looked from Erick to Jan.
"Who are these people?" he demanded.
"Villagers going back home."
"No, they're not. They don't stand like villagers. Villagers slump--diet, poor food. These people are not villagers. I myself came from the hills, and I know."
He stepped close to Erick, looking keenly into his face. "Who are you?
Look at his chin--he never shaved with a sharpened stone! Something is wrong here."
In his hand a rod of pale fire flashed. "The City is gone, and with it at least half the Leiter Council. It is very strange, a flash, then heat, and a wind. But it was not fission. I am puzzled. All at once the City has vanished. Nothing is left but a depression in the sand."
"We'll take them in," the other Leiter said. "Soldiers, surround them.
Make certain that--"
"Run!" Erick cried. He struck out, knocking the rod from the Senior Leiter's hand. They were all running, soldiers shouting, flashing their lights, stumbling against each other in the darkness. Erick dropped to his knees, groping frantically in the bushes. His fingers closed over the handle of the case and he leaped up. In Terran he shouted to Mara and Jan.
"Hurry! To the car! Run!" He set off, down the slope, stumbling through the darkness. He could hear soldiers behind him, soldiers running and falling. A body collided against him and he struck out. Someplace behind him there was a hiss, and a section of the slope went up in flames. The Leiter's rod--
"Erick," Mara cried from the darkness. He ran toward her. Suddenly he slipped, falling on a stone. Confusion and firing. The sound of excited voices.
"Erick, is that you?" Jan caught hold of him, helping him up. "The car.
It's over here. Where's Mara?"
"I'm here," Mara's voice came. "Over here, by the car."
A light flashed. A tree went up in a puff of fire, and Erick felt the singe of the heat against his face. He and Jan made their way toward the girl. Mara's hand caught his in the darkness.
"Now the car," Erick said. "If they haven't got to it." He slid down the slope into the ravine, fumbling in the darkness, reaching and holding onto the handle of the case. Reaching, reaching--
He touched something cold and smooth. Metal, a metal door handle. Relief flooded through him. "I've found it! Jan, get inside. Mara, come on." He pushed Jan past him, into the car. Mara slipped in after Jan, her small agile body crowding in beside him.
"Stop!" a voice shouted from above. "There's no use hiding in that ravine. We'll get you! Come up and--"
The sound of voices was drowned out by the roar of the car's motor. A moment later they shot into the darkness, the car rising into the air.
Treetops broke and cracked under them as Erick turned the car from side to side, avoiding the groping shafts of pale light from below, the last furious thrusts from the two Leiters and their soldiers.
Then they were away, above the trees, high in the air, gaining speed each moment, leaving the knot of Martians far behind.
"Toward Marsport," Jan said to Erick. "Right?"
Erick nodded. "Yes. We'll land outside the field, in the hills. We can change back to our regular clothing there, our commercial clothing. Damn it--we'll be lucky if we can get there in time for the ship."
"The last ship," Mara whispered, her chest rising and falling. "What if we don't get there in time?"
Erick looked down at the leather case in his lap. "We'll have to get there," he murmured. "We must!"
For a long time there was silence. Thacher stared at Erickson. The older man was leaning back in his chair, sipping a little of his drink. Mara and Jan were silent.
"So you didn't destroy the City," Thacher said. "You didn't destroy it at all. You shrank it down and put it in a glass globe, in a paperweight. And now you're salesmen again, with a sample case of office supplies!"
Erickson smiled. He opened the briefcase and reaching into it he brought out the glass globe paperweight. He held it up, looking into it. "Yes, we stole the City from the Martians. That's how we got by the lie detector. It was true that we knew nothing about a _destroyed_ City."
"But why?" Thacher said. "Why steal a City? Why not merely bomb it?"
"Ransom," Mara said fervently, gazing into the globe, her dark eyes bright. "Their biggest City, half of their Council--in Erick's hand!"
"Mars will have to do what Terra asks," Erickson said. "Now Terra will be able to make her commercial demands felt. Maybe there won't even be a war. Perhaps Terra will get her way without fighting." Still smiling, he put the globe back into the briefcase and locked it.
"Quite a story," Thacher said. "What an amazing process, reduction of size-- A whole City reduced to microscopic dimensions. Amazing. No wonder you were able to escape. With such daring as that, no one could hope to stop you."
He looked down at the briefcase on the floor. Underneath them the jets murmured and vibrated evenly, as the ship moved through space toward distant Terra.
"We still have quite a way to go," Jan said. "You've heard our story, Thacher. Why not tell us yours? What sort of line are you in? What's your business?"
"Yes," Mara said. "What do you do?"
"What do I do?" Thacher said. "Well, if you like, I'll show you." He reached into his coat and brought out something. Something that flashed and glinted, something slender. A rod of pale fire.
The three stared at it. Sickened shock settled over them slowly.
Thacher held the rod loosely, calmly, pointing it at Erickson. "We knew you three were on this ship," he said. "There was no doubt of that. But we did not know what had become of the City. My theory was that the City had not been destroyed at all, that something else had happened to it.
Council instruments measured a sudden loss of mass in that area, a decrease equal to the mass of the City. Somehow the City had been spirited away, not destroyed. But I could not convince the other Council Leiters of it. I had to follow you alone."
Thacher turned a little, nodding to the men sitting at the bar. The men rose at once, coming toward the table.
"A very interesting process you have. Mars will benefit a great deal from it. Perhaps it will even turn the tide in our favor. When we return to Marsport I wish to begin work on it at once. And now, if you will please pass me the briefcase--"