"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."