"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."