"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.