"Get," the guard growled viciously, and sent Hilary sprawling out into the street to the muttering accompaniment of the seething Earth crowds. The temper of the people was rapidly reaching the explosion point.
But Hilary picked himself up, meekly brushed himself off, and melted unostentatiously into the moving crowd. He desired no undue attention.
Strangely enough, there were no Mercutians in sight. Only the surging, growling Earthmen. Hilary felt their mysterious disappearance to be ominous--as though they had been warned by some secret signal. Something terrible was about to happen. He must get to that certain passageway he knew, and quickly. If only it were not guarded.
A cry went up about him, a yell of many voices.
"The Mercutians are coming."
Hilary whirled. Down the street, issuing from the terminal, deployed a full regiment of guards, bowed under the strong pull of the Earth, but formidable enough. Sun-tubes glinted dangerously. A stentorian voice reached him. "Clear the streets, you Earth dogs," it roared. "You're been warned enough. One minute to obey and I'll burn you all down."
A babel of excited voices went up. The crowds farther down, near the advancing Mercutians, melted into a wild scramble. Men trampled each other underfoot in a mad attempt to reach safety before the minute's expiration.
Where Hilary had paused, there was a milling indecisiveness. Men were already quietly edging their way toward adjoining buildings, into side thoroughfares; others were more belligerent.
"Kill the bloody beasts!" a man suddenly screamed near Hilary, drawing a pistol from beneath his blouse. He waved it frantically in the air. There was an ugly surge, a low-throated growl. It needed very little for the mob to get out of hand and hurl itself upon the steadily approaching Mercutian regiment.
Hilary acted swiftly. He caught the man's pistol arm, thrust it down sharply out of sight. A quick wrench, and the gun was in his own hand. The man, wild-eyed, opened his mouth to shout.
"Shut up," Hilary hissed fiercely. "Are you mad? You wouldn't have a chance. They'd ray us all clean out of existence." He thrust the pistol back into the man's blouse. "Wait; our chance will come."
"Oh, my God! Look!" someone screamed.
A command shattered the air; the tubes of the Mercutians uplifted; a blinding sheet of flame blazed solidly down the street. The minute's grace was up.
Even at this distance, the heat scorched and seared. There were many unfortunates caught farther down, men who had had no chance to seek safety in time. They melted in the furnace blast as though they were bits of metal in an electric arc.
"Run for your lives!" the shout went up. All thought of resistance was gone. It was every one for himself. The man with the gun was the first to run. Hilary found himself caught in the mad rush. The Mercutians were pounding along methodically raying in front of them.
Hilary was thrust into a little eddy of men to one side. It swirled and shoved. The entrance of the Pullman Building loomed ahead. The sight of it gave Hilary new vigor. That was his destination. If only he could make it.
He straightened out of his stoop, squared his shoulders. The next instant a human battering ram crashed through the twirling, yelling mob. Head down, right shoulder and elbow working in unison, a path magically opened where no path had been before. Every second was precious now. The heat of the tubes was engulfing him in waves, raising little blisters on the unprotected skin.
Hilary plunged into the open entrance of the Pullman Building. It was packed with humanity, struggling for the lift platforms, to take them to the upper stories, out of reach of the awful rays. Hilary was thankful for that. His destination was beneath, in the sub-levels. A moving escalator led downward. It was deserted.
A fierce, wild screaming arose outside, screams that gurgled and died horribly. Hilary felt sick inside. The full blast of the rays had reached the milling crowd. It would be a hideous and merciless slaughter.
Hilary's gray eyes burned, his lips set in a straight, hard line. The beasts would pay for this. He shot down the escalator at full speed. A spray of passageways met him. He did not hesitate. He chose the one farthest to the left and dashed along its winding length until he came to a dead end. The vita-crystal gleamed blankly back at him.
But Hilary knew what he was doing. Long ago Martin Robbins had told him of the secret connection between the two adjoining buildings. A passageway that led between the outer and inner shells of crystal walls; lifts that shot smoothly to the laboratories and pent-apartments on the roofs of the two structures. For Simeon Pullman had been a close friend of Robbins; a fellow physicist, in fact. They interchanged theories, results of experiments, and found this swift connection most convenient.
Both men were dead now--Pullman as the result of a premature explosion, and Robbins, executed by the Mercutians. But the secret passageway remained.
Hilary pressed the secret spring he knew of. A gleaming oblong of crystal slid silently open. He went in without hesitation and the slide closed with a little whir behind him.
A low tunnel confronted him, just barely high enough for him to move without stooping. The walls here were of burnished metal, glowing with impregnated cold-light. It was empty, silent. Evidently it had been undisturbed for years. The Mercutians had not discovered this secret way then.
The tunnel slanted downward for several hundred yards, then turned sharply upward until a vita-crystal wall barred the way. Hilary could hear vague sounds from the other side. He was in the Robbins Building. He turned to the left, where a shaft stretched upward, completely enclosed by crystal walls. A thin oblong edging showed the platform beneath. He stepped on it, hesitated for a moment. There were two control buttons; one that stopped the lift in the laboratory, the other in the sleeping room that once was Martin Robbins'.
Hilary decided in favor of the penthouse; there was less chance of a present occupant of the room. If there was--he shrugged his shoulders and loosened the automatic in his blouse. He pressed the button.
The platform shot smoothly upward, up, up, thrusting a thousand feet up. At length it came to a gliding halt. Hilary knew he was on the roof now, in the interior of the wall making one side of the sleep-apartment. The vita-crystal gleamed mockingly opaque at him. If only he could see through; if only he had a Mercutian search beam now. Was there someone in the room on the other side of the wall? He strained his ears to listen, but the crystal was pretty much sound-proof.
Very quietly Hilary drew his gun, broke it, examined the chamber. The six bullets lay snug. He snapped it back in position, held the automatic butt against his side, reached over and pressed the release button.
The slide whirred open. Hilary waited a second, tense, ready to shoot at the slightest sound. His eyes bored through the oblong. Nothing was in sight except the luxurious furnishings he remembered so well; nothing stirred. But his vision was limited to that part of the room framed by the slide. With infinite caution he peered out, his searching gaze flicking swiftly, around the sleep-apartment. It was a man's room with built in divans, automatic sleep-spray, wall rack to hold illuminated book sheets, magnified so as to be read comfortably from a reclining position on the divan--in short, the usual ordered luxuries of a well-furnished sleep-room.
It was empty--but the divan was touseled, certain small things disarranged. Someone used this room. Hilary stepped out, leaving the slide behind him open in case of an enforced retreat. He paused to think. Where could Joan be held prisoner--if, and it was a big if--she were really here. He ran over the possibilities.
The laboratories were out of the question. The great master room then. No doubt Artok, the Viceroy, had installed himself there. It was regally magnificent. That might repay a visit. A bold scheme flashed across his mind. Seize Artok himself, abduct him into the secret passage, and compel him to disclose Joan's whereabouts, give her up. Hilary smiled grimly. Sheerly suicidal, yes, but he was desperate now, and there seemed no other way.
Gun shifted back into his blouse, with his right hand thrust in, on the butt, he glided softly out of the chamber. No one was in sight. The passageway seemed oddly deserted. Possibly the staff had been attracted to the outer rim of the terrace by the commotion below.
At the end of the passageway, facing him, was the master room. Another swift look about, and Hilary was moving down the long corridor, close to the wall, his footfalls deadened by the soft composition rug.
Slowly, very slowly, he pressed the button to release the slide. It slid open at a barely perceptible rate. As the slender crack widened, Hilary, looked in, taking care to keep his body to one side.
In the Hands of the Mercutians A Mercutian was lolling in a reclining chair, his gray, warty face turned half away from Hilary. He was rather undersized for a Mercutian, standing not more than seven feet, and his gray, unwieldy body was heavy and gross as though thickened with good living and debauch. A fleshy three-fingered hand was pounding vehemently on the arm of the chair. His guttural roughened voice came clearly to the listener. He was talking to someone unseen from the angle of the slowly widening slit. He was annoyed.
"For the last time I give you the opportunity," the Mercutian howled--in English. "If you refuse I turn you over to Urga; he wants you."
The crack in the door had widened perceptibly. Hilary's heart gave a tremendous leap. Disclosed to his vision was a figure standing opposite the Mercutian, slim, defiant, proud--Joan.
What unimaginable luck! The automatic leaped like a live thing into, his hand. He crouched, the blood pounding in his temples, waiting for the slide to come completely open. He dared not reach over for the button control to shift the speed; the movement might be heard inside.
The path was clear now. Overpower the Mercutian, escape with Joan down the deserted corridors back to the secret passageway, emerge below, return to their hideout in the Ramapos and plan for revolt. It was all as simple as that.
"We must have these Earth slaves," the Mercutian continued, unheeding. "They, must be made an example of. They are responsible for the unrest. They have killed Magnificents; and the Earth fools think they can do the same. They will find out their error soon enough. But as long as those three live, so long will the slaves hope, and plot."
"I cannot tell you anything about them," Joan said monotonously. It was evident that this was not the first time she had said so.
"Yes you can," the Mercutian said as softly as his gutturals would permit. "There is one in particular you know a great deal about. Urga told me. A long-lost lover, no?" His gray-ridged countenance contorted into a thick disgusting leer.
"There it something mysterious about him. He has no identification tag; he releases Peabody; seems not to know the penalties. He has a pistol, a forbidden weapon; he dares to kill a Magnificent; he eggs on two others, ordinary Earth slaves to join him; he disappears out of sight, in spite of all search." He was shouting now, pounding the chair arm with complete loss of dignity. "Who is he, where does he come from, where did he go? Answer me?"
The girl faced him boldly.
"You are afraid of him, Viceroy," she challenged. "You fear his example. He has shown what a brave man can do; the Earth people will follow him. The Mercutians are not invulnerable."
"Yes," the Viceroy said heavily. He was talking more to himself. Then he realized his mistake. "No, of course not," he growled hurriedly. "Enough of this. You tell me what I want to know or I call Urga in."
Joan's face went white, but she faced him unflinchingly.
"I do not know where he is, and if I did, I would not tell you."
"Very well then." The Viceroy leaned over to the table.
The slide was completely open now.
"I wouldn't call anyone if I were you."
The Viceroy whirled in his chair at the sound of the calm Earth voice, calm yet deadly in its implications. He found himself staring into the stubby opening of an Earth automatic, a forbidden weapon. The hand that held it was steady, and the gray eyes that bored into his were hard as pebbles.
There was a smothered gasp from Joan. "Hilary."
"Yes; come to take you away." He spoke swiftly. "We have no time to waste, Joan. Is there any binding material in the room?"
"I--I believe there is. Dad always kept odds and ends in the store chest near the bookshelves."
"Go and get it then. We'll truss up his most Mercutian Magnificence--No you don't," Hilary said harshly; "keep your hands in front of you and don't move."
The Viceroy was stealthily reaching for the sun-tube dangling from his belt. He jerked his hand back, a cold sweat beading his forehead. Hilary's finger had compressed on the trigger; the slightest extra pressure meant flaming death.
"That's better," Hilary approved.
"You shall pay for this," howled the Mercutian, finding voice again. "You shall suffer a hundred deaths in one."
"Softly," Hilary grinned. "Just a little while ago you were very anxious to meet me. Now that I'm here you don't seem overmuch pleased." Joan was rummaging frantically in the open chest.
The Viceroy started, his unlidded pink eyes opened wider. But he was careful to keep his hands in plain view.
"You are the Earth dog who killed the Magnificents."
"I wouldn't call names," Hilary advised. "It might be unhealthy. But I am that very individual. And I trust"--he bowed mockingly-"to have more notches on my gun before I am through."
"You--you--shall be taken to Mercury. My father has special places for such as you." Joan was coming now swiftly with lengths of wire, soft thick material for swathing.
"Get me there first," Hilary said indifferently. "Gag him, Joan, so he can't open his ugly mouth any more. Then tie him up, well."
Joan thrust the gag into the thick gash of a mouth, choking off a torrent of imprecations in the guttural Mercutian tongue. Then she proceeded to truss him, expertly, efficiently.
"Good job," Hilary approved. "Now with your kind permission, Most Viceregal Magnificence, we shall go." He bowed mockingly. "Come, Joan."
"Not so fast, Earth slave." A cold saturnine voice resounded like the clang of doom behind him. He whirled, shifting his gun swiftly for a quick shot.
A little gush of heat caught his trigger hand as the index finger contracted desperately. The smarting pain tore the pistol out of his hand. It dropped to the floor, unheeded. Hilary found himself staring into the gross unpleasant face of Urga, a sun-tube trained directly at his midriff.
"The Earth slave who tried to slink into the building," Urga said, surprised. "How did he get up here?"
"I don't know," the Viceroy said shortly, working the gag out of his mouth. "Don't stand there like a fool. Untie me." Gratitude was not among the Viceroy's virtues.
Urga's face mottled as he hastened to obey. When Artok stood finally released, he glared heavily at Hilary and Joan. Then slowly a smile broke over his warty features, a smile that boded unutterable things. Hilary waited quietly, ready to seize the slightest opening; Joan pressed wide-eyed against his shoulder.
"Know this Earth dog?" the Viceroy jerked at Hilary.
Urga's glance was puzzled. "I told you I threw him out of the entrance, but even then I felt I had seen him before."
"You have, Cor Urga," the ruler laughed shortly. "This is the one who is responsible for the mutterings of the slaves. He slew your comrade, Gornu."
The captain started, peered into his captive's unflinching countenance.
"He's disguised!" he cried. "Let me kill him, Magnificent." He fingered his sun-tube significantly.
The Viceroy was in high good humor now.
"Not so fast. You would let him off too easy. I have a better scheme. We shall show the mutinous dogs how we treat those who revolt against our will."
A cruel smile broke over Urga.
"I understand, Magnificent. Make a public warning of him like that fool Peabody. Rip out his tongue and his eyes, smash his eardrums, and ride him from city to city, in chains."
Joan shuddered, convulsively. "No, no," she cried aloud in her terror, "don't do that. I'll tell you everything; I'll do--"
"Joan," Hilary interrupted sharply, "not another word." His arm went around her.
She collapsed against his shoulder, sobbing.
"It is too late for bargains now," the Viceroy shrugged indifferently. "We have the man we wanted. As for the other two, you will tell us where they are hiding anyway."
Urga turned to him expectantly.
"Your Magnificence," he urged respectfully, "you promised me the girl, if--"