"Yes, take her." The Viceroy waved a weary hand. "I don't want her; I have too many as it is."
The captain's face lit up with an unhealthy glow. He approached eagerly to seize his prize. Joan gave a little cry of dismay, and shrank closer to her lover.
Hilary tensed in every muscle. Though it meant instant death, he would not permit that towering brute to lay his clumsy paw on Joan.
Urga reached out to clasp the frightened girl. Hilary seemed to uncoil. His fist shot straight up with all the power of his body behind it. It crashed into the jutting jaw of the Mercutian like a charge of high explosive dynol. For all his height and massive strength, the giant toppled over, thudding heavily against the floor.
For the moment Hilary saw freedom ahead. The sun-tube had fallen from the nerveless fingers. He darted for it with the speed of a striking snake. Even as his fingers curled around the handle, there came a roar from the Viceroy.
"Drop it, or I'll cut you in two."
Hilary knew when he was beaten. Slowly, reluctantly, his fingers uncurled. He arose, to meet the gleaming opening of the Viceroy's weapon, and the surprised stare in back of it.
Urga got up groggily, feeling gingerly the tender point of his jaw. There was unfathomable hatred in his lidless eyes.
The Viceroy chuckled throatily.
"I never thought, Cor Urga, to have seen a puny Earthman, a mere midget, overcome a Mercutian. Especially you, a winner of the prize of strength three times running in the arenas."
Urga flushed darkly.
"It was an unexpected blow; it caught me unawares," he said heatedly. "I'll break the slave in two."
"Try it--without your sun-tube," said Hilary laconically.
The captain made a movement toward him.
"Leave him alone," Artok cried sharply. He seemed to enjoy his Captain's discomfiture. "I have other plans for him. Now go. Take the girl with you. I'll watch this presumptuous Earthling."
Urga advanced with an evil grin. Hilary thrust Joan suddenly behind him; crouching like a cat. He would go down fighting. For all his bulk, the Viceroy wheeled on his flank, raised his weapon.
"One false move, and you are dead carrion," he said coldly. His weapon was raised. Hilary was caught between two fires, exposed to the searing blasts that would issue at the slightest pressure.
Nevertheless he intended to strike. A sudden swerving jump, and he might throttle one before he would be blasted into nothingness. It would be Urga, he decided grimly. He tensed for the final desperate, suicidal spring. The two Mercutians were watching him like unsheathed hawks.
"Good-by, Joan," he whispered, and his muscles went taut.
Urga paused, his weapon came up sharply. One little pressure, and-- * * * * *
There was a commotion in the outer hall, the sound of padding feet. The four in the master room froze into immobility. Two Mercutian guards stumbled panting into the room. They came to a jerking halt, threw themselves prone upon the floor, arms outstretched in obeisance.
"May we speak, oh Magnificent?" they asked humbly.
"Say your say," the Viceroy said crossly.
They rose to their feet heavily, and one of them spoke.
"The Earth dogs are revolting. The Cors of the outlying districts report that the slaves are massing and are marching on Great New York. They are armed with Earth weapons. The Cor of the Third District reports two men responsible--one is a giant among them, almost as tall as our own kind; and the other a puny red-haired firebrand. The Cor has tried to capture them, but they are elusive. Even the search beams cannot disclose their hiding place."
Hilary's heart gave a great bound. Grim and Wat had not waited then.
The Viceroy's face darkened with anger.
"The filthy scum," he growled; "this morning's lesson was not enough. This time I'll slay, burn, smash until there isn't a single rebel left. I'll fertilize their damned Earth with their own black blood. You, Cor Urga," he snapped, "transmit my orders to the Cors of the Hundreds. They are to mobilize their men at once, and proceed in accordance with instructions known to them as General Order One. All conveyors to be stopped except for troop movements. Every slave found with weapons, or acting suspiciously, to be slain on the spot. Flying patrols to scatter in pairs, observe for concentrations of slaves. Ray any gathering without warning. Inform Cor Algor of the Tora (this was the great armed diskoid of the Mercutians that had previously reduced Great New York, Hilary found out afterwards) to resume his station over the city, ready to act when I give the signal."
Even in the conflict of emotions, Hilary marveled at the unhesitating, snapped flow of orders. The Viceroy, in spite of his seeming gross lethargy, was a soldier, and an efficient one to boot.
"Yes, Magnificent." Urga bowed low, and departed, thrusting a malignant glance at Hilary.
The Viceroy thrust off from him his bright yellow robes, wriggled his vast bulk swiftly into a close-fitting dull-gray tunic. To his belt he fastened little round knobs; the sun-tube dangled swankily at one side. He was accoutered for battle.
He seemed to have forgotten the existence of the Earthlings.
"You," he snapped to one of the waiting guards, "go to the laboratory at once; convey my strict orders to Cor Eela that the weather machine must function perfectly. There must be no slip-up--his life will answer for it."
"Yes, oh Magnificence." The guard prostrated himself once more, then departed hastily.
Vast echoes resounded in Hilary's mind. "Weather machine--weather machine," he puzzled, holding Joan the tighter. There was more to this than met the eye. He must think.
The Viceroy turned suddenly, stared at them, fingering his tube.
"I could of course have you killed at once," he thought aloud, "and have no further trouble; but then Urga would be angry." His lidless eyes rested fleetingly on Joan. "And I would lose my public warning to the few Earth dogs who will survive. If it weren't that I needed them to till the fields, and work the machines, I would not leave a single one alive."
He seemed to come to a decision. "You'll wait my return." He spoke sharply to the guard. "Bind them up well. Thrust gags into their mouths." He grimaced. "I can taste mine yet. And remember, if they escape, just turn that sun-tube of yours on yourself. It will be pleasanter for you. Understand?"
The obsequious guard caught hold of Hilary, under the watchful tube of Artok, and proceeded with clumsy weighted fingers to tie him up. Hilary did not resist. An idea was slowly forming in his mind. Joan's turn came next.
When they were trussed so tightly that neither could move, the Viceroy smiled mockingly. "We shall meet again, Earth dogs," he said, and was gone.
Rescued The guard looked at his captives sourly, kicked viciously at Hilary to relieve his feelings. There was fighting to be had outside; Earth slaves to be tortured and slain, and he was out of it--wet nurse to a couple of prisoners.
He growled disconsolately. Through an open slide window giving out on the terrace, a confused roaring, a babel of sounds came filtering through. There was trouble below--fighting already, very likely. The Mercutian glanced back at his bound and gagged prisoners. They were immobile, helpless. He looked guiltily about. The great room was bare, silent. With almost furtive movements he opened the door leading to the terrace, stumbled out, and was leaning over the parapet, absorbed in the spectacle of Great New York below.
Instantly, Hilary lifted his head, exerting to the utmost his muscles. He could just see the guard's back, strained over the side. Hilary relaxed rolled painfully over to Joan. She stared at him wide-eyed.
If only he could make her understand. He must get the gag out of his mouth. Every moment was precious; the guard might return momentarily. He screwed his face into tremendous contortions, wiggled his feet as much as he could, worked his jaws, trying desperately to convey his meaning.
Joan watched him puzzled; trying to follow those strange contortions. Beads of perspiration started on his brow as her face registered blank incomprehension. Just as he was giving up in despair, she grasped the idea. Her face brightened, and her shapely head nodded stiffly.
The trussed-up pair started at once to pivot around on the floor. Fortunately the composition was polished, affording little friction. With infinite pains the maneuver was completed. They lay side by side now. Joan's trim feet close to Hilary's head.
Writhing and contorting, she worked the sharp heel of her foot against the thick wad of the gag in Hilary's mouth, and pushed. It was solidly tied, but it gave a little. Encouraged, she redoubled her efforts, pushing with all the limited force of her bound limbs.
The yielding gag cut cruelly, the sharp heel scraped and gouged into Hilary's cheeks, but he did not mind. He was in a fever of apprehension. If only the guard's interest were held by the events below until he had accomplished what he intended!
At last his mouth was free. The gag had been pushed over his nose. Joan rolled away. She had accomplished the task Hilary had set her, but she was still puzzled. What earthly good would it do him to talk?
She found out almost immediately. He was twisting his head, burrowing with his nose against the blouse over his right shoulder. The open tunic give a bit, and he burrowed painfully, Joan watching with growing fascination, until one of the binding wires stopped further progress. But it seemed far enough, judging from the satisfied illumination in Hilary's eyes.
He spoke, his mouth pressed close against the shoulder blade, his tones queerly muffled, thick.
"Grim Morgan, Wat Tyler, Grim Morgan, Wat Tyler," he whispered over and over again. He could not hear if there was any response; his ears were muffled now by the spread gag. He could not help that.
"Grim Morgan, Wat Tyler," he muttered monotonously, "Hilary Grendon calling. Held prisoner with Joan, top of Robbins Building. Guarded. Urgent you free us. Artok has sent out general death orders. I have plan to stop him. Come, quickly."
Over and over he murmured the message, hoping desperately they would hear him in the communication disks strapped to their shoulders.
"Come quickly," he repeated; and then the guard, tiring of the view below, or the streets having been cleared of rebels, came softly into the room. Hilary's head jerked quickly back, the shoulder of his tunic falling back into position.
"Here, what's this?" the guard growled suspiciously, catching sight of the displaced gag. "How on Mercury did you do that?"
He knelt swiftly, thrust the gag back into position with ungentle paw, kicked the unresisting form in the side to show his displeasure, and rose. Hilary's heart pounded; the guard had not seen the inconspicuous disk under the tunic. He was in an agony of expectation. Had his comrades caught his message? Could they rescue him even if they had? Questions that only time could answer.
The guard was alert now; he did not like that queer removal of the gag. There would be no further chance to unbind themselves. What seemed hours passed as they lay cramped, immobile.
The air grew thick and warm, or was it only his imagination? No, for the guard felt it, too. Then something buzzed, intermittently. One long, two short. It seemed to emanate from a round black button on the sleeve of his gray tunic. A signal!
The guard exclaimed something in guttural Mercutian, rose hastily, and closed the open door and window. He pressed another button, and sheeted lead curtains rolled swiftly over the vita-crystal roof, darkening the room, cutting off the rays of diffused sunlight. Then he seated himself not far from the captives, facing them, grinning savagely. Hilary wondered why.
Again what seemed hours passed. Behind the lead curtain, the room had become definitely, uncomfortably warm. The Earthlings perspired; the atmosphere was literally steaming; and in their cramped limbs, the torture was fast becoming unbearable. Only the Mercutian guard did not seem to mind. He was accustomed to far higher temperatures on the arid planet that was his home.
Just as the prisoners were gasping almost their last gasp, the heat seemed to recede, swiftly. At once the guard rolled back the leaden shade opened the door and window again. His grin was broadly triumphant. Something clutched at Hilary's heart; he understood now. The beastly invaders! He struggled furiously at his bonds, but they did not give. He ceased his efforts, panting.
The moments passed. Hilary was giving up whatever slender hopes he had had. Wat and Grim had not heard, or if they did, they could do nothing. A slow, sullen despair enveloped him.
He was watching the guard. That gray-faced giant turned his head suddenly, jumped up as fast as his lumbering alien weight could move, snatched at his sun-tube.
"Don't move an inch, if you want to live," a deep, slow voice vibrated through the room. A well-remembered voice. Hilary would have laughed aloud his relief, but he was gagged. His comrades had not failed them.
The guard dropped his half-raised weapon sullenly, staring at the intruders in dazed incomprehension. Hilary jerked his head around. Framed in the doorway was Grim--good old Grim--a long-barreled dynol pistol steady in his hand. From behind him there darted a little figure, red-haired, freckled, shrill with delight. An old-fashioned submachine gun, abstracted from some museum, weighed heavily under his arm.
It clattered unheeded to the floor as the bantam dived for Hilary and Joan.
"We came as fast as we could when we got your message," he crowed. "Dropped everything." His nimble fingers were making havoc of the knotted bonds, while his nimbler tongue wagged on. "Boy, we have them on the run. We'll sweep them out into space by the time we're through."
Hilary and Joan were free now. Very painfully they rose to their feet, stamping and pounding their arms to make the sluggish blood circulate again. Wat hopped about in his excitement.
"Here, you little runt," Grim's voice boomed at him, "stop jumping around, and tie up this Mercutian. We have no time to waste."
Wat groaned comically. "See how that big ox orders me around," he proclaimed, but he picked up the wire and in a trice had the guard helpless and glaring.
Hilary had recovered his speech.
"Thanks, boys," he told them simply. "I knew you'd come if it was humanly possible. But how did you manage to get through the Mercutians? The building is honeycombed with them."
Morgan grinned. "We came in the Vagabond," he said.
"What," almost yelled Hilary, "you mean--"
"That your ship is resting comfortably outside on the terrace. When little Wat here caught your message in the communication disk, we were busy organizing companies of Earthmen in the hills back of Suffern. As recruits poured in, we'd tell them off in hundreds, appoint officers, see that they had arms, or gave them directions where to find the old caches, and hustled them off. Had to shift our quarters continually, because Mercutian fliers would pick us up with their search-beams, and start raying. Had some close shaves. But when we heard you were caught, we turned over the command to the nearest new officer, hurried to the gorge, and here we are. The Vagabond handled beautifully."
"I could take her myself to the Moon," Wat boasted.
"Hadn't we better be going?" Joan asked anxiously.
"There is work first to be done," Hilary, answered grimly. "There's a certain weather machine in the laboratory I want to take a look at."
"Weather machine?" Grim echoed, puzzled.
"Yes. The Viceroy let something slip about it. For some reason it's very important to them that it continues to function. I'm curious."
A gasp from Joan. Surprised, the men turned to her.
"Of course," she said breathlessly. "Father had been working on it for the longest time. It was a machine to control weather. Something to do with broadcasting tremendously high voltages, ionizing the air and causing rain clouds to form or reversing the process and scattering clouds back into thin air. This was the Master Machine. All over the Earth, at spaced distances, were smaller replicas, substations, controlled from this one. He had great hopes of furnishing equable weather to all the Earth. It was just completed, when...." She trailed off.
Grim frowned. "Very interesting, but what is so terribly important about it now?"
"You fool," Hilary exploded, "it's as important as hell. Don't you see? What are the Mercutians' weapons? Sun-tubes, sun-rays from their fliers, tremendous burning disks that are their space-ships. Sun--sun--everything they have depends upon the sun. Take away the sun, and what have they? Nothing but their hideous giant bodies--they are weaponless. Now do you see?" He fairly shouted at him.
Grim's face lit up heavily; Wat was dancing insanely.
"Get hold of the machine, reverse the process. Make it form clouds, great big woolly ones. Start a rain that'll make the Deluge look sick; forty days--a year--and we'll drown them all," Wat cried.
"Exactly," Hilary nodded. "Joan darling, you and Wat get into the Vagabond, and wait for us. Grim and I will take care of the laboratory."