There were at least a hundred men encamped in the narrow cleft, crowded and crowding. A tall man thrust himself forward, spare, angular.
"Welcome, Captain Morgan," he cried. "We had given up all hopes of seeing you again."
"Hello, Waters," said Grim. "Where's Lieutenant Pemberton?"
The other looked shamefaced.
"He's, gone," he muttered. "Took two hundred men with him."
Morgan's face was awful. "Disobeyed orders, did he? Where did he go?"
"To join in the attack on Great New York. Reports came in that the countryside was up in arms, moving to attack the Mercutians. I couldn't hold him. Said you were crazy, never coming back. He went, and two hundred of the boys went with him."
Grim said: "Know what happened?"
Waters shook his head. "Our radio communication went dead yesterday afternoon."
"He's dead," said Grim softly. "The others too."
A groan went up as he described swiftly the holocaust of the day before. "That was why I warned you all to wait. We can't fight them yet. But I'm forgetting...." He turned to Hilary, who had remained quietly aside. "This is Hilary Grendon, your Chief. He's the man who is responsible for the revolt. I told you about him. We all take orders from him hereafter. If anyone can beat the Mercutians, here's your man."
A babel of sound burst about him like a bomb. Men patted him on the back, shook his hand, crowded him until he was almost smothered. It was a rousing reception. The kind Hilary had dreamed of on his return from his tremendous flight through space--and had not received.
For his act of revolt, unwitting as it was, had fired the imaginations of the Earth people, who in their degradation and despair had come to believe the Mercutian overlords invulnerable. It had been the little spark that touched off a far-reaching train of events. In the few days that had elapsed Hilary had become a legendary figure.
The sparkle came back to his eyes, his brain cleared of the fog of hopelessness as he took command. Joan was lost--yes--but there was the Earth to be saved.
His orders crackled. The little gorge became a hive of activity. With Grim and Waters as efficient assistants he soon whipped the tiny company into ordered discipline. Absurdly few to fight the Mercutians, but Hilary counseled patience. They were a nucleus merely, he told them. When the time arrived to fight in the open, the peoples of the Earth would swell their ranks.
To provide against the day, he sent scouts out to filter through the surrounding villages and towns; unarmed, to all seeming meekest of the Earthlings. They stirred the embers of revolt with muted whisperings; they found trustworthy leaders in each community to organize secretly all able-bodied men; they returned with tidings of the outside world, with food and other necessities.
Sometimes they did not return. Then others went out to take their places. It was the fortune of war. Day and night a sentinel was posted in a dugout directly under the overhanging lip of the gorge. It was his duty to warn of impending attack; above all, to rake the sky ceaselessly with a crudely-contrived periscope for signs of gathering clouds, be they no bigger than a handsbreadth.
But the heavens were a brass blaze by day and a glittering mask of stars by night. Weather machine or none, in truth it seemed that it had forgotten to rain.
Hilary was hard put to it to restrain the impatience of his men. Reports drifted in from the scouts. The premature revolt had been crushed in blood and agony. New York was deserted except for the Mercutians. The country round had been ruthlessly rayed; not only had the armed bands of Earthmen been ferreted out and destroyed, but peaceful communities had been wantonly burned into the ground.
Strong reinforcements had been rushed to the Great New York territory from more peaceful sectors of the world. There were three of the terrible diskoids hovering within a radius of one hundred miles, ready to loose their hideous destruction at the slightest sign of disaffection.
But this time the spirit of the Earthmen was not broken. Their gait was springier, their glance more forthright than heretofore. For every one knew that Hilary Grendon, the prime mover, the defier of the Mercutians, had escaped. The invaders sought him ceaselessly, offering huge rewards for knowledge of his whereabouts. But there were no traitors. Even these few who knew would suffer unimaginable tortures rather than reveal him to the enemy.
"Patience," Hilary counseled his little band. "I know it is hard; I have my own scores to even. But we could only bring disaster upon ourselves and the cause of Earth's freedom by premature action. What have we? A handful of men, poorly armed. A few pistols; only, three of which can use the dynol pellets; a little ammunition. The rest of you have knives, axes, pitchforks. Poor enough weapons against the terrible rays of the Mercutians. We must wait."
Someone grumbled. "For what? Until the Mercutians finally trace our hideout and ray us out of existence?"
"We must take that chance," Hilary told him quietly. "Let it but rain, and we move at once."
"It never will," someone averred with profound conviction.
It began to seem so as the days passed, and the sun blazed pitilessly as ever. The brief night showers had ceased completely. That seemed the only effect of the weather machine's destruction. Some of the weaker spirits among the men were for disbanding. They were afraid of eventual discovery; anxious about their families, left to the tender mercies of the outlanders. Hilary argued, dissuaded, but to no effect. They were determined to go. If by the end of the week there was no action, they said, they would leave. It was Wednesday then.
Thursday and Friday passed. No change. On Saturday a scout brought breathless tidings. One of the great diskoids had crashed to the ground from its station fifty miles up in a smother of flame and flying fragments. No one knew what had happened; the Mercutians of course threw a strict censorship about the affair.
But rumors flew on winged whisperings. Some war vessel from space had attacked the Mercutian, brought it down. More diskoids were rushed to New York; there were five now menacing the territory.
Grim looked steadily at Hilary when the news was brought to them. A momentary wild hope flared in his friend's eye that died out quickly.
"I know what you're going to say," said Hilary. "You think it is Wat Tyler and Joan, somehow escaped in the Vagabond."
The giant nodded slowly. "Why not?" he challenged.
"It's impossible," muttered the other. "Where could they have been all this time? Surely they would have returned to this place. And you forget that Mercutian guard who was freed. No, my friend, they have been killed, the Vagabond seized, and that was the end to that."
Morgan shook his head skeptically.
Saturday was cloudless. Sunday morning the malcontents were to leave, to dribble back quietly to their homes. They were sullen, defiant in the face of the openly expressed scorn of the loyal men, but determined.
"No use getting ourselves killed for nothing," they muttered.
Double sentries were posted that night. A gloom hung over the camp. Hilary went to sleep heavy-hearted. This seemed the end of all his visions. Joan dead, Wat too; no hope of freeing the Earth from its slavery. If only he had the Vagabond, he'd take off again for the uncharted reaches of spaces, find some little habitable asteroid, live out the rest of his meaningless life there. With these gloomy thoughts he fell at last into fitful slumber.
He was awakened, hours later by a sudden uproar. The camp was in confusion. Sleepy voices tossed back and forth in inextricable babble. Hilary was on his feet in an instant, instinctively slipping his automatic into his blouse. Grim looked huge at his side, unperturbed.
"What's happened?" Hilary shouted to make himself heard.
"Don't know," grunted the other, "but we'll soon find out."
He pushed massively through the milling crowd of sleep-frightened men like a ship shouldering the waves, Hilary in his wake. One of the sentinels appeared suddenly before them.
"You," spat Hilary, "why aren't you at your post?"
The man saluted automatically and gasped.
"The Mercutians have come."
"What do you mean?" Hilary demanded, as a groan went up.
"One of the weak-kneed men, sir," the sentry ejaculated, "wouldn't wait until morning to make his get-away. We found him climbing out. Said it would be dangerous in broad daylight. He was in a terrible funk. We had no orders to stop anyone who wanted to leave, so we just jeered him, and let him go. My comrade leaned out to watch.
"As he hit the ground, he was bathed suddenly in light. The next instant the blackness of the night was split by a sizzling flame. It crisped the poor fellow to a cinder, and sheared the head of my comrade clean off. I caught the body, pulled it back into the dugout, but it was too late.
"I knew what had happened, sir. Some damned Mercutian flying patrol had spotted us with their search beam. I didn't wait for more, but scrambled out of the dugout as fast as I could. Up above I saw a one-man flier slanting down for me. It was a-sparkle, ready for another ray. I came down the ladder in a hurry, I tell you."
The man was panting, white-faced. Someone cried: "It's all over; they'll smother us in now."
Hilary swung around. It would take very little to start a panic.
"Stop that," he said sharply. "Now is no time to play the coward." He turned again to the sentinel.
"A one-man flier, you said?" he reflected aloud.
"Yes, sir," the other answered, "and I'll bet he's calling for help right now."
"That's just what I intend putting a stop to," said Hilary grimly. He shifted his gun to an easier drawing position, swung himself aloft on the ladder. "Take over, Grim, until I come back," he shouted down. "If I don't, send others up to get that Mercutian."
"Come down," Grim yelled after him, alarmed. "I'll go up; you're the leader here."
"That's why it's my job. So long."
The men stared up after the tiny ascending figure, lumps in their throats. They would die gladly for Hilary Grendon now; he was proving himself. Grim fumed and waited. Hilary had disappeared above the angled bend.
Driven from Cover Far overhead, Hilary climbed swiftly. He realised the seriousness of their situation. Let that Mercutian flash his message to Headquarters and there would be a swarm of fliers upon them within an hour's time. They would be caught like rats in a trap, without a chance for their lives.
He gritted his teeth and swung himself up the faster. He turned the bend. There was the dark sky above, faintly spangled with stars. The flier was not in sight. Hilary stifled an imprecation. If he had taken off, they were doomed.
He moved more cautiously now, stepping gingerly from rung to rung up the swaying ladder. The cleft widened; he was near the top. He paused. There was not the slightest sound. But Hilary was taking no chances.
With infinite slowness he raised his head over the matted underbrush that masked the entrance. For the moment he could see nothing in the pitchy blackness. Then a dim shape loomed to one side. From within it there came a tiny hum, intermittent, almost inaudible.
Hilary knew what that was: a transmitter. Even then the fatal message was winging through the ether. He did not hesitate. He lofted to the ground with one quick heave, steadied on his swaying feet as the automatic flashed into his hand.
"Throw up your hands, Mercutian," he shouted at the dimly-perceived bulk. "I have you covered." He tensed, straining his ears for any movement that might locate the hidden foe.
The tiny humming ceased abruptly. There was painful silence.
"Don't try--" Hilary commenced. He stopped, swerved his body suddenly to one side. A red glow had warned him. The hurtling ray scorched past him with a crackling blaze. Hilary was off balance, teetered, and went down with a crash into the thorny underbrush, his automatic exploding into sharp flame.
A hoarse guttural laugh came from the flier. "Got you that time, Earth dog," the invisible Mercutian taunted. There was silence. Another belt crashed from the ship, heaved the ground under its impact. Another and another. Still no break in the silence, no cry.
The Mercutian muttered to himself: "The dog is dead, all right." He peered out cautiously. The underbrush was black, sullenly quiet. Great swaths showed where the rays had swept the Earth. With a hoarse chuckle the grotesque giant climbed over the side of his ship. A search beam swung in his hand. He was in deep shadow. He swung the beam in a short arc. There was nothing, only matted vegetation. There was one thick thorny bush he noted, however, extending its bulk behind the bow of the ship. He stepped out a bit, away from the flier's shadow, and swung his beam directly at it. The invisible ray pierced through the interlacing twigs with ease. It picked out a prone figure, lying with arm extended.
The Mercutian chuckled again, but the chuckle changed almost immediately to a throaty cry of alarm. With a swiftness that went incongruously with his awkward bulk, his free arm dropped for his hand ray. There was a sharp burst of flame, a staccato bark. The Mercutian staggered, swayed with sullen pain-widened eyes, and pitched headlong forward.
The prone figure in the bush leaped up, ran for him. The Mercutian was dead, drilled through the heart. Hilary sheathed his weapon grimly. His task was done. One thing, though. How much of the message had been transmitted? He must know. He vaulted over the side of the flier, fumbled around until he found the receiving apparatus. Then he waited, dreading to hear the silence broken. A minute passed, two minutes, and Hilary breathed a sigh of relief. The message had not gotten through.
Then it came--a tiny sparking, an intermittent hum. Hilary's heart sank with hammering blows. He tried to read the signals, but they were in code, or in the Mercutian tongue, which was just as bad. It was not necessary, though. Headquarters had heard; they knew.
Hilary did not waste an instant in vain regrets. Within an hour the gorge would be a vicious trap; he must get his men out at once. What then he did not know, nor bother. There was the more immediate problem.
He went down the swinging ladder hand over hand, not pausing for the rungs. Every instant was precious now. His hands scorched, but he did not feel the pain.
His flying body collided thudding with a heavy bulk beneath. There was a grunt, the rope jerked from his hands, and two bodies fell cursing, entangled, to the ground. Luckily it was not far distant. He sprang to his feet, found Grim heaving his bulk up more slowly.
"I was coming up after you," the giant growled. "You were gone too long. That's the thanks I get."
Hilary had no time for idle talk.
"Attention, men," he snapped. "We leave at once. You have five minutes to get your arms, ammunition clips and rations, light marching order."
Without a word they scattered alertly to their tasks. It was the discipline of veterans.
"You didn't get the Mercutian?" Grim was troubled.
"I got him all right," answered his leader laconically, "but too late. His message had gone through."
Five minutes later to the dot, the camp was lined up, accoutered complete. They were silent, tense, but smartly erect. Hilary's flash glowed over them in the dark. Then he nodded approvingly.
"Fine work, men. Up that ladder, one at a time," he said. "Each man counts twenty slowly, one--two--three before he follows. Keep your distance, and move fast."
The first man sprang to the ladder, went up swiftly. Twenty seconds later, the next man's foot was on the bottom rung. Up and up they went, one after the other, each man counting off and climbing. Hilary watched them anxiously.
"Hope we make it," he muttered to Grim. "It'll take all of forty minutes to evacuate, and the Mercutians may be on us by then."
It was almost forty minutes to the dot when Hilary's head emerged from the cleft. He was the last man out. The men were lined up on a level bit, nervous, apprehensive. In spite of the discipline, heads automatically jerked upward, raked the sky for sign of the enemy.
Where to now?--thought Hilary. There were no more hiding places as perfect as the one they had just left. They were forced into the open, easy prey for the first lynx-eyed Mercutian. Sooner or later, they would be discovered, and then.... A last hopeless glance at the mocking stars. Never had man yearned more for rain, oceans and oceans of it.
Hilary roused himself. Whatever of despair he felt did not appear in his staccato orders.
"We march at once, men," he said. "Scatter formation, five paces between. At the signal, take nearest cover, and prepare for action. Forward--"