"Too late." Grim's voice was flat, controlled.
Hilary looked around sharply. "What do you mean?"
"Look." Morgan's hand swept aloft. Through the darkling night, faintly visible in the feeble starlight--there was no moon--were driving shapes, a full score of them converging upon the little band.
One look was sufficient. Mercutian fliers hurrying in response to their fellow's signal. There was no time, no chance to escape.
"Very well, men." Hilary commanded, coldly calm. "Take cover. Do not fire until I give the order."
There was instant scattering. The men dived for whatever poor bit of protection they could find: jutting rocks, tree trunks, thin thorny bushes even.
Grim and Hilary crouched together behind a great boulder.
"How many pistols are there in the crowd?" Hilary asked quietly.
"Not many. Outside of your automatic and my dynol pistol, there are two other dynols and not more than a dozen automatics. If only we had the submachine gun with us, but Wat took it along, and he's gone."
"Not much chance, I'm afraid," said Hilary; "but we'll fight it out. Here they come."
The two men crouched lower. All about them was silence; not even a leaf stirred in the heavy breathlessness.
The driving fliers were easily visible now. Ominous hurtling projectiles, coming to crush out the last vestige of revolt on the conquered planet. On they came, purposefully, directly, knowing their way; a full score, converging in a scream of wind against their bows as they dropped straight for the hidden gorge.
It seemed to the hidden watchers as though they would crash to Earth with the speed of their swoop. But at one hundred feet aloft the fliers braked their headlong flight, hovered motionlessly in echelon formation.
A moment's breathless pause--to the hiding men it seemed eternity--and all the uneven terrain, rocks, trees, bushes, the soil itself, burst into glowing white crystal clearness. The Mercutians had turned on their search beams.
Hilary gazed clear through the rock behind which he crouched as though it were a transparency. All around him he saw the prone bodies of his men, naked to the view of all and sundry.
A hoarse derisive chuckle rasped from above. Hilary sprang to his feet; further attempt at concealment was useless. As he did so, the air seemed to split in two, there was a blinding rending crash. Not ten feet from where he stood, the ground tossed in torture. A man screamed--terribly. The first blow had been struck.
Hilary burned with a cold consuming anger. "Up, men, and fire. Aim forward about three feet back of the prow." That was where the pilot would be.
A scattered burst of cheers answered him. On all sides, like crystal ghosts, the Earthmen rose to their feet. They were fighting men.
Hilary took careful aim at a flier almost directly overhead and fired. He could have sworn he hit it, but nothing happened. Grim's dynol pistol flamed redly nearby. The tracer pellet scorched upward, impacted, against the hull of a flier. There was a faint detonation, and the next instant the air was full of flying fragments.
"Got that one," he said softly.
Hilary was conscious of a faint envy. His automatic seemed like a harmless popgun against that deadly weapon. But he drew another bead and fired again. With bated breath he awaited the result. Nothing. Hilary groaned, made as if to throw the useless gun away, when the flier he had aimed at wabbled, tried to right itself, and crashed in a swift erratic loop.
By now the pitifully few weapons of the Earthmen were popping. Two more of the enemy fliers hurtled to destruction. But as at a given signal, the air above them seemed suddenly to flame destruction. With the noise of a thousand thunderbolts the massed rays struck.
The groaning Earth tossed and heaved in billowing waves to escape its torture. The trees were blazing pyres. It seemed impossible for anything that lives within that area to escape instant destruction.
Hilary felt a wave of blinding heat envelop him, and he was thrown flat to the quaking ground. Frightful cries, screams of agony, came to his dulled ears as from a great distance. He heaved himself up wearily, scorched, smoldering, but otherwise unhurt.
"Grim," he whispered through thick cracked lips. "Grim, where are you?"
"Here." Strange how tranquil he sounded. A scarecrow of a figure arose almost at his right from a smoldering bush, a giant clothed in smoking rags. In the strange illumination of the search beams he seemed the wraith of a scarecrow.
"Thank God you're alive," Hilary croaked. "The others...?"
Figures were staggering up from the holocaust about them.
Grim's practised eyes counted. "About fifty left," he said, "just one half."
Hilary's voice rose suddenly, strongly. "Keep on firing, men." Once again his pistol barked defiance.
A faint, ragged cheer answered him. A few guns flamed; there were only a handful left.
"God!" someone cried.
The massed ships above were gleaming faintly. Little shimmering sparkles ran over the hulls. They were going to ray again. Hilary went berserk, screamed strange oaths, fired again and again. Grim fired, more slowly. Two of the enemy ships left the formation, plunged headlong. But the shimmering grew brighter. In seconds the terrible bolts would be loosed. It was the end. The Earthmen knew it. They could not survive a second raying.
Grim shouted. Never before had Hilary heard him raise his voice to that pitch. His great arm was upflung. "Look!" he screamed.
The Vagabond High up, a dark blob against the feeble starlight, something was dropping; dropping with the speed of a plummet, straight for the massed Mercutian fliers. From outer space it seemed to come, a plunging ripping meteor.
A search beam must have swung hurriedly aloft, for it flamed into startling being; a spheroid, compact, purposeful, dropping with breathtaking velocity.
Something seemed to explode in Hilary's brain. A great cry wrenched out of his torn throat.
Unbelievable, impossible. Yet he could not be mistaken. The Vagabond was coming home again!
By this time the Mercutians had seen it too. It meant suicide, that rushing projectile from outer space, but it would take along with it in the crash of its flight a goodly number of the Mercutian fliers. The Mercutians were no cowards, but death stared them openly in the face.
Instantly, all was in confusion. Forgotten the rebellious Earthmen below, forgotten everything but escape from the down-rushing thunderbolt.
Hilary, staring upward, could visualize the fliers working desperately at their controls. The clustered ships vibrated like a school of frightened fish poised for instant flight. Then they were in motion; scattering, wabbling in the terror of their retreat.
The Vagabond hurtled down among them like a hawk among pigeons. Its surface glowed with the speed of its flight. To Hilary's fascinated gaze it seemed as if there would be a terrific smash. But the Vagabond came to a screaming, braking halt directly in the center of the milling, scattering Mercutians.
Almost simultaneously the air resounded with staccato bursts. Ratatat-tat-a-tat.
"Good little Wat," Grim danced insanely. "He's cutting loose the submachine gun."
Hilary woke from his amazement with a start.
"Shoot, and shoot to kill," he shouted above the turmoil. "Don't let a single one get away."
Automatics spat their leaden hail, dynol pellets flamed redly, and over all resounded the rapid drum fire of the machine gun, pouring steel-jacketed death into the confused ranks of the Mercutians.
The monster invaders had lost their heads. Even then, they could have destroyed the Earthmen with their deadly spreading rays. But the strange apparition from above had demoralized them. No one thought of fighting: flight, safety, were the only thoughts in their minds.
Flier after flier went tailspinning to horrible death while his comrades fled in all directions.
It was soon over. The greater number of the Mercutians were twisted smoldering wrecks. The few who escaped were rapidly diminishing dots in the cold starlight.
Its work finished, the rescuing space flier settled softly to the ground, in the midst of the embattled cheering Earthmen, temporarily gone insane.
The air-lock port yawned, and a slim figure darted out, straight into Hilary's outstretched arms.
Behind her danced a small red-haired individual, his homely features grinning with delight. Under his arm swung heavily a submachine gun. He disappeared almost immediately into the vast bearlike grip of his gigantic friend. His shrill voice went on unceasingly, but strangely muffled, as Grim hugged him. Finally he extricated himself, ruffled, breathless, but still talking.
"What did I tell you, you big ox?" he shrilled. "We'll chase them off the Earth, sweep 'em out into space."
"Why, you little gamecock," the giant observed affectionately, "I'm beginning to believe you can do it."
"We thought you had gone for good," said Hilary, holding Joan tightly to him as if he feared to lose her again. "What happened to you on the Robbins Building?"
"Can't get rid of us that easily, can he, Joan?" The little man smirked knowingly at the girl. "It was all very simple," he went on. "No sooner had you two left us than we heard the thud of a flier landing on the other end of the roof. The pilot looked out at us startled. We recognized each other simultaneously. It was our old friend--Urga."
Hilary clenched his fist. He had a good many scores to settle with the Cor.
Wat saw his action. "I did my best," he stated apologetically. "I ran for the machine gun. But by that time Urga had shot aloft again. Didn't seem as though he wanted to wait. I heard his whistle shrilling in the air. Fliers came thick as flies."
He spread his hands in a quaint gesture. "What could I do, Hilary?" his voice was appealing. "Any minute I expected to have a ray on us. I couldn't wait for you two, the Vagabond would have been a little pile of ashes. Besides, there was Joan. She kicked and struggled: she wanted to stay for you, but I shoved her in the ship, locked the port, and went scooting up like a rocket. You should have seen the Mercutians scatter."
For the first time in his life words seemed to fail him. "You--are--not--angry?" he fumbled, looking for all the world like a bedraggled dog who knows he has been in mischief.
"Angry?" Hilary fairly whooped. "What for? For saving the ship, Joan, all of us? Why, you little bit of pure gameness, you did the only sensible thing."
Wat grinned from ear to ear.
"But why," Grim interrupted, "didn't you have sense enough to come back here, instead of scaring everybody to death?"
Wat turned on him indignantly. "Sure," he squeaked, "and bring all the Mercutians along with me? No sir, I shot straight up into the stratosphere, and headed for the Canadian woods. Felt we'd be safe there."
Hilary looked at him. "I've heard," he said overcasually, "that an accident happened to one of the Mercutian diskoids. Know anything about it?"
The redhead grinned. "I was the accident. I wasn't staying cooped up in the wilderness. Joan and I decided we'd do some scouting before we came back; see what was happening over the rest of the world. We were returning from one of those little expeditions, cruising about fifty miles up, when we almost bumped into the diskoid. We saw them first; we had just come out of the shadow of the Earth; they were in the sun. I let them have it before they had a chance to turn on their rays. The bullets punctured them clean; must have let out their air. I didn't wait to see; ducked back into the shadow again."
"How did you get here in the nick of time?" asked Hilary suddenly. "A few minutes later and there would have been no rescue."
Wat looked, at him in some surprise.
"Why, we got your signal, of course."
"Signal?" Hilary echoed. "I never--" Then he paused. Morgan was grinning sheepishly, "Here, what do you know about this?" he queried sharply.
The giant's grin widened. "Just a little," he admitted. "I'd been playing around with my transmitter. Used some of the spare equipment we had cached for the Vagabond, and stepped up the sending radius to a thousand miles or so."
"We received your call in the woods north of Lake Ontario," Joan interrupted.
Grim nodded, gratified. "I thought it might work," he rumbled. "You see," he explained to Hilary, "ever since I heard about that diskoid, I knew that the Vagabond was responsible. But you refused to believe it. So I worked in secret, rigging up the apparatus. Didn't want to stir up false hopes. I finished it yesterday. When we were discovered, I started sending."
"It took us just ten minutes over the hour to get here from a standing start," Wat boasted. "We almost burned up the old machine smashing through the air, didn't we Joan?"
She nodded happily from her cozy position in the crook of Hilary's arm.
Hilary looked long and steadily at his friends.
"Well--" he finally began, when someone cried out sharply.
A dark shape shot over the rim of the mountainside, swooped down at them in one fierce lunge. Involuntarily the Earthmen threw themselves flat on the ground to avoid the tremendous rush of its flight. At one hundred feet it banked sharply, a circle of light gleamed, and a long blazing streamer thrust its relentless finger at the prostrate figures of the Earthmen.
There was a blinding flash, a roar. Hilary was on his feet, bullets spitting rapidly. But already the lone Mercutian flier had completed his bank, and was zooming out of range. Hilary watched the flier grow fainter and fainter in the starlit distance. Almost he could hear the far-off hoarse chuckle of its pilot.
Then he turned to survey the damage. The Earthmen were up, growling low heartfelt curses. That one blast had been catastrophic.
There on the ground lay the smoking ruins of the Vagabond, beloved companion of his space wanderings. For a moment Hilary gave way to a deep-seated despair. This was the end of all his plannings. He had built high hopes on the Vagabond in his carefully laid schemes for overcoming the Mercutians. He stood as one stunned.
Someone cried: "A curse is upon us; let us scatter before it is too late!"
It acted on Hilary like a cold shower, that cry of despair.
"No," his voice resounded strong and vibrant. "We did not need the Vagabond. It never was part of my plans." A lie, of course, but most necessary. "That Mercutian saved me the trouble of finding a hiding place for it. Come, let us march. At dawn it rains, I know it will."
"You've said that every day since the weather machine was smashed," a voice cried out from the rear.