Hilary paused, thrown off his balance momentarily. Yet a second's hesitation would be fatal. It was Joan who answered for him. She sprang forward, lithe and exalted, her dark eyes flashing even in the dark.
"I'll tell you how he knows. I myself had almost forgotten. Tomorrow is exactly two weeks since the weather machine was destroyed. My father, Martin Robbins, built it. He told me then that its effects were so powerful that they lasted for two weeks, even with the machine turned off. Only positive action could bring an immediate reversal, of weather conditions. That's how he knows."
Joan had turned the tide. The waverers turned as one man to Hilary. "Lead on! We follow!"
"Very well," he stated quietly. "We can't remain here. The Mercutians will be back soon in overwhelming force, burning for revenge. We march."
To Joan, in barely audible tones: "Is that true, what you said?"
"I--I think so. I remember Dad mentioned a time limit. I think it was two weeks."
"If it isn't, we're facing a damned unpleasant prospect to-morrow," he said grimly.
The Last Battle Dawn found the little band still struggling over the thick-forested mountains in a desperate attempt to avoid detection. They were footsore, weary, their clothes shredded by innumerable sharp thorns, their eyes bloodshot from lack of sleep. Overhead, the paling sky was already dotted with the fliers of the Mercutians; faint sounds came to them of the clumsy thrashing of enemy patrols as they beat the woods for the fugitives. The Mercutians were putting forth all their resources to seek out and destroy these irritant foci of revolt.
At length Hilary called a halt. They were in a little valley, not far from Bear Mountain. It offered some protection from the searchers. The enclosing hills would mask them, from all but search beams directly overhead.
"It is no use going any farther," he said wearily. "We all need sleep and rest. Sooner or later they'll find us, no matter where we go, and then--" He shrugged his shoulders.
The weary, panting men threw themselves down upon the ground, too tired even to eat. Immediately they were in a drugged sleep. Joan was sleeping too, her face pale drawn, but like a little child's in her slumber. Hilary watched her with a sharp pang in his heart. What would the next few hours bring to her, to all of them?
Nor did Grim and Wat sleep either. The three of them squatted on their heels, silent, as the cold dawn wind swept with a great sigh through the valley.
The stars were paling now, the purple sky was enswathing itself in pearly grays. Something glowed pinkly overhead; and was extinguished almost immediately by the prevailing gray.
Hilary started violently. "Did you see that?"
"See what?" Grim was drunk for lack of sleep.
Hilary was on his feet, peering upward. "I thought I saw--there, there it is again."
The other two were on their feet also, weariness forgotten, heads thrown back.
High overhead, in the overturned cup of the sky, an irregular pink wisp formed before their wondering eyes, and vanished again. But more slowly, than the first time.
"Well?" asked Wat, puzzled.
"A cloud." Hilary's voice was a prayer.
"Hell," said Wat disgustedly. "If that's a cloud I'm a Mercutian. There wouldn't be enough water there to moisten a canary seed."
"And even if there were it wouldn't matter now," said Grim calmly. "We're discovered."
A long slim flier shot athwart the brightening sky, paused suddenly in flight as though jerked by an invisible string. The next instant the valley was illumined by a transparent glow. It enveloped the Earthmen, made crystal figurines of the most solid among them. They seemed like wraiths through which, as in a glass, more could be seen beyond. The solid ground, the rocks, were transparencies floating in an ocean of airy nothingness. A search beam!
The flier hung steady, high overhead, holding them in the dissolving area of his beam. Too high to ray them but also too high for their futile bullets. The Mercutians no longer underrated the fighting abilities of their erstwhile slaves.
"He's sending out messages for help," observed Hilary.
"Let's take it on the run," Wat suggested.
"No good. Where could we run to that his beam couldn't follow?"
"Well, we can only die once," Wat observed cheerfully.
"And take as many Mercutians with us as we can," Grim amended. "That's one lucky thing. Their rays have no greater range than our bullets."
"Except the diskoids," said Hilary. "Here's your chance, Wat, to play with your rattle."
The red head, who had lugged the heavy machine gun all the way with him, patted its snout affectionately. "It plays the devil's tattoo," he said.
More fliers materialized in the by now brighter blue of early morning. The sun was just peeping over the serrated tops of the mountains. But still they did not attack.
"Afraid of us," Wat chuckled. "Bet they'll send to Mercury for the whole damn army before they come for us."
The first shock was over. With the inevitable staring them in the face, the men had achieved something of a gay recklessness. Hilary found some natural recessions under overhanging masses of rocks that would afford protection from the searing power of the rays. To be effective, the fliers would have to land in the valley or fly low, thus exposing themselves to the raking fire of the Earthmen's weapons. Hilary posted his little band skilfully underneath these natural shelters in such a way that they would be able to command the bit of sky from every angle.
The men jerked and fidgeted. The heavens darkened with massed fliers, and still they came. The Mercutians were taking no chances.
"Plenty of guests at our funeral," Wat chuckled, sighting along the barrel of his gun.
Hilary left the jesting to the others. He was watching the skies intently.
Joan slipped her arm through his. "You see something that we don't. What is it?"
He nodded with an intent frown. "There are clouds forming up there. The first I've seen since I came back to this planet. Rain clouds, too, if I know anything about it. Look."
Joan tilted her head backward. Thin scuds of vapor darted across the sky, driven by the morning breeze; dissolved and reformed a little farther on. Tenuous wisps, evanescent, wraithlike. The sun shone steadily, unobscured.
"Those little things," said Joan unbelievingly. "Why, if that's all you're depending on, we're finished."
"Nevertheless they are rain clouds. But when the rain will come is another matter. Very likely too late."
Grim came hurriedly over from his post near the entrance to the little valley. His face was placid as ever, but his eyes were worried.
"We are being surrounded," he stated calmly.
Hilary sprang to his feet. "What do you mean?"
"Listen. Do you hear it?"
Far down the overgrown trail they had followed into the valley came the noise of heavy stumbling feet, innumerable feet.
"They are taking no chances," said Grim, his countenance unchanged.
Hilary looked swiftly around. The valley was a cul-de-sac, surrounded on three sides of its narrow oblong by precipitous hills. From the fourth side, the Mercutians were coming--an army, from the sound of them. Overhead were a hundred fliers, and more coming. The trap was sprung!
Hilary's voice rang out. "All men without guns down the valley to repel invaders. Those with guns remain at your positions; watch the fliers. Wat Tyler in command."
With a joyous cry the Earthmen started for the narrow mouth of the valley, all without guns. Gone was the helpless feeling of before; now they could fight too. Axes, spades, pitchforks, sticks and stones even, were their weapons.
Hilary thrust his automatic into Joan's hand. "You use it, dear. I won't need it. Come on, Grim."
Morgan smiled slowly, handed over his dynol pistol without a word to a weaponless man and stalked after his leader. His great hand clutched and unclutched unconsciously. This was what he wanted, hand-to-hand fighting.
By the time they reached the foot of the valley, the noise of the oncoming Mercutians sounded like the rumbling of thunder. Secure in their numbers there was no thought of concealment.
The Earthmen were pitifully few, only thirty of them, and wretchedly armed. Hilary disposed of them up the slope of the hill on either side, set them to loosening jutting boulders. He was in command on one slope. Grim on the other.
In a minute the Mercutians would be upon them. A simultaneous attack, no doubt; the fliers dropping low to loose their deadly rays from above as the land force attacked with their hardly less deadly hand rays.
Hilary shot a last hasty glance aloft. His heart gave a great bound. The thin insubstantial vapors of a little before had solidified, taken on a grosser leaden hue. The sky was a sullen gray, shot through intermittently with the broad flares of a sun valiantly struggling to reassert its long undisputed sway. Little flickers of lightning played around the ragged edges of the clouds.
To the most unobservant it was evident now that a storm was in the making. But might it not be too late? The sun still shone, and as long as its light pierced through, the weapons of the Mercutians held all their deadly potency.
The alien invaders sensed the urgent necessity for quick action, for the fliers were dropping now, hundreds of them, to within range. Hilary heard the shouted orders of the Mercutians Cors, the crashing forward of a mighty host, and then the front of the attack burst out of the trees in an engulfing flood of gigantic unwieldy bodies and gray warty faces.
A quick view of the stout ungainly Viceroy, Artok, another of the coldly saturnine visage of Urga in the front rank, and with a roar of gutturals, the attack was on.
Down from above came a myriad blinding flashes, turning the inclosed valley into an inferno of heat and rocking, boiling, shattered ground. Up the valley shot the massed hand rays of the hundreds as they swept along in close-packed trot.
It seemed as if nothing could exist in that blazing, screaming hell. Hilary, stunned, shaken, scorched, felt as if he were the only one alive. Yet as the front of the attack washed up before him, he did not hesitate. He sprang to his feet, swung the nicely hefted long-handled ax he had picked up, uttered a war whoop that went back to remote ancestors, and flung himself headlong into the boiling mass of Mercutians.
As he did so, he caught a fleeting, comforting glimpse of Grim rising to his full height on the other slope, huge hands raised, and crashing down barehanded, silent, into the ranks of the enemy. A cheer went up, a faint ragged cheer, and other figures popped up out of nowhere and dropped feet first into the fray.
Hilary found himself engulfed in a welter of figures that towered heads above him. His ax swung up and down, bit into something soft and yielding. The Mercutian screamed horribly; blood spouted from his wide-split shoulder. He fell stumbling to his knees, and Hilary stepped into the little open space. That gave him more elbow room. A furious towering monster swung his tube around in the press. Hilary ducked as the sizzling ray sped over his head. There were howls of pain as the spreading beam cut a burning swath through the packed Mercutians.
Thereafter no more tubes were raised. The quarters were too close. It was to be hand-to-hand fighting; thousands of giant Mercutians against a handful of puny Earthmen.
Hilary swung his red-dripping ax in ever-widening circles. At every swing a Mercutian tumbled. A little space opened around him, literally hewn out of living flesh. But with strange fierce cries he threw himself again and again into the wall of bodies. There and there only was salvation possible where the sun-tubes could not be used.
Far over to one side he caught glimpses of bodies in violent upheavings, bodies that thrust explosively to either side as from the sharp prow of an invisible ship. Then a great figure heaved staggering into view, bloody, gashed, great arms encircling Mercutian heads, smashing them together like eggshells, flinging them apart, seizing others. Grim Morgan, berserk with bare hands.
Here and there in his own travail Hilary sighted little foci of struggle, Earthmen with ax and pitchfork and spade battling valiantly in a sea of Mercutians. A swirl, an eddy, and all too often a sudden surge and flowing of gray warty faces, and smooth rippleless heads where an Earthman had gone down, trampled into pulp.
Hilary's first rush with swinging flashing ax had caught the Mercutians unawares. They had relied upon their sun-tubes, and in the melee succeeded only in inflicting frightful havoc on their own kind. Now, however, they came for Hilary in a solid mass, huge three-fingered hands flailing, seeking to thrust him down by sheer weight of numbers. He swung and swung again, the ax bit deep, but still they came. His arm grew weary from so much slaughter, it rose more and more slowly, and then it rose no more. The bloody ax was wrenched from his nerveless fingers, and he was down, smothered by innumerable trampling bodies. Over him the tide swirled smooth. Heavy feet kicked and battered at his body, hands reached down to pluck and rip at him.
Feebly he tried to fend them off, but the shodden hoofs smashed him down again, gouged at his unprotected face. He struggled, but soon he would not struggle any more.
From afar came to his dimming ears below, a huge shout that shook the ground. Feet pounded him down into semi-unconsciousness; there was a mighty shuffling to and fro over him, and then the feet were gone. A huge well-remembered hand, caught him, heaved him upright. It was Grim. His face was a wreck, battered out of all semblance, but those blue mild eyes were flaming with an unholy light.
Hilary tottered, and the giant shook him.
"Wake up," he bawled; "they're coming again."
With a great effort Hilary cleared his numbed brain, saw the resurgence of the temporarily beaten herd. His fists clenched automatically.
"Good boy," Grim whooped. "Let's get them."
Then they were engulfed, fighting back to back. Hilary seemed to be fighting in a dream. He never had a clear conception of what happened. Faces thrust themselves into his own, furious, contorted; his fist went out mechanically, thudded against something soft, and the face disappeared. Hands reached plucking for him; he thrust them off, and swung left and right again.
Once he looked dully upward. The sky was gray slate now, festooned with bellying black. No sign of the sun; not the least ray could pierce. The fliers hung aimless overhead, no sparkle to their hulls. The valley was dark too; the terrible rays had ceased raking it with an inferno of heat.
Just before he lowered his upflung face to smash his fist into another face, something wet blobbed on his forehead. A raindrop? Perhaps, but he was too far gone to care now. Life was an endless series of howling Mercutians to thrust fists into.
A cheer rose high, punctured by quick sharp explosions of sound. Guns. Those few remaining of the fighting Earthmen farther up the valley, no longer menaced by the futile fliers, had come down to help their weaponless brethren. Wat's voice was shrill in the land, yelling, exhorting, screaming. A familiar rat-a-tat-a-tat came down the wind. The submachine gun was spitting steel-jacketed death. Where was Joan? Hilary wondered wearily.
A face towered over him, a face he knew. Urga. The Mercutian was no longer impassive; his gray countenance was distorted with hideous hate. "I'll break you in two," he mouthed, and lunged for Hilary.
The Earthman came out of his daze at the sight of the other. Strength seemed to flow back into his weary body. His fist came up, clean with all the power that was left in him. It went home with a soul-satisfying crunch. Urga's gray gash of a mouth seemed to smear slowly over the rest of his face. A wild animal scream burst from him as he sagged. Then a swirl of other Mercutians anxious to get at the Earthman eddied him out of view.
Hilary felt better. Now he could die content. Even with their guns, what could a handful of Earthmen do against the resistless, ever-coming tide of Mercutians, thousands of them?
It was raining now, slowly at first, large scattered drops, then heavier and heavier, until the fogged air was a driving sheet of water.
What of it?--thought Hilary bitterly as he fought and slipped and stumbled in the slimy, bloody muck that was now the ground. The Mercutians' weapons were useless, but they did not need them any more. Sheer numbers would overwhelm the Earthmen.
Then to his amazement something happened. The heavens, long outraged by the artificial repression of the weather machine, kicked over all traces and opened their sluices in earnest. The sky was one vast waterfall. The elements roared and rocked; the valley was knee deep already in a spate of waters.
Hilary splashed and waded after his enemies. But they were going. They staggered and trembled in every shaking limb, heedless now of the Earthmen. They slipped and fell into the flood, and stayed there, motionless under the waters. Like Pharaoh's army they were being drowned before the amazed Earthmen's very eyes.
On their own planet it never rained; there was no water except for carefully hoarded underground lakes. This first taste of real Earth weather was too much for them. They could not withstand the driving rain, the water swirling round their knees. All the strength went out of their shaggy frames, their knees buckled and down they went, helpless, destroyed by a natural phenomenon to which they were unaccustomed. They had actually been smothered by the humidity!