The great hand clenched tighter. "Now I know you are crazy, or--Who are you?" he ended abruptly.
"Hilary Grendon--Hilary Grendon," rumbled the other in manifest perplexity. It was evident the name meant nothing to him.
This then was the homecoming he had dreamed of in the unfathomable reaches of space. Hilary thought bitterly. Five short years and he was already forgotten. Then the irony of it struck him, and he laughed aloud.
"Yes," he said. "Five years ago I led the Grendon Expedition to explore interplanetary space in the space-ship I had invented. I've come back--alone."
It was amazing to watch long-overlaid memories struggling up through the subconscious. At last the giant spoke.
"Oh, yes," he said meditatively, "I seem to remember something about it." He surveyed Hilary with a new interest. "So you were one of those chaps, eh?"
The explorer admitted it, humbly. Of such are the uses of fame.
"Well, now," said the giant, "that might explain it. Though it sure beats all." And he shook his head as though he still did not understand.
"Who is that man?" Hilary stabbed a forefinger at the blind man, who sat immobile as before, his worn etched face ever to the front. "It's monstrous. Amos Peabody shall hear of it."
The Colossus looked at him mildly.
"That," he said, "is Amos Peabody!"
Silence lay like a live thing between them. Hilary whirled in a kaleidoscope of emotion. Was this wasted, tortured being the portly, dignified President of the United States who had bade him Godspeed at the start of his tremendous journey five years before? His pitying eyes searched the lineaments of the poor wretch. There was no doubt of it now; it was Amos Peabody.
Hilary gripped his informant's arm. His voice was deadly calm. "I want the truth about this, and I want it fast."
"The truth," echoed the big man with strange laughter; "now that is something--"
His eyes widened over Hilary's shoulder. With a swiftness remarkable in one of his bulk he shook off Hilary's restraining grip, caught him by the shoulder and thrust him, all in one motion, into a chair several removed from Peabody. In a trice his huge bulk was safely ensconced in the adjoining one.
Hilary's hand went to the butt of the automatic within his blouse. The giant saw the movement. He leaned forward.
"Don't make a move," he warned, "the guard is coming."
"You'll see fast enough. Appear unconcerned if you value your life. Don't look back."
Hilary complied. His face became an expressionless mask as he lounged in his chair, but his thoughts seethed and boiled. What terrible mystery had enveloped the Earth during his absence? Why was Amos Peabody tortured and made into a public mockery?
There was a slight whirring noise behind him. Heedful of his companion's admonition he relaxed in apparent unconcern, but his hand stole once more to the fold in his blouse. His long fingers rested caressingly upon the butt of his automatic. There were still three good Earth bullets in the chamber.
The whirring ceased. There was a slight jar as of something landing on the speeding conveyor. Yet Hilary did not look back, though his grip tightened. A heavy body stumbled toward them, cursing in strange phrases. It passed from behind, came to a halt before the giant. Hilary shot a sharp glance upward from under veiled lids. An exclamation sprang full-throated to his lips, died unheard under a tremendous effort of his will.
Before them stood a being--it could not be called a man. He was no denizen of the Earth, that was evident, yet Hilary had visited all the planets outward from our own without encountering such a monster.
He hulked before them like a behemoth, even dwarfing Hilary's companion with his enormous stature; but it was noticeable that he supported his weight ill, as if Earth's gravitation was too strong for him. Manlike he was in every essential, but the skin of his face was a pasty dull gray, and ridged and furrowed with warty excrescences. Two enormous pink eyes, unlidded, but capable of being sheathed with a filmy membrane, stared down at them with manifest suspicion. A gray, three-fingered hand held an angled tube significantly. A lens gleamed transparent in the sunlight from the open end.
Hilary did not move under the stare, nor did his companion. The mild blue eyes were childlike as ever. The guard's gaze shifted from them to the trembling figure of Amos Peabody. He bent over him, thrust at him with ungentle hand. The automatic under Hilary's fingers crept farther out from the blouse, but a warning gesture from his companion stopped him.
The guard amused himself with shaking the blind man; then he bent suddenly. He had seen the broken links. With ominous deliberation he turned his vast weight upon them. His baleful pink eyes fastened upon Hilary's companion.
"You!" he growled throatily, "what do you know about this?" He spoke in English, but it was obviously not his native tongue.
Mildly innocent was the giant's face.
"I know nothing, Magnificent," he said humbly. "I am on my way to Great New York on my own insignificant affairs, and I bother my head with nothing else."
"The bonds of this dog, Peabody, have been severed," the guard insisted, "and recently, too. Speak up, Earthman, or--you know the penalty."
"I know the penalty," he answered respectfully, "but I have been seated here only five minutes, and I know nothing of this Peabody."
The guard fingered his tube.
"Let me see your tag," he said suddenly.
The other opened his blouse obediently and exposed a thin copper disk suspended on his chest. The guard tugged at it brutally to bring it within range of his vision. The pull jerked the giant's head forward, and the thin metal strand cut cruelly into the back of his neck. Hilary saw a flush of red sweep like a wave up to his forehead, and the mild blue eyes turned hard like glinting blue pebbles. But not a word escaped his lips.
"Grim Morgan," the guard read, "A46823 Great New York. Pah, what barbarous names you Earthmen have." He shoved the giant back heavily into his seat, and turned his baleful glare upon Hilary.
"You, what do you know about this?"
Grim Morgan interposed hastily. "Nothing, Magnificent. He came on the express conveyor after I did."
The guard's free hand went back. Very deliberately he struck him across the face with three ridged fingers. An angry welt raised.
"That will teach you to keep your mouth shut when not spoken to."
The big man's eyes were mild, but his hands tensed as though they were curled around a throat. He said nothing.
The guard turned to Hilary again. "Answer me," he barked.
"My friend told the truth," Grendon said simply.
"I have none."
Suspicion flared openly in the pink eyes.
"Where is it?"
"I never had one."
"Ah!" There was a world of meaning to the exhalation. "You know of course that every Earthman must be registered. The penalty for non-obedience is--death."
The angled tube came up with the swiftness of light. Grim Morgan cried out sharply, lunged out of his seat. Hilary tore at his gun, knowing sickeningly that the draw would be slower than the action of the strange weapon in the guard's hand.
There was a sneer on the monster as he pressed something on the tube. Hilary's automatic was only half out of his blouse. Grim's lunge would never reach in time. He was too far away.
The Death of Amos Peabody Just how any inkling of what was happening penetrated the pain-swept consciousness of the blind and deaf President could never be determined. Possibly a thin repercussion of Grim's cry, possibly an intuition that comes to sense-bereft men. But he had jerked spasmodically erect. There was a sharp tinkling as the weakened leg links broke. He threw himself in a queer, awkward movement forward, directly in the path of the tubed weapon. A blinding beam flashed out of the orifice, sheared through Peabody's middle as though he were cut cleanly in half with a gigantic knife. He toppled in two sections to the floor of the conveyor--released from all humiliation, all suffering.
At the same time two other things happened. Grim Morgan hit the guard like a crashing thunderbolt and Hilary's gun barked once. The monster tottered under the impact. A puzzled expression flitted over his pinkish eyes, a filmy sheath spread over them like a veil, and he fell heavily, a neat bullet hole square between his eyes.
Hilary shoved the gun back in his blouse, and stared alternately at the huddled form of the grotesque being and all that remained of Amos Peabody. The old President had saved his life at the cost of his own. Instinctively his hand went up in formal salute to the gallant old man.
Grim Morgan shook him by the shoulder.
"Man," he said quietly, "we have killed a Mercutian guard. Within the hour we shall be dead men too."
Hilary looked up at him sharply.
"A Mercutian," he echoed. "You mean--"
"That for three years now the Earth has been a conquered province of these devils from Mercury," Grim interposed swiftly. "We have committed the unforgivable offense and must pay for it."
Hilary glanced swiftly around. The express conveyor was clear of passengers for over a hundred yards each way. All the people within range had cleared off when Hilary had attempted to release Peabody. The small figure of a man got up from his chair beyond the charmed circle, and was threading his way forward. The local conveyors seemed to be moving backward at graded speeds. Beyond was the open country, gradually thickening into scattered rows of crystal buildings. They were in the suburbs of Great New York. Within ten minutes the conveyor terminal would be reached.
Hilary's eyes flicked speculatively to the tiny cigar-shaped boat in which the dead guard had flown down to them. Its smooth gray-gleaming surface was devoid of wings or other lifting devices. Only a fan-shaped fin projected from the stern like the tail of a fish. The cockpit, if such it could be called, was tiny, just ample enough to accommodate the Mercutian's girth. The sunlight dazzled back from a bewildering jumble of tiny lenses inset in the instrument board. Arranged along the hull, on either side, were larger disks of the same quartz-like material.
"Let's get away in the flier," he said.
"Can't," Grim said. "Those lenses you see on the instrument board are the controls. No one knows how to operate them except the Mercutians. Our people managed to capture a few, but couldn't do a thing with them."
Hilary stared at the motionless flier with interest. "What are those round glass disks stretched along the hull in a double row?" he asked. "They look like burning glasses."
"That's just what they are," said Grim sadly. "The top row are sun-lenses, that throw a terrible ray for a distance of two to three hundred feet. Melts everything in its path--men trees, rocks even. You saw one in action in the sun-tube with which poor old Peabody was cut in half. The lower row of lenses on the flier are search beams."
"Search beams?" Hilary echoed inquiringly.
"Yes. They act like X-rays, more powerful though, and with the further property of rendering everything they touch transparently crystal for depths of ten to fifteen feet. Lead is the only element they can not penetrate. Another secret our scientists can not fathom, so they talk learnedly about the stream of rays polarizing the structure of matter along a uniaxis."
"Can't those lenses be duplicated, and turned as weapons against the Mercutians?"
"No. They are made of a peculiar vitreous material native to Mercury."
"And no one has found out the principle on which they work?"
"Well, there have been theories. We haven't many scientists left, you know. But the most popular one is that these lenses have the power of concentrating the rays of the sun to an almost infinite degree, and then spreading them out again, each individual beam with the concentrated energy of the whole. Some new way of rearranging quanta of energy."
"Hmm!" Hilary's brow was wrinkled. For a long moment he stared and thought.
At last he snapped back to their present situation: the dead guard at their feet, the dismembered body of Amos Peabody, the cowed groups of Earthmen on the speeding conveyors, keeping respectful distances.
"We'd better start moving if we want to get away," he said.
"It's no use." Grim spread his hands resignedly. "We'll have to take our medicine."
Hilary flared angrily. "You're talking nonsense. What's to prevent us from hopping to another platform? There is no other Mercutian in sight."
"No, but there were plenty of Earthmen who saw us."
"They won't tell."
"Oh, won't they?" Grim shook his head quietly. "You don't realize what has happened. Their spirit has been crushed until they are actually slavish in soul as well as in body. They fought bravely enough on the first invasion. Even after the conquest there were plenty of men looking for an opportunity to fight them again. Amos Peabody headed the revolt. It was smothered in blood, so effectually that only slaves are left. Peabody was left as a horrible warning. He was sent from city to city to be exhibited to the populace, unattended on the way, so confident were the Mercutians of the terror they had inspired."
"So you think those Earthmen who saw us will report to their masters," Hilary said slowly.
"I know it--they'll expect to curry favor in return."
Hilary felt a web of circumstance tighten around him. His jaw tautened. Thank the Lord he had been away--on his own. He had not the soul of a slave--yet.
"Won't you fight for your life?" he asked the big man curiously.
A spark lit in the mild blue eyes, died down.
"Yes if there were a chance," he said dully. "But there is none. The whole Earth is honeycombed with their guards. They have fliers, sun weapons, invisible search beams. We'd never elude them."
Hilary snorted impatiently. "We have good Earth brains, haven't we? I've traveled all the outer planets and never met any intelligence equal to that of a man, and I won't admit for a moment that the Mercutians are any exceptions."
A man stepped casually onto the express, took one startled look at the dead guard, at them, and fled precipitately back.
"Another one to spread the alarm," Morgan said grimly. "There'll be a dozen guards dropping down on us in the next five minutes."