Slaves of Mercury
Chapter 1: The Space Wanderer Returns
Hilary Grendon piloted his battered, time-worn space flier, the Vagabond, to the smiling Earth that rose rapidly to greet it. Only the instinctive ease of long practise prevented a smash-up, his hands trembled so at the controls.
Home again--the old familiar Earth! He could scarcely believe it! Perhaps it was only a dream, and he’d wake up among the unhuman glittering cylinders of Saturn, shuddering and crawling with the iciness of their fixed regard.
Hilary’s eyes blurred with unaccustomed mistiness as he drank in the warm sunlight, the soft green of the grass and the gracious lines of the slender birches as they fluttered their leaves daintily in the unhurrying breeze. How different it all was from the harsh red angularities of Mars!
He was outside, breathing deeply, inhaling the perfumed air with delight. This was the only heaven; beyond--that far-flung immensity of planetary orbs--was hell! He, Hilary Grendon, the carefree, smiling skeptic of old, was a Fundamentalist now.
How long was it since they had started out on the first flight that man had taken into outer space--he and those stanch comrades? Five years? God! Had it been so long? Yet here he was, back on Earth again, the kindly, blessed Earth their eyes had clung to when they were fighting desperately for their lives against the protoplasmic things that inhabited Ganymede.
Hilary brushed a tear away as he thought of those brave, loyal friends. Dick lay as he fell on Saturn, transfixed by an icicle dart; Martin had been engulfed in an unholy maw on Ganymede; Dorn was a frozen idol to the spiral beings of Pluto; and poor Hurley, his fate was the worst of all: his hideously bloated body was swinging in an orbit around Mars, a satellite through all eternity.
He, Hilary Grendon, was the sole survivor of that tremendous Odyssey!
Hilary shook his head vigorously to clear away the flood of recollections. Enough that he had returned. Then a sudden eagerness surged through him, a joyous intensity of emotion. What a story he had to relate--how the Earth people would hang with bated breath upon his adventurings! And Joan--his heart gave a queer leap at the thought of that slender ardent wisp of a girl with her shining head and steady gray eyes. She had promised to wait for him, forever, if need be. She had said it simply, without heroics; yet Hilary knew then that she would keep her promise.
A rush of impatience succeeded the inaction of his memories. He must get to New York at once. He could not wait any longer. Joan first--then Amos Peabody, the venerable President of the United States--to report his return. He smiled at the stupefaction that would greet him. No doubt he had long been given up for dead. The world had been skeptical of the space ship he had invented; had, except for a faithful few, mocked at his plans. Indignantly he had taken his calculations, his blue prints of the spheroid, along with him. If the flight was a success, well and good; if not, they would not be worth much anyway.
In spite of his fever to be off, he carefully locked the controls, sealed the outer air-lock. Hilary Grendon was a methodical man: that was the reason he had survived.
Then he struck across country, walking very fast. He knew where he was: in the wilderness of the Ramapos, some forty miles from New York. Sooner or later, he reasoned, he would strike one of the radiating conveyors that led into the metropolis, or a human being that would set him on the right track.
A half hour’s sturdy tramping brought him out of the tangled hills into civilization. There was a glitter of metal and vita-crystal dwellings that stood four-square to the sun and the winds. A broad ribbon-conveyor hurled its shining length in ceaseless rush down the narrow valley. Human beings--normal homely Earth men with the ordinary number of legs and arms, with honest-to-God faces and warm living flesh, were seated on the conveyor-benches as they flashed by. Hilary could have wept with delight. It was two years since he had seen his own kind; two years since Hurley’s tragic misstep through the breach in the air-lock made by a meteor as they were nearing Mars.
Hilary leaped on the slow-moving ramp, skilfully worked his way across the graded speed belts until he was on the express conveyor that led straight on to New York.
He sank into a cushioned seat next to an oldish man with iron-gray hair through which the speed of their flight whipped and pulled. Hilary was bursting for real human conversation again; he grinned to himself at the excited astonishment of this impassive stranger if he should announce himself. How should he do it? Should he remark casually without any preamble: “Pardon me for addressing you, sir, but I’m Hilary Grendon, you know.” Just like that, and lean back for the inevitable gasp: “What, not the Hilary Grendon!” And he would nod offhandedly as though he had just taken a little trip to Frisco and back.
He stole a sidelong glance at the sternly-etched profile. The man was staring straight in front of him, looking neither to the left nor to the right. It did not seem as if he were aware of Hilary’s existence. So with a sigh Hilary decided against that method of approach as a trifle too abrupt.
“Nice day to-day, isn’t it?” The sound of his own voice startled him. English was an alien language to his unaccustomed tongue after the hissing syllables of the Martians.
With pathetic eagerness he awaited the inevitable answer to this commonplace introduction; that he might once more hear normal Earth tones in friendly converse, see the smile of greeting on a real Earth face.
But there came no answer. The man continued staring straight ahead, immobile, fixed. There was no slightest turn to the etched profile. It was as if he had not heard.
Hilary felt a sudden surge of anger. Damn discourteous, this first Earthman he had met. What had happened to the old hospitality? Had it passed out while he was roaming the spaces? He leaned over, harsh words tumbling for exit, when suddenly he checked himself. There was something strange about that fierce blank stare. The man’s face, too, he saw now, was lined and worn; suffering had left its multitudinous imprint upon an ordinarily rotund countenance.
Hilary shouted suddenly: “Good morning.” The man did not answer, nor did he stir from his unvarying pose. Deaf! The returned Earthman suffered swift pity. With gentle forefinger he prodded the man.
The reaction was astounding. The man cowered like a pricked balloon; little strangling moans forced themselves out of clenched teeth. Dumb, too! His face jerked around to the direction of Hilary’s gentle prodding. Merciful heavens, the man was blind also! Two vacant red-rimmed sockets stared pitifully at him--the eyeballs were gone, ripped out.
But what struck Hilary particularly was the mortal terror that was depicted on the blind man’s face. It was as though he expected some cruel, crippling blow to follow; as though it were the last straw on the back of unmentionable former agonies. Hilary shuddered. It was not good to witness such animal fear. A dark shadow blotted out the brightness of the Earth-day for him. There was something wrong here, something that required a good deal of explanation.
His probing eyes went thoughtfully over the poor cowering wretch. Those careworn features were familiar, somehow. Where had he seen the man before? Suddenly he stiffened, choking an exclamation. The man was bound immovably to his seat. Thin metal links, almost invisible, encircled his feet; held the elbows taut against the fluted columns of the seat-back.
Hilary’s space-tanned features hardened; the light gray of his eyes darkened. All the pleasure of his homecoming vanished. The kindly Earth seemed suddenly grown inimical. What had happened in the five long years of his absence? This would have been impossible on the Earth he had known; a man, manifestly the victim of hideous tortures, bound like a wild animal to the seat of a public conveyor.
He went swiftly into action. From the depths of a capacious pocket he fished a sheathed blade of stellite, triply keen; its razor-sharp edge sawed smoothly at the bonds.
In his mounting anger Hilary had paid no attention to the scattering of people occupying the cushioned chairs of the speeding conveyor. But a smothered nearby gasp caused his head to jerk up. He met the incredulous stare of a paunchy, heavy-jowled man seated some chairs away. There was more than incredulity, there was furtive fear in the small beady eyes sunken in folds of fat.
Hilary gave way to unreasoning anger.
“Stop looking like a stuck pig,” he called sharply. “Give me a hand with this poor fellow.”
The response was surprising. The man got up from his chair precipitately, stark panic written all over him. The sweat oozed from his shiny forehead as he backed cautiously away. He tripped over the edge of the seat behind, and fell. Once more he scrambled to his feet, and as if the fall had released his trembling muscles, he turned and ran, stumbling and dodging across the local conveyors, never once looking back.
Hilary watched his mad flight wonderingly. “Good Lord,” he thought, “does my face frighten people so? Maybe I’ve turned into a Martian.”
He turned to appeal to the others on the conveyor, and received another shock. The few men within earshot were already on their feet and moving away from there with unostentatious celerity. Hilary surveyed their receding backs thoughtfully. What was there about himself to frighten grown men out of their wits? Or was it the poor tortured wretch he was trying to release who was responsible for the exodus?
Already the express was almost clear. He saw the deserters throwing themselves guiltily into seats on the local belts, and then he was carried swiftly past. Only one man remained stubbornly in his seat, some fifteen rows back. He was a huge mountain of a man, a giant upon Earth, and there was a strangeness in his wide stare.
Hilary frowned, then shook his head, and dropped down to his task again. The blind man moaned and jerked as he felt the bite of stellite upon his fetters. Hilary made soothing sounds, forgetful that he could not hear, and worked steadily. There was a little clinking noise and the links that bound the arms fell apart. He attacked the leg shackles next.
There was a tap on Hilary’s shoulder, light, electric, yet strangely heavy in its implications. Hilary turned his head sharply, saw the landscape blotted out by a huge overshadowing bulk. Five years in a hostile universe had made him cautious. He pivoted on his heels and rose in a single flowing motion, stellite blade ready for instant action.