Slaves of Mercury
Chapter 10: Back to the Ramapos
It was dark when they reached the first swellings of the Ramapo Range. It was dangerous to try and make their way through tangled brush and mountain trails. All night they camped on the bare ground, sleeping fitfully, cramped cold, shivering. They dared not light a fire; it would draw instant unwelcome attention.
When dawn came, they were on the move, glad to stretch their sodden limbs. Unerringly Grim homed for the invisible cleft. Nothing stirred in the forests, even the birds seemed gone. The fog had lifted, the sun blazed forth in unclouded majesty. The damp on them dried quickly.
But Grim shook his fist at the unwitting orb.
“Damn that weather machine,” he growled. “Breaking it seems to have made matters worse. Even the regular midnight shower has stopped. I’d give ten years of my life for the sight of a cloud.”
“It will never rain again,” Hilary said wearily. “It has forgotten how.”
The bright sunny sky seemed a brazen hell to the footsore Earthmen. It mocked and jeered at them with sparkling waves of warmth.
Before them was an unbroken mass of underbrush. The next instant they were on the brink of the chasm.
“They haven’t found us yet,” said Morgan, surveying the looped end of the rope ladder. They climbed swiftly down the swaying rungs. The rock slanted with them, turned sharply and fell sheer. Below there was a confused murmur, the sound of movement.
A voice came floating up to them, sharp, commanding.
“Stop where you are, you two. You’re covered.”
“It’s Morgan,” Grim bellowed, not pausing an instant in his descent.
The next instant he dropped lightly to the floor of the gorge. A moment later Hilary stepped beside him.
Men were crowding about Grim, clean-cut, determined-looking Earthmen. Nothing like the men he had encountered on his first trip on the express conveyor. The bottom of the gorge had all the appearance of a wartime camp.
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.