Slaves of Mercury
Chapter 5: Outlaws of Earth
Three days later three footsore, weary, hungry men skulked in the edge of the woods near a little clearing in the Ramapos. For three days they had ducked and dodged and literally burrowed into the ground by day, traveling only at night. Above and around them the noise of pursuit rolled. The Mercutians were persistent.
Speedy one-man fliers patrolled the airways, their search beams casting invisible rays in wide sweeping arcs over the uneven terrain. Wherever they touched, the ground sprang into vivid illumination, crystal clear to depths of ten to fifteen feet. Several times the crystal swath swept breathlessly close to the place where the fugitives crouched in covert. The conveyors carried back and forth armed companies of guards. The Mercutians were making a mighty effort to capture their prey.
But somehow the Earthmen had won through, and eager eyes searched the little glade. Hilary exhaled sharply. The Vagabond, stanch and faithful companion of all his travels, rested immovably on the deep green grass. It had escaped the questing eyes of the Mercutians. The travel lanes did not touch this secluded spot.
“So that’s your space ship, eh?” said Grim, surveying the tarnished, pitted spheroid with something of awe.
“Yes,” said Hilary lovingly as he unlocked the outer port side. A hasty glance around inside showed that nothing had been touched. Everything was orderly, methodical, just as he had left it.
Grim and Wat examined with interest the banked controls, the polarization apparatus that set up repulsion waves and literally kicked the ship out into space away from the planet against which it had been set.
“Time enough to inspect,” Hilary warned them. “Never can tell when those damned Mercutians may spy on us.”
He set the polarization controls so that the mere pulling of a switch would send the flier careening off into space. He surveyed the apple-pie order of the interior with vast satisfaction.
“Now let them come,” he said, “the Vagabond can show anything that flies a clean pair of heels. Let’s eat.”
He dragged an aluminum box out of its locker, opened it to disclose a gray funguslike mass. He cut off huge slices and offered it to his companions.
They looked at it doubtfully.
“Ugh,” Wat shuddered violently, “I never saw stuff like that before. It doesn’t look good.” The little man, they soon discovered, had violent discriminations in food.
“Try it.” Hilary assured him. “It’s a Martian growth, and delicious. We had to live on the land so to speak, on our journey. Our Earth food gave out long before the finish.”
Wat looked at it with manifest distaste, but Grim was already wolfing his portion and making little pleased sounds. Wat bit into a portion gingerly, found it tasted somewhat like truffles, and soon was not far behind in gulping it down.
When their appetites had been appeased, Hilary called a council of war.
“First of all,” he told them, “we’ll have to find a hideout. That presupposes two things: a place large enough to store the Vagabond, and hidden from view, either from the naked eye or their search beams.”
“That sounds like a large cavern lined with lead,” said Grim.
“And there are none such in this territory,” Grim replied quietly.
“I will not move too far from New York,” Hilary spoke with determination; “there is Joan...”
Grim looked blank. There was Joan, of course.
Wat got up suddenly. “I know a place,” he said, “within a mile of here, and it’s not a cave. Come on; I’ll show you. I was a Ranger in the Ramapo Game Preserve in the old days.”
Hilary asked no more. The polarization switch made contact, and the Vagabond left the Earth with a swift rush. It maneuvered with the ease of an Earth flier. Wat directed him, scanning the rugged tree-clad mountains with eager eye.
“There,” he said finally, “set her down right there. Easy.”
Hilary saw no break in the uninterrupted line of the mountain, but he followed directions. He had come to have an abounding faith in the little red-haired man.
The space flier eased gently down. Just as it seemed as if it would perforce come to rest upon serrated tree tops, a faint glimmer showed amid the darker green. There was an opening, just barely room for the Vagabond.
Hilary jockeyed skilfully through, kept on descending into a narrow cleft in the slope. The walls rose almost perpendicularly on either side. About fifty feet down there was a sharp turn and the gorge angled downward for another fifty feet. When the flier came to rest at the bottom, it was securely hidden in a slanting cleft, some forty feet wide and several hundred long. A mountain brook brawled at one side, assuring plentiful water. The outside world was absolutely invisible. Perpetual twilight reigned; only a pale dim religious light filtered through.
“Just the thing,” Wat exulted. “We’ll never be found here, no matter how much they search, unless someone actually stumbles into the opening. There’s almost eighty feet of solid rock above us, and their search beams only penetrate about ten to fifteen.”
“Splendid.” Hilary said. “Now we’ve got to get to work.”
For two days they toiled incessantly. A rope ladder was fabricated to insure ease of entrance and exit without recourse to the ship. Wat, as the least conspicuous, was delegated to scour the countryside and bring in stores of provisions. The bottom of the gorge was leveled off with infinite labor. Rough wood shelters were erected. Spares and electrical equipment to replace worn parts in the Vagabond were also purchased by Wat, in cautious small purchases. It necessitated long trekking through mountain trails, but there was no murmur from him. The search, he reported, seemed to be slackening. Only the routine guards whizzed by on the conveyors, and the usual Mercutian fliers that kept to the regular air lanes.
At last even Hilary was satisfied. He was ready now for the plan that had been slowly forming in his mind during the days of their flight and of work. He was going to attempt a rescue of Joan. She had never left his thoughts once; he was burning with inward anxiety, though his face was a mask to cover his true feelings.
The last evening he sat with the others within one of the wooden shelters. A huge fire of fragrant pine knots blazed up a crude boulder chimney.
“I am going out now to find Joan,” he told them quietly.
“When do we start?” asked Wat.
“I am going alone.” There was a movement of protest. He checked it at once. “You can understand the reasons. One man can worm his way where three men cannot. It isn’t a question of force, of brute strength. Besides, if anything should go wrong, there are still the two of you to carry on--to be the focus of a new revolt. If all of us were caught, there would be no further hope for the Earth.”
“It’s a hell of a note,” Wat grumbled, unconvinced. “There’s fighting to be done, and me cooped up here like a sick hen.”
“Hilary’s right,” Grim interposed thoughtfully. “It’s a one-man job. We’ll have our chance later.” He turned on Hilary. “But if anything does happen to you, you understand we won’t stay quietly. We’ll come--if you are still alive. Promise you will let us know--if you can.”
“I’ll promise that,” Hilary agreed. “There is a way.”
He got up and went out of the hut. In a few minutes he was back, holding three small flat disks enmeshed in a spray of fine wires for them to see.
“I’ve just removed the communication disks from our space suits. Strap them in position on your right shoulder blade, hook the wires--so--and you can talk to me or to each other over distances of one hundred miles. Underneath your clothing they cannot be seen. Should I require your assistance, I’ll call, and further, I’ll show you both how to run the Vagabond, in case...” His voice trailed.