Slaves of Mercury
Chapter 9: The Weather Machine
The two men flattened themselves against the wall so that they could not be seen by a casual glance from the Mercutians inside the laboratory.
“There are a lot of them,” Grim whispered.
“Can’t help it,” Hilary answered grimly. “Have to take our chances.”
“Of course,” Grim said simply. There was no backing out.
Silently, with catlike tread, they inched their way forward flat against the wall, keeping out of the blue flood of illumination. The shapes, or rather segments of shapes within, moved about, engrossed in the business at hand, unaware of the creeping death.
The Earthmen had reached their stations unobserved, one on either side of the open slide. Very carefully Hilary protruded his head around the vita-crystal, and ducked back almost instantly. But his quick eye had taken in all the essential details in that momentary vision.
There were about a dozen Mercutians in the long laboratory, and each had a sun-tube dangling from his belt, ready at hand. The laboratory was crowded with apparatus, but what had drawn Hilary’s attention was a gigantic gleaming metallic sphere set up prominently in the center of the room. Protruding from it at all angles were great quartz tubes, through which a blue light pulsed and flamed. It was connected by huge cables to a spark-bathed dynamo. Other cables writhed through the translucent ceiling. The weather machine!
Hilary took a firmer grip on his automatic, nodded once to Grim. The two Earthmen stepped simultaneously through the open door.
“Raise your paws high and keep them up.” Hilary’s voice cracked like a whip through the busy confusion of the laboratory. The Mercutians, scattered as they were, whirled around from their tasks to face two deadly weapons held by two determined-looking men.
There was a chorus of strange guttural oaths, but every hand moved skyward, reluctantly.
Hilary picked out the most blasphemous sounding of the cursers, rightly deeming him the Cor in charge.
“You,” he said, “what switches regulate the weather machine?”
The Mercutian Cor was a particularly ugly specimen. The gray warts were gigantic, hiding whatever semblance of manlike features there might have been beneath.
“I’ll see you dogs burned to a cinder in the sun first,” he growled.
“Keep them covered, Grim,” Hilary said sharply. “I’ll take care of this fellow personally.”
He walked straight across the room for the Cor, eyes blazing, index finger on trigger. The Cor, fear staring out of his lidless eyes, backed slowly away from the approaching death. There was a hushed silence.
“I’ll tell, I’ll tell!” the Cor screamed, as the relentless weapon almost touched his paunchy stomach.
“I thought you would,” Hilary said grimly, not for an instant relaxing the pressure against the trigger. “If you value your worthless hide, you’d better talk, and talk fast. What switch reverses the machine, to bring on rain? If you are wise, you won’t try to fool me.”
The wretch almost stumbled in his eagerness. “By the gray soil of Mercury I’ll tell you the truth.” His arm flung up, pointing. “That knob over there controls the--”
Hilary never heard the rest. There was a crash at the other end of the laboratory. One of the Mercutians, tired of keeping his arms high extended, had attempted to rest his huge bulk against a laboratory table. It went over with a splintering crash of glassware.
Hilary whirled around to face the noise. As he did so, the Cor seized his opportunity. His right arm dropped to his side, jerked up his sun-tube. Hilary heard Grim’s warning cry, tried to pivot back again. But Grim beat him to it. The dynol pistol exploded sharply; the flaming pellet caught the Cor square in his side. There was a dull explosion and the Cor was torn violently into bits. He dropped, a mass of shapeless blobs.
But now hell had broken loose. The Mercutians were not cowards. At the moment of the diversion, every one of them had gone for his sun-tube. A flame streaked close to Hilary’s head, shivered the opposite wall into molten fragments. He ducked behind a table and fired. A Mercutian threw up his hands, staggered and pitched forward heavily. Grim’s dynol bullets whined in their passage, spattered the laboratory with flying blobs of flesh. They did terrible execution. Hilary’s automatic spat its leaden hail.
But the Mercutians were entrenched now behind tables, machinery, whatever cover they could find. The beams from half a dozen sun-tubes slithered across the room, burning flaming paths through the overheated air, bringing the very walls down about them. It could not last long. Already Hilary had a nasty burn across one shoulder; there was a streak of red across Grim’s forehead as he hid behind the panel of the entrance, whipping his pistol around to fire, and ducking back again. There were too many of the enemy, and overwhelming reinforcements could be expected any moment. The Earthmen’s position was desperate.
Through it all the great weather machine hummed and crackled; the tubes were sheets of surging flame. Hilary cursed softly. If only the Cor had completed his sentence before he died. Hilary would have chanced a sudden rush forward to reverse it, to bring on a deluge of rain and clouds, even though it meant certain death. The machine seemed to gleam at him mockingly; the hum continued with tantalizing smoothness.
“Look out,” Grim’s voice came to him sharply. He jerked his head back, just in time. A ray streaked past his ear like a thunderbolt. The heat from it scorched his face.
The Mercutians were stealthily crawling nearer, pushing heavy, tables in front of them as shields. He was almost outflanked now. In another minute he would be exposed.
Hilary thought rapidly. His position was untenable. He would have to run for it. A sudden dash to the door might possibly win through. But the machine! He set his teeth hard. If he could not change the weather, at least he could destroy the infernal thing, stop its grinding out perfect sunshine for the Mercutians.
He lifted his weapon. Off to one side a Mercutian arm advanced cautiously, bringing up a sun-tube. He swung on it and fired. The sun-tube clattered to the floor and the arm jerked back, accompanied by a howl of anguish. Hilary smiled grimly, took careful aim at the metal sphere of the machine. The bullet leaped true for its mark. A little round hole showed--but nothing happened. The infernal machine hummed softly as ever.