Read CHAPTER XI - Driven from Cover of Slaves of Mercury , free online book, by Nat Schachner, on ReadCentral.com.

Far overhead, Hilary climbed swiftly. He realised the seriousness of their situation. Let that Mercutian flash his message to Headquarters and there would be a swarm of fliers upon them within an hour’s time. They would be caught like rats in a trap, without a chance for their lives.

He gritted his teeth and swung himself up the faster. He turned the bend. There was the dark sky above, faintly spangled with stars. The flier was not in sight. Hilary stifled an imprecation. If he had taken off, they were doomed.

He moved more cautiously now, stepping gingerly from rung to rung up the swaying ladder. The cleft widened; he was near the top. He paused. There was not the slightest sound. But Hilary was taking no chances.

With infinite slowness he raised his head over the matted underbrush that masked the entrance. For the moment he could see nothing in the pitchy blackness. Then a dim shape loomed to one side. From within it there came a tiny hum, intermittent, almost inaudible.

Hilary knew what that was: a transmitter. Even then the fatal message was winging through the ether. He did not hesitate. He lofted to the ground with one quick heave, steadied on his swaying feet as the automatic flashed into his hand.

“Throw up your hands, Mercutian,” he shouted at the dimly-perceived bulk. “I have you covered.” He tensed, straining his ears for any movement that might locate the hidden foe.

The tiny humming ceased abruptly. There was painful silence.

“Don’t try ” Hilary commenced. He stopped, swerved his body suddenly to one side. A red glow had warned him. The hurtling ray scorched past him with a crackling blaze. Hilary was off balance, teetered, and went down with a crash into the thorny underbrush, his automatic exploding into sharp flame.

A hoarse guttural laugh came from the flier. “Got you that time, Earth dog,” the invisible Mercutian taunted. There was silence. Another belt crashed from the ship, heaved the ground under its impact. Another and another. Still no break in the silence, no cry.

The Mercutian muttered to himself: “The dog is dead, all right.” He peered out cautiously. The underbrush was black, sullenly quiet. Great swaths showed where the rays had swept the Earth. With a hoarse chuckle the grotesque giant climbed over the side of his ship. A search beam swung in his hand. He was in deep shadow. He swung the beam in a short arc. There was nothing, only matted vegetation. There was one thick thorny bush he noted, however, extending its bulk behind the bow of the ship. He stepped out a bit, away from the flier’s shadow, and swung his beam directly at it. The invisible ray pierced through the interlacing twigs with ease. It picked out a prone figure, lying with arm extended.

The Mercutian chuckled again, but the chuckle changed almost immediately to a throaty cry of alarm. With a swiftness that went incongruously with his awkward bulk, his free arm dropped for his hand ray. There was a sharp burst of flame, a staccato bark. The Mercutian staggered, swayed with sullen pain-widened eyes, and pitched headlong forward.

The prone figure in the bush leaped up, ran for him. The Mercutian was dead, drilled through the heart. Hilary sheathed his weapon grimly. His task was done. One thing, though. How much of the message had been transmitted? He must know. He vaulted over the side of the flier, fumbled around until he found the receiving apparatus. Then he waited, dreading to hear the silence broken. A minute passed, two minutes, and Hilary breathed a sigh of relief. The message had not gotten through.

Then it came a tiny sparking, an intermittent hum. Hilary’s heart sank with hammering blows. He tried to read the signals, but they were in code, or in the Mercutian tongue, which was just as bad. It was not necessary, though. Headquarters had heard; they knew.

Hilary did not waste an instant in vain regrets. Within an hour the gorge would be a vicious trap; he must get his men out at once. What then he did not know, nor bother. There was the more immediate problem.

He went down the swinging ladder hand over hand, not pausing for the rungs. Every instant was precious now. His hands scorched, but he did not feel the pain.

His flying body collided thudding with a heavy bulk beneath. There was a grunt, the rope jerked from his hands, and two bodies fell cursing, entangled, to the ground. Luckily it was not far distant. He sprang to his feet, found Grim heaving his bulk up more slowly.

“I was coming up after you,” the giant growled. “You were gone too long. That’s the thanks I get.”

Hilary had no time for idle talk.

“Attention, men,” he snapped. “We leave at once. You have five minutes to get your arms, ammunition clips and rations, light marching order.”

Without a word they scattered alertly to their tasks. It was the discipline of veterans.

“You didn’t get the Mercutian?” Grim was troubled.

“I got him all right,” answered his leader laconically, “but too late. His message had gone through.”

Five minutes later to the dot, the camp was lined up, accoutered complete. They were silent, tense, but smartly erect. Hilary’s flash glowed over them in the dark. Then he nodded approvingly.

“Fine work, men. Up that ladder, one at a time,” he said. “Each man counts twenty slowly, one two three before he follows. Keep your distance, and move fast.”

The first man sprang to the ladder, went up swiftly. Twenty seconds later, the next man’s foot was on the bottom rung. Up and up they went, one after the other, each man counting off and climbing. Hilary watched them anxiously.

“Hope we make it,” he muttered to Grim. “It’ll take all of forty minutes to evacuate, and the Mercutians may be on us by then.”

It was almost forty minutes to the dot when Hilary’s head emerged from the cleft. He was the last man out. The men were lined up on a level bit, nervous, apprehensive. In spite of the discipline, heads automatically jerked upward, raked the sky for sign of the enemy.

Where to now? thought Hilary. There were no more hiding places as perfect as the one they had just left. They were forced into the open, easy prey for the first lynx-eyed Mercutian. Sooner or later, they would be discovered, and then.... A last hopeless glance at the mocking stars. Never had man yearned more for rain, oceans and oceans of it.

Hilary roused himself. Whatever of despair he felt did not appear in his staccato orders.

“We march at once, men,” he said. “Scatter formation, five paces between. At the signal, take nearest cover, and prepare for action. Forward ”

“Too late.” Grim’s voice was flat, controlled.

Hilary looked around sharply. “What do you mean?”

“Look.” Morgan’s hand swept aloft. Through the darkling night, faintly visible in the feeble starlight there was no moon were driving shapes, a full score of them converging upon the little band.

One look was sufficient. Mercutian fliers hurrying in response to their fellow’s signal. There was no time, no chance to escape.

“Very well, men.” Hilary commanded, coldly calm. “Take cover. Do not fire until I give the order.”

There was instant scattering. The men dived for whatever poor bit of protection they could find: jutting rocks, tree trunks, thin thorny bushes even.

Grim and Hilary crouched together behind a great boulder.

“How many pistols are there in the crowd?” Hilary asked quietly.

“Not many. Outside of your automatic and my dynol pistol, there are two other dynols and not more than a dozen automatics. If only we had the submachine gun with us, but Wat took it along, and he’s gone.”

“Not much chance, I’m afraid,” said Hilary; “but we’ll fight it out. Here they come.”

The two men crouched lower. All about them was silence; not even a leaf stirred in the heavy breathlessness.

The driving fliers were easily visible now. Ominous hurtling projectiles, coming to crush out the last vestige of revolt on the conquered planet. On they came, purposefully, directly, knowing their way; a full score, converging in a scream of wind against their bows as they dropped straight for the hidden gorge.

It seemed to the hidden watchers as though they would crash to Earth with the speed of their swoop. But at one hundred feet aloft the fliers braked their headlong flight, hovered motionlessly in echelon formation.

A moment’s breathless pause to the hiding men it seemed eternity and all the uneven terrain, rocks, trees, bushes, the soil itself, burst into glowing white crystal clearness. The Mercutians had turned on their search beams.

Hilary gazed clear through the rock behind which he crouched as though it were a transparency. All around him he saw the prone bodies of his men, naked to the view of all and sundry.

A hoarse derisive chuckle rasped from above. Hilary sprang to his feet; further attempt at concealment was useless. As he did so, the air seemed to split in two, there was a blinding rending crash. Not ten feet from where he stood, the ground tossed in torture. A man screamed terribly. The first blow had been struck.

Hilary burned with a cold consuming anger. “Up, men, and fire. Aim forward about three feet back of the prow.” That was where the pilot would be.

A scattered burst of cheers answered him. On all sides, like crystal ghosts, the Earthmen rose to their feet. They were fighting men.

Hilary took careful aim at a flier almost directly overhead and fired. He could have sworn he hit it, but nothing happened. Grim’s dynol pistol flamed redly nearby. The tracer pellet scorched upward, impacted, against the hull of a flier. There was a faint detonation, and the next instant the air was full of flying fragments.

“Got that one,” he said softly.

Hilary was conscious of a faint envy. His automatic seemed like a harmless popgun against that deadly weapon. But he drew another bead and fired again. With bated breath he awaited the result. Nothing. Hilary groaned, made as if to throw the useless gun away, when the flier he had aimed at wabbled, tried to right itself, and crashed in a swift erratic loop.

By now the pitifully few weapons of the Earthmen were popping. Two more of the enemy fliers hurtled to destruction. But as at a given signal, the air above them seemed suddenly to flame destruction. With the noise of a thousand thunderbolts the massed rays struck.

The groaning Earth tossed and heaved in billowing waves to escape its torture. The trees were blazing pyres. It seemed impossible for anything that lives within that area to escape instant destruction.

Hilary felt a wave of blinding heat envelop him, and he was thrown flat to the quaking ground. Frightful cries, screams of agony, came to his dulled ears as from a great distance. He heaved himself up wearily, scorched, smoldering, but otherwise unhurt.

“Grim,” he whispered through thick cracked lips. “Grim, where are you?”

“Here.” Strange how tranquil he sounded. A scarecrow of a figure arose almost at his right from a smoldering bush, a giant clothed in smoking rags. In the strange illumination of the search beams he seemed the wraith of a scarecrow.

“Thank God you’re alive,” Hilary croaked. “The others...?”

Figures were staggering up from the holocaust about them.

Grim’s practised eyes counted. “About fifty left,” he said, “just one half.”

Hilary’s voice rose suddenly, strongly. “Keep on firing, men.” Once again his pistol barked defiance.

A faint, ragged cheer answered him. A few guns flamed; there were only a handful left.

“God!” someone cried.

The massed ships above were gleaming faintly. Little shimmering sparkles ran over the hulls. They were going to ray again. Hilary went berserk, screamed strange oaths, fired again and again. Grim fired, more slowly. Two of the enemy ships left the formation, plunged headlong. But the shimmering grew brighter. In seconds the terrible bolts would be loosed. It was the end. The Earthmen knew it. They could not survive a second raying.

Grim shouted. Never before had Hilary heard him raise his voice to that pitch. His great arm was upflung. “Look!” he screamed.