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The Captive Earth-man







From: The Fire People

As we came out of the valley I had my first view of the Great City. It
occupied a huge, mound-shaped circular mountain which rose alone out of
the wide plain that spread before me. As far as I could see extended a
rich muddy soil partially covered with water. A road led out of the
valley, stretching across these wet fields toward the base of the
mountain. It was built on an embankment some eight or ten feet high, of
the red, metallic ore of the mountains.

All along the base of this embankment, with their roots in the water,
graceful trees like palms curved upward over the road. The landscape was
dotted with these and other tropical trees; the scene was, indeed,
essentially tropical.

I wondered at the continued absence of sight of human beings. The fields
were quite evidently under cultivation. A rise of ground off to the left
was ridged with terraces. As we passed on along the road I saw a rude form
of plow standing where it had been left in a field which evidently was
producing rice or something akin to it. Yet there was not a person in
sight. Only ahead in the sky I could see a little cluster of black dots
that Miela said was a group of females hovering about the summit of the
Great City.

"It is the time of sleep now, Alan," she said, in answer to my question.

I had not thought of that. It was broad daylight, but here on Mercury
there was no day or night, but always the same half light, as of a cloudy
day.

The mountain on which the city was built was dotted thickly with palms,
and as we approached I made out the houses of the city, set amid the
trees, with broad streets converging at the top. As we came still closer I
saw that the summit of the mountain was laid out like some beautiful
tropical garden, with a broad, low-lying palace in its center.

When we were still a mile or so away from the outskirts of the city Miela
spoke in her soft native tongue to Anina. The girl smiled at me in
parting, and, unwinding the veil from about her breast, flew into the air.

We stood watching her as she winged her way onward toward the sleeping
city. When she had dwindled to a tiny speck I sighed unconsciously and
turned away; and again Miela smiled at me with comprehension.

We started forward, Miela chattering now like a little child. She seemed
eager to tell me all about the new world of hers I was entering, and there
was indeed so much to tell she was often at a loss what to describe first.

She named the cereal which constituted the only crop to which these marsh
lands were suitable. From her description I made out it was similar to
rice, only of a somewhat larger grain. It formed, she said, the staple
article of food of the nation.

As we approached the base of the Great City mountain the ground began
gradually rising. The drainage thus afforded made it constantly drier as
we advanced. It assumed now more the character of a heavy loam.

Still farther on we began passing occasional houses--the outskirts of the
city itself. They were square, single-story, ugly little buildings, built
of reddish stone and clay, flat-roofed, and raised a foot or two off the
ground on stone pilings. They had large rectangular windows, most of them
open, a few with lattice shades. The doorways stood open without sign of a
door; access to the ground was obtained by a narrow board incline.

Interspersed with these stone houses I saw many single-room shacks,
loosely built of narrow boards from the palm trees, and thatched with
straw. In these, Miela explained, lived poorer people, who worked in the
rice fields for the small land owners.

We reached the base of the mountain proper, and I found myself in a broad
street with houses on both sides. This street seemed to run directly to
the summit of the mountain, sloping upward at a sharp angle. We turned
into it and began our climb into the sleeping city. It was laid out
regularly, all its principal streets running from the base of the mountain
upward to its summit, where they converged in a large open space in which
the castle I have already mentioned was situated. The cross-streets formed
concentric rings about the mountain, at intervals of perhaps five hundred
feet down its sides--small circles near the top, lengthening until at the
base the distance around was, I should judge, ten miles or more.

We climbed upward nearly to the summit; then Miela turned into one of the
cross-streets. I had found the climb tremendously tiring, though Miela
seemed not to notice it unduly, and I was glad enough when we reached this
street which girdled the mountain almost at the same level. We had gone
only a short distance along it, however, when Miela paused before a house
set somewhat back from the road on a terrace.

"My home," she said, and her voice trembled a little with emotion. "Our
home it shall be now, Alan, with Lua and Anina, our mother and sister."

A low, bushy hedge separated the street from a garden that surrounded the
house. The building was of stone, two stories in height. It was covered
with a thick vine bearing a profusion of vivid red flowers. On its flat
roof were tiny palm trees, a pergola with trellised vines, and still more
flowers, most of them of the same brilliant red. The whole was surrounded
by a waist-high parapet.

One corner of the roof was covered with thatch--a little nest where one
might be sheltered from the rain, and in which I could see a bed of palm
fiber. At one side of the house a tremendous cluster of bamboo curved
upward and over the roof. A path of chopped coconut husks led from the
street to a short flight of steps in the terrace at the front entrance.

We passed along this path and entered through the open doorway directly
into what I judged was the living room of the dwelling. It was some thirty
feet long and half as broad, with a high ceiling and stone floor. Its
three windows fronted the garden we had just left; in its farther wall a
low archway led into an adjoining room. The furniture consisted only of
two or three small tables and several low, wide couches, all of bamboo.

A woman and the girl Anina rose as we entered. Anina ran toward us
eagerly; the elder woman stood, quietly waiting. She was about forty years
of age, as tall as Miela, but heavier of build. She was dressed in loose
silk trousers, gathered at waist and ankle; and a wide sash that covered
her breast. Her hair was iron gray, cut short at the base of the neck.
From her shoulders I saw hanging a cloak that entirely covered her wings.

As she turned toward us I saw a serious, dignified, wholly patrician face,
with large, kindly dark eyes, a high, intellectual forehead, and a firm
yet sensitive mouth. She was the type of woman one would instinctively
mark for leader.

Miela ran forward to greet her mother, falling upon her knees and touching
her forehead to the elder woman's sandaled feet. As she rose I could see
there were tears in the eyes of them both. Then Miela presented me. I
stood for an instant, confused, not knowing quite what I should do.

Miela laughed her gay little laugh.


"Bow low, Alan--as I did--to our mother."

I knelt to her respectfully, and she put her hands lightly upon my head,
speaking low words of greeting. Then, as I stood up again, I met her eyes
and smiled an answer to the gentle smile on her lips. From that moment I
felt almost as though she were my own mother, and I am sure she took me
then into her heart as her son.

The introduction over, I turned toward one of the windows, leaving Miela
to talk with her mother. Anina followed me, standing timidly by my side,
with her big, curious eyes looking up into my face.

"You're a sweet, dear little sister," I said, "and I am going to love
you very much."

I put my arm about her shoulders, and she smiled as though she understood
me, yielding to my embrace with the ready friendship of a child. For some
moments we stood together, looking out of the window and talking to each
other with words that were quite unintelligible to us both. Then Miela
suddenly called me.

"We shall eat now, Alan," she said, "for you are hungry, I know. And above
there is water, that we may wash." Her face clouded as she went on: "Our
mother has told me a little that has happened. It is very serious, Alan,
as you shall hear. Tao, with his great news of your wonderful world, is
very fast winning over our men to his cause. A revolt, there may be, here
in our own city--a revolution against our government, our king. We can
only look to you now, my husband, to save our country from Tao as well as
your own."

The situation as I found it in the Light Country was, as Miela said,
alarmingly serious. During the two years Tao had been in the Twilight
Country, preparing for his attack upon the earth, his project had caused
little stir among the Light Country people.

Its women were, at first, perturbed at this wanton attack upon the
humanity of another world, but since the earth was such an unknown
quantity, and the fact of its being inhabited at all was problematical,
interest in the affair soon lagged. The government of the Light Country
concerned itself not at all.

But now, upon Tao's return, the news of his venture, as told by the
emissaries he sent to the Light Country, struck its people like a
bombshell. These emissaries--all men--had come to the Great City, and,
finding their presence tolerated by the authorities, had immediately
started haranguing the people.

The men were inclined to listen, and many of them openly declared their
sympathy with Tao. These, however, were for the most part of the poorer,
more ignorant classes, or those more adventurous, less scrupulous
individuals to whom the prospect of sudden riches appealed.

"Why doesn't your government just throw Tao's men out if they're causing
so much trouble?" I asked. "They never should have been allowed in the
country at all."

Miela smiled sadly.

"That is so, my husband. That should have been done; but now it is too
late. Our men would protect them now, declaring their right to stay here
and speak. There might be bloodshed among our people, and that must not
be."

"Are they armed?" I asked.

She shook her head. "No one is armed with the light-ray. To carry it is a
crime punishable by death, for the light is too destructive."

"But Tao has it?"

"Tao has it, indeed, but he is not so great a monster that he would use it
against us."

I was not so sure of that, and I said so. "You don't mean to tell me,
Miela, that your government has allowed Tao to prepare all this
destructive armament without itself arming?"

Again she shook her head. "We have been preparing, too, and all our young
men can be called if occasion comes. But that must never be. It would be
too terrible."

* * * * *

Miela and I occupied, that first night on Mercury, a broad wooden bed
built low to the floor, with a mattress of palm fiber. At first I could
not sleep, but lay thinking over the many things she had told me. The
light in the room, too, was strange. Lattice covered the windows, but it
was like trying to sleep at midday; and the heat and heaviness of the air
oppressed me. I dropped off finally, to be awakened by Miela's voice
calling me to breakfast.

We sat down to the morning meal at a low table set with shining plates and
goblets of copper, or whatever the metal was, and napery of silk. The rice
formed our main article of food, with sugar, milk, and a beverage not
unlike coffee. There was also a meat like beef, although more highly
flavored, and a number of sickish sweet fruits of a kind entirely new to
me, which I could do no more than taste.

We were served by a little maid whose darker skin and heavier features
proclaimed her of another race--a native of the Fire Country, Miela told
me. She was dressed in a brown tunic of heavy silk, reaching from waist to
knee. Her thick black hair was cut to her shoulders.

On her left arm above the elbow was welded a broad band of copper
inscribed with a mark to identify Lua as her owner, for she was a slave.
Her torso was bare, except for a cloak like Lua's which hung from her
shoulders in the back to cover her wings. By this I knew she could not
fly.

It was not until some time afterward that I learned the reason for this
covering of the clipped wings. The wing joints were severed just above the
waist line. The feathers on the remaining upper portions were clipped, but
through disuse these feathers gradually dropped out entirely.

The flesh and muscle underneath was repulsive in appearance--for which
reason it was always kept covered. Lua showed me her wings once--mere
shrunken stumps of what had once been her most glorious possession. I did
not wonder then that the women were ready to fight, almost, rather than
part with them.

Difficulties of language made our conversation during the meal somewhat
halting, although Miela acted as interpreter. Lua and Anina both expressed
their immediate determination to learn English, and, with the same
persistence that Miela had shown, they set aside nearly everything else to
accomplish it.

We decided that we should see the king and arrange our future course of
action. Whatever was to be done should be done at once--that we all
agreed--for Tao's men were steadily gaining favor with a portion of the
people, and we had no means of knowing what they would attempt to do.

"What will your people think of me?" I suddenly asked Miela.

"We have sent our king word that you are here," she answered, "and we have
asked that he send a guard to take you to the castle this morning."

"A guard?"

She smiled. "It is better that the people see you first as a man of
importance. You will go to the king under guard. Few will notice you. Then
will he, our ruler, arrange that you are shown to the people as a great
man--one who has come here to help us--one who is trusted and respected by
our king. You see, my husband, the difference?"

I did, indeed, though I wondered a little how I should justify this
exalted position which was being thrust upon me. After breakfast Lua and
Anina busied themselves about the house, while Miela and I went to the
rooftop to wait for the king's summons. From here I had my first really
good view of the city at close range.

Miela's home sat upon a terrace, leveled off on the steep hillside; all
the houses in the vicinity were similarly situated. Behind us the mountain
rose steeply; in front it dropped away, affording an extended view of the
level, palm-dotted country below.

The slope of hillside rising abruptly behind us held another house just
above the level of the rooftop we were on. As I sat there looking idly
about I thought I saw a figure lurking near this higher building. I called
Miela's attention to it--the obscure figure of a man standing against a
huge palm trunk.

As we watched the figure stepped into plainer view. I saw then it was a
man, evidently looking down at us. I stood up. There was no one else in
sight except a woman on the roof of the other house holding an infant.

Something about the man's figure seemed vaguely familiar; my heart leaped
suddenly.

"Miela," I whispered, "surely that--that is no one of your world."

Her hand clutched my arm tightly as the man stepped forward again and
waved at us. I crossed the rooftop, Miela following. At my sudden motion
the man hesitated, then seemed about to run. I hardly know what thoughts
impelled me, but suddenly I shouted: "Wait!"

At the sound of my voice he whirled around, stopped dead an instant, and
then, with an answering call, came running down the hillside.

"The earth-man!" cried Miela. "The earth-man of Tao it must be."

We hurried down through the house and arrived at its back entrance. Coming
toward us at a run across the garden was the man--unmistakably one of my
own world.

My hurried glance showed me he was younger than I--a short, stocky,
red-headed chap, dressed in dirty white duck trousers and a torn white
linen shirt.

He came on at full speed.

"Hello!" I called.

He stopped abruptly. For an instant we stared at each other; then he
grinned broadly.

"Well, I don't know who you are," he ejaculated, "but I want to say it
certainly does me good to see you."





Next: The Ruler Of The Light Country

Previous: The Landing On Mercury



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