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The Escape







From: The Fire People

The Mercutians all regarded me curiously as we came among them. By the
respect they accorded Tao, and his attitude toward them, I decided he was
the leader of the entire party. I stopped, wondering what would happen
next. The man guarding me was still close at hand. Tao spoke a few words
to him and then moved away. My guard immediately sat down. I saw nothing
was required of me at the moment, and sat down also.

I had opportunity now to examine the strange things and people about me
more in detail. The Mercutians all seemed to be of the same short, squat,
red-haired type. Tao was, indeed, the only one I saw who had black hair;
and he was the tallest, and by far the most commanding looking figure of
them all.

They wore several different costumes, although the garment of white fur
was the most common. A few were dressed in the black costume of the guard
in the gully. Still others were garbed only in short, wide trousers and
shirts of a soft leather, with legs bare from the knee down, and with
leather buskins on their feet.

The light-ray was set up near the river, on a metallic structure
supporting a small platform some thirty feet above the ground. A ladder
up one side gave access to this platform from below. The light itself
came from a cubical metallic box, perhaps six feet square, suspended
above the platform in a balancing mechanism that allowed it to swing in
all directions.

All the metal of this apparatus, the projector, the platform and its
framework, was apparently of the same kind; it had the appearance of
burnished copper. The whole seemed fairly complicated, but not unlike a
huge searchlight would appear if mounted that way.

Coming out of the projector and running down to the ground were black
wires, which led to a metallic box a few feet away. This box was
rectangular in shape; six feet long, perhaps, two feet broad, and the
same in depth. I judged it to be the dynamo or battery from which the
projector was supplied with the light-ray.

A short distance back from the river I saw what appeared to be a small
mortar, which I assumed was for the sending of the light-rockets, or
bombs. Several other light-ray projectors, sections of their supporting
structures, and the unassembled parts of other apparatus, were lying
scattered about the ground. A considerable number of the Mercutians were
laboriously bringing out of the vehicle still more apparatus.

It was obvious to me then that they were only just getting started in
their offensive and defensive preparations. This I could easily
understand when I had watched for a moment the activities going on. All
of the apparatus which they were engaged in bringing out and assembling
was of metal, and it was so extremely heavy here on earth that they could
hardly handle it.

Standing on the platform beside the light-ray projector were two men
evidently in charge of it at the moment. They were dressed in black, with
black gloves, although without helmets. I noticed that they had little
pads over their ears, with wires running from them down to a small box at
the waist.

Once I saw one of them look up sharply, as though he had heard something;
and, following the wave of his hand, I saw the tiny black-garbed figure
of a man on the higher ground behind the gully through which we had come.
I reasoned then that this was a lookout stationed there, and that he was
directing the action of the light by some form of wireless telephony.

For perhaps an hour I sat there, with my guard near by watching me. I was
sorry, now that I found myself in the midst of these enemies, that I had
not made a determined effort to escape earlier in the day, when there
would have been only four of them to cope with.

I realized that I didn't know any more now about the power this guard had
over me than I had at the beginning. He certainly looked inoffensive,
sitting there, but the very calmness with which he watched me made me
feel I would be taking a desperate chance in attempting to escape. I
decided then to wait until nightfall and to watch a favorable opportunity
to break away.

Under cover of darkness, if once I could get out of their sight, I was
satisfied they would never catch me. It was my plan to strike back to
Garland. I had noticed carefully the lay of the land coming over, and
believed I could find my way back. Then, with the car or the plane that
was there in the garage, I could get back to Billings.

These thoughts were running through my mind when Tao abruptly presented
himself before me and ordered me to get up. I did so, smiling in as
friendly a fashion as I could manage. He then made me assist in the work
of carrying the heavy pieces of apparatus. Apparently he was determined
that I, as an earth man, should work hard, since the Mercutians were so
heavily handicapped by the gravity of my planet. I concluded that it
would be my best policy to help them all I could--that by so doing they
might relax a little in their watchfulness, and thus enable me to get
away that night.

I signified to Tao my understanding of what he was after, and made them
all see my entire readiness and ability to help. For the rest of the
afternoon I was dragging about from place to place, carrying the
projectors to the various positions where they had decided to put them
up. It seemed to be their plan to establish some twenty or thirty
projectors around the vehicle; they were setting them all at points about
a hundred yards away from it. These projectors differed in size and
shape. Some were cubical, others pyramid-shaped, open at the base as
though to send out the light in a spreading ray.

I saw now, when I had a chance to inspect the projectors closer, that
they were black outside and like burnished copper inside, to reflect the
light. I judged that this black covering must have been like the black
suits worn by some of the men, and that it was impervious to the
light-ray. Near the center of each projector was a coil of wire. The
wires from outside ran to it, and across the open face of the projector
a large number of fine lateral wires ran parallel, very close together.

These were about all the details I noticed. I wanted to remember them,
although they conveyed very little to me, because I realized all this I
was seeing might prove of immense help to the authorities when I got back
to Billings.

Night came, and I was still at work. Tao seemed tremendously pleased at
what I was doing, and I noticed with satisfaction that his attitude
toward me seemed gradually changing. My guard still followed me about,
but he did not watch me quite so closely now, I thought.

My help, that afternoon, was considerable. I was by far the strongest man
in the camp; and, more than that, I was able to move about so much faster
than they that I could do things in a few moments that would have taken
them many times as long.

Tao personally directed most of my efforts. He told me where to take the
things, and I took them, smilingly, and always coming back to him for new
orders. I moved so fast, indeed, that my guard had difficulty in keeping
close to me. Several times I experimented and found that I could get away
from him quite a little distance without a protest, either from him or
from Tao.

As it began to grow dark, they lighted up the camp. This was accomplished
by little metallic posts that had been set around at intervals. Each had
a tiny coil of wire suspended at its top, which became incandescent and
threw out a reddish-green light. Around each light was a square black
wire cage some three feet in diameter. I conjectured that these lights
used the same ray as the projectors, only in a different form, and that
the cage was to protect any one from going too close. The light from
these illuminators was much the same in aspect as the ray, except that it
seemed to diffuse itself readily and carried only a comparatively short
distance.

The scene now, under this red-green glare, was weird in the extreme. The
work all about me went on steadily. The Mercutians were all dressed in
white furry garments now--I concluded because of the cold--with the
exception of those who had on the suits and helmets of black.

The reddish-green light made them all appear like little gnomes at work.
Indeed, the whole scene, with its points of color in the darkness, and the
huge monstrous shadows all about, was more like some fantastic picture out
of a fairy book than a scene on this earth.

Soon after nightfall Tao stopped me, and one of his men brought me
something to eat. I still had the slices of bread and meat in my pocket,
but, thinking I might need them later on, I kept them there. Tao and I sat
down near one of the lights and ate together. We were served by one of the
men. My guard still kept close at hand.

The food was nothing more than hard pieces of baked dough and a form of
sweet something like chocolate. For drink there was a hot liquid quite
comparable to tea. This was served us in small metal cups with handles
that seemed to be insulated from the heat.

This meal was brought to us from inside the vehicle. While we were eating
I could see many of the Mercutians going inside and coming out with pieces
of this food in their hands, eating as they worked. Quite obviously the
business of assembling their apparatus was uppermost in the minds of all
of them.

The whole atmosphere about the place, I realized now, in spite of the
opposite effect their dragging footsteps gave, was one of feverish
activity. When we had eaten Tao seemed willing to sit quiet for a while.
My efforts to talk to him amused us both greatly, and I noticed with
satisfaction that he seemed to trust me more and more.

Finally my guard spoke, asking permission, I judged, to leave us and go
have his dinner. My heart leaped into my throat as I saw him go, leaving
me alone with Tao. I concluded that now, if ever, was my opportunity. Tao
trusted me--seemed to like me, in fact. No one else in the camp was paying
the least attention to us. If only I could, on some pretext, get myself a
reasonable distance away from him I would make a run for it.

I was turning this problem over in my mind when it was unexpectedly solved
for me. A low throbbing, growing momentarily louder, sounded from the
air--the hum of an airplane motor. I think Tao noticed it first--I saw him
cock his head to one side, listening.

After a moment, as the sound increased, he climbed to his feet and shouted
an order to the man nearest us.

The night had clouded over; it was unusually dark. I knew that a plane
without lights was approaching. Work about the camp stopped; every one
stood listening. I looked up at the light-ray platform. The two men there
were swinging the light back and forth, sweeping the sky.

Suddenly the sound ceased; the plane's motor had been shut off. Almost at
the same instant the light-ray picked up the plane. It was several
thousand feet in the air and almost over our heads, coming down in a
spiral. A moment more and the light-ray swung away.

The plane burst into flame, and I knew it was falling. An explosion
sounded near at hand. The camp was in chaos immediately. I faced about to
look at Tao; he had disappeared.

I waited no longer. Turning back from the river, I ran at full speed.





Next: Futile Attacks

Previous: The Mercutian Camp



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