From: The Fire People
On the little stern seat of the boat Mercer and Anina sat side by side,
the girl steering by a small tiller that lay between them. They were well
out in the middle of the river now, speeding silently along with its swift
current. They made extraordinary speed. Both banks of the river were
visible in the twilight--dim, wooded hills stretching back into darkness.
The stream widened steadily as they advanced, until near, its mouth it had
become a broad estuary. They followed its right shore now and soon were
out in the Narrow Sea.
"We'd better go right on across," said Mercer. "It's too early for Alan to
be at the end of the trail. He won't be there till to-night. We can reach
the Great City before he starts."
They decided to do that, and headed straight out into the sea. They had
been cold, sitting there in the wind, and wet to the skin. But the boat
contained several furry jackets, which the men had left in it, and in the
bottom, near the stern, a cubical metal box which lighted up like an
electric radiator. By this they had dried and warmed themselves, and now,
each with a fur jacket on, they felt thoroughly comfortable.
Mercer was elated at what they had accomplished. He could see now how
fortunate a circumstance it was that we had set the men free. He would not
have stumbled upon this other party, and the invasion of the Light Country
would have begun, had we not released them.
He talked enthusiastically about what we were to do next, and Anina
listened, saying very little, but following his words with eager
attention. Once he thought she was more interested in the words themselves
than in what he was saying, and said so.
"Your language--so very easy it is. I want to learn it soon if I can."
"Why, you know it already," he protested. "And how the deuce you ever got
it so quickly beats me."
"When you say words--very easy then for me to remember. Not many words in
He shook his head.
"Well, however you do it, the result's all right. I'm mighty glad, too.
Why, when I get you back home on earth--" He stopped in sudden confusion.
She put her hand on his arm.
"Miela says your earth is very wonderful. Tell me about it."
She listened to his glowing words. "And opera--what is that?" she asked
once when he paused.
He described the Metropolitan Opera House, and the newer, finer one in
Boston. She listened to his description of the music with flushed face and
"How beautiful--that music! Can you sing, Ollie?"
"No," he admitted, "but I can play a little on a guitar. I wish I had one
"I can sing," said the girl: "Miela says I can sing very well."
He leaned toward her, brushing the blue feathers of her wing lightly with
"Sing for me," he said softly. "I'll bet you sing beautifully."
It may have been their situation, or what they had been through together,
or the girl's nearness to him now with her long braids of golden hair, the
graceful sweep of her blue-feathered wings that matched the blue of her
eyes, her red lips parted in song--but whatever it was, Mercer thought he
had never heard so sweet a voice. She sang a weird little song. It was in
a minor key, with curious cadences that died away and ended nowhere--the
folk song of a different race, a different planet, yet vibrant with the
ever unsatisfied longing of the human soul.
She sang softly, staring straight before her, without thought of her
singing, thinking only of her song. She ended with a tender phrase that
might have been a sigh--a quivering little half sob that died away in her
throat and left the song unfinished. Her hands were folded quiet in her
lap; her eyes gazed out on the gray waste of water about the boat.
Mercer breathed again.
"That is beautiful, Anina. What is it?"
She turned to him and smiled.
"Just love song. You like it, my friend Ollie?"
"It's wonderful. But it's--it's so sad--and--and sort of weird isn't it?"
"That is love, my mother says. Love is sad."
Mercer's heart was beating fast.
"Is it always sad, Anina? I don't think so--do you?"
There was no trace of coquetry in her eyes; she sighed tremulously.
"I do not know about love. But what I feel here"--she put her hand on her
breast--"I do not understand, Ollie. And when I sing--they are very sad
and sweet, the thoughts of music, and they say things to the heart that
the brain does not understand. Is it that way with you?"
Unnoticed by the two, a storm cloud had swept up over the horizon behind
them, and the sky overhead was blotted now with its black. They had not
seen it nor heeded the distant flashing of lightning. A sudden thunderclap
startled them now into consciousness of the scene about them. The wind
rushed on them from behind. The sea was rising rapidly; the boat scudded
"A storm! Look at it, Anina, behind us!"
There was nothing in sight now but the gray sea, broken into waves that
were beginning to curl, white and angry. Behind them the darkness was
split with jagged forks of lightning. The thunder rolled heavily and
ominously in the distance, with occasional sharp cracks near at hand.
"Look, Anina--there comes the rain! See it there behind us! I hope it
won't be a bad storm. I wouldn't want to be out in this little tub."
The wind veered to the left, increasing steadily. The sea was lashed into
foam; its spray swept over the boat, drenching them thoroughly.
The waves, turning now with the wind, struck the boat on its stern
quarter. One curled aboard, sloshing an inch or two of water about the
bottom of the boat. Mercer feared it would interfere with the mechanism,
but Anina reassured him.
As the waves increased in size, Mercer swung the boat around so as to run
directly before them. The stern frequently was lifted clear of the water
now, the boat losing headway as a great cloud of hissing steam arose from
After a time the Light Country shore came into sight. They were close upon
it before they saw it through the rain and murk. They seemed to be heading
diagonally toward it.
"Where are we, Anina?" Mercer asked anxiously.
The girl shook her head.
Steadily they were swept inward. The shore line, as they drew closer, was
to Mercer quite unfamiliar. There were no bayous here, no inundated land.
Instead, a bleak line of cliffs fronted them--a perpendicular wall against
which the waves beat furiously. They could see only a short distance. The
line of cliffs extended ahead of them out of sight in the gray of the
sheets of rain.
They were slanting toward the cliffs, and Mercer knew if he did not do
something they would be driven against them in a few moments more.
"We'll have to turn out, Anina. We can't land along here. We must keep
away if we can."
With the waves striking its stern quarter again, the boat made much
heavier weather. It seemed to Mercer incredible that it should stay
afloat. He found himself thoroughly frightened now, but when he remembered
that Anina was in no danger he felt relieved. He had made her lie down in
the boat, where she would be more sheltered from the wind and rain. Now he
hastily bade her get up and sit beside him.
"We might be swamped any minute, Anina. You sit there where you won't get
caught if we go over."
They swept onward, Mercer keeping the boat offshore as best he could.
"Haven't you any idea where we are, Anina? How far along do these cliffs
A huge, jagged pinnacle of rock, like a great cathedral spire set in the
cliff, loomed into view ahead. Anina's face brightened, when she saw it.
"The way to the Water City," she cried. "A river there is--ahead. Not so
very far now."
In spite of all Mercer could do, they were blowing steadily closer to the
He began to despair. "If anything happens, Anina--you fly up at once. You
hear? Don't you wait. You can't help me any. I'll make out some way. You
say good-by to Alan and your mother and sister for me--if--" He fell
silent a moment, then said softly: "And, Anina, if that should happen, I
want you to know that I think you're the sweetest, most wonderful little
girl I ever met. And, Anina dear--"
The girl gripped his arm with a cry of joy.
"See, Ollie! There, ahead, the cliffs end. That is the Water City river!
See it there?"
The mouth of a broad estuary, with the waves rolling up into it, came
swiftly into view. They rounded the rocky headland and entered it, running
now almost directly before the wind. The river narrowed after a short
distance to a stream very much like the one they had left in the Twilight
Mercer turned to the quiet little girl beside him.
"Well, Anina, we've certainly had some trip. I wouldn't want to go through
Mercer thought the situation over. They could stay where they were in the
river for an hour or two until the storm was entirely over, and then go
back to the Great City. On the other hand, now that they were here, Mercer
felt a great curiosity to see this other city where Tao's men had created
trouble. Why should they not use these few hours of waiting to see it?
"We might get a line on how things stand up there to tell Alan when we get
back," Mercer said when he explained his ideas to Anina. "It won't take
long." Very probably it was the light-ray cylinder in his hand which
influenced his decision, for he added: "We can't get into any trouble, you
know; there's no light-ray here yet."
And so they went on.
There was a perceptible current coming down the river. The water was cold
and clear, and in the brighter light now he could see down into it in many
places to the bottom, six or eight feet below. The region seemed utterly
uninhabited; no sign of a house or even a boat on the river met them as
"Mightn't there be boats along here?" Mercer asked once. "How far up is
"Not far now--beyond there."
The river appeared to terminate abruptly up ahead against the side of a
frowning brown cliff, but Mercer saw a moment later that it opened out
around a bend to the left.
"Around that next bend?"
It seemed incredible to Mercer that the second largest city in Mercury lay
hidden in the midst of this desolation.
"We'll meet boats," he said. "What will the people think of me? Don't
let's start anything if we can help it."
"You lie there." Anina indicated the bottom of the boat at her feet. "No
one see you then. I steer. They do not notice me. Nobody care who I am."
Mercer had still the very vaguest of ideas as to what they would do when
they got to the Water City. As a matter of fact, he really was more
curious just to see it than anything else. But there was another reason
that urged him on. Both he and Anina were hungry.
They had eaten very little since leaving the Great City the night before;
and now that it was again evening, they were famished. They had rummaged
the boat thoroughly, but evidently the men had taken all their supplies
ashore with them, for nothing was in the boat.
"We'll have to dope out some way to get something to eat," said Mercer.
They came upon the sharp bend in the river Anina had indicated. Following
close against one rocky shore, they swept around the bend, and the Water
City lay spread out before Mercer's astonished eyes.
Next: The Water City
Previous: The Theft Of The Light-ray