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The Theft Of The Light-ray

From: The Fire People

The touch of soft, cool hands on his face brought Mercer back to sudden
consciousness. He opened his eyes; Anina was sitting beside him, regarding
him gravely.

"Wake up, my friend Ollie. Time now to wake up."

He sat up, rubbing his eyes. The same dim twilight obscured everything
around. For an instant he was confused.

"Why, I've been asleep." He got to his feet. "Do you think it's been long,
Anina? Maybe the men have started off. Let's go see."

Anina had already been to see; she had awakened some little time before
and, leaving Mercer asleep, had flown up ahead over the treetops.

The men were just then breaking camp, and she had returned to wake up
Mercer. They ate their last remaining pieces of bread, drank from the
little pool of water, and were soon ready to start on after their quarry.

"How long will it take them to reach the gorge, Anina?"

"Not very long--four times farther reach Lone City."

By which Mercer inferred that within three or four hours, perhaps, they
would be at the place where they hoped to turn the men back.

They started off slowly up the trail, Mercer carrying the folded blanket,
and Anina wearing the fur jacket. They soon came upon the smoldering fire
that marked the other party's night encampment. The men were, Mercer
judged, perhaps a mile or so ahead of them.

They continued on, walking slowly, for they did not want to overtake the
slow-traveling men ahead. The look of the country, what they could see of
it in the darkness, was unchanged. The trail seemed bending steadily to
the right, and after a time they came to the bank of a river which the
trail followed. It was a broad stream, perhaps a quarter of a mile across,
with a considerable current sweeping down to the sea.

They kept to the trail along the river bank for nearly another hour. Then
Anina abruptly halted, pulling Mercer partly behind a tree trunk.

"Another fire," she whispered. "They stop again."

They could see the glow of the fire, close by the river bank among the
trees. Very cautiously they approached and soon made out the vague
outlines of a boat moored to the bank. It seemed similar to the one in
which they had come down the bayous from the Great City, only slightly

"Other men," whispered Anina. "From Lone City."

Mercer's heart sank. A party from the Lone City--more of Tao's men to join
those he had set free! All his fine plans were swept away. The men would
all go up to the Lone City now in the boat, of course. There was nothing
he could do to stop them. And now Tao would learn of the failure of his

Mercer's first idea was to give up and return to the shore of the sea; but
Anina kept on going cautiously forward, and he followed her.

The fire, they could see as they got closer, was built a little back from
the water, with a slight rise of ground between it and the boat. There
were some thirty men gathered around; they seemed to be cooking.

"You stand here, Ollie," Anina whispered. "I go hear what they say. Stand
very quiet and wait. I come back."

Mercer sat down with his back against a tree and waited. Anina disappeared
almost immediately. He heard no sound of her flight, but a moment later he
thought he saw her dropping down through the trees just outside the circle
of light from the fire. From where he was sitting he could see the boat
also; he thought he made out the figure of a man sitting in it, on guard.
The situation, as Mercer understood it from what Anina told him when she
returned, seemed immeasurably worse even than he had anticipated.

Tao had been making the Water City the basis of his insidious propaganda,
rather than the Great City, as we had supposed. He had been in constant
communication by boat with his men in the Water City; and now affairs
there were ripe for more drastic operations.

This boat Mercer had come upon was intended to be Tao's first armed
invasion of the Light Country--some twenty of his most trusted men armed
with the light-ray. Joining his emissaries in the Water City, and with the
large following among the people there which they had already secured,
they planned to seize the government and obtain control of the city. Then,
using it as a base, they could spread out for a conquest of the entire
nation. Mercer listened with whitening face while Anina told him all this
as best she could.

"But--but why does he want to attack the Light Country, Anina? I thought
he wanted to go and conquer our earth."

"Very big task--your earth," the girl answered. "Light Country more easy.
Many light-rays in the Great City. Those he needs before he goes to your
earth. More simple to get those than make others."

Mercer understood it then. The large quantity of light-ray ammunition
stored in the Great City was what Tao was after. This was his way of
getting it, and once he had it, and control of the Light Country besides
he would be in a much better position to attack the earth.

The idea came to Mercer then to steal the boat and escape with it. If he
could do that, the enemies would have to return to the Lone City on foot,
and the threatened invasion of the Light Country would thus be postponed
for a time at least. Meanwhile, with the boat he could hasten back to me
with news of the coming invasion.

These thoughts were running through his head while Anina was talking. It
was a daring plan, but it might be done. There was apparently only one man
in the boat, and the slight rise of ground between it and the fire made
him out of sight, though not out of hearing, of the others.

"Can you run the boat, Anina?"

The girl nodded eagerly. Mercer drew a long breath.

"We'll take a chance. It's the only way. They've got that cursed
light-ray." He shivered as he thought of the danger they were about to

Then he explained to Anina what they were to do. She listened carefully,
with the same expectant, eager look on her face he had seen there so often

They left the blanket and fur jacket on the ground, and, making a wide
detour around the fire, came back to the river bank several hundred yards
above the boat. They stood at the water's edge, looking about them. The
boat was just around a slight bend in the stream; the glimmer of the fire
showed plainly among the trees. Intense quiet prevailed; only the murmur
of the water flowing past, and occasionally the raised voice of one of the
men about the fire, broke the stillness.

Mercer stared searchingly into the girl's eyes as she stood there quietly
at his side. She met his gaze steadily.

"You're a wonderful little girl," he whispered to her, and then abruptly
added: "Come on. Don't make any splash if you can help it. And remember,
if anything goes wrong, never mind me. Fly away--if you can."

They waded slowly into the water. The current carried them rapidly along.
Side by side, with slow, careful strokes, they swam, keeping close to
shore. The river was shallow--hardly over their heads. The water was cold
and, Mercer thought, curiously buoyant.

It seemed hardly more than a moment before the shadowy black figure of
outlines of the boat loomed ahead. They could make out the figure of its
single occupant, sitting with his arm on the gunwale. They swam hardly at
all now, letting the current carry them forward. As silent as two drifting
logs they dropped down upon the boat and in another moment were clinging
to a bit of rope that chanced to be hanging over its stern.

The bow of the boat was nosed against the bank; it lay diagonally
downstream, with its stern some twenty feet from shore. Its occupant was
sitting amidships, facing the bow. Mercer drew himself up until his eyes
were above the stern of the boat and saw him plainly. He was slouching
down as though dozing. His elbow was crooked, carelessly over the gunwale.

Mercer's heart gave an exultant leap as he saw a little cylinder in the
man's hand. There was a little projection on the boat at the water line,
and, working along this with his hands, Mercer edged slowly toward the
man. He knew he could not be heard, for the murmur of the water slipping
past the sides of the boat drowned the slight noise he made.

He edged his way along, with not much more than his face out of water,
until he was directly beneath the motionless form in the boat.

Mercer's heart was beating so it seemed to smother him. Slowly he pulled
himself up until the fingers of his left hand gripped the gunwale hardly
more than a foot or two behind the man's back. His other hand reached
forward. He must have made a slight noise, for the man sat suddenly
upright, listening.

Mercer's right hand shot out. His fingers closed over the little cylinder
and the hand holding it. He bent it inward, twisting the man's wrist. His
thumb fumbled for the little button Anina had described. There was a tiny
puff of light; the man's body wavered, then fell forward inert. Mercer
climbed into the boat. He looked back. Anina was pulling herself up over
the stern. A long pole lay across the seats. He picked it up and started
with it toward the bow. And then he tripped over something and fell
headlong, dropping the pole with a clatter.

As he picked himself up there came a shout from the men in the woods.
Mercer hurried forward and cast off the rope that held the boat to the
bank. It had been tied more or less permanently at this end. As he fumbled
at the knots he heard Anina's soft, anxious voice calling: "Hurry, Ollie,

The shouts from the woods continued. The knots loosened finally. The boat
slid back away from the bank; with the pole Mercer shoved the bow around.
An instant later Anina had started the mechanism, and in a broad curve
they swung silently out into the river.

Up from the woods shot a beam of the greenish-red light. It darted to and
fro for an instant, almost vertically in the air, and Mercer heard the
crackle of the tree-tops as they burst into flame under its heat. Then it
swung downward, but before it could reach the water level the rise of
ground at the bank cut it off.

Without realizing it, Mercer had been holding his breath as he watched.
Now he let it out with a long sigh of relief.

"We did it, Anina--we did it," he said exultantly. "And we've got a
light-ray, too."

A moment later they swept around a bend in the river, out of sight and out
of hearing of their enemies.

Next: The Storm

Previous: Another Light-ray!

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