The Escape

: 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.

br /> 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


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.