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HE WAS A SMALL MAN, the newcomer, and Dard overtopped him by four inches or more. And that gave the boy confidence enough to pull out of the shelter. He watched the stranger come confidently on, as though he knew just how many steps lay between himself and some goal. His clothing, what could be seen of it in the fast deepening dusk, was as ragged and patched as Dard's own. This was no landsman or Peaceman scout. Only one who did not hold all the important "confidence cards" would go about so unkempt. Which meant that he was an "unreliable," almost as much an outlaw as a techneer or a scientist.

The newcomer stopped abruptly in front of the tree. But he did not raise his hand to the hollow, instead he studied the tracks left by Lotta. But finally he shrugged and reached into the hole.

Dard moved and the other whirled in a half-crouch. There was the gleam of teeth in his bearded face, and another glint—of bare metal—in his hand.

But he made no sound and it was Dard who broke the quiet.

"I am Dard Nordis—"

"So? . . ." The single word was lengthened to approximate a reptile's hiss.

And Dard sensed that he was facing a dangerous man, a menace far worse than Hew Folley or any of his brutal kind.

"Suppose you tell me what has happened?" the man added.

"Roundup raid—last night," Dard returned laconically, his initial relief at the other's coming considerably dampened. "We thought we had escaped. I came up to leave that message for Lars." He motioned to the rag. "When I got back Lars was dead—killed by the neighbor who probably set them on us. So Dessie and I came here to wait for you."

"Peacemen!" the man spat. "And Lars Nordis dead! That's a bad piece of luck—bad." He made no move to put away the gun he held. It resembled a hand stun gun, but certain peculiarities of the stub barrel suggested that it was more deadly a weapon than that.

"And now," the man moved a step or two in Dard's direction, "what do you expect me to do with you?"

Dard moistened dry lips with a nervous tongue. He had not considered that, without Lars and what Lars had to offer, the mysterious underground might not wish to burden themselves with an untrained boy and a small child. Grim necessity was the law among all the present outlaws, and useless hands coupled with another mouth to feed were not wanted. He had a single hope. . . .

Lars had been so insistent about that word pattern that Dard dared now to believe that he must carry his brother's discovery in that memorized design of lines and numbers. He had to believe that and impress the importance of his information upon this messenger. It would be their passport to the underground.

"Lars had finished his work," Dard schooled his voice to conversational evenness. "I think you need the results—"

The man's head Jerked. And now he did put away that oddly shaped gun.

"You have the formula?"

Dard took a chance and touched his own forehead. "I have it here. I'll deliver it when and if I reach the proper persons."

The messenger kicked moodily at a lump of snow. "It's a long trip—back into the hills. You have supplies?"

"Some. I'll talk when we're safe—when Dessie is safe—"

"I don't know—a child—the going's pretty tough."

"You'll find we can keep up," Dard made a promise he had no surety of keeping. "But we had better start now—there's just a chance that they may be after us."

The man shrugged. "All right. Come ahead—the two of you."

Dard handed the bag of supplies to the other and took Dessie's hand. Without another word the man turned to retrace the way he had come and the other two followed, keeping as well as they could to the trail he had broken.

They traveled on all that night. Dard first led and then carried Dessie, until, after one halt, the guide waved him on and raised the little girl to his shoulder, leaving Dard to stumble along unburdened. They rested at intervals but never long enough to relax, and Dard despaired of being able to keep up the pace. This messenger was a tireless machine, striding as might a robot along some hidden trail of which he alone knew the landmarks.

At dawn they were close to the top of a rise. Dard pulled himself up the last of a steep slope, panting, to discover the other waiting for him. With a jerk of his thumb, the man indicated the crest of the divide.

"Cave—camp—" he got out the two words stiffly and put Dessie down. "Can you make it by yourself?" he asked her.

"Yes," her hand sought his confidently. "I'm a good climber."

There was a hint of smile, an awkward smile, pulling long forgotten muscles about his tight mouth. "You sure are, sister!"

The cave was fairly deep, the narrow entrance giving little hint of the wide room one found after squeezing through. It was a revelation to Dard as the guide snapped on a hand beam from a tiny carrying case he took from a ledge by the entrance. This was, the boy gathered, a regular camping place used by the underground travelers. He sank down on a bed of leaves and watched their companion pull out a black box, adjusting a dial on its side. Within seconds they began to feel the heat radiating from it. Free Scientist—equipment all of this—all top contraband. Dard had dim pre-purge memories of such aids to comfort.

Dessie gave a sigh of pure content and curled up as close to that wonder as she could get. She watched with sleepy eyes the owner of this marvel break open a can of soup and pour its half-frozen contents into a pan which he set on top of the heating unit. He rummaged through the bag of supplies Dard brought grunting at the scantiness of the pitiful collection.

"We didn't have much time to pack," said Dard, finally irritated by the other's unspoken contempt.

"What brought them down on you?" the man asked, squatting back on his heels. He had the strange gun out checking the clip which carried its charge, squinting down its few inches of barrel.

"Who knows? There was a landsman—he wanted the farm. He was the one who shot Lars."

"Hmm—" The man peered into the now bubbling soup. "Then it may have been only a routine raid after all—sparked by just general malice?"

That, Dard gathered from his tone, was the answer more desired by this stranger. And his own thoughts went back to the last evening in the farm house when Lars had made his announcement of success. The raid had followed too aptly—almost as if Lars' discovery at all costs had to be prevented from reaching those who might make use of it. What had Lars been working on, and why was it so important? And did he, Dard Nordis, actually know anything about it?

"What's your name?" Dessie eyed their companion over the cup of soup he had poured for her. "I never saw you before—"

For the second time that shadow smile appeared on the guide's lips.

"No, you never saw me, Dessie. But I've seen you—several times. And you may call me Sach."

"Sach," she repeated. "That is a funny name. But this is very good soup, Sach. Is this a celebration?"

He looked startled. "Don't know about its being a celebration, Dessie. But it is going to be a day of sleep for all of us. We still have a long way to go. Suppose you bed down over there and close your eyes."

Dard was nodding over his own supply of food and a very short time later followed the same orders.

He awoke with a start. Sach was stooping over him, his grimed hand over Dard's mouth as he shook him by the shoulder. As soon as he saw the awareness in the boy's eyes, he dropped down on one knee to whisper:

"There's a 'copter circling—been up and around overhead for a half hour. Either we've been trailed or they've found out about this cave and put a watch on it. Now you listen and get this straight. What Lars Nordis was doing means more than life to the Cleft Dwellers. They've been waiting for the results of his last tests." He paused and in quite a different voice as if repeating some talisman added two words Dard had once heard from Lars, "Ad astra." Then in a harsh command he continued, "They've got to have it and have it quick. We're some five miles from the valley. Set a line straight to the peak you can see from this cave entrance and keep to it. Give me a good start and watch. If the 'copter follows me, then it's okay for you to make a break to reach the peak. Keep undercover all you can. There's only one long stretch where you cross the river that you have to be in the open."

"But you—" Dard was trying to pull his sleep scattered thoughts together.

"I'll go down slope the opposite way. If they are suspicious of this hiding hole and are watching it, they may take out after me. And I've played this type of hide and seek before, I know the game. You watch from the entrance while I go—now!"

Dard followed him to the narrow opening where Sach lingered just within the shadow listening. Now Dard could hear it too, the faint whine of a 'copter beating through the cold afternoon air. It grew to a steady drone, passed overhead, and faded. Sach still waited. Then he gave a curt nod to Dard and melted away.

The boy crawled to the very edge of the concealing overhang. Sach by some trick had won a good ten feet down slope. It would be difficult for anyone sighting him now to guess just where he had appeared from. He slid down, in only enough hurry to suggest that he was bolting from a position he considered dangerous.

Now the 'copter was on its way back—either on a routine sweep or because the dark figure of Sach had been sighted. He leaped into the shelter of a pine grown thicket, but not soon enough to escape detection. The 'copter circled down. There was a loud crack awaking echoes from the surrounding rocks. Somebody had shot at the fugitive.


"It's all right," the boy called reassuringly over his shoulder into the cave. "I'll be back in a minute."

Sach had probably wormed his way down to the edge of the deep woods. The 'copter made another smaller and tighter circle and came closer to the ground, to allow three men to leap into the snow. Before they could gain their feet and their balance a pencil of green light beamed a tight ray at one. He screamed and threshed the snow into a high shower of drift. The others threw themselves flat but continued to snake toward the wood from which that attack had come, and the 'copter swooped to spray death into the silent trees. Sach had not only drawn the attention of the trackers, he was using every means of keeping it on him. The 'copter soared above the trees, westward, away from the cave. When the two men broke into the brush undercover Dard watched them out of sight.

It would be evening soon. And the eastern slope was well provided with cover. There were sections of bare rock on the slope where no snow clung. Dard's eyes narrowed—footprints were easy to see from the air. But there was another way of getting down to the valley, one which would leave no such tell-tale traces. He went inside and clicked on the light Sach had left.

"Time to go, Dardie?" Dessie asked.

"First we eat." He made himself move deliberately. If Sach's information was right they still had a long trip before them. And they must not start it with empty stomachs. He used supplies recklessly before tying up enough of the remains to provide them with food for at least one more day.

"Where is Sach?" Dessie wanted to know.

"He had to go away. We will travel alone now. Eat all that, Dessie."

"I am," she answered almost peevishly. "I wish we could stay here. That box makes it so nice and warm."

For a moment Dard was tempted to do just that. To venture out on an unknown trail through the snow and cold when they could lay snug here seemed not only foolish but almost criminal, especially when it involved taking Dessie into the wilderness. But the urgency which had sent Sach out into the very mouth of danger to draw off pursuit could not be denied. If Sach believed that the information they carried was as important as that—Well, they would uphold their part of the bargain. And there was always the fear in his mind since the coming of the 'copter, that the cave had been marked down and was known to the Peacemen.

It was dusk when they came out into the snap of the cruel night air. Dard pointed to the nearest ledge of bare rock sloping downward.

"We must walk along that ledge so as not to leave tracks in the snow."

Dessie nodded. "But where the rock ends, Dardie, what do we do then?"

"Wait and see!"

They edged along the ledge and it seemed to Dard that the chill struck up from the stone with double intensity. But Dessie flitted ahead and was teetering back and forth on the very edge as he caught up.

"Now," he told her, "we are going to jump. Into the big drift down there."

He had meant to make that leap first, and was tensing his muscles for the spring, when Dessie went over. Whether she had voluntarily thrown herself over or whether she had lost her balance he could not tell. But before he could move she had disappeared, and a plume of snow puffed to mark her landing place. Dard crouched there uncertainly until he saw the wave of an arm. Then he plunged, calculating his fall to land him apart from Dessie. He was a moment in the frosty air and then deep in snow which choked his mouth and blinded his eyes.

When they had fought their way out of the drift Dard glanced back up the slope. They had won into the shadow of the woods where their trail would be concealed from 'copter spies. His ruse had succeeded!

Now, he swung to the east, five miles Sach had said. Their progress would depend upon drifts and footing. It wouldn't be too hard going in the shelter of the trees. Luckily this was no dense forest. And by steering with the peak and the river they could reach their ultimate goal.

In the beginning the journey appeared simple and Dard was lighthearted. But before morning dawned they were caught in a nightmare. They had reached the river's bank, only to find the ice crust there too thin to use as a bridge. Time and time again, as they hunted along its bank, they sank knee deep into the powdery snow. Dard carried Dessie again and had to abandon the bag of supplies. He knew with a sinking heart that the periods of struggle between the rests were growing shorter and shorter. But he dared not give up and try to camp—being sure that if he once relaxed he would never rise again.

Morning found them at the one place where the river might be crossed. An arch of ice, snow crowned, made a perilous bridge over which they crept fearfully. The peak stood needle-pointing into the sky—probably, the boy thought bitterly, looking closer than it was.

He tried to keep to the cover afforded by brush and trees, but the rays of the rising sun reflected from the snow confused him and at last he plodded on, setting each foot down with exaggerated care, grimly determined only upon keeping his feet, with or without protection from a 'copter.

Dessie rested across his shoulder, her eyes half-closed. He believed that she was unconscious now, or very close to it. She gave no protest when he laid her body down on a fallen tree and leaned against another forest giant to draw panting gasps that cut his lungs with knives of ice. Some instinct or good fortune had kept him on the right course—the peak was still ahead. And now he could see that it guarded the entrance to a narrow cleft through which a small pathway led. But what lay beyond that cleft and how far he would still be from help if he could reach it he had no idea.

Dard allowed himself to rest until he had counted slowly to one hundred, and then he lifted Dessie again and lurched on, trying to avoid the clutching briars on neighboring bushes. In that moment, as he straightened up with the girl in his arms, he thought that he had sighted a strange glint of light from near the crown of the peak. Sun striking on ice, he reasoned dully as he plodded on.

He was never to know if he could have made the last lap of that journey under his own power. For, before he had gone a hundred yards, his fatigue-dulled ears caught the ominous sound of a 'copter engine. And, without trying to locate the source, he threw himself and his burden into the bushes, rolling through the snow and enduring the lash of branches.

The whine of the machine's supporting blades sounded doubly clear through the morning air. And a second later he saw splinters fly from a tree trunk not a foot away. Dragging Dessie he pulled back into thicker cover. But he knew that he was only prolonging the end. They knew that he was alone except for the child, they would conclude that he was unarmed. They had only to land men and take him at their leisure.

But, though the 'copter swept back and forth over the tangle of brush into which he had burrowed his way, it made no move to land anyone. So, thinking that he now was screened from their sight, Dard squatted down holding Dessie tightly, trying to think.

Sach—Sach and the green ray which had brought down the Peacemen back on the heights by the cave; that was it. They knew that he carried no rifle. But they were afraid that he might be armed with one of those more potent weapons such as Sach had used. Dessie whimpered and clung closer to him as the 'copter made another dive above their hiding place—one which leveled off only inches above the branches which might have tangled in the undercarriage.

The crack of rifle fire punctuated the whine of the engine. Again he watched splinters fly—one close enough to score his cheek. By will alone he held himself immovable and kept Dessie captive, though her little body flinched at the sound of each shot. Those above could not see their quarry or they would not be spraying bullets so indiscriminantly. This raking of the brush was to force him out.

And the worst of it was that they could do just that! Dard knew that the searching stream of death quartering the thicket would either kill them or force them to move.

He blinked at the bushes and made his first constructive move, stripping Lotta's scarf off Dessie's head and shoulders. Quickly he tangled the thick wool in some thorned branches. Then he put Dessie on her knees in the snow and pushed her away from that thorn bush. She obediently wormed her way off as Dard followed, moving by inches. Luckily the 'copter was now making the rounds of the perimeter of the thicket and for a minute or two there had been no shooting. Dard traveled on until the scarf end pulled taut in his hand, until he could keep his grip on the loose end only with thumb and forefinger at the full extent of an outstretched arm. Then he lay waiting.

The 'copter was moving in again while more than one marksman added to a crisscross fire. Dard bit deep on the soft inner side of his lip. Now! By the sound the 'copter was just in the right position. As a rifle cracked, Dard gave two quick jerks of the scarf, and was answered by a loud burst of fire. Then he screamed wildly, and Dessie, shocked out of her bewilderment, echoed him thinly. Another tug at the scarf for good measure and then he was racing on hands and knees, bumping Dessie before him. If they would only believe that he, or Dessie, or both had been hit! That should bring them down, set them fighting their way to the spot where he had fastened the scarf. And then there would be a slim chance, a terribly slim chance, to get away.

Dard cringed at the sound of the vicious attack the 'copter riders were still centering behind him—an attack delivered without any call to surrender. All that blind hatred which had boiled over during the purge was still smoldering in those who were now hunting them. He had always known that anyone of proven scientist blood would have little chance if the Peacemen tracked him down, but now the last faint hope of mercy for the helpless was gone.

Pulling Dessie he reached the end of the thicket in which they had taken refuge. By some blind chance they had come out on the side which faced the peak. But before them lay a wide open sweep of ground, impossible to cross undetected. Dard faced it bleakly. The brightness of the sunlight somehow made that last blow harder.

But, even as his misery and despair weakened him, he suddenly noted again flashes of light on the peak—coming in too regular a pattern to be sun fostered. While he was still gaping up at that, a shadow swept over. The 'copter landed directly on that virgin expanse of snow before him. He sagged and his arms tightened about Dessie who gave a muffled cry as his grip hurt her. This was the end—they could not run any more.

The Peacemen were taking their time about leaving the 'copter. It looked as if they were still reluctant to approach that thicket. What had Sach done that made them so wary?

Two of them crept around the tail of the machine, and, Dard saw the gun mounted on the 'copter's roof swing about to cover them. The men crawled slowly through the snow. But before they had reached beyond the length of the 'copter, that blink of light on the peak stepped up into a steady glow. Dard's eyes dropped from it to the Peacemen and so he did not see deliverance arrive.

There was a swish of sound followed by a tinkle as if glass had splintered. Green fog bellowed out about the machine—the same fatal green of the ray Sach had used on the cave slope.

Without knowing why, he threw himself face down, carrying Dessie with him, as traces of the fog wafted slowly toward the thicket. It must be gas, and those men were now floundering in it. Then the world went black and Dard fell into deep space, a place where Dessie, too, was swept away from him.

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