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DARD CHEWED mechanically on food which now had no savor. As Kimber forked a thick slice of ham he spoke to the pilot:

"Shall I give the girl instructions, sir?"

Kimber swallowed. "Very well. Be sure she gets it straight. I don't propose to sit around here waiting for a couple of days. Let her tell the repair master they may find us at the 'copter. We'll go back there after we thaw out But get her started right away—the sooner she leaves the sooner they will come for us."

Dard went out into the farmyard. Lotta was saddling a horse. As his boots squeaked on the snow she looked up.

"Where's Dessie? Wotta you done with her?"

"She's safe."

Lotta studied his face before she nodded. "That's the truth, ain't it? You really want I should go to town? Why? You ain't no Peaceman—"

"No. And the more you can delay your trip in, the better. But Lotta—" he had to give her some protection. If later she were suspected of aiding their escape her fate would not be pleasant. "When you get in and report at the Temple, tell them you are suspicious of us. We'll be gone from here by then."

With her chin she pointed to the house. "Don't you trust her none. She ain't my ma—Folley wasn't really my pa, neither. My pa was kin and Folley, he wanted the land pa left so they took me in. Don't you trust her none at all—she's worse'n Folley was. I'll ride slow goin' in, and I'll do like you say when I git there. Lissen here, Dard, you sure Dessie's gonna be all right?"

"She is if we can get back to her. She’ll have a chance to live the way she ought to—"

The small eyes in the girl's pasty face were shrewd, "And that's a promise! You git outta here and take her too. I'll make up a good story for 'em. I ain't," she suddenly smiled at him, "I ain't near as dumb as I look, Dard Nordis, even if I ain't one of your kind!"

She scrambled awkwardly into the saddle and slapped the ends of the reins so that the horse broke into a trot.

Dard went back to the house and sat down at the table with a better appetite. Kimber broke off man-sized bites of apple tart, and between them he addressed his junior.

"Now that it's day, I've been thinking that we may be able to check the bus over ourselves. You, woman," he said to their unwilling hostess, "can you direct them on to join us if we don't return?"

Dard pressured Kimber's foot with the toe of his boot in warning. And received a return midge of acknowledgement.

"Which way you goin'?" she asked. Dard thought that some of her deference was gone. Was she beginning to suspect that she was not really entertaining two of the new lords of the land?

"North. We'll leave a trail, have to back track on your own. Suppose you put us up some grub so we'll have something at noon. And just send the repair crew along."

"Yes, noble sirs."

But that acknowledgement was almost grudging and she was spending a long time putting aside some pieces of cold meat and bread. Or did his jumpy nerves make him imagine that, wondered Dard.

A half hour later they left the house. They kept to the lane and then to the road leading north until a grove cut off their path from any watcher. It was then that Kimber faced west.

"Where now?"

"There's a trail farther on that doubles back up into the hills," Dard informed him. "It cuts across the old woods road near that tree where I met Sach."

"Good, I leave the guide duty up to you. But let's move! That girl may make a quick trip in—"

"She'll delay all she can. She knows—"

Kimber's lips shaped a soundless whistle. "That will help—if she is working for us."

"I told her that it meant saving Dessie. Dessie's the only one she cares about."

The warmth, good food, and short rest they had had at Folley's gave them heat and strength for the trail ahead. After two false tries Dard found the woods road. Along it there was an earlier trail breaking the snow, made by Lotta, he guessed.

Kimber set an easy pace, knowing the grueling miles which still lay ahead. They took a lengthy rest at the rude lean-to by the message tree. The woods were unnaturally still and the sun reflected from patches of snow, making them squint against the glare.

From the message tree on, it was a matter of following the traces he himself had helped to make. Luckily, Dard congratulated himself, there had been no more snow and the broken path was easy to follow. But both were tired and slowed against their will as they slogged their way toward the heights which held the cave. There they could rest, Dard promised his aching body. They paused to eat, to breathe, and then on and on and on. Dard lost all track of time, it was a business of following in a robot fashion those other marks in the snow.

They had reached the lower slopes of the rise which would take them to the cave when he leaned against a tree. Kimber's face, stark and drawn, all the easy good humor pounded out of it by fatigue, was in outline against a snowbank.

It was in that moment of silence that Dard caught the distant sound—very faint, borne to them by some freak of air current—the bay of a hunting dog running a fresh and uncomplicated trail Kimber's head Jerked up. Dard ran his tongue around a dry mouth. That cave up there with its narrow entrance! He wasted no breath on explanation, instead he began doggedly to climb.

But—there was something wrong about the stone before them. Maybe his eyes—snow blindness—Dard shook his head, trying to clear them. But that different look remained. So that he was partly expecting what he found when he reached the crest. Sick, shaken to the point of nausea, he stared at the closed door of the cave—closed with rocks and something else—and then he reeled retching to the other side of the hill top.

He was scrubbing out his mouth with a handful of snow when Kimber joined him.

"So, now we know about Sach—"

Dard raised sick eyes. The pilot's mouth was stone-hard. "Left him there like that as a threat," muttered Kimber, "and a warning. They must have discovered that this was one of out regular posts."

"How could any one do that?"

"Listen, son, somebody starts out with an idea—maybe in the beginning a good one. Renzi wasn't a crook, he was basically a decent man. I heard his early speeches and I'm willing tor agree that much he said was true. But he had no—well, 'charity' is the best word for it He wanted to force his pattern for living on everyone else, for their own good, of course. Because he was great and sincere in his own way he gained a following of honest people. They were sick of war and they were terribly shocked by the Big Burn, they could readily believe that science had led to evil. The Free Scientists were too independent—they made closed guilds of their teams. There was a separation between thinking and feeling. And feeling is easier to us than thinking. So Renzi appealed to feeling, and against the aloofness of science he won. He was Joined by other fanatics, and by those who want power no matter how it comes into their bands. Then there have always been some human beings who enjoy that sort of thing—what we just saw over there. They're lower than animals because animals don't torture their own kind for pleasure. Fanatics, power lovers, sadists—let them get a tight hold on the government and there is no room for decency. The best this world can hope for now is a break in their ranks, an inner struggle for control.

"This type of fight against freedom of thought and tolerance has happened before. Centuries ago there was the Inquisition in the name of religion. And daring the twentieth century the dictators did the same under political systems of one kind or another. Fanatic belief in an idea—a conviction that an idea or a nation is greater than the individual man—it has scourged us again and again. Utter power over his fellow men changes a man, rots him through and through. When we are able to breed men who want no influence over each other—who are content to strive equally for a common goal—then we'll pull ourselves above that—" He gestured to that pitiful thing now hidden from their eyes. "The Free Scientists came close to reaching that, point. Which is why Renzi and his kind both hated and feared them. But they were only a handful—drops lost in a sea. And they went under as have others before them who have followed the same vision. Nothing worse can be done to man than what he has done to himself. But listen to this—"

Kimber's head was high, he was watching that peak which guarded the distant Cleft. Now he repeated slowly:

"'Frontiers of any type, physical or mental, are but a challenge to our breed. Nothing can stop the questing of men, not even Man. If we will it, not only the wonders of space, but the very stars are ours!'"

"The stars are ours!" echoed Dard. "Who said that?"

"Techneer Vidor Chang, one of our martyrs. He helped to bring the star ship here, ventured out on the first fuel research and— But his words remain ours.

"That's what we've geared our lives to, we outlaws. It doesn't matter what a man was in the past—Free Scientist, techneer, laborer, farmer, soldier—we're all one because we believe in freedom for the individual, in the rights of man to grow and develop as far as he can. And we are daring to search for a place where we can put those beliefs, into practice. The earth denied us—we must seek the stars."

Kimber started down slope. Dard caught up to point out the ruse which he had used with Dessie and which might now baffle the hounds. They found a higher ledge and made a more perilous dive, so that Dard landed on pine boughs and spilled to the earth with a jolt which drove the breath out of his lungs until Kimber pounded air back into him.

To his surprise the pilot did not keep to cover now. The night was falling fast and they could not hold their present pace without rest But Kimber plunged on until they came to the open space flanking the river. There the pilot brought out the same flat disc with which he had cut their way out of the temple barrier, and hurled it out into the open.

A column of green fire shot from it up into the night, standing steady for at least five minutes. In the dusk it made a good show, turning the surrounding snow and the faces of the fugitives verdant as it burned.

"Now we wait," Kimber's voice held a faint shadow of the old humor. "The boys will be down to pick us up before Pax can connect."

But waiting was not so simple when each minute meant the difference between life and death. They swallowed the last of the food and bedded down between two fallen trees at the edge of the clearing. The flame died down, but a core of green glow would continue to shine for several hours. Kimber said.

A wind was rising. And its wails through the trees did not drown out the distant yapping of the hounds. Dard fingered his stun gun—two charges for him, one in Kimber's weapon. Little enough with which to meet what panted on their trail. The trailers would be armed with rifles.

Kimber stirred and then scuttled on hands and feet out from their shelter. From the night sky a dark shape came down—a 'copter. But the pilot summoned Dard to meet with it. A door opened and he was shoved into the machine by his companion. Then as they were air borne Dard rested his head against a cushion, only half hearing the excited questions and answers of the others.

When he awoke the whole wild adventure of the past forty-eight hours might only have been a dream, for he was back on the same cot where he had rested before. Only now Kimber was not with him. Dard lay there, trying to separate dream from reality. Then a clang which could only have been an alarm brought him up. With clumsy hands he pulled on the clothes lying in a heap on the floor and opened the door to peer out into the corridor.

Two men, pushing before them a small cart, crossed its lower end. The cart wheel caught on the edge of a doorway and both men cursed as they worked swiftly to pry it loose. Dard padded in that direction, but before he could join them they were gone. He followed as they broke into a trot and started down a ramp leading into the heart of the mountain.

This brought them to a large cave which was a scene of complete confusion. Dard hesitated, trying to pick out of the busy throng some familiar face. There were two parties at work. One was carrying and wheeling boxes and containers out into the narrow valley where the star ship was berthed. And in this group women toiled with the men. The second party, which had been joined by the men with the cart, was wholly masculine and all armed.

"Hey, you!"

Dard realized that he was being hailed by a black-bearded man using a rifle as a baton to direct the movements of the armed force. He went over there, only to have a rifle thrust into his hands and to be urged into line with the men taking a tunnel to the right. They were bound for a defense point, he decided, but no one explained.

The answer came soon enough with a crackle of rifle fire. What had once been the narrow throat-valley leading into the Cleft proper had been choked up by a fall of tumbled rock and earth cemented by snow, broken in places by the protruding crown or roots of a small tree. Up this dam men were crawling, dragging after them an assortment of weapons, from ordinary rifles and stun guns to a tube and box arrangement totally strange to Dard.

He counted at least ten defenders who were now ensconced in hollows along the rim of the barrier. Now and again one of these fired, the sound being echoed by the rock walls to twice its normal volume. Dard clambered over the slide, cautiously testing his footing, until he reached the nearest of the snipers' hollows. The man glanced up as a rolling clod announced his arrival.

"Get your fool head down, kid!" he snapped. "They're still trying the 'copter game. You'd think that they'd have learned by now!"

Dard wormed his way along—until he rubbed shoulders with the defender and could look down into the weird battlefield. He tried to piece out from the wreckage there what had been happening in the hours since he and Kimber had returned.

Two burnt-out skeletons of 'copters were crumpled among rocks. From one of them thin wisps of vapor still spiraled. And there were four bodies wearing black and white Pax Every. But as far as Dard could see there was nothing alive down there now.

"Yeah. They've all taken t' cover. Trying to think up some trick that'll get us away from here. It'll take time for 'em to get any big guns back in these hills. And they don't have time. Before they can shake us loose the ship's going to blast off!"

"The ship's going to blast off!" So that was it! He was now one of an expendable rear guard, left to hold the fort while the star ship won free. Dard studied the rifle he held, with eyes which did not see either the metal of barrel or wood of stock.

Well, he told himself savagely, wasn't this just what he knew was going to happen—ever since that moment when Kimber had admitted with his silence that all those in the Cleft would not go out into space?

"Hey!" a hand joggling his elbow snapped his attention back to the job at hand. "See—down there—"

He followed the line set by that dirty finger. Something moved around the wreckage of the 'copter farthest from the barrier—a black tube. Dard frowned as he studied its outline. The tube was being slued around to face the barrier. That was no rifle—too large. It was no form of gun he had seen before.

"Santee! Hey, Santee!" his companion shouted. "They're bringing up a burper!"

A man scrambled up and Dard was shoved painfully against a tree branch as the black beard took his place.

"You're right—damn it! I didn't think they had any of those left! Well, we've got to stay as long as we can. I'll pass the word to the boys. In the meantime try a little ricochet work. Might pick off one or two of that beauty's crew. If we're lucky. Which I'm beginning to think now we certainly ain't!"

He crawled out of the hollow and Dard got thankfully back into station. His companion patted down a ridge of dirt on which to rest the barrel of his rifle. Dard saw that he was aiming, not at the ugly black muzzle of the harper, but at the rock wall behind the gun. So—that was what Santee meant by ricochet work. Fire at the rock wall and hope that the bullets would be deflected back against the men serving the burper. Neat—if it could be done. Dard lined the sights of his own weapon to cover what he hoped was the proper point. Others had the same idea. The shots came in a ragged volley. And the trick worked, for with a scream a man reeled out and fell.

"Why don't they use that green gas?" asked Dard, remembering his own introduction to the fighting methods of the Cleft dwellers.

"How do you think we crashed those 'copters, kid? And the boys got a couple more machines the same way out by the river. Only something went wrong when they triggered the blast to seal off the valley this way. And the gas gun—with a couple of very good guys—came down with this—underneath!"

For a space the burper did not move. Perhaps the defenders had wiped out its crew with the ricochet volley. Just as they were beginning to hope that this was so, the black muzzle, moving with the ponderous slowness of some big animal, eased back into concealment. Dard's partner watched this maneuver sourly.

"Cookin' up something else now. They must have had a guy with brains come in to run things. And if that's so, we're not going to have it so good. Yahh!" His voice arose sharply.

But Dard needed no warning. He, too, had seen that black sphere rising in a lazy course, straight at the barrier.

"Head down, kid! Head—"

Dard burrowed into the side of the hollow, his face scratching across the frozen dirt, his hunched shoulders and arms protecting his head. The explosion rocked the ground and was followed by a scream and several moans. Dazed, the boy shook himself free of loose earth and snow.

To the left there was a sizeable gap in the barrier. With a white patch halfway down—not snow but a hand buried to the wrist in the slide the explosion had ripped down.

"Dan—and Red—and Loften got it. Nice bag for Pax," his fellow sniper muttered. "Now was that Just a lucky shot—or do they have our range?"

The forces of Pax had the range. A second ragged tear was sliced across the rock and earth dam. Before the stones stopped rattling down, Dard was shaken out of his crouch roughly.

"If you ain't dead, kid, come on! Santee's passed the word to fall back, to the next turn of the canyon. On the double, because we're going to blow again, and if you get caught on this side—it's your skin!"

Dard tumbled down the barrier behind his guide, falling once and scraping both sleeve and skin from his forearm in the process. Seconds later eight defenders, their sides heaving, their dirty faces haunted and drawn, gathered around Santee and were waved on down the canyon. Santee himself stood counting off seconds aloud. At "ten" he plunged his hand down on the black box beside him.

There was a dull rumble, less noise than the burper shots had made. Dard watched in a sort of fascinated horror as the whole opposite cliff moved majestically outward into space before it crashed down to make a second and taller wall. The stones and earth had not ceased to roll before Santee was leading his force up it to dig in and face the enemy. Once more Dard lay in wait with a rifle, this time alone.

The burper sounded regularly, systematically pounding down the first barrier. But, save for that, there was no sign of Pax activity. And how long would it be before they brought the burper up to this assault? Then would the few left retreat again and blow down another section of the mountain?

There was a flicker of movement down at the first barrier, and it was answered by a shot from the defense. A second later more shots, all down by the battered dam. Dard guessed what had happened, wounded and left behind, one of the Cleft dwellers was firing his last round to delay the victors. The flurry of fire was only a prelude to what they were waiting to see—the black snub nose of the burper rising above the rubble.

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