Rebels of the Red Planet
The three men who stood by a table in the back lobby of the Childress Barber College and checked off the departure of the men at regularly spaced intervals were as different in appearance as they were in their positions in the Order of the Phoenix.
Oxvane Childress, big and bearded, was the “front,” and directed the very necessary task of administering the Childress Barber College as a genuine barber college. Childress was a prominent member of two of Mars City’s civic and social clubs, and careful examination of his activities over a period of years would have thrown no suspicion on him.
The Chief, whose real name perhaps Childress knew but never spoke, was a huge-headed midget who directed the far-flung activities of the Order of the Phoenix as an underground rebel organization. He never left the building, but reports were brought in to him from all over Mars. He knew a great deal at any time about what the government and Marscorp were doing, and he gave the orders for those moves aimed at maintaining the secrecy of the Phoenix.
Dark Kensington, tall and pale-eyed, had moved at once into the natural position of guiding the experimental work of the organization in extrasensory perception and telekinesis. He was able to add his knowledge of earlier work to the progress that had been made since his disappearance, and co-ordinated the studies in the various dome cities.
A little behind the three stood Fancher Laddigan, doing the actual checking with a pencil on a list in his hand.
“I think it’s all unnecessary,” rumbled Childress unhappily. “I watched the girl carefully while she was here, and the usual checks were made into her background. It’s true she had some social contacts with Nuwell Eli when she first came to Mars, but there’s nothing sinister about that association and it seems the last thing a Marscorp agent would do openly. As far as I could determine, she just realized she’d violated a rule and would be discharged for it, so she left before she could be discharged.”
“She hasn’t returned to her rooming house,” remarked the Chief in his high, thin voice.
“Looking for another job, or maybe just on a trip,” said Childress. “After all, she’s a terrestrial tourist. If this is all a false alarm, how am I going to explain suspending operation of the college for a period?”
“Remodeling,” replied the Chief. “Work out the details and put a sign up as soon as evacuation has progressed far enough.”
“It may be unnecessary, Oxvane,” said Dark, “but it’s best not to take chances. This telepathy is a very uncertain thing, and sometimes it’s hard to differentiate true telepathic communication from one’s own hopes or fears. But it seemed to me that I had the very definite sense that Miss Cara Nome was seeking something with hostile intent, and it’s entirely possible that she saw part of one of the experiments through that open door.”
Two students appeared, gave their names to Fancher in an undertone, and sauntered out the back door of the building.
“What’s the status now?” asked the Chief.
“They were nineteen and twenty,” answered Fancher precisely. “They’re part of Group C, which is going to Hesperidum. Group A goes to Regina, Group B to Charax, Group D to Nuba and Group E to Ismenius.”
“None to Solis?” asked Childress in surprise.
“No, sir, nor to Phoenicis, either,” answered Fancher. “They’re both so far, and Solis is a resort, where they might be easier to detect. We’re using both public transport and private groundcars. All of them so far have reported safely through the flower shop, except these last two, so the government evidently hasn’t thrown a ring around the building yet.”
“And I don’t think they will, either,” growled Childress. “I tell you, it’s all unnecessary.”
“Are things going smoothly here?” asked the Chief.
“Yes, sir,” replied Fancher. “The last five men scheduled to leave are taking care of any customers who come in, and the rest of them are packing supplies into the trucks. As soon as I get word from the flower shop that the last pair has cleared, I give another pair the word to leave.”
“It seems to be moving along well,” said the Chief, and he turned his green eyes upon Childress. “Is the business office manned?”
“Why--why, there’s no one there right now,” said Childress, taken aback.
“I think it would look extremely peculiar to any investigator if you weren’t there, frantically trying to locate a new secretary,” said the Chief quietly.
Childress left, in confusion. The Chief turned to Dark.
“I think Fancher’s handling this very well without my help,” he said. “You know where your groundcar is, if we all have to make a run for it?”
“Yes,” answered Dark. “We won’t be going together?”
“No,” replied the Chief, and his lips twisted in a faint smile. “I have my own method of exit, which should give them other things to think about.”
He left, moving with quick, short steps. Dark stayed for a few moments more, then he too went back into the building to help with packing.
The Lowland Flower Shop, on the other side of Mars City, near the west airlock, was the clearance point for the evacuees. The flower shop was operated by a Phoenix agent, and each pair that left the barber college passed through there before leaving the city to let those behind know that they had not been stopped by government men. Other Phoenix agents watched the heliport and bus station for any evidence that the government was trying to block these routes out of Mars City.
The evacuation moved steadily, and it began to appear that Childress was right. Singly, the first two of the five trucks moved out, and all of the ESP instructors and thirty-two of the students had reported back safe clearance from the flower shop, when...
Dark was moving a stack of charts from one of the classrooms to the basement when bells all over the building set up a tremendous clangor. Immediately the quiet evacuation dissolved into an uproar, with men running and shouting and the bell ringing incessantly.
Dark knew what had happened. Childress, in the front office, had seen government agents approaching, or perhaps they had actually entered the building. He had pressed the alarm bell, then sought to delay them with the righteous indignation suitable to the administrative head of a barber college which is invaded by government officials.
The bells stopped suddenly, and the scattered shouting sounded strange and thin in the comparative silence. Then the piping voice of the Chief came over the loudspeakers spread throughout the building.
“Attention!” said the Chief. “We are temporarily safe. The alarm automatically sealed all doors to the building behind the front corridor.
“Kensington, please come to my office. The rest of you, tie up the customers still here and leave them unharmed, and then leave the building by the emergency exits. Scatter, and make your way by whatever private transportation methods you can to the rendezvous assigned to your respective group. Do not use public transportation, because Marscorp will undoubtedly be checking public transport now.”
Dark set the charts down on the stairs and made his way back to the Chief’s office. The Chief was sitting, tiny behind his big desk, his face as serene as ever. He was puffing casually on one of the long Hadriacum cigars.
“You don’t have another of those cigars, do you?” he asked.
For the first time since he had been here, Dark saw the Chief’s mouth break into a full, broad smile.
“I think so,” said the Chief, an undertone of delight bubbling in his voice. He reached into the desk and pulled one out. Dark accepted it gravely, and lit it.
“The last two evacuees haven’t reported to the flower shop, and they’re overdue,” said the Chief, his face getting serious. “Childress hasn’t reported back here by telephone, either, so the Marscorp gang probably had already entered the building before he detected them and sounded the alarm.”
“What about Childress?” asked Dark. “What will happen to him?”
“He’ll take the rap,” answered the Chief. “His defense will be that if there were any Phoenix activities going on here he didn’t know about it. He was just running a barber college in good faith. I don’t think they can prove otherwise.”
“Do we have any idea what our situation is?” asked Dark.
“A very accurate idea. We have observers posted in the two houses at the ends of our emergency exits, and they’ve been reporting to Fancher, in the next room, by telephone. There’s a force of about a hundred Mars City policemen and plain-clothes agents in the streets all around the building. They saw a squad go into the front, but evidently they didn’t have enough warning to let Childress know in time.”
“Will the doors hold?”
The Chief’s mouth quirked.
“They’ll need demolition equipment to break them down,” he said. “All these have are heatguns and tear gas. One of the observers farther downtown said he saw a tank heading this way, but if they don’t already know there are innocent customers in here, Childress will tell them.”
“Then everybody gets away but Childress?”
“We hope. They’re not going to ignore these surrounding houses, especially with men drifting out of them and moving away. That’s why I want to stress the importance of one thing to you, Kensington: you’re too important for us to lose at this juncture, with your knowledge of the original work done. That house at the end of your exit will have a dozen or so of our men in it, waiting to drift away one by one, but you can’t afford to worry about them. I want you to get in that groundcar, alone, and take off like Phobos rising.”
“You’re going out the other emergency exit?”
“That’s none of your business. But, as a matter of fact, no. If you want to see something that will throw consternation into this Marscorp outfit, watch the roof of this building. Now, get moving, Kensington, and good luck. Fancher and I will be leaving as soon as he gets all the records packed.”
The Chief held out his tiny hand, and Dark shook hands with him. Then Dark left, went down into the basement and entered an underground door in its eastern wall. He had to crawl through the tunnel driven through the sand under the street.
He emerged in the basement of a house across the street, which ostensibly was owned by Manfall Kingron, a retired space engineer. He went upstairs.
About half the personnel of the barber college who had not been caught by the alarm were roaming the rooms of the small house, drifting singly out the back door at ten-minute intervals.
Dark went to the front window and looked across the street at the barber college.
The street was full of men carrying heat pistols, moving restlessly, facing the barber college. Some of them were in police uniform. Squads of them moved about on the college grounds, and a few were in the yards of houses on this side of the street.
Dark watched the roof.
As he did so, from its center a helicopter rose into the air, hovering over the building, moving upward slowly.
So that was the Chief’s escape method. He had smuggled a helicopter into the domed city itself! But how was he to get out of the city in it?