Read CHAPTER 4 of Rebels of the Red Planet , free online book, by Charles Louis Fontenay, on ReadCentral.com.

Fancher Laddigan made his way down a long dim corridor in the rear portion of the Childress Barber College, in Mars City’s eastern quarter.  He stopped and hesitated, with some trepidation, before an unmarked door near the end of the corridor.

Completely bald, bespectacled and well up in years, Fancher looked like a clerk and he had the instincts of a clerk.  Yet he utilized that appearance and those instincts in a perilous cause.

Fancher knocked timidly on the door.  On receiving an indistinct invitation from inside, he pushed it open and entered.

Fancher had a tendency to shiver every time he had occasion to see the Chief, whose real name was unknown to Fancher and to most others here at the barber college.

Small as a child in body, wagging a thin-haired head larger than lifesize, the Chief surveyed Fancher with icy green eyes.  The eyes were large and round as a child’s, but there was nothing childlike about their expression.  As though to deny his physical smallness, he smoked one of the fragrant, foot-long cigars produced only in the Hadriacum Lowlands.

“Sit down,” commanded the Chief in a high, piping voice.

Fancher swallowed and sat, facing his superior across the big desk.  The Chief opened a drawer, took out another of the long cigars, and handed it to Fancher.  Fancher did not like cigars, but he had never dared say so to the Chief.  He lit it gingerly, coughed at his first inhalation, and smoked at it dutifully and unhappily.

“You recognized this man certainly as Dark Kensington?” asked the Chief.

“Well ...”  Fancher began, and started coughing again.  The Chief fixed him with an unwinking green stare.  When the coughing spell ended, Fancher sat silent, his eyes stinging with tears, fumbling at what he wanted to say.

“You knew Dark Kensington before his disappearance twenty-five years ago,” said the Chief, with a trace of impatience in his tone.  “I am told that you saw this man and talked to him.  You are qualified to recognize Dark Kensington.  Is this man Dark Kensington, or not?”

“Well,” said Fancher again, “the man was walking alone across the desert, and when someone picked him up he asked how he could find the Childress Barber College, and of course our men heard of it and went out to ”

“I have received a full report on the man’s appearance and our initial contact with him.  I asked you a question.”

“Well, Chief, it’s a peculiar thing.  If this man, as he is now, had reappeared twenty-five years ago, I’d know it was Dark Kensington.  But he looks exactly as Dark did when he disappeared, not one day older.  And he doesn’t remember a thing beyond his disappearance except events of the past two weeks, he says.

“Yet his memories of Dark’s activities before his disappearance are unquestionably accurate and clear.  It’s as though Dark had been put on ice at the time of his disappearance and just now thawed out, without any aging or memory during the interim.”

“Perhaps he was,” said the Chief dryly.  “But is it possible that this man, looking so much like Dark Kensington, could have studied Kensington’s personality and activities carefully and be posing as Kensington?”

“No, sir,” said Fancher promptly.  “Dark and I were very close friends at one time.  He remembers that, although he had difficulty recognizing me since I’m so much older.  We went through some experiences together that I never told to anyone, and I’m sure he didn’t.  He remembers them in every detail.  Like the way we trapped a sage-rabbit once when we’d run out of supplies out in Hadriacum.”

Fancher chuckled.

“Then we couldn’t eat the thing,” he reminisced.

“Very well, if you’re sure of his identity, that’s all I wish to know,” said the Chief.  “I don’t want to be trapped by a Marscorp trick with plastic surgery.  But if this man is Dark Kensington, it’s the best fortune the Phoenix has met with in a long time.”

He fell silent, and busied himself with papers on his desk, paying no more attention to Fancher.  Fancher waited, then concluded reasonably that the interview was at an end.  And, since the long cigar agonized him, he rose and moved quietly toward the door.

“I have not given you permission to leave,” said the Chief, without raising either his eyes or his voice.  “Kensington is due to arrive in a few moments, and I want you here when I talk to him.  If any of his words or actions appear inconsistent in any way to you, I want you to let me know.”

Fancher sighed silently, returned to his chair and puffed disconsolately on the cigar.

Some five minutes passed.  Then there was a firm rap on the door.

“Come in!” called the Chief in his reedy voice.

The door opened, and in walked a man whose entire presence radiated strength, confidence and the potentiality of instant violence.  Dark Kensington was tall and broad-shouldered, clad in dark-blue tunic and baggy trousers.  His face was darkly tanned, strong, handsome.  His hair was black as midnight.  His eyes were startlingly pale in the dark face; eyes of pale blue, remote and filled with light.

“I’m Dark Kensington,” he said, striding up to the Chief’s desk.  “You’re the man known as the Chief?”

“Yes,” answered the Chief, and waited.

Dark nodded to Fancher.  Fancher, feeling rather green about the gills, returned the greeting.

Dark turned his attention back to the Chief, and he, also, waited.  There was a long silence.  The Chief broke it first.

“What do you know about Dr. G. O. T. Hennessey Goat Hennessey?” asked the Chief calmly.

Fancher blinked at this unexpected line of questioning.  A cloud passed over Dark’s face, as though the name had triggered something in him that he could not quite remember.

“He was a very good friend of mine,” answered Dark, “although it seems that something happened between us that I can’t quite recollect.  He was one of the most brilliant geneticists of Earth, and came to Mars with an experimental group that was to try to develop a human type that could live more comfortably under Martian conditions.  The project was backed by the government.”

He stopped.  It was the Chief who added: 

“Then Marscorp stepped in.”

The expression on Dark’s face was blank.

“You don’t know what Marscorp is, do you?” asked the Chief curiously.

“The name’s familiar,” replied Dark.  “It’s a spaceline, isn’t it?”

“If your amnesia is genuine, you might very well react in such a fashion,” said the Chief reflectively.  “Marscorp is the Mars Corporation, and it’s the only spaceline that serves Mars now.  It’s a giant combine on Earth which has a virtual monopoly on the spacelines and exports and imports between Earth and all the colonized planets.

“Marscorp is against any development of human beings who can live under natural extraterrestrial conditions, because that would end the colonies’ dependence on Marscorp for supplies.  As it is, the colonies literally can’t live without Marscorp.  Marscorp controls enough senators and delegates in the World Congress to block other important projects if the Earth government refuses to co-operate with it, so the government that is to say, Marscorp put a ban on the experiments by Hennessey and other scientists here.”

“I remember the government ban on the projects, but I wasn’t aware that Marscorp had anything to do with it,” said Dark.  “Goat Hennessey was one of a group of us who retired to the desert to continue work despite the government ban.”

“Goat sold out,” said the Chief.  “Perhaps your memory doesn’t include that important point, but Fancher remembers it well.  It was a little before my time.  Goat sold out, and betrayed the others to the government in return for assistance in carrying out more limited experiments.  Some of the group escaped and formed the nucleus of the rebel movement which now is centered here at the Childress Barber College.  We call ourselves the Order of the Phoenix.”

The Chief allowed himself the luxury of a very faint smile.

“Marscorp and the government call us the Desert Rats,” he said.  “Very appropriate.  They consider us in the same category as rats.”

Dark had been standing, casually at ease, before the Chief’s desk, with the air of a man who does not tire from standing.  Now he did something Fancher would not have dared:  without the Chief’s invitation, Dark sat down in a comfortable chair, leaned back and stretched out his legs in relaxation.

“It’s a little hard for me to realize there’s a twenty-five-year gap in my memory,” he said.  “It seems to me that it has been less than a month ago that Goat and I were together, with other refugees from the government edict, in the Icaria Desert.  Why did you ask me about Goat?”

“Because the government brought him back to Mars City not three months ago,” answered the Chief.  “None of us had any idea where he was, but it turns out that the government has had him working under surveillance some place in the Xanthe Desert north of Solis Lacus.  Since it was not far from Solis Lacus that you were picked up, I wondered if you had had any contact with him.”

“Not that I remember,” said Dark.  “Do you have another of those cigars?”

“Why, yes,” answered the Chief, startled.  He produced another Hadriacum cigar and handed it to Dark.  Dark lit it and puffed the fragrant smoke with evident enjoyment.

“As I say, the last time I remember seeing Goat was in the Icaria Desert, in a dome we had set up there,” said Dark.  “The next thing I remember is waking up in the midst of some sort of cave in a different part of Icaria, surrounded by Martians.

“I could communicate with them in a fashion something I was never able to do before and they were able to write the name of the Childress Barber College so I could read it.  But they evidently don’t differentiate our dome cities by name.  I had no idea the college was here in Mars City until your men contacted me; I just assumed it was at Solis Lacus.”

“You’d have waged a merry search for it, clear on the other side of Mars,” remarked the Chief.  “What was your purpose in finding it?”

“I don’t know that I had any specific purpose,” replied Dark easily.  “I gathered from the Martians that here I could find someone who concurred with my philosophy of resisting the government edict against seeking self-sufficiency on Mars, and this was more or less confirmed by your two men who contacted me at Solis Lacus.”

“I’ll see to it that in the future they’re not quite so frank until they’re sure of their man,” said the Chief darkly.  He looked quizzically at Fancher, and Fancher nodded slightly.  “But it’s true.  As a matter of fact, the Phoenix follows the path toward self-sufficiency that you recommended, rather than the one sought by Goat Hennessey.”

“That’s the wrong way to approach it,” said Dark promptly.  “Goat and the other scientists were following a line offering valid possibilities in their genetic research.  The only reason the rest of us chose to attempt the extrasensory powers particularly teleportation was that we were not qualified in genetic research and this seemed a field in which we stood a chance to contribute along alternate lines.  The effort should be followed along both lines.”

“The government managed to capture all the scientists at the time of your disappearance, and it was assumed that you had been captured, too,” said the Chief.  “We don’t have any scientists in the Phoenix who are capable of doing Goat Hennessey’s type of research.”

“You say he’s in Mars City?  I wonder if it would do any good for me to contact him.”

“I told you that he was the one who betrayed the whole thing to the government, and he’s been working under government supervision these last twenty-five years.  I wouldn’t trust him.”

The Chief surveyed Dark’s strong face with speculative green eyes, then added: 

“As a matter of fact, we’ve made a certain amount of progress following your line of research.  Since there are probably a good many things you discovered in this work that we haven’t stumbled on yet, we could use your help in developing it, if you’re interested.”

“Very definitely,” answered Dark.  “I’m interested in seeing what you’ve done, and I’ll be glad to help in any way I can.”

“There’s one thing,” said the Chief, measuring his words.  “I’ve held this organization together despite some pretty severe reverses for more than fifteen years now.  The reason I’ve been able to do it is that I expect and must insist on absolute obedience to my orders.”

Dark smiled.  “I said that I would be willing to help you,” he replied gently.  “I follow no man’s orders.”

The green eyes fixed themselves unwinkingly on the pale-blue ones for a long moment.  The blue ones did not waver.

At last, to Fancher’s utter amazement, the Chief nodded agreement.