Read CHAPTER 6 of Rebels of the Red Planet , free online book, by Charles Louis Fontenay, on ReadCentral.com.

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.

Dark laughed.

“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?

The appearance of the copter threw the men outside into confused excitement.  They ran about, aiming their short-range heat beams futilely up at the rising copter.

A military tank, undoubtedly the one the Chief had been told about, spun around the corner.  It stopped, and its guns swung upward toward the copter.  But they remained silent.  Heavy heat beams or artillery could puncture the city’s protecting dome.

The copter went straight up, gathering speed.  Up, and up, and it did not stop!

It hit the plastic dome near its zenith.  It tilted and staggered.  It ripped through the dome and vanished.

Immediately, sirens began to wail throughout the city.  Doors clanged shut automatically everywhere.  Lights and warning signs flashed at every street corner, advising citizens to run for the nearest airtight shelter.

The dome was punctured!

Emergency crews would be up within minutes to repair the break, and very little of the city’s air would hiss away.  But, in the meantime, every activity in Mars City was snarled by the necessity to seek shelter.  The Chief had, indeed, created a situation of consternation in which it would be easier for the Phoenix men to elude their enemies.

The armed men of the government forces were already running for the houses in this area.  Some of them were headed for the house from which Dark watched.

The Phoenix men were donning marsuits.  They would admit the refugees, after requiring them to lay down their arms, and then leave the house in their marsuits.

Dark grinned happily, and walked quickly through the house to the attached garage.  He climbed into the groundcar, started the engine, and opened the garage door by the remote control mechanism on the dashboard.

Accelerating at full power, Dark drove the groundcar out of the garage and spun into the street.  The men afoot, seeking entrance to the houses, paid no attention.  The tank began to turn ponderously in his direction, but by the time it was in a position to bring its guns to bear, Dark’s groundcar had reached the corner and raced around it into the broad thoroughfare leading to Mars City’s east airlock.

The airlock was only a dozen blocks away.  The Chief’s theory had been that the government, depending on surprise in its move to surround the Childress Barber College, would not attempt the complicated task of checking all traffic passing through the airlock until it was realized that some of the Phoenix men had escaped from the trap at the college.

Dark reached the airlock in minutes.  The Chief’s theory proved correct.  There were no police at the airlock, and the maintenance employee stationed there did not even look up as Dark’s approach activated the inner door.

He drove the groundcar into the airlock.  The inner door closed behind him.  The outer door opened, and Dark drove out onto the highway that struck straight across the Syrtis Major Lowland toward the Aeria Desert and Edom.  It was as simple as that.

About ten miles out was the circular bypass highway that surrounded Mars City, and Dark proposed to turn right on that, for his destination was Hesperidum.  The highway he was on would take him eastward, and Hesperidum was about 8,000 kilometers southwest of Mars City a little better than two-days’ drive at groundcar speed on the straight, flat highways.

Dark reached over and set the groundcar’s radio dial on the frequency which had been agreed on for emergency Phoenix broadcasts during this operation.  If government monitors caught the broadcasts and jammed them, there were alternate channels chosen.  With only about two dozen radio stations on all Mars, plus the official aircraft and groundcar band, there was plenty of free room in the air.

There was nothing on the Phoenix frequency now but a little disconsolate static.

The country through which he drove here was uninhabited lowland.  The human life on Mars, agricultural, industrial and commercial, was concentrated under the domes of the cities.  Except for a few tiny individual domes at the edge of Mars City, there were no human structures close to it except the airport and the spaceport, and these were west and north of the city, respectively.

The highway struck straight and lonely through a faintly rippling sea of gray-green canal sage, spotted occasionally with the tall trunk of a canal cactus, rising above it.  Later he would see infrequent dome farms, but he could expect no more than two or three score of these in the entire long drive to Hesperidum.

Dark slowed and entered the cloverleaf that took him onto the bypass expressway.  Even as he did so, the radio crackled and the thin voice of the Chief sounded over the groundcar loudspeaker.

“Attention, Phoenix,” said the Chief intensely.  “Attention, Phoenix.  Emergency instructions.  We have monitored reports that the government is checking airlocks at all cities.  Repeat:  the government is checking airlocks at all cities.

“Some Phoenix have been captured attempting to leave Mars City.  Instructions:  those in Mars City do not attempt to leave but find shelter with Phoenix friends.  Those beyond dome without credentials, go to assigned emergency rendezvous spots outside dome cities.  Repeat instructions:  those....”

Swearing under his breath, Dark pulled the groundcar to a stop beside the highway.  It was so simple!  They should have foreseen that the government would take such a step as soon as it was realized that the Phoenix men were leaving Mars City.  He himself evidently had gotten through the airlock just in time.

But he had been assigned no outside rendezvous!  Whether it was an oversight or not, he did not know, but the only place he had been instructed to go was Hesperidum.  The only Phoenix contact he knew was the South Ausonia Art Shop in Hesperidum; and now he could not enter the city without being captured.

He had only one alternative:  the Martians, in the Icaria Desert, halfway around Mars.  They would remember him and shelter him, and he was sure he could find the spot.

He looked at his fuel gauge.  The tank was full.  It would not take him quite there, but he could chance refueling at Solis Lacus, some 20,000 kilometers from Mars City.  He could take the highway, turning out into the desert to go around Edom, Aram and Ophir.

He put the groundcar in drive again, and made a U-turn in the highway.  He entered the cloverleaf and was halfway through it when he saw the copter.

It was a red-and-white government copter, and it was descending at a shallow angle toward him from the direction of Mars City.  Dark switched his radio to the official channel.

" ... await check.  Repeat:  groundcar in cloverleaf, stop at once and await check.”

Dark braked the groundcar to a stop.  As soon as the copter grounded, he could accelerate and escape.

But the copter did not ground.  It hovered, directly over him.  Then Dark realized it was awaiting a patrol car from Mars City to check and take him in custody if necessary.

Immediately, he put the groundcar in drive and whipped out of the cloverleaf under full acceleration.  If he could only achieve top speed, 350 kilometers-an-hour, the copter couldn’t match it.

But the copter was on his tail at once as he swerved out of the tight curve.  Its guns spat fire.

There was a terrific impact, and the groundcar dome shattered above him.  Unprotected, he felt the air explode from the groundcar, from his lungs.  Oxygenless death poured in through the broken dome.

It all happened in an instant.  Even as the dome shattered under the copter’s shell and Dark recognized the imminence of death, the groundcar twisted out of control and careened from the highway.  He felt it spinning over and over, and then blackness closed in around him.