THE GREAT DOME ON MERCURY.
By Arthur L. Zagat
Darl Thomas mopped the streams of perspiration from his bronzed face and lean-flanked, wiry body, nude save for clinging shorts and fiber sandals. "By the whirling rings of Saturn," he growled as he gazed disconsolately at his paper-strewn desk. "I'd like to have those directors of ITA here on Mercury for just one Earth-month. I'll bet they wouldn't be so particular about their quarterly reports after they'd sweated a half-ton or so of fat off their greasy bellies. 'Fuel consumption per man-hour.': Now what in blazes does that mean? Hey, Jim!" He swiveled his chair around to the serried bank of gauge-dials that was Jim Holcomb's especial charge, then sprang to his feet with a startled, "What's the matter?"
The chunky, red-haired control-man was tugging at a lever, his muscles bulging on arms and back, his face white-drawn and tense. "Look!" he grunted, and jerked a grim jaw at one of the dials. The long needle was moving rapidly to the right. "I can't hold the air pressure!"
"Wow, what a leak!" Darl started forward. "How's it below, in the mine?"
"Normal. It's the Dome air that's going!"
"Shoot on the smoke and I'll spot the hole. Quick, man!"
Thomas' long legs shot him out of the headquarters tent. Just beyond the entrance flap was one of the two gyrocopters used for flying within the Dome. He leaped into the cockpit and drove home the starter-piston. The flier buzzed straight up, shooting for the misted roof.
The Earthman fought to steady his craft against the hurricane wind, while his gray eyes swept the three-mile circle of the vault's base. He paled as he noted the fierce speed with which the white smoke-jets were being torn from the pipe provided for just such emergencies. His glance followed the terrific rush of the vapor. Big as a man's head, a hole glared high up on the Dome's inner surface. Feathered wisps of tell-tale vapor whisked through it at blurring speed.
"God, but the air's going fast," Darl groaned. The accident he had feared through all the months he had captained Earth's outpost on Mercury had come at last. The Dome's shell was pierced! A half-mile high, a mile across its circling base, the great inverted bowl was all that made it possible for man to defy the white hell of Mercury's surface. Outside was an airless vacuum, a waste quivering under the heat of a sun thrice the size it appears from Earth. The silvered exterior of the hemisphere shot back the terrific blaze; its quartz-covered network of latticed steel inclosed the air that all beings need to sustain life.
Darl tugged desperately at the control-stick, thrust the throttle over full measure. A little more of this swift outrush and the precious air would be gone. He caught a glimpse of the Dome floor beneath him and the shaft-door that gave entrance to the mine below. Down there, in underground tunnels whose steel-armored end-walls continued the Dome's protection below the surface, a horde of friendly Venusians were laboring. If the leak were not stopped in a few minutes that shaft door would blow in, and the mine air would whisk through the hole in its turn. Only the Dome would remain, a vast, rounded sepulcher, hiding beneath its curve the dead bodies of three Earthmen and the silent forms of their Venusian charges.
Darl's great chest labored as he strove to reach the danger spot. Invisible fingers seemed to be clamped about his throat. His eyes blurred. The gyrocopter was sluggish, dipped alarmingly when it should have darted, arrow-like, to its mark. With clenched teeth, the Terrestrian forced the whirling lifting vanes to the limit of their power. They bit into the fast thinning air with a muffled whine, raised the ship by feet that should have been yards.
By sheer will he forced his oxygen-starved faculties to function, and realized that he had reached the wall. He was drifting downward, the hole draining the Dome's air was five feet above him, beyond his reach. The driven vanes were powerless to stem the craft's fall.
One wing-tip scraped interlaced steel, a horizontal girder, part of the vault's mighty skeleton. Darl crawled along the wing, dragging with him a sheet of flexible quartzite. The metal foil sagged under him and slanted downward, trying like some animate thing to rid itself of the unwonted burden. He clutched the beam, hung by one leg and one arm as his craft slid out from beneath him. The void below dragged at him. He put forth a last tremendous spurt of effort.
Two thousand feet below, Jim Holcomb, dizzy and gasping, manipulated the controls frenziedly, his eyes fastened on the dropping pressure-gauge. From somewhere outside the tent a dull thud sounded. "Crashed! Darl's crashed! It's all over!" Hope gone, only the instinct of duty held him to his post. But the gauge needle quivered, ceased its steady fall and began a slow rise. Jim stared uncomprehendingly at the dial, then, as the fact seeped in, staggered to the entrance. "That's better, a lot better," he exclaimed. "But, damn it, what was that crash?"
The headquarters tent was at one edge of the circular plain. Jim's bleary eyes followed the springing arch of a vertical girder, up and up, to where it curved inward to the space ship landing lock that hung suspended from the center of the vaulted roof. Within that bulge, at the very apex, was the little conning-tower, with its peri-telescope, its arsenal of ray-guns and its huge beam-thrower that was the Dome's only means of defense against an attack from space. Jim's gaze flickered down again, wandered across the brown plain, past the long rows of canvas barracks and the derrick-like shaft-head. Hard by the further wall a crumpled white heap lay huddled.
"My God! It was his plane!" The burly Earthman sobbed as his ten-foot leaps carried him toward the wreck.
Darl was his friend as well as Chief, and together they had served the Interplanetary Trading Association, ITA, for years, working and fighting together in the wilds of the outer worlds. A thought struck him, even as he ran. "What in th' name o' Jupiter's nine moons stopped th' leak?" He glanced up, halted, his mouth open in amazement. "Well, I'm a four-tailed, horn-headed Plutonian if there ain't th' boy himself!"
Far up in the interlaced steel of the framework, so high that to his staring comrade he seemed a naked doll, Darl stood outstretched on a level beam, his tiny arms holding a minute square against the wall. Lucky it was that he was so tall and his arms so long. For the saving plate just lapped the upper rim of the hole, and stemmed the fierce current by only a half-inch margin.
The throbbing atmosphere machine in the sub-surface engine-room was replacing the lost air rapidly, and now the increasing pressure was strong enough to hold the translucent sheet against the wall by its own force. Jim saw the extended arms drop away. The manikin waved down to him, then turned to the shell again, as if to examine the emergency repair. For a moment Darl stood thus, then he was running along the girder, was climbing, ape-like, along a latticed beam that curved up and in, to swing down and merge with the bulge of the air-lock's wall.
"Like a bloomin' monkey! Can't he wait till I get him down with th' spare plane?"
But Darl wasn't thinking of coming down. Something he had seen through the translucent repair sheet was sending him to the look-out tower within the air-lock. Hand over hand he swung, tiny above that vast immensity of space. In his forehead a pulse still jumped as his heart hurried new oxygen to thirsty cells. He held his gaze steadily to the roof. A moment's vertigo, a grip missed by the sixteenth of an inch, the slightest failure in the perfect team-play of eye and brain, and rippling muscle, and he would crash, a half mile beneath, against hard rock.
At last he reached the curving side of the landing lock. But the platform at the manhole entrance jutted diagonally below him, fifteen feet down and twelve along the bellying curve. Darl measured the angle with a glance as he hung outstretched, then his body became a human pendulum over the sheer void. Back and forth, back and forth he swung, then, suddenly, his grasp loosened and a white arc flashed through the air.
Breathless, Jim saw the far-off figure flick across the chasm toward the jutting platform. He saw Darl strike its edge, bit his lip as his friend teetered on the rim and swayed slowly outward. Then Darl found his balance. An imperative gesture sent the watcher back to his post, his sorrel-topped head shaking slowly in wonderment.
Darl Thomas ran headlong up the staircase that spiralled through the dim cavern. "No mistake about it," he muttered. "I saw something moving outside that hole. Two little leaks before, and now this big one. There's something a lot off-color going on around here."
Quickly he reached the little room at the summit. He flung the canvas cover from the peri-telescope screen. Tempered by filters as it was the blaze of light from outside hit him like a physical blow. He adjusted the aperture and beat eagerly over the view-table.
Vacation jaunts and travel view-casts have made the moon's landscape familiar to all. Very similar was the scene Darl scanned, save that the barren expanse, pitted and scarred like Luna's, glowed almost liquid under the beating flame of a giant sun that flared in a black sky. Soundless, airless, lifeless, the tumbled plain stretched to a jagged horizon.
The Earthman depressed the instrument's eye, and the silvered outside of the Dome, aflame with intolerable light, swept on to the screen disk. The great mirror seemed alive with radiant heat as it shot back the sun's withering darts. The torrid temperature of the oven within, unendurable save to such veterans of the far planets as Darl and Jim Holcomb, was conveyed to it through the ground itself. The direct rays of the sun, nearer by fifty million miles than it is to Earth, would have blasted them, unprotected, to flaked carbon in an eye-blink.
An exclamation burst from Darl. A half-inch from the Dome's blazing arc, a hundred yards in actuality, the screen showed a black fleck, moving across the waste! Darl quickly threw in the full-power lens, and the image leaped life-size across the table. The black fleck was the shadow of a space-suited figure that lumbered slowly through the viscous, clinging footing. How came this living form, clad in gleaming silver, out there in that blast-furnace heat? In one of the space suit's claw-like hands a tube flashed greenly.
Darl's hand shot out to the trigger of the beam-thrower. Aimed by the telescope's adjustment, the ray that could disintegrate a giant space flier utterly flared out at his finger's pressure. Against the lambent brown a spot glowed red where the beam struck. But, warned by some uncanny prescience, the trespasser leaped aside in the instant between Thomas' thought and act. Before Darl could aim and fire again the foe had dodged back and was protected by the curve of the Dome itself.
Two white spots showed on either side of Darl's nostrils. His mouth was a thin white slit, his eyes gray marbles. Standing against the wall beside him was a space suit, mirror-surfaced and double-walled against the planet's heat. In a few moments he was encased within it, had snatched a pocket ray-gun from the long rack, and was through the door to the auxiliary air-lock. The air soughed out in response to his swift thrust at a lever, a second door opened, and he was on the outside, reeling from the blast of that inferno of light and heat.
For a moment the Earthman was dazzled, despite the smoked quartz eye-pieces in his helmet. Then, as his eyes grew used to the glare, he saw, far below, the erect figure of the stranger. The man was standing still, waiting. His immobility, the calm confidence with which he stood there, was insolently challenging. Darl's rage flared higher at the sight.
Scorning the ladder that curved along the Dome to the ground, he threw himself at the polished round side of the great hemisphere. With increasing speed he slid downward, the gleaming surface breaking only slightly the velocity of his fall. On Earth this would have been suicidal. Even here, where the pull of gravity was so much less, the feat was insanely reckless. But the heat-softened ground, the strength of his metal suit, brought Darl safely through.
He whirled to meet the expected onslaught of the interloper. The green tube was aimed straight at him! The Earthman started to bring his own weapon up when something exploded in his brain. There was a moment of blackness; then he was again clear-minded. But he could not move--not so much as the tiny twist of his wrist that would have brought his own weapon into play.
Frozen by this strange paralysis, Darl Thomas saw the giant figure approach. The apparition bent and slung him to its shoulder. Glowing walls rose about him, dimmed. The Terrestrian knew that he was being carried down into one of the myriad openings that honeycombed the terrain. The luminescence died; there was no longer light enough to penetrate to his helmet's darkened goggles.
Frantic questions surged through the captured Earthman's mind. Who was his captor? From where, and how, had he come to Mercury? Jim, Angus McDermott, and himself were the only Terrestrians on the planet; of that he was certain. Only one or two of the reptile-skinned Venusian laborers had sufficient intelligence to manipulate a space suit, and they were unquestionably loyal.
This individual was a giant who towered far above Darl's own six feet. The Mercurian natives--he had seen them when ITA's expedition had cleaned out the burrows beneath the Dome and sealed them up--were midgets, the tallest not more than two feet in height. Whatever he was, why was the stranger trying to destroy the Dome? Apparently Thomas himself was not to be killed offhand: the jolting journey was continuing interminably. With enforced patience the Earthman resigned himself to wait for the next scene in this strange drama.
In the headquarters tent Jim's usual grin was absent as he moved restlessly among the switches and levers that concentrated control of all the Dome's complex machinery. "Darl's been gone a devilish long time," he muttered to himself. "Here it's almost time for shifts to change and he's not back yet."
A bell clanged, somewhere up in the mass of cables that rose from the control board. For the next ten minutes Holcomb had no time for worry as he rapidly manipulated the innumerable wheels and handles in accord with the vari-colored lights that flickered on a huge ground-glass map of the sub-Mercurian passages. On the plain outside there was a vast rustling, a many-voiced twittering and squeaking that was not quite bird-like in tone. Through the opened tent-flap one could see the stream of Venusian workers, their work-period ended, pouring out of the shaft-head and filing between the ordered ranks of others whose labors were about to begin.
They were queer-looking specimens, these gentle, willing allies of the Earthmen. Their home planet is a place of ever-clouded skies and constant torrential rains. And so the Venusians were amphibians, web-footed, fish-faced, their skin a green covering of horny scales that shed water and turned the sharp thorns of their native jungles. When intrepid explorers discovered in the mazes of Mercury's spongy interior the surta that was so badly needed as a base material for synthetic food to supply Earth's famine-threatened population, it was to these loyal and amiable beings that ITA's engineers turned for workers who could endure the stifling heat of the underground workings.
The tent-flap was thrust aside, and a hawk-nosed Scot came sleepily in, to be enthusiastically greeted by Jim.
"Hello, you old Caledonian. 'Bout time you showed up."
The newcomer fixed the speaker with a dour gaze. "An' why should I commence my tour o' dooty befair the time?"
"Because your chief, Mr. Darl Thomas, decided that he's a filliloo bird or somethin', flew to his little nest up top, an' forgot to come down again."
"Is this ain o' your jests, James Holcomb? I eenquire mairly that I may ken when to laugh."
"It's no joke, Mac. Last I see o' him he's skippin' around the roof like he has a buzzin' propeller stuck to his shoulder blades. He lights on th' air-lock platform, pops inside, an' goes dead for all I know."
From his bony legs to his scrawny neck the Scotchman's angular body, as nearly nude as that of the others, radiated the doubt that was expressed in every seam and wrinkle of his hatchet face.
"That's straight, Angus, may I kiss a pink-eared vanta if it ain't. Here's what happened." The bantering grin disappeared from Jim's countenance as he detailed the events that had preceded Darl's vanishing. "That was two hours ago," he concluded, "and I've been getting pretty uneasy about him."
"Why did na ye call me, so that ain o' us micht eenvestigate?"
"Hell. Darl wasn't born yesterday, he can take care of himself. Besides, your last shift was pretty strenuous, an' I thought I'd let you sleep. No tellin' what might happen next; this forsaken place has been givin' me the jim-jams lately."
"Your conseederation is touching, but--" A scratching at the door, accompanied by a high squeak, interrupted him.
To Jim's shouted "Come in," there entered a Venusian, whose red rosette fastened to the green scales of his skin marked him an overseer. In the thread-like fingers of his hand he held a time-sheet, but the nervous pulsing of his gill-membranes caused Holcomb to exclaim anxiously: "What's wrong, Ran-los? No accident, I hope?"
The shrill combination of squeaks and twitterings that came from the man-reptile's toothless mouth meant nothing to the Scot, but Jim's last service had been on Venus and he had gained a working knowledge of the language. Finally the interchange was ended, and Ran-los bowed himself out. Jim turned to his companion.
"There's some more queer stuff for you, Angie. Just before shift-change, Ran-los heard odd sounds from the other side of the barrier at the end of gallery M-39. Says they seemed like signals o' some kind. He's a wise old bird and if he's worried about something it's damn well worth lookin' into. I don't know whether to find out first what's happened to Darl, or--"
Again there was an interruption; this time from the usually silent radio-communication set in the far corner. Jim leaped to the instrument and snapped on the head-set. Angus leaned over him, watching his intent face.
Faintly, as from an immense distance, came the thin whistle of space-radio. "S-W-A ... S-W-A ... S-W-A...." The general attention signal for all Earth's far-flung outposts from Jupiter to Mercury! The signal was coming from "M-I-T-A," the Earth company's home station on the Moon, outside the Heaviside layer. "S-W-A ... S-W-A ... M-I-T-A ... M-I-T-A." Again the signal rose and fell.
Jim reached for the sending key and pounded out his acknowledgement: "K; M-E-R ... K; M-E-R ... K; M-E-R." He listened again, heard Venus answer, and Jupiter. Across five hundred million miles of space ITA men were responding to the roll-call of Earth. A reminiscent smile crossed Jim's face as he recognized the stuttering fist of Rade Perrin, on Eros. Rade always sent as if he were afraid the instrument would snap at his fingers.
M-I-T-A was signalling again, and now came the message: "S-W-A. All trading posts, mines and colonies are warned to prepare for possible attack. The Earth Government has just announced the receipt of an ultimatum from--" A raucous howl cut across the message and drowned it out. The siren blast howled on and on, mocking Jim's straining ears. "Well I'll be--Interference! Deliberate blanketing! The rats! The--" He blazed into a torrent of profanity whose imaginativeness was matched only by its virulence.
Mac was clutching his shoulder, stirred for once out of his vaunted "deegnity." "What is it, mon, what is it?"
"War, you bloody Scotchman, war! That's what it is!"
"War! Foosh, man, 'tis eempossible!"
"The hell it's impossible! Damn, and Darl not here! Take over, Mac; I've got to go up an' get him!"
In the meantime Thomas' helpless journey had come to an end. After an interminable descent in what to him had been pitch darkness, the giant who was carrying him halted. Darl had heard the whistling inrush of air into some lock, then the clanging of a door. He felt himself hurled to the ground. Fumbling hands tugged at him, drew off his space suit.
The dim light of the cavern, as the helmet was dragged from his head, hurt Darl's eyes. Salt sweat stung them. It was hot, hotter than the Dome, hot as it was in the surta mine, where only the nerveless Venusians could work for any length of time.
Darl struggled to focus his eyes on a blurred blue form that towered above him. He felt sharp claws scratch at him and realized that cords were being passed around his limp body. They cut tightly into his legs and his arms. Then he was staring at a tube in the hand of his captor. Its end glowed with a brilliant purple light, and he felt a flood of reawakened energy warm him. His head jerked up, he strained against the taut, strong fibers binding him. The paralysis was gone, but he was still helpless.
A husky, rumbling voice broke the silence. "I wouldn't struggle, Earthman, if I were you. Even should you get free I still have my ray-tube. And my little friends would ask nothing better than your body to play with."
Darl writhed to a sitting posture. Now he could see his mysterious abductor clearly. This eight-foot, blue-feathered individual, with curved beak and beady eyes glittering from his naked, repulsively wrinkled head, was a Martian! Despite the human shape of his body, despite his jointed limbs and thumbed hands, this denizen of the red planet resembled a vulture far more than he did any other Earth creature.
The Earthman's pride of race came to his rescue. "What's the game?" he growled. "Looking for trouble?" There was nothing in Darl's voice to show the fear that chilled him. Behind the Martian he could see vaguely a group of little yellow Mercurians.
"I'll ask all the questions here. And you'll answer them, too, if you're wise. Even your dull mind should comprehend that you are in my power."
Darl decided to proceed more cautiously. "What do you want from me?" he asked.
"I want," the Martian answered, "the recognition signal of Earth's space-ships."
"What!" The ejaculation burst from Darl's throat. This alien wanted the secret code, the watch-word that distinguished Earth's space ships, that gained for them free admittance to ITA's armed posts on the outer planets! This could mean only one thing, that the long rivalry, the ancient dispute between Earth and Mars was about to flare into open war. Any friendly visit from a foreign flier would be heralded by word from M-I-T-A. Thomas' face became a stony mask, covering the tumult of his mind.
"You understood. I want the Earth recognition signal at once--and after that, the surrender of the Dome." The very calmness of the husky tones was a threat.
"I warn you, Darl Thomas. It would be the better part of wisdom for you to yield willingly what I ask. You will give in eventually, and the means of persuasion I shall use will not be exactly--pleasant."
"You'll get nothing from me!"
The outlander's lidless eyes were filmed with a gray membrane. His head thrust forward, the feathered ruff beneath it bristled. Darl braced himself to withstand the swooping pounce that seemed imminent, the slash of the sharp beak. A burring rattle broke the momentary hush. The Martian relaxed, turned to the Mercurian from whom the sound had come and replied with staccato vibrance.
As the cave filled with a whirring tumult Darl had a chance to examine the Mercurian natives crowding around his prostrate body. They were little yellow midgets, ranging from eighteen inches to two feet in height. Half of their small stature was taken up by snouted heads, with saucer-like, crimson eyes, and long white tusks jutting from foam-flecked mouths. The trunks were globular. The spindling legs and thin arms ended in sharp claws. There was an impression of animal ferocity about these tiny beings that stamped them as utter savages.
His captor was speaking to the Earthman again, his horny beak parted in what might have been a grim smile. "My friends remind me that I promised you to them. They have not forgotten how you and your fellows drove them from their burrows."
Darl was suddenly cold, though the sweat still streamed from his bound body. An uncontrollable shudder took him as he saw what the diminutive claws of the midgets held. While the Dome was still an unfinished framework one of the Terrestrian artisans had somehow been isolated from his fellows. Thomas had been of the party that found what was left of him, and the memory was still a throbbing nightmare.
"Once more! Will you give me the recognition signal?"