Darl shook his head, and prayed for sudden death. The Martian spoke to the dwarfs. They started forward, saliva drooling from their tusks. Darl gritted his teeth. He would hold out as long as was humanly possible.
A shrill rhythmic whistle came from somewhere outside. The blue giant started and snapped something to the Mercurians. Then he turned to Darl. "I must leave you for a little while," he said. "You have till I return to change your mind." With a parting admonition to the savages he was gone through a side door that Thomas had not noticed before.
Grateful for the postponement, however short, of the inescapable ordeal, Darl took stock of his situation. He lay, firmly bound, on the gritty rock floor of a low-ceiled cave about twelve feet square. In one wall was a door of red metal. The portal through which the Martian had vanished was next to it. Darl repressed an exclamation when he saw the opposite wall. It was of solid metal, bluishly iridescent. That was beryllium steel, the alloy from which the barriers at the terminals of the surta mine were fashioned. He forced his head higher. There were the marks of the jointures, the weldings that he himself had made.
The discovery seemed only to emphasize the helplessness of his predicament. His faithful Venusians, Ran-los, Ta-ira, and the rest were just on the other side of the three-inch plate of toughened steel. Three inches--yet it might have been as many hundred miles for all the help they could give him.
The yellow pigmies were circling in a macabre dance, their crimson eyes turned always toward him, hate glowing from their crawling depths. The whistle beyond changed in character. Darl recognized it. It was a Martian space-radio, the code of which Earth scientists had never been able to decipher. The Mercurian circle tightened, the fetid smell of the dwarfs was overpowering. Low at first, then louder and louder came the rattling cacophony of their chant. It filled the confined space with an overpowering clamor.
Darl writhed again, rolling over and over till he had reached the barrier. The pigmies gave way before him; evidently they had been warned to keep their claws off. With his insteps Thomas could reach the helmet of his space suit, where it had been dropped against the wall. He drove it against the metal and the clangor of its striking reverberated through the chamber. Darl managed to regulate the sound. He was now hammering out double knocks, long and short, spaced in the dots and dashes of the Morse code. "H-E-L-P D-A-R-L H-E-L-P D-A-R-L H-E-L-P...."
It was like some scene out of a madman's dream, this dim-lit cavern with its circling, dancing pigmies, the human figure lying sidewise on the ground, the rattling, savage chant and the metallic tattoo of Darl's hopeless message. A diabolic orgy of weird sound and crisscrossing shadows.
It seemed hours that he pounded the helmet against the wall, hoping that the sound of it would be audible above the clamor of the midgets. His knees and hips were aching and numb, his leg ripped, almost to the bone by the sharp edges of the jagged floor. A sudden thought struck him. The fiber thongs that bound him were also rubbing against the rock. His flesh was terribly torn. Perhaps the thongs, too, had been frayed, weakened by the long continued friction.
He stopped the pounding signals and began to force his knees apart with all the power of his burly calves. The cords cut into his bulging muscles, cut into and through his skin. The veins stood out on his forehead, his neck was a corded pillar, his teeth bit through his lip as he stifled a scream of pain. Then, startlingly, the fibers snapped. His legs at least were free! He could fight, die fighting, and take these others with him into oblivion!
Darl leaped to his feet. Before the astounded natives realized what was up he was charging into their circle. A well aimed kick sent one crashing against the further wall. Another crunched against the rock. Then they were on him, a frothing wave of tiny furies. A score or more, they swarmed over him as a pack of African wild dogs swarms over a huge water-buffalo marked for the kill. Their claws scratched and tore, their sharp fangs stabbed into his flesh. His arms were still tightly bound to his sides, and he lashed out with his sandaled feet, swung his shoulders like battering rams, whirled in a dervish dance. Their brittle bones cracked under his hammer blows. They dropped from him like squashed flies. But, small as they were, he was terrifically outnumbered. By sheer weight of numbers they dragged him down, and piled on top of him as he lay, quivering and half-conscious, on the blood-soaked floor.
Through the blackness that welled and burst in his brain, one thought held. He had fooled the Martian, for in another instant the enraged savages, would kill him and the password to Earth's outposts would be safe. Already, he felt their fangs at his throat.
A whirring rattle cut through the turmoil like a whip-lash, and the heap of pigmies swiftly scattered. The man-bird from Mars was in the room. To Darl he was a blurred blueness from which glittered those two jet beads of eyes. As from a distance he heard a rumble, its meaning beating dully to him. "Not so easy, Thomas, not so easy. I want that signal, and by Tana, I'm going to have it."
The Earthman felt a current of cooler air. Instinctively he drew it into his lungs. It swept him up from the blackness that was closing in about him, brought him back to consciousness and despair. The chattering Mercurians crowded round to commence their interrupted orgy. "For the last time, Earthman, will you talk?"
Darl shook his head weakly and closed his eyes. In a moment-- Suddenly there was a crash of metal on metal. Another! The clangor of falling steel. Now someone was shouting, "Darl, Darl, are you alive?" All about him were shrill twitterings, squeaking calls, squeals and scutterings. Darl's nostrils stung with the odor of burned flesh. A door slammed....
He opened his eyes on a confused riot, saw Jim crouched, flashing ray-gun in hand. There was a hole in the barrier, and a mob of green-scaled Venusians were crowding through. Jim's ray caught the last Mercurian and the dwarf vanished in a cloud of acrid, greasy smoke.
"Thank God you've come!" Darl managed to gasp. Then cool blackness closed around him.
Darl Thomas lay on a cot in the headquarters tent, swathed from head to foot in an inch-thick wrapping of bandages. Jim's theory was that if one bandage was good, two were better, and he had cleaned out the post's slender stock. The red-haired Earthman was seated at the cot's side, watching the taciturn Scot operating the control board. He was telling Darl of the stirring message from M-I-T-A, and of the blanketing interference that marred the completion of the message.
"I didn't know what to do first," he continued, "whether to go down below and find out what Ran-los was battin' about, or shoot up to you in the connin' tower with the message. Like the thick-head I am, I picked the wrong thing. I sure got the gimmicks when I found the look-out empty, an' a space suit an' ray-gun gone." Jim grinned mirthlessly. "I was runnin' around in circles. You were outside, God alone knows how long. Believe me, I had you crossed off the list! That left two of us. With a war on, somebody had to stand guard in the look-out, the control board here had to be watched, an' somebody else had to get below.
"I was just tryin' to figure out a way o' cuttin' myself in half when I thought o' Ran-los. For a Weenie he's got a heck of a lot of sense. I zoomed down, hauled him out o' his bunk, scooted back up, showed him how to work the peri-telescope an' the big beam-thrower, an' left him there on guard."
"Best thing you could have done." Darl's voice was muffled by the bandages in which his head, as well as the rest of his body, was swathed. "He's got a head on his shoulders, that bird."
"Somethin' told me to take a ray-gun down in the mine with me. I was just steppin' out o' the elevator when I caught your last signal; -L-P D-A-R-L was all I got, but it was enough. How you ever got the other side of the barrier had me wingin', but you were there right enough, and yellin' for help. Ran-los had been doin' some repairs on a head support an' his weldin' machine was still there. Takin' an awful chance on there bein' air on the other side, I butted it up against the wall, shot the flame against the steel, and when she was soft enough had some of the Weenies smash her in with sledge-hammers. First thing I see is you, stretched out in a pool o' blood, with a couple of those yellow imps just gettin' to work on you. I clipped them first--that gave the Martian a chance to get away. An' then--well, you know the rest."
"I owe you one for that, Jim. Too bad, though, the big fellow escaped; we'll hear from him again, or I don't know the breed. Wonder how he got on the planet."
"The sucker must 'a' stowed away on the last recruit ship from Venus, slipped in a case o' tools or somethin'. Mars has labor agents there, too, you know, for their farms on Ganymede."
"Possibly. He knew my name, and that I was chief here. He's rigged up an air-lock out there, though I can't figure out how he gets the air."
"That's easy. While I was repairin' the barrier I found a pipe runnin' through. He's been stealin' ours. Which, by the same token, is why he was punchin' holes in the Dome rather than down below, where he would have been safer from discovery."
"So that's it. Get anything more on the space-radio?"
"Nope. Angus has kept the ear-flaps on, but the ether is still jammed. Hey, what're you up to?"
Darl was swinging his bandaged body up from the cot that had been set up in the headquarters tent at his insistence. "Can't lie on my back," he panted, "with that devil loose on the planet. Lord knows what he's up to now. We're short-handed enough as it is."
He rose to his feet, staggering with weakness and loss of blood. But his indomitable will drove him on. "I'll take over the control board. Send Angus up to relieve Ran-los, and you get below and speed up production. Earth will need double quantities of surta for food, now that there's a war on."
Jim turned to convey the order to the Scot, but he whirled to the tent-flap instead as a riot of sound exploded outside. He tore aside the canvas, and now there was a burst of shrill, frightened Venusian cries, and a deeper, rattling chorus. Out on the Dome floor, pouring from the shaft-head in a panic torrent, came the Venusians. And among them, leaping, slashing, dragging them down, were countless little yellow men, their fangs and tusks and curving claws crimson with the blood of their victims.
"Darl, Mac, they've broken through! The Mercs have broken through!" The brown plain was a blood-spattered battlefield. Here and there little groups of the green men, braver than the rest, fought with spanner and hammer and whatever improvised weapon they may have found. "Come on, give 'em hell!" The three Earthmen dashed out, weapons in hand. But friend and foe were so intermingled that they could not use the devastating ray of their hand-guns. The fighting Venusians were vanishing under a tossing sea of yellow imps. And still the dwarfs poured forth from the mine entrance.
A blue form towered, far back, where all green had vanished, and only Mercurians were left. The Martian's beak opened in a rattling call. A group of hundreds of pigmies suddenly left the main fight, and came forward with short, swift steps. They dashed straight for the Earth trio and cut them off from the Venusians they were running to aid.
Side by side the three fought. Their weapons grew hot in their hands as the beams cut great swaths in the seething ranks. The attackers halted, gave back, then surged forward again as the roar of their alien commander lashed them on.
The Earthmen faced the frenzied throng. A cleared circle was still around them. Beyond, the Venusians were all down. The Mercurian mob was closing in, the Terrestrians' rays had lost half their range. In moments now the ray-guns would be exhausted.
"The plane!" Darl shouted. "Back to the plane, it's our only chance."
The gyrocopter that could carry them aloft, out of the rout, was fifty feet away. They fought through to it and reached it just as the last faint charge flashed from Mac's tube. Jim was at the controls, Darl smashed his useless projector into the chattering face of a dwarf that had leaped on the Scot's shoulders and dragged Angus into the cockpit.
The overloaded flier zoomed to the landing at the lofty air-lock's manhole and hovered as Darl and Angus slipped home the hooks that held it to the platform. "The spy has the Dome," Jim grunted, "but by God, he hasn't got us. We'll be safe in the lock up here, till help comes. And then--"
"Safe is it?" Angus broke in. "Mon, luik ye what those bairns fra hell are up to the noo."
A yellow tide was rising about the base of each of the latticed steel arches that vaulted to the Earthmen's refuge. On every side the dwarfs were climbing, were swarming up the walls in numbers so great that they concealed the metal beneath. Up, up they came, slowly but surely. And right in the center of the plain, ankle-deep in the torn fragments of the murdered Venusians, was the Martian, directing the attack.
Jim groaned. "I might've known he'd never let us get away. It's slow bells for us, I guess. Hey, where's Darl?"
"Gone weethin. No, guid losh, he's here!"
Darl appeared, his features pale and drawn, carrying an armful of ray-guns. "Grab these," he snapped. "We're not licked yet."
"Licked, hell!" Jim's roar reverberated. "We've just begun to fight!" The Scot was silent, but the battle light shone in his eyes. In another moment the Terrestrians were kneeling, were raking the roof girders as the mounting Mercurians came within range. Each had two ray-guns in his hands, and a little pile of extra tubes beside him. They fought silently, wasting not a single blast.
Six white rays flamed through the misty, humid air, and striking the teeming girders, swept them clean. A greasy, horrible smoke cloud gathered along the shell and drifted slowly down, till the concrete blocks from which the steel framework sprang were hidden in a black pall. Fighters, these three, true ITA men who had left memories of their battle-prowess on more than one wild planet! Gaunt-bodied demi-gods of war, they hurled crackling bolts of destruction from their perch at the Dome top. By hundreds, by thousands, the Mercurian pigmies vanished in dark vapor, or plunged, blackened corpses, into the fog that billowed below.
One by one the tubes were discharged and tossed down at the seething mob. The heaped weapons dwindled, and still the climbing hordes renewed themselves, came on in endless mounting streams to sure destruction. The open tunnel vomited forth a torrent of gibbering dwarfs. From the uttermost burrows of the planet the pigmies were flooding in at the call of the Martian who stood scatheless beneath and lashed them on with the strange dominance he held over them. The Earthmen fought on, endlessly, till they were sick of killing, nauseated with slaughter. And still the snouted, red-eyed imps came on.
Jim snatched up his last two ray-guns. Out of the corner of his eye he noted that Darl was using but one, the other, his last, was thrust into the chief's belt. He wondered at this, but a new spurt of yellow above the oily fog wiped the question from his lips. "Swallow that, you filthy lice! Hope you like the way it tastes!" His guns spouted death.
"I'm through!" The call came at last from McDermott. "Me too!" Jim Holcomb hurled his final, futile tubes down at the blue figure of the Mars man. A moment's hush held the trio. Then Jim flexed his great hands. "Well, these'll take care of a couple more o' them before I check in."
"No you don't," Darl barked, his face a graven image. "Inside with you. The lock will hold 'em off."
Thomas swung in the direction Jim was pointing. Rising above the murk, something glinted in the pale light. On the furthest upright a clumped group of climbing savages were struggling to drag up one of the welding machines, a long black hose snaking from its cylindrical bulk.
"They'll cut through the steel in fifteen minutes with that. The bloody bugger ain't missin' a trick."
"Inside, I tell you." Darl's crisp tone of command brooked no denial. The three crowded into the cool recesses of the manmade aerie. Angus slammed the steel door shut. Even if by some miracle the Dome wall should be pierced and the air in the main vault dissipated into outer space, this air-tight compartment hung from the hemisphere's roof would remain, a last refuge, till the atmosphere within had become poisonous through the Earthmen's slow breathing. But the Martian had anticipated Darl's final move. The oxy-hydrogen jet of the welding machine the dwarfs were hoisting would make short work of their final defense.
From the conning-tower above Ran-los called excitedly. Through all the long battle the Venusian had remained steadfast at the peri-telescope, scanning the vacant terrain outside, and the heavens. As Darl and Jim dashed for the stairs Mac ran after them, crying out, "What did he say, mon?"
"Space ship in sight," Darl flung over his shoulder as he reached the upper landing.
"Praise be! Noo the haythan weel get his desairts!"
"Yeah, maybe--if it's an Earth ship. But we won't be here to see it."
Jim's red head was bending over the peri-telescope view-screen. "She's still thirty thousand miles away. Give her a speed of fifteen per second--she'll have to slow up to land, can't make it under forty-five minutes. By then we'll be in little pieces. It took me ten minutes to burn through the barrier when I rescued Darl, and it won't take the Mercs any longer to get at us."
Darl was very sober as he looked on with narrowed eyes. Against a background of velvet black, gold spangled, the slim space-traveler showed. The sun's rays caught her, and she was a tiny silver fish in the boundless void.
"Luik ye, mon, luik ye!" Angus, fairly dancing with excitement, elbowed Darl aside. "She's from Airth, richt enow!" At the nose of the oncoming flier a rapid succession of colored lights had flashed, the recognition signal that should give her safe access to the Dome. Again there was a coruscation of coded flashes. "She's a battle cruiser, what's mair!" the Scot exclaimed.
Darl sprang to the keyboard that manipulated the signal lights from the Dome's roof. "No use," he said, after a short while. "The Martian has cut off the current from the dynamos. I can't warn the ship." He made a hopeless gesture.
Jim looked at him wonderingly. "Warn 'em? What for? Even if we are all dead when she reaches here, at least she'll clean up the Mercs, and retake the Dome for Earth."
"Don't you see it? When the Mars man has once blasted his way in here and disposed of us, he'll be ready for the space ship. Her captain can't suspect anything wrong. He must have left Earth at the time of the ultimatum, and would easily get here before any ship could be sent out from Mars. He'll come on till he's within range of the beam-thrower, and the Martian will aim, press the trigger and the Earth ship and her crew of a half a thousand brave lads will be star-dust."
"Oh God!" Jim was white-faced. "Isn't there anything we can do? Maybe if he doesn't get our all-clear signal he'll sheer off." This was clutching at straws.
"Why should he? He must know how short-handed we are, and will simply think we're not on watch, or that our signal lights are out of order. Matter of fact, if he were at all suspicious he should be alternating his course right now--and he hasn't. Look."
Seemingly motionless, but really splitting the ether with terrific speed, the warship was coming straight on to garrison the beleaguered post. She had never wavered from her straight course for the Dome. The little group was silent, watching the help that was coming at last, coming too late.
From below there came a thunder of sound. Jim slid down the stairs. An irregular disk on the wall was glowing cherry-red from the heat of the blow-torch without, and the metal was quivering under the Mercurian's sledge-hammer blows. "Darl's right," he almost sobbed as he gazed helplessly. "They'll be through in no time. The Dome's gone, we're gone, the space ship's gone!"
"Let me pass, Jim." Thomas' quiet voice sounded behind him. Holcomb turned. His leader was in a space suit, the helmet still unfastened.
"Blazes! Where the devil are you going?"
"Here, cover me with this till I reach the gyrocopter, then get back quick, and seal the air-lock." Darl thrust into Jim's hand the ray-gun he had previously reserved. "There's only one way to kill off the Martian and his mob. I'm taking it."
Suddenly Jim Holcomb understood. "No, Darl, no--you can't do it! Not you! Let me go! I'm just a dumbhead. Let me go!"
"Thanks, Jimmy, but it's my place." Darl's voice was low, and very calm. "I was in charge, and I lost the Dome. If I can save the boys on the ship, and you two, it's the least I can do. Good-by, old man. Give my regards to Earth."
Thomas' face was gray-white. The thick bandages that still swathed him, Jim glimpsed them through the open neckpiece of the suit, gave him the semblance of a mummy. The helmet clicked shut. Swallowing a lump that rose in his throat, Jim pulled open the door. A wave of Mercurians surged in, to be seared into nothingness by his weapon. He was in the doorway, his ray sweeping the platform clear.
Darl was out now, stepping into the flier that still hung by its hooked moorings. Jim caught a flash of blue and looked up. The Martian was hanging to a girder just above, his green tube pointing straight at Darl. A white ray spurted from Jim's gun. The Martian's weapon and the hand that held it vanished in the sizzling blast. The plane was loose! Jim leaped inside the air-lock, slammed the steel door shut, clamped it, and sprang for the quartz peer-hole.
Darl's gyrocopter was diving on a long slant for the Dome wall. Faster and faster it went, till all Jim could see was a white streak in the smoky dimness. And now he could see the vast interior, the teeming plain, the dwarf-festooned girders and roof-beams. He stood rigid, waiting breathlessly. Then the plane struck--fair in the center of a great panel of quartz. The wall exploded in a burst of flying, shattered splinters. A deafening crash rocked the Dome.
Jim clung to his port-hole, tears rolling down his cheeks, unashamed. The plane, and Darl, vanished. Jim saw the black smoke masses whirl through the jagged hole in the Dome's wall as the air burst out in a cyclonic gust. He saw the vast space filled with falling Mercurians, saw a blue form plunge down and crash far below. He knew that in all that huge hemisphere, and in the burrows beneath it, there was no life save himself, and Angus, and the faithful Ran-los. For only in this compartment that clung to the roof of the Dome was there left air to breathe. And, from the void beyond, the silver space ship sped on toward Mercury, sped on to a safe landing that, but for Darl Thomas's sacrifice, would have been her doom....
Guided by Jim and Angus, a party of men from the battle-flier, equipped with oxygen respirators, went to the aid of Darl. They dug him out from under his crumpled plane and the piled splinters of quartz. His metal was dented and twisted, but unpierced. They carried him tenderly to the space ship, and carefully set him down. The ship's physician listened long with his stethoscope, then looked up and smiled.
"He's alive," the doctor said, "just barely alive. The thick padding of bandages must have saved him from the full shock of the crash. They're hard to kill, these ITA men. I'll be able to bring him around, God willing."