X: A Noble Calot I
The war dragged on in its slow, weary pace. We received occasional word of battles fought and tactical maneuvers won or lost, but each was but a single move upon a vast jetan board, and long would it be before either side would reveal their final gambit. The technical innovations made in recent years to the warships of Dar weighed in our favor, and a gunship loyal to the Jeddara was able to frequently defeat a much larger vessel of Helium. Unfortunately, Helium was blessed with far greater abundance of ships and men, and so they swarmed upon us in ever increasing numbers, overwhelming our technological superiority with the press of their numbers.
Tjem Vor did indeed find the means of disrupting the eighth ray, and I was as good as my word, giving him every bit of gold and jewelry in my possession, and returning to the plain harness of a household slave. Mistress claimed that such simple garb was better suited to such a dumb brute as I was, which I think in her gentle way was a compliment of sorts. At any rate, I thought that I looked better in the plain and battered leather harness of an orad, than in all the fine jewels and white silk due me by my position, and I believe I know my Mistress well enough to say she thought so too. A new sort of bomb was developed by the Jeddara's engineers, which would create the disrupting wave as it exploded, thereby possibly crippling a number of ships. I introduced to them the concept of the "rail gun", which had never before been used as a means of launching projectiles (the martian firearm having been highly developed by the time they had gained such understanding of magnetism), but which, as has been mentioned in the memoirs of the Warlord of Mars, is a basic component of the Martian elevator, which speeds along its thousands of feet of track much like a bullet train on earth. By means of the rail gun, bombs could now be hurled in ballistic trajectories, rather than simply being dropped from bays or over the side of a ship, which was hoped might make a long term difference in the war against Helium.
In time, the tide of war turned against us, the forces of the Warlord slowly pushing back our armies and fleets. We had by this time called upon our allies, and ships bearing many foreign devices were to be seen aiding in the defense of our cities, but for every ship we added, the Warlord could answer with twice that number. Not for nothing is the navy of Helium regarded as the finest in the world. Her admirals are all veterans of countless campaigns, each ship's commander trained as a military tactician beyond compare. Our tacticians were every bit as good, and our technology gave them new ways of fighting their battles, but in the end the enemy was simply superior, and we were out matched. After a year of battle, the dark day came when we saw the fleets of Helium darkening the skies beyond our fair city.
Then began the long, slow siege of Dar. About our walls were camped an army of Helium's finest fighting men, and with them a hoard of the green men of Thark. Ten thousand strong, they encircled our fair city and blocked every attempt to escape. About our walls encircled the battleships of the enemy, prowling about like tigers in a cage, punctuating their discontent with a nearly continuous barrage of shells. Our proud houses crumbled under the onslaught, our world-old monuments ripped apart by explosions. We dwelt in the pits, crouching like rats far below the city streets, and it was then that the true nature of these dark cellars was revealed to me. Aerial bombardment has been a factor in war for so very long that every city on mars was given to concealing vast chambers and a myriad of tunnels as one last refuge against siege. The undercity was, in point of fact, one colossal bomb shelter to be used in times of emergency or dire peril.
Do not think us defenseless because our serving army was scattered, our mighty fleets bottled up in a dozen different lesser conflicts. It has been said that every man of Barsoom is a warrior born, whatever his trade may be. We had an auxiliary reserve more than forty thousand strong, men and women who would rather die than see their city fall. Should the Jeddara so order, we would all fight until the bitter end in her defense. Normally a siege does not end thusly, for the kings and queens of this world are very often goodly souls, and the destruction of their citizens is a painful thing to them. More often than not, a ruler will signal defeat, rather than allow the city they love to be blasted into dust. We were not so outmatched yet that such dark considerations were upon us, but I felt it necessary to relate how we would fight and die to save our Jeddara, and how she might choose to die to save us.
I myself, manned a gunnery emplacement in the palace, firing shell after shell in retort to our encircling enemy. I had convinced my Mistress to assist us, for she found the act of sitting and waiting distasteful, but she was not very skilled in the ways of war. While she was no swordswoman, nor any great marksman, I showed her how to be of service in defense of the city, aiding me in loading and aligning the gun, so that we might speed the efficiency of the operation. It is true that there were others qualified to handle this task, but it gave my Mistress a chance to be of service in defending her home, and it gave me the chance to continue to enjoy her company. The enemy could not breach our city walls, and the line of defenses built by Tjem Vor were of miraculous efficiency, defending both the city of Dar and the ancient and sacred temple of Bar-Darras, which by holy law was never to be flown over by friendly ship nor enemy, lest it be polluted by profane eyes. Thus our stalemate continued for many months, costing a heavy toll in lives.
Five months after the siege began, the final move in the Warlord's gambit was revealed. We had but been held by the enemy forces, until it were possible for more soldiers to be brought to bear upon the problem of our walls. No ship could fly over our city without being run aground by the disabling blasts of Tjem Vor's weapon, but those weapons could be cleared away by a sufficient force of soldiers. Such a force had arrived at our gates, and the signal was given by the commanding admiralty to concentrate all fire upon our encircling battlements. Over the next few days our walls were slowly vaporized by continual barrage, while we made every effort to shore up the defense. In the end it was insufficient, and a ground war began in the battle-scarred streets of Dar. We fought with guerilla tactics, using the pits to move from building to building, selling dearly every inch of street claimed by the enemy. All too soon, however, the enemy began to find the flight disrupters and dig them up, and before long a path was cleared for the ships of Helium to enter our city and drop ever increasing numbers of soldiers onto our war-torn soil.
A fighting withdrawal was ordered, sending soldiers to the royal palace, which had its own siege works, while the common warriors took refuge in the deepest pits and continued their battles from there. At first we were able to thwart the ever pressing waves of carrier ships, as only a few corridors were open for them to fly through. As the ground forces found and destroyed more of our mines, this began to change, and soon all of the city was being over flown by the deadly fleet. The Mistress and I were manning a gun battery when finally a huge dreadnaut moved itself into position over the royal palace, and dropped its payload of soldiers onto the courtyard. Fire as quickly as I might, there were now too many holes in our defenses, and even as a second dreadnaut moved into position, the first wave of soldiers succeeded in taking the palace gates, and opened them to their allies in the streets beyond.
"The Jeddara!" I exclaimed, leaving my post. "I must defend her. Please, Mistress, I beg of you, fly to safety. Raise not gun or blade, and trust in the chivalry of the men of Helium. I am not long for this world, but so long as I draw breath, they shall not have our queen!"
"You are a dullard and an imbecile" she said to me, a strange fierce light in her eyes. "You have too much respect for our enemies, and mistake the soldiers below to be of the same quality as their master. Most are but panthans, and like as not to claim whatever they please as spoils of conquest. Do as you must, you great lumbering brute, but do so by my side, for I will be there whether you wish it or no."
I opened my mouth to protest, both out of fear for her safety, and also because she could not move so swiftly as I, nor could she avail herself of the routes I might need to take. Her brows darkened like the clouds that herald a coming storm, and my mouth closed again. Leaning close, I said simply, "as my Mistress commands," and put my arm about her waist and lifted her in a sort of fireman's carry. Drawing my pistol, I stepped away from the gun emplacement and ran along the outer wall, firing round after round into the crowd of soldiers below.
Reaching the point where the walls were as close to the palace as possible, I took one mighty leap and veritably flew across the dozen yards to the out thrust wing of the palace beyond. While I got distance, I lacked sufficient lift, and only barely caught an out thrust ledge to prevent my fall to the gardens below. With a shrug, I released my Mistress and then caught her in a different grip, telling her to grab onto my harness, for I was going to need both of my hands. Then, so freed, I began to climb, swarming up the side of the building in much the same was as I had in Daxor. Just as then, bullets exploded around me, showering me with dust and bits of masonry. Soon enough, however, I had reached the roof and pulled myself up, and then sprinted to the main building with a gun in each hand.
A grand entry ran the length of the main wing of the palace, flanked by galleries on either side. This entry led, logically enough, to the great hall of the Jeddara, and it was here that the greatest battle was happening. Soldiers loyal to Dar had swarmed about the galleries and were laying down a deadly fusillade of shot to keep the Heliumites pinned and unable to further take the palace. Theirs was not the only avenue of assault, and I knew that all too soon the great hall would be taken, and the men of Helium would be able to gain entry to the private chambers of the Jeddara, which were in a different wing of the palace, but for expediency sake had passages communicating between them.
I knew of two other ways to enter the great hall, one of which was close to my position, and was also accessible from a gate in the outer walls, as it was a part of the palace which had a civic function. So it was that, after a running gun battle against the men of Helium, I found myself holding the doors of the hall of reflection where, years earlier, I had been whipped bloody for my rebellion against Kovas Morn. The Hall of Reflection was but a part of a larger complex devoted to the application of law among the people of Dar. I knew that a sizable force of men held the public gate, and others held the great hall, but this place was a bottleneck, and I was certain that the enemy would try to take it in an effort to flank the soldiers defending the great hall.
I held that door with brutal efficiency, gunning down any man who tried to pass its lintel. As I emptied my revolvers, Mistress would throw me fresh ones, so that it was possible for me to lay down an almost constant stream of fire. I stood upon the pillory, a raised up dais in the center of the room, taking advantage of the higher ground and clean lines of sight. That hateful whipping post to which I had been bound was blown to flinders by the report of my enemies, but even as their deadly radium shells burst about me I stood like a statue, laying a potent retort on the breast of each man who entered. Then came the time when all of our ammunition was expended, and I had to lay down my guns. Drawing long sword and short, I rushed the door in an effort to dispatch as many foe men as possible ere the hot breath of life left my lungs.
My barrage had been more successful than I had anticipated, and in fact only a dozen warriors remained. I had at my disposal great speed and strength, and while none were poor swordsmen, I found it frightening how easily I dispatched them. Seeing that the hall was, for the time, clear, I called for Mistress to despoil the fallen of their guns and ammunition, while I took the chance to erect a hasty barricade, laying slabs of masonry and ruined statues across the hall, along with the carcasses of the dead, to form a grim barrier with which to slow the advent of my enemy.
Having so blocked the entrance to the hall of reflection, I had opportunity to rest, and sat in watchful anticipation, my gun ever at the ready. After a time, more warriors found their way to that blood soaked stumbling block. Every time one attempted to poke his head above the shoulder-height barrier, I fired a shot, and more often than not, hit my mark. The men of mars are brave, but this does not make them foolhardy or suicidal. Having made this arrangement, I was for the moment secure, until such a time as either the way from the great hall was overtaken, or by means of rappelling lines they came to the great windows above me, which stood some twenty feet above the floor. I was mindful of this latter chance, for I had felled a great many warriors, and had no doubt that, whether or not this was indeed a tactically significant area, they should assume that it was, for the number of men who had died trying to take it.
From time to time, I heard voices from without the doorway, debating how to go about gaining entrance. Eventually, they had decided to blow apart the barrier, for after the sounds of much scrabbling about and whispered instructions from behind the barricade, suddenly four or five men stood up and scurried away, so quickly I could not draw a bead on any of them. Grasping what this meant, I warned my Mistress to get under cover and crouched, ready to spring. The bomb blew, and before the dust had settled, I was through the door, firing round after round down the hall which ran parallel from that entryway. I bled from numerous small shallow cuts, and my shoulder was injured, due to shrapnel from that bombast, but I counted the damage for little, as I had gained the element of surprise, and again my foes fell quickly before me. When my guns ran out of ammunition, as I knew that they should, I replaced them in their holster and fought with paired short swords, using my speed and agility to leap in the middle of a group of adversaries, delivering deadly wounds to the ranks behind before they could raise their swords in adequate defense, or their allies turn about to face me. My body was soon pricked in a dozen places, my blood pouring in thin red rivulets to show that these men did not surrender their lives easily, but each in turn did, eventually, surrender. This latest wave defeated, I began to rebuild the barrier, while Mistress administered the coup de grace and relieved the dead men of their precious supply of bullets.
I was not able to erect a sufficient barrier, however, before I saw another warrior, obviously a nobleman of high rank, lead what seemed a full utan of men toward my position. Shouting a warning to my Mistress, I retreated to my former position upon the pillory, and laid before me a large number of loaded guns. They could come through that door only three abreast, and with two guns I could shoot very quickly and with deadly accuracy. They would eventually get in, their sheer press of numbers outweighing my marksmanship, but from this pillory I could continue to lay down fire, and take as many of them with me as I might before someone among them blew my body apart in just the same manner as I had done to so many of their comrades. On one knee, I knelt there atop the pillory, waiting, as the enemy surveyed the scene of death in the vestibule, debating, perhaps, what should be done. I found myself quoting Dylan Thomas, quietly reciting 'Do not go gentle into that good night'. I found it comforting, although perhaps Tennyson's "charge of the light brigade" was better suited to the situation at hand.
They began their assault right as I reached the third stanza, and lifting my guns, I roared the verse as I opened fire. "Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright / Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay, / Rage, rage against the dying of the light!" My guns barked a deadly staccato, spitting fire as though they were the heads of wrathful cerebus. Before I had emptied my first two guns, they had pressed through, spreading out to limit the efficiency of my fire. I stood, relying on peripheral vision and years of training at hand-eye coordination for my aim. I could see a wide arc of the hall, and even as they swarmed in they were felled, though shots resounded as they volleyed in return. All the while, I continued my recitation, as though it were some battle chant on the lips of an ancient skald. Finishing with Thomas, I moved on to whatever other verse or song I could think of, filling my ears and mind with the music of my native land. Soon enough my guns were expended, and I found with horror that the entire cache of bullets with them. Mistress had been refilling their magazines as quickly as she was able, but I had put down more fire than an entire utan might carry with them, and had slain more than an utan in the process. Again, I launched myself at my foes, twin short swords in hand, and I held that door as best I was able, slaughtering a dozen more before the noble warrior who led them stepped into my view.
He was tall and proud, a mighty figure who stood a good four or five inches taller than me. He was dressed in the elaborate gold and jewels of a mighty noble, perhaps even a jed or jeddak among his people. His helm was festooned with bright jewels and gay plumage, like the head dress of an indian chief as reinvented by Tiffany's, marking him as a general or admiral. His carriage was proud and noble, and as I dispatched my last dancing partner he gave a word of command, and his minions backed away to let him fight. As I looked up into those stormy blue grey eyes, which I had seen only once before, I said in english the only words that I felt were truly descriptive of my situation.
"Oh shit. I am so screwed."
The Warlord smiled as I stepped back from the doorway. "Kaor, Simon Hill. It seems we meet again."
I gave a slight bow, replying in English, "Hello again, Warlord. You look quite well. I never had the chance to thank you for your help to me that time. It placed me in exactly the right company to find the one for whom I was searching."
"Helium is not so far you could not have made the effort" he said, replying in English.
I glanced down at my harness, before saying, "I do not think that would have been appropriate."
He raised an eyebrow at this, noting perhaps for the first time the fact that I was a mere orad. "I am not in the habit of murdering slaves, Simon Hill. Move aside, and I shall see you are treated well."
"I am not in the habit of committing suicide, Warlord" I replied. "Leave this hall and you will not have to kill me." I raised my sword in salute, saying, "there is one last boon I would ask of you sir, if you would permit me. I know you to be a gentleman, and this is a matter of deepest importance to me. In this chamber is a woman of the red race. Swear to me that, when I am defeated, she will be treated well. If any man is the soul of chivalry, I know him to be you. Pray give me your word on this point alone, then make my death a swift one."
He gave a deep bow, his sword giving a flourish as he swept it across the floor. "It shall be as you say."
I moved away from the door, giving him room to enter. "Then by all means enter. Where you are, the floor is slick with blood and treacherous with debris. We can finish this matter nearer the dais, where skill may win out over mad happenstance."
He nodded, that famed fighting smile touching his lips. Moving to a favorable position, he raised his longsword to chest height, aiming the point for my heart. With that, we began, my Mistress standing upon the dais, watching, and the men of Helium thronging the halls, wishing to see this slave die who had slaughtered so many of their fellows. He did not give quarter when he began his attack, but I found my fighting style was more effective than I gave it credit. He was the thrusting arrow, his point work the model of miraculous efficiency. No effort was wasted, no movement that was not necessary. I could not get past his perfect guard, but my agility was sufficient to prevent a telling blow against me. I was the flowing water, the willow bending in the wind. Despite my many injuries, I seemed to be holding my own, until with one devastating sweep of his blade the Warlord somehow managed to disarm me, both swords sent flying by his perfect swordsmanship. He leveled his mighty longsword at me, and I could see he was about to demand my surrender, when I lunged forward, balling my right hand into a fist. He held his ground, but at the last minute I shifted my balance, going from a punch to a high flying kick.
His blade bit into my abdomen as I launched myself at him, and I slid along its length until the bell guard was nearly touching me. As my kick struck him, I reached down and firmly grasped his wrist, pressing thumb into that familiar tendon and forcing him to let go of the rapier. as he was knocked off of his feet, I kept a hold on his wrist, turning about and hurling him across the room. As he landed, I staggered, groaning in abject pain at the sword lodged in my guts. It was not an immediately deadly wound, but peritonitis is not an easy death, and blood loss is a respecter of no man. I fell to my knees, clutching the sword to prevent it from slicing me in two, and carefully drew it out. Blood fountained as the sword fell from my limp fingers, and I nearly blacked out from the pain.
the Warlord stood, his face swelling from where my foot had impacted against him. As I swooned, he moved to recover his sword while the men of Helium cheered their chief. I stood, sweat springing to my face, and raised my fists. Shaking my head in denial, I moved to stand over the fallen blade, telling him, "It's not over yet."
It might not be over yet, but it would be soon. Sweat was pouring from my body, my legs trembled, my vision blurred. I was pierced fore and aft, and what seemed to be a river of blood ran down my leg. The Warlord of Mars could see this as well, and for a moment he stood there, unwilling to answer my challenge. In a voice filled with compassion, he addressed me in Barsoomian, loudly enough for the men to hear, saying, "stay down. Honor has been satisfied."
"This is not about honor" I told him, my voice hoarse and cracking. "I am a man of Dar. Beyond me lies one of the few ways to the Jeddara. You are her enemy. So long as I draw breath, you may not pass."
It was, I am certain of it, my imagination, but even so, I am convinced I heard a sharp intake of breath from my Mistress as I said these words. It is likely hallucination as well, for I know my ears were ringing from the blood that pounded in them, but I thought I could hear the soldiers at the end of the hall, muttering among themselves. I distinctly heard one of them say, "He is like a noble calot! Though only a slave, he would sell his life for the safety of his masters."
I smiled grimly, my field of vision already dimming as blood loss threatened to take me before the Warlord could finish his task. I laughed, a single choking bark of a chuckle, and muttered, "yes indeed. A noble calot, I." Straightening up to stand at my full height, I raised my fists, and once again faced the Warlord of Mars.
From that point on, the fight was a blur. We were both men of earth, trim and vigorous. I was trained in fighting forms that incorporated a wide range of movement, including a number of leaps, kicks, and throws. He was not so trained, but learned quickly, and was by far a better fighter than I would ever be. I was marginally stronger, but he could block and dodge as easily with his fists as with his blade, so my power was negated by greater skill. Most telling of all, I was wounded, and he was not. I was, I believe, in a state of shock. I felt no pain, and in fact seemed to be floating in a sort of fog. My reverie was ended, however, when the Warlord managed to find purchase on my arm, and hurled me across the room, where I struck a half-destroyed statue and landed badly. I felt a searing pain like none before, and my right arm hung limply, the shoulder having been dislocated by the force of my impact.
This time, the agony was beyond anything I had experienced, even in the rites of Bar-Darras. Clutching my shoulder, I bent over and vomited a mass of blood and bile. I lay there in the pool of offal, shuddering, as an unwanted groan escaped my lips. I do not wish to admit it, but I cried then, just as a child might, my body wracked with sobs by the pain of it. Even so, I tried to stand, and when unable to, I crawled, torturously dragging myself to the feet of the warlord. I said the only words I could think of, my voice so hoarse as to be nearly inaudible. On my knees, one arm useless, the other trying to give me sufficient purchase to stand, I muttered, "you... shall not... pass..."
This time, when I heard my Mistress, I knew it to be no hallucination. I was at the foot of the dais, trying to use it to help me stand, and she was right above me. I heard her voice, so full of tears, say to me, "stop it, you great dumb lummox! He has defeated you! Do not make him murder a helpless man."
Her voice galvanized me. From some inner wellspring I drew new strength. Shaking, I stood, and faced the Warlord whose eyes seemed filled with pity. Trembling, I said to him, "I still draw breath. My vow stands. You shall not pass me." It was not enough. Even as I said these words, consciousness left me, and I fell into the black void of oblivion.
It is said, on mars, "give a woman half a chance, and death must take a back seat." I awoke in the arms of my Mistress, who was bandaging my wounds and applying salves to my many contusions. Her eyes were brimming with tears as I looked up at her, and she said to me "you must be the stupidest man on the planet. Any two of these wounds ought to have killed you."
I smiled weakly, and replied "It has been said of me, that I am but a brutish imbecile. I ever strive to serve."
I attempted to lift myself up and survey the scene. "How long have I been unconscious?" I asked her. The room was quiet now, and it seemed that all the enemy soldiers had departed. "Where is the Warlord, and whither went his men?"
"The Warlord has departed," she answered, "after giving his oath that you would receive honorable treatment in his house. He has given orders that neither of us be harmed, and after making me swear my surrender, bid me save you if I could." She looked at me, a suspicious frown on her lips. "What was it you and he discussed, before your battle. He knew your name, your earthly name. Are you a man of Virginia?"
I lay back again, my strength spent by that little effort. "I am no man of Virginia," I answered her, "but we are countrymen. We both were born in a land called America, of which Virginia and California are part. He knows me because we have met once before, in the city of Zodanga. You should know the tale. My friend Car Than tells it often enough."
Soon enough I felt my strength return, though I was still in some pain. I could still hear the distant thunder of the cannonade. Realizing with a start what it meant, I sat up, asking "The battle still rages! Has the Jeddara not yet been taken?"
"We fight on," she told me, "or at least our countrymen do. It has not been so very long since you fell, I do not think the throne room has been taken, although it is but a matter of time now. The warriors of Helium press us from all sides."
I stood, then, and staggered as my head swam. Drunkenly, I stumbled to where the bodies of my foe men lay, and began to gather weapons as best as I could. Mistress demanded that I lay back down, that she had only just stabilized me, and if I moved my wounds would reopen. Taking a dead man's carbine, I grimly shook my head. "You have surrendered, not me" I answered. "I stand by what I said before. So long as I draw breath, I shall defend the Jeddara's life."
From one of the dead men, I took a satchel of the same blasting devices which had been used to destroy my barricade. They were of a simple design, and quite stable until the timing mechanism activated the detonator. Stowing the last of my gear, I then did what I had been dreading. Walking over to the doorway, I gritted my teeth, and slammed my shoulder into the door jam, forcing my arm back into its socket. Agony exploded through my brain and I screamed through clenched teeth. For a moment, I believe that I fainted, for when I regained my senses I was kneeling on the floor, leaning against the opening. Gripping the door frame, I rose once again, and with a last look at my Mistress, strode down those memory-haunted passageways which I had walked once before.
I did not have long before the din of battle led me to my place. I came to the throne room to see a press of red men doing battle with one another. The Jeddara, it would seem, had chosen to make her last stand here, and she sat upon her dais, observing the battle below, her guardsmen ringing her about three ranks deep. The fighting I saw was furious, each man selling his life as dearly as he may. In the heat of battle, I confess it was quite impossible for me to tell friend from foe, and I briefly wondered if even they could tell, or if they simply clashed with whomever seemed to challenge them. As great as was the carnage in the hall of reflection, so much worse was it here. My confusion was short lived, however, for I saw a great knot of guardsmen at the foot of the dais, battling a knot of Heliumites, and at their head was the Warlord of Mars.
I moved swiftly. Reaching into my satchel, I removed one explosive device after another and placed them at the base of pillars nearest to me, relying on the heat of battle to shield me from observation. A few times I was forced to defend myself, but these men had been fighting for some time, and had little strength to deal with the likes of me. Setting the last explosive, I turned to the dais to see with horror that the last of the guards had been defeated! The Jeddara stood before the Warlord, her gilded sword in hand. Tall and proud, she lifted the sword and then laid it flat in a sign of capitulation, holding it out for him to take. She did not wish to surrender, I could see it in the flash of her eyes, but the rules of warfare were clear on this point. She had no defenders left, and men do not slay women upon Barsoom. Capitulation was her only option.
I found a reserve of strength I did not know I had. Running, I leapt up, using the shoulder of a Heliumite as a springboard to launch me into the air. Pulling my carbine from where it lay across my shoulder, I took hasty aim and fired a round at the Warlord. Warned by some preternatural sense, he moved, just a bare fraction of an inch, but it was enough. The bullet grazed him, drawing blood from his shoulder, and then struck the throne and exploded. I blasted round after round as the lazy grip of martian gravity drew me slowly downward. Drawing my short sword in the other hand, I landed in a crouch in the blasted spot where moments before the Warlord had been, but he was an earthmen too. His mighty sinews had propelled him out of danger, and my shots did more harm to his henchmen than to him.
My leap took it's toll, however, and the hasty care of my Mistress gave way under the stress of that hard landing. As I hit, a great shock jarred though my legs, and I felt something wet as my belly wound split open again, staining red the bandages which had only just been applied. I lurched, and turning to face the Heliumite warriors, coughed, spitting up blood. Several of them recognized me, and I tried to smile as several cried out, "the Calot lives!"
"I see now it was a mistake granting you quarter, Simon Hill" called the Warlord from where he had landed. He was crouched, much as I had, but in his case there was no evidence of great trauma from the landing. He even looked better, despite my attempt to pummel him. My face felt like a mass of raw cookie dough, and I do not wish to speculate on how ghastly my smile must have been.
"My name," I called out, even as he crossed the distance in a few swift springs, "is Jor Komak, orad of the house of Suthor Raas. I am a priest of the temple of Bar-Darras, and a true son of Dar. I told you once before, so long as I draw breath, you shall not have the Jeddara!"
As if to punctuate my oration, the first explosive went off, shattering the pillar on which it was set and sending shrapnel flying through the chamber. I dropped my carbine, leaping for the Warlord with fist upraised, ready to do further battle with him. This time, there was no tricks, no fancy moves or outlandish techniques. In the first clash he disarmed me, my sword flying across the room, and tried to make good his opening with a thrust of his blade, but I sidestepped it, and with my left hand caught him by the wrist once more. We stood there, before the Jeddara, toe to toe, trading blows. No thought of defense, and no thought of surrender. Uppercut, jab, haymaker, cross. No science, no finesse, no poetry. This fight would end when one of us could take no more punishment. More bombs went off as we traded our blows back and forth, and from some other hall, more soldiers of Dar came forth to challenge the Heliumite warriors. We two remained fixed, intent only on mastering the other. In the end, however, I was simply no match for the greatest of fighting men.
I was surprised to find that I was still alive. A red warrior was leaning over me, and I could tell that I had been freshly bandaged. As I opened one eye (the other was too swollen to be opened), the he said to someone in the room with us, "Tell the Warlord that the prisoner may yet live."
I was, as it turned out, aboard a transport ship headed for Helium. My injuries, while grave, were quickly mended (as my Mistress herself might have done, had I not returned to the fight before her ministrations were completed). After that, I was confined to a cell in the hold, along with other prisoners of war, most of whom were destined to be used as slaves in the mines or farms. I was chained, as were many of the prisoners, but none of us were treated poorly. Again I found myself the recipient of strange celebrity, as more than one officer came to the hold where I was imprisoned, to see "the Noble Calot" who had twice battled the Warlord and lived.
My valor had impressed the Warlord, and he had wished to show me every courtesy due a fellow countryman. We both were men of Earth, and had an understanding which was not shared by our martian counterparts. He offered to take me into his retinue, if I swore to give him the same loyalty I had shown to my previous masters. It was sorely tempting, for I make no apologies for my adoration of this paragon of men, but after some deliberation, I had to refuse. I informed him that, as honored as I was by this noble gesture, I was still a man of Dar. It was my duty to attempt to escape at the first opportunity to do so, and to hinder his plans in any way I might. Were I able to do so, through action or inaction, I must take steps to thwart his occupation of my home. He was a good man and I wished him no malice, but he was also my enemy, and I was a man of honor.
The Jeddak of Jeddaks, Warlord of Barsoom, nodded gravely as I ended my speech. "You are a fine man, Jor Komak, and a credit to your metal" he replied, then turned to the guards standing watch over our meeting and added, "take him away, and chain him in the pits."
XI: In the Pits of Helium
I was dragged away by the men of Helium, and taken to a cell buried deep below the streets of that fair city. I was chained, bound hand and foot, unable to make the slightest move. Apparently my last escape attempt had impressed the Warlord, and with my declaration of intent, he was prone to take me at my word. After the guards were gone I was left in the pitiless black depths which enshroud nearly every dungeon in Barsoom, and which seems to close in and stifle the mind with its awful inky abyss. After a short time, I heard a voice address me from some corner of the cell, asking who I was to be so heavily restrained. I answered that I was but a slave who had the temerity to force the Warlord to battle him rather than give up my masters. I asked his name and he answered that he was called Oro Tavas, and that he had been a Padwar in the navy of Dar, under the command of Suthor Raas. I exclaimed that I was a servant of his household, and asked news of my Master. What he spoke filled me with sadness, for my Master had been outmaneuvered in battle, his mighty ship the Vorator had been beset on all sides by the ships of Helium, and that he was forced to surrender. I was greatly saddened by this news, for the means by which a ship signals its surrender in battle is for the commander of that vessel to leap from her side and take the long awful plunge to the dying land below. My Master was dead, my Mistress someplace I knew not where, I was chained in the deepest pit, my city was overrun, and my queen most likely dead.
He asked me for news of the war, and I spoke to him of the last days of our city, of the siege and the final stand in the throne room. My usual sense of humility held my tongue, and I underplayed my role in those events, saying only that I helped man the guns like any other, and that I once stood before the Jeddak of Jeddaks and refused to let him past me, forcing him to strike me down. When my new friend expressed surprise that I still lived, I simply told him that the Warlord could not bring himself to slay a mere slave, and so struck me a blow of his fist, which felled me easily enough. He was saddened to hear of our city's fall, but took heart in the valiant battle which we gave, and the fact that we fought even to the bitter end.
Time passed, and we helped each other to stay sane in the terrible blackness of those pits. We were visited on a regular basis by a servant who brought us food. My hands were shackled over my head, and so he was obliged to feed me, a precaution which my friend declaimed as unjust and cruel, while my jailer decried it as unnecessary and demeaning for him to so serve a mere slave. After the third time he so declared his distaste for the work, I demurely suggested that he unchain my arms long enough to feed myself, to which he heartily agreed. I remained passive and docile, and slowly began to build his trust. I had other wants to which he was forced to attend, which were even more distasteful than merely shoving food into my mouth, for which I wished a degree of privacy, and after a short time he agreed to allow me only those bonds which were common to any prisoner. I was still shackled, held by fetters and bonds which limited my movement, but now at least I could lower my arms and take some position other than sitting upright.
We were visited from time to time, often by nobles wishing to view me. They had heard remarkable tales, and also had a prurient curiosity, for it was well known that the people of Dar were lovers of pleasure and had special training regimens for their favored slaves. Whenever asked, I denied any such knowledge, claiming to be but a low class laborer, but one lady in particular, upon noting my hands, declared me a liar. The proof, so she said, lay in that while I was indeed calloused like a workman, my fingernails were neat and well manicured, and all my calluses buffed and softened. No mere laborer would keep their hands so, she insisted, and therefor I must have held some special duties as well. At this insistence, I simply looked her in the eye, as she leaned close as if to try to kiss me, and told her that while the folk of Helium might well treat their slaves poorly, in Dar it was customary for even the lowest laborers to hold themselves to certain standards. Incensed, she struck me across the face and stalked away, leaving me and my friend to laugh.
I made my bid for freedom a short time after that incident, having thus far gained the trust and acceptance of my jailer. I had, by this time, lost track of how often he had visited us, but had concluded that he only came once a day, and thought I had been so chained for little more than a month. So docile had I been, he had no fear of approaching me, and on the pretext of asking him to check my ankles, which had chafed under the bond, had him draw near enough to me that I might pick his pocket, deftly swiping the keys to my manacles. He examined my feet and told me that he would bring medicine on his next visit, and I thanked him for his kindness. As he left, taking his little light with him, I was already unbinding myself, and quickly moved over to my companion. I did not know how many others he was to visit, but I was sure he would miss his keys in short order, and so we hastened to make good our escape.
Unfortunately, we had only gotten so far as stepping out of the cell we were in when the jailer had come back, patting his belt and searching the floor. We fell upon him, hoping to stifle any outcry, but he gave a shout of alarm just before my hand found his windpipe. There was a sickening snap as, in my eagerness to quiet him, I broke his neck with a single shake of my hand. He expired quietly and we snatched up weapons just as guards came rushing toward us. There were only two soldiers, who doubtless were doughty swordsmen, but I was in no mood for the courtly etiquette of Barsoomian fencing. I leapt upon them as they drew their swords, dove behind them in a handspring, and gave each a kick to the back of the head as I landed. Stunned by my blow, they were unable to muster sufficient defense against the sword of Oro Tavas, and they each fell shortly thereafter. We stripped them of their goods, taking even the metal they wore. We were in a hostile city, and to wear the metal of Dar was as good as a signed and sealed death warrant.
One of the main defensive values of the pits beneath any city is the fact that they are not laid out in any sort of sensible or ergonomic fashion. Corridors wind about haphazardly, opening up to chambers and vaults without rhyme or reason. The intention of this, I am sure, is to thwart invaders, allowing those who know the pits to move secretly from place to place, while the casual explorer or invading army becomes confused and lost. So it was that, after defeating our guards and escaping the dungeons in which we had been stowed, we became hopelessly lost in the pits beneath Helium and wandered aimlessly, having only the small radium torch of our jailer to light our way. We were quite glad for that lamp, for many uncouth things dwell in the dark hollow expanses under the crust of mars, nearly all of which shy away from the light. Perhaps they are so adapted to conditions there that even the dim radiance of a torch is painful to them, or more likely they have learned that the red man is a dangerous adversary if he can see what he is fighting. Either way, we huddled close to that source of illumination like children clinging to a night light after reading a scary story.
Like so many free men of Barsoom, Oro Tavas was in no wise familiar with how such a labyrinth might be navigated, and so it fell to me to try and make sense of the trackless paths which wound sinuously through the earth under that mighty city. I had at least sense enough to tell those areas which were used well and frequently, as opposed to those areas which were largely empty save for squamous things of darkness, and thereby choose a path that was less likely to have us encounter a patrol while avoiding dangerous predators. After several periods of sleep, during which we took turns clutching at our swords and scanning the enrobing darkness for the pale gleaming eyes of those horrid scavengers which never allow themselves to be seen, we found one of the main service tunnels running the length of the city. I knew well these corridors, and knew also that there was rhyme and reason to their construction and operation. This provided us a means of navigating at least some portion of the city, and possibly even the entire urban area of greater and lesser Helium combined.
Finding this tunnel gave us a point of reference and a means of finding the street above. We quickly become adept at maneuvering through the unseen paths under the city, and found ways of filching the things we need, thus enabling us to avoid detection and capture. The greatest boon to us comes from the martian love of efficiency combined with their distaste for manual labor. The culmination of these two things comes in the mechanized eatery, which in his biographies the Warlord has called the automat, but which I, being a son of a later age, call simply McMartian's. These establishments dot the cities of mars, and boast the ability to provide exactly the meal the customer has asked for, without the order being taken or food being handled by a single human being. In actuality these machines are quite simplistic, the menu having only a few items on the bill of fare with only a small number of variables to each item. Thus, such an assembly line, for such it was, needed to be programmed for perhaps 32 specific menus, which for the clientele they served was usually sufficient. That no human touched the food, however, was a boon for us because we were able to hide ourselves in the gut of these machines, in the maintenance areas meant for workmen to come and maintain the equipment, and find all of the food we needed, and even, upon departing, to take away all of the coin we might require to pay our other expenses.
"Do you always take what is not yours, Jor Komak?" Oro Tavas asked me, as I ripped open the cash box of our latest hiding place and began to shovel coins into my pouch.
"It is a more common practice among my people than your own," I answered him, "but it is not generally considered honorable or decent. Then again," I added with a wolfish grin, "neither is murder, and slaying a man is considered to be a far worse sin than merely taking his money."
"Is that why you are so uncomfortable to carry weapons, then?" he asked me, for we had by this time become familiar enough to know some things about each other's habits.
"I suppose that is why," I answered, as we left the automat, "or at least that sentiment expresses my deep distaste for violence."
"And yet you kill, and have in fact killed a great many" he replied, as we hurried down the service corridor. "A Barsoomian might kill a man and take his treasure, claiming them as spoils of conquest, but to steal into his home while he is away and take the same goods, to us this is alien. We would not weep over the former, and we would not consider the latter, and yet you would rather wound your pride and commit, as you put it, the lesser sin, than to simply slay a man in honorable combat. You are a strange man, Jor Komak, a strange man indeed."
"Your world is dying, Oro Tavas" I replied grimly, as we receded to the depths of the pits, "and her peoples fight like starving calots over every least resource. My world is rich, strong, and fecund. Full of life, she spawns new miracles every day. Life is such a miracle, Oro Tavas, and should be respected. I can kill if need arises, to defend myself or those I love, to feed us and even to provide material for our furnishings. I have partaken in the murder of life every time I have eaten a meal or worn clothing, but even then I have tried to be moderate in my consumption. Property is just a thing, easily replaced, but life, once taken, can never be returned."
I did not bother to note that, while he decried my acts of theft and vandalism, he ate heartily of stolen victuals, and spent easily the stolen cash. We both understood that we were hunted men in an enemy camp, and any trick we could use to survive was to our advantage, however dishonorable it may be. It simply chafed at him to scurry about underground like ulsios when we should, in his opinion, be up above fighting bravely for God, Queen, and Country.
We had, in the course of our debate, traveled along paths which we had come to know well, until we ascended by means of a ladder set into the side of a vertical shaft some two hundred feet deep, to the level of the streets above. This shaft was lidded by a heavy iron grate which I could move, but few others might. It was set into a small cul-de-sac alley which no windows faced, and which had become our favorite means of coming and going unobserved from our hiding places. We did not wish to remain too long in public, but we still desired sunlight, fresh air, and the company of others.
As I shouldered aside the grate, I heard a man's voice, saying "I have fought for you and stood victorious! I have played your little games and now it is time to give me my due. Come to me, my princess, and give praise to your chieftain."
I paused, not wishing to interrupt a private moment between two trysting lovers, but the woman was far from amused by the speaker's words. "Take your hands off me you vile beast!" she uttered, and the sound of a struggle ensued.
I was out of the tunnel before she had finished her short soliloquy, and stood, holding the circular grate much like mighty Ajax on the fields of Troy, armed with the wheel of his broken chariot. "I should respect the lady's wishes, we I you," I said, taking in the sight before me. A warrior in the plain metal of a panthan had pushed a woman up against the wall who, by her harness and ornamentation, was free, and seemed intent on having his way with her. Pausing in his quest for affection, he turned to face me, one hand still grasping the lady's wrist.
"I don't know who you are, or how you got here, and I don't much..." he began to growl, but got no further in his threat before the grate I had been holding impacted against his chest, crushing his ribs and knocking him to the ground. His expiration was violent and painful, his body wracked with convulsions as he choked on his own blood and vomit. Somehow, I could not bring myself to care, for unlike the guards and soldiers I had slain, this man was not simply in the wrong place at the wrong time, pitting his duty against my own. He was a thug attempting to take advantage of a lady, and I had no problem putting him down.
Calmly, I walked over and retrieved the lid to the shaft, replacing it as Oro Tavas clambered out of the hole. I then turned to the woman, who had extricated herself from the dead man's grasp, and was eyeing me with a strange mixture of suspicion and gratitude. With a slight bow, I said to her, "I apologize for intruding, but he seemed to be insisting on a greater degree of familiarity than you were comfortable with, and I happened to be passing by."
"No apology needed, warrior," she said, seeming to relax visibly. Now that I could view her clearly, I saw that her harness, while ornamented, was that of a slave, but not one that was privately owned. She was an indentured worker, bonded by the state for failure to pay her debts. Her name, she told me, was Llrona of T'shem, and she had come to Helium as a student, to take advantage of the many universities the city had to offer. While here her finances dried up and she was taken into bondage, and had been seeking some means of paying her debts so that she could become once again a free woman. Without hesitation, I asked her how much she needed. She quoted a price that was less than modest, and then was astounded when I began counting coins out of my purse.
I gave her the money, the cash box at the automat having been quite full, and asked her to please take greater care in the future, as the next time she needed saving, there might not be a gentleman lurking nearby to rescue her. I then departed, leaving her stunned, and Oro Tavas every bit as confused as when we had argued the ethics of theft before. "What was the point of taking that money if you were just going to give it away?" he demanded of me.
"What is the purpose of money, if not to be spent?" I asked with a shrug.
"Earthman, I shall never understand you," he proclaimed with exasperation. "You are obviously a man of honor and high ideals, but your ethics are so alien to me as to make me wish to cry! Have you given any thought to what you have done?"
"I killed a man, and then gave some money to a slave so that she could become free," I answered with a shrug.
"You defended the honor of a woman, then paid her debts. Now, she is yours, and you have simply abandoned her!"
"I did not pay her debts" I corrected him. "I gave her money, so that she might pay them herself. Among my people, involuntary servitude is abhorrent. We would rather kill, or die, than be made slaves of."
"But you are a slave!" he fairly screamed, so that passers by on the streets turned to observe us with curiosity. "If you would rather die a free man, why have you, by your own admission, worn the harness of an orad for all this time?"
"I did so, because I was free to do so" I answered, as I tried to take our conversation somewhere without an audience. "I had the power to escape very early on. I could have escaped the very day I was sold. I chose not to."
My answer only infuriated Oro Tavas, and he stalked away, muttering about the insanity of earthmen that causes them to contradict themselves at every turn. I saw clearly in his mind the fact that he intended to take the cash I had given him, and use it to become very, very drunk. I laughed, shaking my head, and as I was about to turn and find my own way, I saw Llrona watching me from across the street. We exchanged a silent look which seemed pregnant with meaning, before I turned and began to walk away. As I left, I called out, "well, come along then."
I didn't look back to see if she was there. I didn't need to. I had never before seen anyone look the way she looked at me, but I knew that look just the same. I had worn that look on my face since the day I met Kayla Zo. It was the look that had Kovas Morn send me to be her escort to the festival of Bar-Darras. It was the look that caused the Jeddara to proclaim me a slave, and to leave me in her care. It was the look that caused Suthor Raas to treat me as a friend, rather than as a rival. It was a look that accepted no other answer. She was mine, whether I would have her or no.
Having a slave caused a profound change in my habits and mannerisms. I could not allow myself to lose face as I once had. It is not that I feared to have lost her, although in retrospect that might be a valid reason, but rather now that I was in a position of such authority, my sense of noblesse oblige demanded that I keep myself to a standard that was higher than it had been. In short, I finally made the mental leap of naturalization that I had been resisting since my advent upon this world. I had become a fighting man of Barsoom. I walked tall, my shoulders square. I looked other men in the eye, my hand ever near my sword. I had always shown deference to the fairer sex, but now there was a strange, unfamiliar edge, a sense of predatory awareness, in those courtly gestures. The transformation was not instantaneous, of course, but from the moment that Llrona entered into my service, I began to act as a master should. It was ever in my nature to serve, and I could only serve her by being the lord and protector that she needed me to be.
I did not know where I was going after I parted ways with Oro Tavas, save that I was wandering into a less savory portion of town. My skin and hair were still as they should be, and the argument with my friend had generated quite a bit of attention. The next time soldiers canvassed for information about me, and I was still a fugitive dwelling in a hostile city, I should most likely be remembered. I did not wish to be in the vicinity when that happened, and poor neighborhoods are the same throughout the universe, it seems. Such neighborhoods had fewer watchmen patrolling them, and far less cooperative citizens dwelling there. I also hoped to find one of the abandoned houses that frequently were to be found in such areas, as I must admit I was tired of sleeping in the pits, nor would I ask my new chattel to do so.
"Where are we going, my lord?" she asked me, after an hours walk through a rather dangerous looking area. "I seek new quarters." I told her. "I can not continue with my prior arrangements, now that I am responsible for the care of another."
"Then I may be of service, if you wish it" she answered. She had, it seemed, quarters not terribly far from where we were. Having originally meant to stay in Helium for some time, she had paid an extended lease on a modest residence upon arrival here, which perhaps had contributed to her financial downfall, but which was still hers.
Her home was the equivalent of an earthly condominium, taking up one level of a larger tower that was held by several families. Many of these other households were also students at the university, who lived together under one roof to share expenses. It was far more expensive than the public houses, but afforded far greater privacy. The building was in poor repair, and appeared to have been bombed repeatedly during the last few wars to have come to Helium. When Llrona actuated the doorway, causing the vestibule-like area to drop to the ground from where it had been, some forty feet above, the radium motor in its piston rattled and buzzed dangerously. I had always considered the traditional martian method for avoiding unwanted guests somewhat ridiculous, given the availability of airships and flying harnesses, but Barsoomians are creatures of habit, and I suspected they have been raising their homes on stilts for a very long time. It was impractical to raise the entire building, as was common for small private homes, and impossible to raise the individual apartments, so the builders of these martian towers compromised by lifting the entrance, with a smooth steel shaft extending down from the entryway's foundation. I found the effect remarkably door-like, but could never convince anyone that my own people's methods were any more efficient.
Llrona was, as it happened, a savant. This class of renaissance academic is not so well respected as warriors, but contribute greatly to the arts and sciences of the city in which they dwell. Most are funded by the state, who then uses their research as the jed or jeddak sees fit, but some few opt for independent research. In Llrona's case, she had encountered what my people colorfully refer to as the "glass ceiling", and was unable to receive due credit for her works because she was a woman. Because Dar is ruled by a Jeddara, we had no such restriction, a fact I told her, feeling both proud of my own people and indignant at this obvious and blatant sexism. Why the arcane mating rituals of the martians did not seem sexist, yet this caused me consternation and outrage, I could not say, save that I was a man of Dar, and in Dar, such things did not happen.
I finally had the opportunity to attend to my appearance in more than a perfunctory way. I had used the cover story of being Okarian to explain my beard and skin, those few times I was questioned, but while the men of Okar were known to Helium, I still felt conspicuous. I chose to readopt my alter ego Dim Sum, less the vapid stupidity, and so with Llrona's aid I shaved off my beard and hair, and anointed my body with rasaba oil, the same red pigment which the Warlord has used to mask his own appearance. When I looked in the mirror, I was surprised at the changes that had been wrought. I did not know how many wounds I had received during the siege of Dar. New scars, fighting scars, covered my body and face. Now I not only looked like a fighting man, I looked very, very dangerous. I doubted that even Kayla Zo would be able to recognize me instantly.
"Dim Sum is an odd name" Llrona said to me, as I examined myself in the mirror. "From what city does it hail?"
"It is actually a kind of banquet," I answered her with a laugh. "The first time I donned this disguise I had not thought what to call myself, and when asked my name I panicked. Dim Sum was the first thing that came to mind."
That night I slept well, laying in real a bed for the first time since I left Dar. Llrona had asked me much about my adopted homeland, and seemed downcast that it had been defeated in siege. She was also conversant with the ways of Jasoom, although she had not attended any lectures on the subject in several decades. She was fascinated by the chance to meet a true Jasoomian, and to ask for explanations of the many odd things she had seen. I could only answer a tiny fraction of her questions, but told her of my life and my people, and how the world had changed since the Warlord's day. Much of Llrona's flat was taken up with laboratory equipment, and my passing familiarity with its function and use seemed to please her. I was pleased as well, for it gave me the chance to reacquire some pieces of equipment, which I felt may soon be put to use in this hostile city.
XII: The Unflyable Airship
Having gained a place to stay and some restful sleep, I was now ready to seek some word of my compatriots. I was likely going to have to travel to Zodanga to find friends and allies, but I could begin my search here, by finding some of the less reputable taverns where panthans seek private employers. I assured Llrona that I had few needs, and that she could return to her studies and research for the time present. Then, taking my leave, I headed back into the bustling market district of greater Helium. I had heard from Car Than and his associates of certain establishments that they frequented, and I hoped to make these my haunts. I was concerned about my finances, but hoped to find some means of acquiring more cash without resorting to petty theft.
My opportunity for income came three days later, when I was approached by a man in the metal of a Toonolian warrior. The people of Toonol are rationalists, having created a socialist order based on what they believe to be the most logical system of government. They are often seen by outsiders as strange or even dangerous, but to me they have always seemed like the earthly liberal reformers of my acquaintance. He was Van Daar, who had come to Helium on business, and was in need of a body guard to protect him from assassins during that time. I informed him that I was willing to take the job so long as it did not require me for more than a few days, as I was seeking certain fellows who had promised to meet me. He assured me that he had no intention of staying very long, and we agreed to a price, the advance of which I gave to Llrona to see to her living expenses.
After attending to my own matters, I arrived at the house where Van Daar was to meet me. He was engaged in business with some shady characters, he explained, and mistrusted the possibility of betrayal. Thus, he wanted to have a body guard at his side as an extra precaution, though he was no mean swordsman himself. His meeting was a few days hence, after which he would be leaving and I would once again be free to do as I wished. Until then, I was not to leave his side day or night, and I would in fact be sleeping in the same chamber as he.
Van Daar's quarters were marginally better than those I had left, and he was attended by a number of servants. I had been given a depilatory salve by Llrona, which inhibited hair growth until a counteragent was applied. Rasaba oil is a commonly used cosmetic, and once saturated into the skin leaves a strong stain which lasts several days. Thus, for the time I was to be on duty, I did not have to worry about my appearance, leaving me free to worry about assassins. My first act, upon arriving at the house, was to carefully inspect it top to bottom, from the point of view of trying to break in. I found several weak points that could easily be exploited by a clever man, and a dozen more that only a Jasoomian might try. I placed motion sensors on the underside of the house, explaining that I had found a weakness in the flooring that might be exploited. As a point of fact, there was a trap door which allowed access to a cellar. An extendable sleeve was meant to fit this passage, allowing access by means of a magnetic lift, but I saw signs that at least once before someone had forced their way into this building by cutting that sleeve. The cellar was also vulnerable, as it included a passage down into the pits. I ordered a new door and installed it myself, adding a lock that could only be opened from our side, thus giving a route of escape if need be. I fitted alarms to windows in the upper story that were easily forced, despite the protests of my employer that the net used to hinder flyers would be sufficient. I simply informed him that those nets never stopped me, and he desisted in his objection.
Gorthans, or professional assassins, normally use certain reliable methods to do away with their employer's enemies. Most were simple cutthroats, who would find some means of ingress, murder their victim while helpless, and then slip away. Many would use poison, or even bombs, to do their dirty deeds. Some were professional duelists, and these had a certain kind of celebrity status, but most were individuals who for various reasons could not make their living as mercenaries. As I was being paid to thwart them, I took it upon myself to find every avenue that I could for how they might do their job, and block as many options as possible. I should note that, while my employer protested the lengths to which I had gone, he paid the cost for the equipment without hesitation. Most of the equipment, of course, was made by Llrona under my specification, thus it was she who received payment for them. I myself performed the necessary installation, after inspecting the gear to ensure that it had not been tampered with. Otherwise, I followed at my employer's heel, and remained constantly alert for the threat of snipers and duelists. He seemed convinced that I was myself a gorthan, and while I did not say that I was so, my sheer reticence on the subject seemed to confirm his suspicions. I was simply too good at my job to not be familiar with their profession, and I did not wish to explain that I had spent much time as a slave seeking ways to escape, nor that I had been surviving of late by breaking into people's homes and stealing their food, money, and blankets. If there was one thing I had learned as a burglar, it was that there were far too many ways of entering a house unseen.
While no assassins crept into the home of my employer, on one moonless night as Van Daar attended to his various business dealings, we were beset by a gang of ruffians. Some sad souls are unable even to make their way as gorthans, but the strange warlike nature of the Barsoomian mindset prevents them from committing simple theft as I had done. Desperate, they travel in packs and fall upon strangers, seeking to despoil their corpses of any loot. There were eight such bandits on this occasion, who seemed to feel quite confident in their ability to best us. Two drew rapiers, four more their short swords. The remaining two drew pistols as a closing argument. As my employer drew his long sword, I opted to remove the threat of the gunmen. Kicking off a nearby wall to gain some elevation, I drew my gun and snapped off a pair of shots which felled the pistoleers. My trajectory had me arc gracefully over the heads of the assembled hoard, now less two members, as I drew my twin short swords and landed lightly, turning to spring into the midst of the attackers. I had opportunity, of late, to practice my swordsmanship, and the two weapon style I had adopted, derived from the earthly art of escrima, was remarkably efficient in countering most common dueling moves made by martian warriors. I began to dispatch the cutthroats with great speed and precision, until only the two rapier-wielding swordsmen were left, pressing my employer back. He was, as he had said, an able swordsman, and I was uncertain if he wanted or required further assistance.
"Do you need any help with those?" I called out, as my employer feverishly parried thrust after thrust of their razor sharp blades. "I only ask because their friends weren't very much sport at all, and I wouldn't wish to deprive you."
My words had their desired effect, and one of the swordsmen looked away for a split second, and was dispatched before he could return his attention to the fight at hand. Free now to concentrate upon only the one swordsman, my employer quickly finished his fight with a slash to his enemy's throat, spraying blood upon the beautifully paved streets of Helium. I cleaned my weapons on the hair of one of the bandits before resheathing them, and then quickly searched them for any valuables they might have been carrying. They had had a busy night it seemed, or else they were saving a few bits of jewelry against some future need. I found several ornaments of gold, and a woman's comb set with jewels. One of them had a very nice cape of orluk pelt, as highly prized here as mink or ermine upon Earth, which I also claimed. "Waste not, want not" I grinned at Van Daar, as I tossed him a few ornaments.
Aside from that little encounter, which provided me a pretty bauble with which to present Llrona, the remaining days were fairly uneventful ones, until the day of Van Daar's much anticipated meeting. We traveled to a farm house far outside the walls of Helium, where we were met by an unusual number of guards. The farms of Helium were essentially forced labor camps, as criminals, debtors, and prisoners of war form the bulk of the blue collar proletariat upon this world. This particular work farm was a front, the government officers in charge using it as a base of operations for a black market smuggling ring. The slaves were all criminal associates of the warden, and maintained only the pretext of labor. In point of fact, several of the grain silos were being used to store a remarkable variety of weapons. The reason my employer was here, however, was to examine, and possibly buy, a new kind of airship, a light craft of incredible speed and agility. It was beautiful, when they removed the oilcloth tarp from it, its hull gleaming silver. It had lines like a hawk, its very silhouette implying acceleration. Van Daar was highly impressed, and promised that if it were as swift as they claimed, he would pay any reasonable price they asked.
"She is as fast as they claim, and more" I told him, my eyes devouring the voluptuous lines of the flyer. "There is only one problem. You can't fly her. No red man is able to. The forces generated by her thrust would kill you."
Van Daar turned to me, suspicion gleaming in his eyes. "How do you know this?" he demanded.
"He knows this," said a familiar voice from the doorway behind me, "because he designed those engines." I turned, a thrill of anticipation rushing through me, to see the face of my beloved friend Car Than. "Kaor, Dim Sum," he smiled at me, as I reached out to place my hand on his shoulder. "It is good to see you again, after all this time."
"Kaor, Car Than, prince of Zodanga" I said, after the formal manner of greeting. "I am most elated to see you again. I was afraid that you were in Jahal when the navy of Helium came to destroy it."
"Your exploits are known to me" he said with a smile, returning my gesture by placing his hand upon my shoulder. "The so-called Noble Calot who traded blow after blow with the mighty Warlord, who destroyed the throne room of the Jeddara of Dar so as to destroy as many men of Helium as possible by crushing them under her once stately dome. For a self proclaimed pacifist, you have slain a great many men."
Van Daar looked at me with surprise, saying, "You are the Calot of Dar? The hunted fugitive for whom half of Helium is searching?" Then, straightening up, he proudly proclaimed, "I knew it. You are a gorthan, after all. I have a sense for such things."
I threw my head back and laughed, as did several of the others there. Nonplused, my employer demanded an explanation, and I apologetically informed him that I was no gorthan, but rather a painfully loyal slave, who tried to sell my life dearly for the sake of my masters. "That is where I came by the epithet Calot of Dar," I told him, wiping a tear from my eye. "The men of Helium so called me, after the way a calot might defend its master's home at the expense of its own ignoble life."
After introductions were given all around, I assured Van Daar that the ship could be modified to make it flyable, and that the changes were simple ones. Directing the men, I implemented a few design modifications that I had thought of during the time that I had been incarcerated. This consisted of only a simple change in the gearing mechanism, and altering the yoke and seating arrangement so that the pilot lay flat on his belly while flying, allowing for the force of acceleration to be absorbed by his body in the way it was best designed to cope with. I assured Van Daar that, with the canopy closed, this vessel could travel at speeds in excess of sound, thereby making it one of the swiftest flyers on all of Barsoom. After a test flight, he agreed that it was nothing short of marvelous, and handed over a sum to Car Than that was itself princely. I escorted Van Daar back to his domicile and remained with him until he was ready to return to Toonol, at which time I received the balance of my pay and bid him farewell.
I made my way back to Llrona's home, but some instinct checked me before I entered through the door. The Warlord had met Dim Sum, and it seemed likely that this disguise was far from impenetrable. Deciding that if I was wrong I could attempt to make it seem I was but playing a jest, I chose to ascend the side of the building, rather than go by any conventional route. I was glad to have heeded the voice of my inner paranoid, for a number of men were in her quarters. They had apparently been waiting for some time, and had grown bored. Two were playing at jetan, while several others watched. One was stationed at the door, and another at the bedroom balcony, which included a gate, so that one might lower a gangplank from a nearby airship. I clung to the walls like an ornamental gargoyle, straining my ears to listen to their conversation.
"When is he going to arrive?" one of them asked, in the bored tones of a petulant child. "We have been here for two days now. I say he has grown wise to us, and fled once more."
"Be silent, Javas" grunted one of the jetan players, who looked to be an officer. "The woman is sure he will return here before long. He had remained in contact with her, but was gone away on some errand. The court psychologist has confirmed this information for us."
"We could have at least kept her here with us" muttered the one called Javas. "She might have afforded us some sport while we wait."
I needed no more information. I was through the window and at the throat of Javas before he had completed that vile thought. In my fury I drew no weapons, but fought with my hands and feet alone, relying on the hard metal bracers on my wrists to block their thrusts and cuts. When I was done with the bloody carnage, I took a dagger belonging to the officer, and drew a bloody red X on the chest of each man, in imitation of the sign the Warlord's assassins use to mark some criminal they have executed. One man alone I left alive, so that I might learn the whereabouts of my slave. The news he spoke filled me with a kind of grim excitement. It seemed that Llrona was enjoying the hospitality of the Warlord's palace.
I knew well where that edifice was, as did nearly every man who knows naught of Barsoom beyond the walls of their own city. I also knew that it was a well defended palace, the Warlord having taken numerous steps over the years to reduce the threat of assassins seeking to take his life, and kidnappers seeking his wife or daughters. One vulnerability in particular I know his palace lacks, in that the perennial blind spot of the martian race, their servants, has been used against him on several occasions, to the harm of his family. Sneaking in as a spy was nearly impossible. Sneaking in as an assassin posed an even greater risk. No ship flew overhead, no servant walked those halls, but that some means of monitoring them was in place. I was no mere gorthan, however, and I would risk all for those who had won my trust. The night was dark when I commenced my plan of invasion. I was using tactics that I would normally consider unusual, perhaps even suicidal. Were I not the Calot of Dar, I might shy away from such a plan, but calot I had been named, and calot I am.
The outer walls encircling the palace compound were forty feet high, built of blocks composed of a decorative ceramic that was hard as steel, smooth as glass, and very beautiful. Even were I to reach the top, a lip curves out three feet to form the base of decorative battlements. Guard posts are set every hundred yards about these walls, or closer if there is some curve or corner which limits line of sight. It was at such a guard post that I began my work, setting an explosive at its base with a timer to go off in a short while. As the timer ticked away, I moved swiftly to the next guard post over, and began to climb, using a type of suction device modeled after similar ones I had seen the window-washers of my own world use. The only true blind spot on these walls was directly under the guard post, and so I had arranged for the guards to be looking elsewhere. My explosive was not powerful enough to breach the wall, and indeed might not even damage it. I had planted other devices for that purpose, to be used in my eventual escape.
I waited, clinging to the wall like some grotesque fly, hoping that no guard at the other posts noticed me before my little package could be delivered. Luck, it seemed, was with me, and as the device went off I was over the wall and down in the garden before the soldiers could ask what had happened. With the bomb was a note, in the written language of Zodanga, proclaiming "death to the tyrant". Their monitoring devices should have photographed me leaving the bomb, and even possibly captured me climbing the wall a hundred yards away, but it was one more level of misdirection to prevent them from understanding my true intentions. The more guards around the Warlord, the fewer that would be between me and Llrona. I had to remain vigilant now, as in this garden, like so many upon Barsoom, there might well be a number of deadly calots. You have heard me use the term throughout this tale, and those of you familiar with the life story of the Warlord know well these fierce and loyal beasts which are some times referred to as martian dogs, but for those of you who do not know, I shall describe my peril, in brief:
The calot is a beast used by green man and red alike as a guardian of their homes and property. In times of war, large vicious calots are some times used as shock troops to mow down enemy infantry, and to harass any cavalry that might be attempting to move in formation. They are about the size of a Shetland pony, with a wide flat snout often described as frog-like. They have ten sets of stubby little legs, on which they can run with incredible speed. They have an ability at tracking which seems almost preternatural, and has more to do with telepathy than scent. Unlike the banth, calots are cooperative, and may use pack hunting tactics to bring down large prey. Because of this, they are the predators to white apes and zitidars, who know almost no other natural enemies. I had a weapon, however, which could serve me well, assuming no calot managed to sneak up on me. As the Warlord himself has described, the calot can not jump. Thus, while they might give chase, I could take an indirect route which would allow me to avoid them, or if need be keep me out of their reach long enough to shoot them.
It was well I had considered this eventuality, for indeed there were calots in the outer gardens. The Warlord has such fondness for these beasts I could not imagine him forgoing their presence, but I also knew that other red men were not so fond of their company. Thus, they had to be hedged in some how, which meant I had only to cross their gauntlet. I had slowed upon entering the gardens, as there was little light, but as the nearer moon hurtled into view, filling the landscape with her grotesque and chimerical interplay of light and shadow, I saw the gleaming eyes and bared fangs of a calot among the hedgerows before me, and prepared to put on a burst of speed. While their stubby little legs give them excellent traction and acceleration, it still takes time to slow and reverse. Thus, I timed my first leap for when the nightmare hound was almost upon me, and then I ran straight at it, using its very body as a springboard even as it sought to snap at me. From my elevated view, I saw a patio nearby that was hedged in by a decorative fence of wrought bronze, that would allow visitors to enjoy a view of the gardens while keeping the calots out. It was only ten feet high, an easy jump for me. All I had to do was elude my admirer, and the three friends of his that I saw racing towards me with terrifying speed. Try to imagine, if you will, being run down by a sports car with fangs and a desire to find out what you taste like. That is rather similar to the impression I have of being attacked by a calot. I had to time my next leap with perfect precision, as at least one of them was trying to guess where I might land.
When you fall on earth, it is a speedy process. You have to fall a very long way before you have time to enjoy the scenery. On mars, the gravity is roughly one third that of earth's. That does not mean it takes you three times as long to fall, but that you accelerate at one third the velocity. Ten feet per second sounds like a lot, but I assure you, as you see the shark toothed maw of a calot open wide in anticipation of your tasty feet and ankles, such a speed gives you plenty of time to consider exactly how much your landing is going to hurt. Thankfully, it also gives you time to plan. As I realized that the calot had correctly divined where I was to land, I changed my trajectory by somersaulting right before I landed. The change was small, but it had me plant my feet on his snout, rather than in his mouth. Much like a dog snapping for a biscuit, the calot's reaction was to flip his head up, giving me a little extra lift as I launched myself one more time, praying that I might reach the fence before another calot made a too-educated guess. My leap was close, so close that I could reach out and grab the top of the grille, and use it to vault to safety. As the massive creatures impacted with the fence, causing it to shudder from the weight of their bodies, I said to them, "Sorry boys, but as a professional courtesy, I don't fight with calots."
Landing in the beautiful piazza, I removed a few explosives from my kit, set the timers, and threw them to the left and to the right, all the while running for the wall ahead. Swarming up the side of the building, my explosions caught by surprise those soldiers who had come to investigate the noise made by the calots, and helped to further confuse the issue of where I had gone. Search lamps were now being swung about by soldiers in their guard posts, but I was already at a window and forcing my way inside. Within was a wide, grand hallway, meticulously decorated and beautifully appointed. The ceiling, though high, was only some fifteen feet or so, and not a mean of reaching other levels. I sprinted down the hall, seeking to distance myself from the obvious point of entry, and found a side corridor, a winding ramp which seemed to curve around the base of some tower. I could hear the sound of soldiers running toward my position from around the next corner, and had no desire to meet them, so I chose the stair. Reaching the top after several revolutions (there must be some other means of accessing the other rooms) I came to what, at first, seemed to be a flat circular roof, such as might be used for landing aircraft. I recognized it for what it was when I saw the smooth steel cylinder rising up from the middle of the rooftop, with some set of living quarters perched atop the cylinder. Unbuckling a portion of my harness, I gave a mighty leap, and with the strap, caught a projection on the outside of the structure.
Quickly pulling myself up, I clambered inside the netting which was meant to prevent assassins, kidnappers, and other flying pests from disturbing the slumber of the rich and egotistical. Nearby was the doorway which, under normal operation, would be the point of termination for the ramp I had just ascended. I quickly slipped in and found myself in the landing, a short space from the door to whomever's apartment this was. I allowed myself to rest. The person within was most likely guarded, and just as likely not anyone I was looking for. I was concealed from the searchlights here, and the odds of the noble wanting to peek out the door while their bedchamber is high up in the air was unlikely. Below, they would scramble and search, seeking some sign of my location. The longer I remained concealed in one place, the less spoor I left, the less they would concentrate on one specific area. As I laughed at my cleverness, a thought suddenly struck me. I had begun my assault late at night. Barsoomians typically raise their bedchambers an hour or two before going to sleep, so that they can have a little private time. Either someone is a night owl and a coward, or else there was something wrong with this picture.
I listened intently at the door, trying to divine who had activated the lift. I could hear random snippets of voices quietly murmuring, but nothing that was intelligible. Suddenly, I realized that the door was slowly opening as I listened at it, its hinges set for it to swing outward towards me. I backed away, only to discover that the landing was a very short one, and as I flailed my arms for balance, I saw one last remaining calot, who had nudged the door open with his snout. This could be none other than Woola, the Warlord's beloved pet, and by default that meant that these were his quarters - and those of his beloved Princess. The calot gave one one threatening snarl as he bared his tusks, alerting the persons within that something was amiss, before launching himself at me as I floundered helplessly. Unfortunately, calots do not get very good traction when standing on polished marble parquet, though they do still accelerate phenomenally. As the beast charged, I grabbed the lintel of the doorway and pulled myself up, spreading my legs wide so that the brute might go under them. I felt a slight, sick feeling for the creature as it fell, then heard the strangest twanging noise. Woola had launched himself with such speed and ferocity that he was now entangled in the steel netting meant to keep people like me out. As I swung back down onto the floor, I laughingly told him, "Better luck next time, boy," and then turned to look into the eyes of Kayla Zo, who was amidst a group of ladies in waiting attending to the needs of the Princess.
I had no time for more than a glance, however, before the Warlord's private guard lumbered toward me, longswords in hand. There were only four of them, but I was certain they were required to train with their master, and could thus be accounted among the finest swordsmen in all the world. I simply bared my teeth and drew my short swords. I once had a friend, a fencing enthusiast, tell me that the rapier was a coward's weapon, that its sole purpose was to keep the enemy at a distance. I had incorporated this wisdom into my fighting style, with deadly success. As I charged into their midst, my left hand blade swept up in a circular parry, knocking aside my victim's lunge. His entrails spilled out in one sweep of my right hand blade, even as my left was turning aside the next lunge. I tumbled, rolling across the dying man's back as he slumped forward, and lashed out with my foot to collapse the windpipe of the warrior whose sword I had just blocked. Two were down, and two more were standing on a marble floor now wet with blood and organs. I leapt for the wall, kicked off, tumbled, landed behind the further swordsman. He spun about to face me, too close to effectively use his weapon. I blocked just as he slipped in his comrade's death agony, and my sword ended his embarrassment quickly, run up from under his chin and into his brain. I had only one opponent left after that, his back to a wall. I backed away, and allowed him to come to me. He danced around the swiftly spreading pool of blood, and approached me with caution, his friends having taught him much about my fighting style. This time, we actually fenced, and I allowed him to keep me on the defensive. I do not say this to mean that I could thwart his technique with impunity, but rather that he and I were playing by different rules. I knew his rules, but he did not know mine. In escrima, there is a combination of circular movements meant to be used with heavy fighting batons, which block an opponent's weapon, disarm him, and if continued, injure his arm at the wrist, elbow, and shoulder. After we had danced back and forth for a few moments, I found my opening and went ahead with this frighteningly simple maneuver. To a man trained in the thrust-and-parry of the rapier or foil, such a maneuver can be very hard to counter, though to his credit the man very nearly thwarted me. The combination ended, however, with his arm severed at the elbow and his throat cut, splashing me and nearly everything in the room with blood.
The Princess stood impassively through all of this, her dainty feet barely splashed by the gore which had painted nearly everything else. Raising herself to her full height, she looked upon me with eyes as hard as diamonds. "Vile wretch!" she declaimed. "Think you to have captured the Princess of Helium? the Warlord will not rest until he has me back. You shall die and your master shall perish. Mighty cities crumble before him!"
"Actually, until he decided that my mighty city should crumble, I had rather liked and respected the man" I told her with a grimace. "Now that I have been on the receiving end of his handiwork, I can understand why so many wish you dead."
I had to admit, she was impressive. Not the sort of women I could fall in love with, but she had a gravitas which would have made her a star of the first magnitude on earth. She surveyed me with scorn as she examined the blood stained weapons in my hands. "Then it is to be revenge, then?" she asked me, without the slightest hint of fear.
"No, I've just come to collect somebody," I answered, as I cleaned my blades on the exquisite silk upholstery of her furnishings before sheathing them, then added as I made to move past her, "If you will excuse me?"
Slightly astounded (never before had an assassin broken into her quarters to steal a chamber maid) she stood aside as I moved to Kayla Zo. I frowned at her apparel for a moment, before commenting, "A chamber maid? Somehow I would have thought his largesse greater than that. Oh well, at least he kept you safe. If you would care to accompany me?" I asked her, offering her my arm.
She looked up at me, a faint smile dancing in her eyes, as she said, "You look taller."
Taking her hand, I turned toward the nearby balcony, replying simply, "Must be all the fresh air and sunshine I've been getting." Addressing the Princess, I gave a slight bow, saying, "If I do not see him before I go, please give your gentleman husband my warmest regards." I then led Kayla Zo to the balcony, glanced down, and motioned for her to grab on to my harness. Using the same strap and buckle as before, I lashed one end to the railing and held on to the other end, using it to lower me some of the distance before I jumped to the roof below. We hit the ground running, Kayla Zo clinging to my back, as I took another explosive and tossed it over my shoulder. I had one last stop to make, and I was fairly sure I knew where to find her. The Warlord would doubtless guess my intentions once he knew who it was that had invaded, but by making him rush to the side of his Princess, I hoped to slow him as much as possible. The bomb detonated somewhere behind us, but I did not turn to look, as I doubted it truly threatened the quarters I had just left behind. I was already swarming down the side of the building, making my way for the grand dining hall I knew to be several floors down. One thing I had learned, first as a servant, then as a thief: every kitchen includes at least one door down into the pits.
As we reached the beautifully manicured gardens outside the great hall, I pressed a jewel on one of the ornaments on my harness. It actuated a radio trigger, which detonated a thermite bomb set on the outer wall. Thermite burns hotly enough to cut through even Barsoomian ceramics, and soon after the bright flare began, the wall sectional crumbled. I paused for a few beats, as I waited for the soldiers to focus their attention to that side. Kayla Zo looked at me, expectantly.
"Summoning allies, or creating an escape route?" she asked.
"Neither, but the guards will assume both," I answered, adding, "we have one more stop to make before we can go."
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