It was raining.
No. Not rain. It was more like a mist. A fine, almost ethereal mist
-- lightly touching every part of his hairless, clammy body. Lakor felt
a general contentment, right down to his many legs.
Many legs? That didn't seem right.
"It's waking up," said an old, cranky voice.
There was a pressure on Lakor's forehead. He felt fingers running across
his brow, pulling open his small, close-set eyes. The Holy Thern couldn't
see anything. The universe was a dark blur.
Then it was a bright blur, as if someone had shined a light into his
"Yes, I believe you're right," said another voice. "He is waking."
"The transfer went well," said the first voice, growing fainter. "Be
sure to record its reactions. The first rule of science, Vad Varo: Document
"Yes, sir," said the second voice, which was apparently called Vad Varo.
"And no sentimentality!" admonished the cranky one. "There is no room
for sentimentality in an experiment."
A door slammed.
The big, bright blurs all around Lakor were beginning to coalesce. The
outline of a man formed in front of him. Lakor blinked. The man took on
a distict shape and color -- white, with black hair.
"Oh, no, not another one," Lakor moaned. He jerked up at the sound of
his own voice. It was raspy, almost inhuman.
"Another one?" asked the man, jotting something in a notebook. "That's
an odd waking comment."
"You have white skin and black hair," Lakor said, then frowned. He cleared
"White skin and black hair," he said again. But his voice still sounded
"Well, you had white skin when you came in," said the man. "What's so
strange about that?"
"You're no thern, with that head of hair," Lakor explained. "And the
therns are the only white race on Barsoom. I am a Holy Thern. But all therns
are bald as an egg." Lakor inclined his head for the stranger to examine.
"See? Not a follicle."
The man was writing on his pad again. "Yep, you're bald all right,"
he agreed. "But you're no thern, either. Not any longer."
"No thern? Are you mad? Of course I'm a thern. What else would I be?"
"An ulsio," the man said simply.
Lakor was about to protest the racial slur, but the man, Vad Varo, had
brought a mirror and placed it before him. Lakor glanced into it and gasped.
A Barsoomian rat with an unusually large cranium stared back at him.
"Issus!" screeched Lakor. The ulsio in the mirror screeched the exclamation
at the same time.
"So," Vad Varo said, taking up his notebook and pen. "How do you feel
about waking up as an ulsio?"
"Not very good," Lakor assured him, picking at a whisker with one of
his legs. "I always thought I'd come back as a white ape in the next life."
"Just go with that," Vad Varo said, poised to write.
Lakor didn't know what else to do, so he passed out and dreamed of white
More refreshing mist. More blurs. Then light and, finally, sight again.
Vad Varo was standing there with his pen and pad.
"White ape?" Lakor asked.
"Nope," Vad Varo answered, pulling over the mirror. "Cowering sorak."
Lakor fainted again.
Vad Varo was careful to record the direction in which he fell. To the
Lakor was floating in darkness. Infinity stretched out all around him.
Activity without end, but no function. He sensed eternity, and guessed
that he'd finally joined Issus in her nether realm. Where were the givers
of Pain and Delight?
A voice resonated all around him. It was Vad Varo: "How are you feeling
"I can't see anything," said Lakor. "I'm blind."
"You have no eyes," Vad Varo said. "How does that make you feel?"
"It makes me feel like I can't see anything!" Lakor bellowed. The thern
noticed that he didn't seem to be actually speaking; his thoughts alone
seemed to be communicated to Vad Varo. "What did you put me into this time?
A sorapus fruit?"
"You are a disembodied brain," Vad Varo informed him. "In a black box,
tied in with light rays and connected to a complex control panel."
"Fascinating," Lakor said. "What's the point of all this, anyway?"
"It might do some good in the world."
Then the thern passed out. It was becoming quite the habit, which Vad
Varo dutifully recorded in his notebook for posterity.
The next time he woke, Lakor was in a human body. That made him glad.
Somehow, the urgent need to urinate contented him. But when Vad Varo brought
over the mirror, Lakor fainted.
Vad Varo waited patiently. Soon, the thern opened his eyes.
"Don't you like this body?" Vad Varo asked.
"You put me in that knave's body," Lakor moaned. "Nolando, the lesser
"Hmmmm," Vad Varo said, writing in his pad. "Is Nolando an enemy of
"You might say that," Lakor conceded. "Well, not an enemy, exactly.
Actually, he's my best friend. But that's not saying much. He's crazy as
a plant man."
Lakor held his new arm up before his new eyes.
"It horrifies me to think where this hand has been," Lakor said.
"Don't think about it then," Vad Varo suggested.
Lakor studied the white man for a moment, frowning.
"You're from Jasoom, aren't you?" he asked. When Vad Varo nodded affirmatively,
Lakor sighed. "I thought so."
"Because every Jasoomian I've ever met has been thick as a post," Lakor
explained. "Of course, I've only met two. Including you."
Lakor jumped down off the table and tried out his new legs. They ached.
Lakor had always known Nolando never took care of his body. It was the
cheese doodles and beer, which, together with sorapus fruit, made up the
lesser thern's entire diet. But it wasn't until now that Lakor realized
just how out of shape his friend had been. No wonder Nolando always complained
about long marches during Sacred Missions.
Being in Nolando's flabby cheese-doodle of a body made Lakor homesick
for his own body. He wanted to see it. In fact, he demanded that Vad Varo
show it to him.
"You're not going to like it," the Jasoomian warned.
"As a Holy Thern, and the husband of Loola, I am immune to horror."
"That may be, but this is pretty graphic."
"Just show myself to me, infidel!"
"O.K. Don't get your knickerbockers in a twist. But first sign this
waiver, which relieves Ras Thavas Enterprises of any liability for emotional
Lakor sighed loudly and took the bit of paper that Vad Varo waved beneath
his nose, knowing full well that any lawyer could win a case for the "emotional
scarring" that had already taken place in that business with the ulsio's
body. Unfortunately -- or fortunately, as the case may be -- there are
no lawyers on Barsoom.
The fine print was so small that the thern had to ask for a magnifying
glass to read it. Regrettably, Vad Varo didn't happen to have one handy.
Lakor signed the agreement anyway. He was anxious to get this over with.
The Jasoomian led the thern into the pits and toward a laboratory in
the back. Inside, there was a table covered with a cloth. In the middle
of the table, a little lump bulged up from under the cloth.
A surgical spotlight was focused directly on the lump. The rest of the
lab was in gloomy shadow. Lakor gulped.
Vad Varo walked casually over and quickly pulled back the cloth -- too
quickly, Lakor thought. The Jasoomian might have given him a moment to
"It's my head," Lakor said numbly.
"I mean, it's JUST my HEAD."
"Yep. Pretty sick, huh?"
"It's still wearing the Holy Hair," Lakor mused.
"That yellow wig? Yep. It's still on there, all right."
"But that's not my Holy Hair. It's Nolando's."
"Well, the shipment came in a box of jumbled parts," Vad Varo explained.
"We kind of mixed and matched. You know, tried to fix things up neat for
"Yep. That's how Ras Thavas funds his research. Customers pay him to
stick their noodles in young bodies. He should open a branch in Hollywood.
They'd love this place."
Lakor was stunned. "Has anyone considered purchasing my head?" he asked.
"A few have taken a gander at it," the Jasoomian admitted. "We even
put one guy's brain in it for a test drive. But there haven't been any
serious offers. There's not much market for just a head, you know. Even
if it's wearing a wig."
Lakor made no reply. He reached down and took Nolando's Holy Hair, affixing
it to his own bald pate. Well, it was actually Nolando's bald pate. Or
used to be. A person could go crazy thinking about this, Lakor decided.
The Earthman filled the increasingly awkward silence by adding: "To
be honest, we've got plenty of heads lying about that still have all their
own hair. So, in case someone was interested in just a head, it's likely
they'd choose one of those."
The thern wasn't sure whether to be offended or relieved. He fumbled
with the weird sensation of looking at his own severed head. He refused
to think about someone else taking it for a 'test drive.' Lakor had never
liked it when Loola would use his toothbrush. Imagine some stranger using
his head! Lakor's brain spun at the thought.
"Where's the rest of me?" asked the thern.
Vad Varo rummaged around in a drawer beneath the surgical table, and
came up with a foot. Studying the chart at the end of the table, he absently
handed the foot to Lakor, who held it the way Loola once held a bad piece
of liver the corner butcher had tried to sell her.
"How did this happen?" the Holy Thern asked quietly.
Vad Varo hesitated, debating whether to reveal the truth. The Jasoomian's
bedside manner was better than Ras Thavases, to be sure; still, he hadn't
quite mastered the art of tact.
"Boating accident," Vad Varo said, rather lamely.
"This was no boating accident!" Lakor yelled, dropping the foot and
fighting nausea. As Vad Varo struck a match, Lakor ordered: "Please don't
smoke in here."
Shrugging, Vad Varo stubbed out the match and put away his Lucky Strikes.
He consulted the chart again and said: "From the chew marks on the neck,
it appears to have been eaten."
"Eaten? Did you say eaten?"
"Yep. By a calot, I figure. And maybe an ulsio or two later on."
"Look, I'm rather upset about that," Lakor said after a moment.
"I'm not surprised," soothed the Jasoomian. "I told you it was pretty
graphic. Do you want a valium or something?"
Lakor said that he didn't, but a shot of Warhoon Whiskey wouldn't be
"You should have seen my body after that German bomb got done with it,"
Vad Varo said as he poured Lakor's drink. "I still had my torso, but the
legs were all messed up. So, I can kind of sympathize with what you're
going through. I imagine the rats had a field day with me, too, after I'd
The whiskey calmed Lakor's nerves a bit. A warmth spread through his
body -- well, through the body his brain was occupying at the moment. He
studied his head as it lay on the operating table. It wasn't the the most
handsome head in the world, or very intelligent-looking. It had more wrinkles
than a man of 437 years should have -- no doubt a result of Loola's continual
Still. It was Lakor's head. He'd gotten used to it over the years. It
was a good head. A normal bean.
"A damn fine head, if you ask me," Lakor slurred in the Jasoomian's
direction. He'd never been able to hold his liquor very well.
"Best head a man ever had!" he continued, even though Vad Varo wasn't
paying much attention. "My mother always told me I had a good head on my
shoulders and that I should use it more. She was right. You never know
what you've got until you lose it." A disturbing thought struck Lakor.
"Say, there isn't a brain in my head now, is there?" he asked Vad Varo.
The Jasoomian checked the chart again.
"Why, yes," he said. "Yes, there is a brain in there. I stuck it in
your head when I started experimenting with your brain...Gimme a minute
and I'll gas 'er up."
Lakor didn't ask what "Gas 'er up" could possibly mean. Instead, he
watched as Vad Varo connected a tube to the head and began pumping in some
clear fluid. Within moments, to Lakor's utter shock, the head's eyelids
began to flutter. Vad Varo warmed the head up with a hair dryer. Pretty
soon, the eyes opened and glanced about the room. The mouth yawned.
"I'm hungry," Lakor's head said.
"That's interesting," Vad Varo commented, jotting something in a notebook.
"Why is that interesting?" the head asked.
"Because you don't have a stomach," the Jasoomian replied.
"I hate to interrupt," Lakor interrupted. "But who the devil's brain
is that in my head?"
"Good grief!" shouted Lakor's head, appraising Lakor with a critical
eye. "Who is that in my body?"
"Your body?" yelled Lakor. "Nolando! Is that you in my head?"
"Of course it's me!" Lakor's head yelled. It had worked itself into
such a frenzy that it began to roll, end-over-end, until it finally rolled
right off the edge of the surgical table and into a bucket the cleaning
lady had left behind.
Lakor and Vad Varo ducked the splash, then cautiously peered down into
the pail. Lakor's drenched head stared up at them. The Holy Thern reached
down and slowly picked it up.
"Be careful with my head, knave," Lakor advised, wiping it off on the
hospital gown he was wearing.
Over the next weeks, Lakor took advantage of the relative freedom he
was afforded as one of the experiments at Ras Thavas Enterprises. He wandered
the labrynthine corridors of the Mastermind's vast estate, his own head
tucked under an arm like a Jasoomian football.
Nolando chattered constantly. He hadn't changed a bit. Well, except
for only having a head for a body -- and Lakor's head, at that. Lakor tried
to ignore him, as he'd always done before. But, like before, Nolando could
be hard to ignore. The main problem with having a detached head for a companion,
the Holy Thern decided, was that he was forever being asked to scratch
There were other nuisances, too. The most disgusting was that Nolando
insisted upon eating cheese doodles and sorapus fruit, despite having no
digestive tract or even a stomach.
"Maybe so," Nolando argued. "But I do still have taste buds, and mine
are aching for that cheesy and fruity combination I love so well. Plus,
I can eat as much as I want and never gain weight. Pass the beer, handsome."
The gooey mess would shoot out the bottom of Nolando's neck and onto
the floor, which Lakor would have to mop.
There was also the odd sensation of holding conversations with one's
own severed head. But that wasn't as bad as it might seem, for Lakor anyway.
He was an expert at putting up with seemingly unbearable stuff. Loola,
his wife, had taught him that skill rather well. It was one of his few
They didn't see much of Vad Varo, and even less of Ras Thavas. The withered
old surgeon was busy teaching his Jasoomian counterpart the secrets of
becoming a successful mad scientist. Lakor kind of envied Vad Varo's enthusiam
for the project. It was good to have goals. Lakor had never had any, except
for maybe winning the thern bowling championship -- which he never did,
and now it appeared he never would.
The two therns had tried to set up a bowling league among the experiments
at Ras Thavas Enterprise, but no one seemed very interested. Most were
too busy devising mad schemes for revenge against the Mastermind and his
depraved Jasoomian assistant. And, frankly, Nolando's current condition
made it difficult for him to bowl. Unless someone wanted to use him as
Lakor and Nolando saw a wide variety of weird blasphemies against nature
running around the dark passages they haunted. Eventually, the two began
hanging out with an experiment named Nalia Dovan -- or, as Ras Thavas numbered
Nalia Dovan had the head and half the brain of a Zodangan princess --
both of which Lakor found incomparably beautiful. They shared a common
hatred of the Jasoomian, John Carter, who'd sacked and looted Nalia Dovan's
fair city and had allowed his pet to devour Lakor's body. Lakor had fallen
hopelessly in love with the Zodangan princess.
He wasn't too keen on what the ghoulish Ras Thavas had added to Nalia
Dovan, though. She now had the body of a calot and the other half of her
brain had belonged to a plant man. The latter gave her some things in common
with Nolando, who'd once served as as a look-out on the Golden Cliffs above
the mighty Iss back in the Valley Dor.
"Those were the days," Nolando mused, as the unlikely trio did laundry
one afternoon. "Back when I had a body, and could whistle to you gruesome
plant men as a boatload of Believers came paddling toward their destiny."
"Can't you still whistle?" asked Nalia Dovan.
Nolando looked surprised. It hadn't occurred to him. He put Lakor's
lips together and blew.
The low, plaintive wail the therns used to call plant men and white
apes to The Feast echoed across the laundry room. An ape named Hovan Du,
who was ironing t-shirts on the other side of the room, grimaced and covered
his ears. He was a northern ape, and so The Call was naturally repulsive
to his ears. Its only effect was to induce projectile vomiting. He slunk
off into the corridor, blowing chunks and holding his stomach.
Nalia Dovan, however, immediately got a strange look upon her face.
Her plant man half was mezmerized by The Call. She leaped to a table and
began whacking at Lakor's neck with her calot's tail. It wasn't razor sharp,
like a plant man's, or else there would have been two severed heads in
the laundry room that day.
Lakor, surprised by the attack, dropped the underwear he was folding
and attempted to ward off the painful blows. Nolando, amused by the reaction,
continued to whistle.
Eventually, Nolando's nose started to itch and he had to stop whistling
so Lakor could rub it for him. Once The Call stopped, Nalia Dovan ceased
her mad attack.
"Sorry about that," she said to Lakor.
The Holy Thern, who was actually kind of grateful for the attention,
regardless how painful, was about to shrug it all off and make some witty
remark when Ras Thavas walked in.
"I need this head," the surgeon said, scooping up Nolando and marching
back out of the laundry room.
They could hear Nolando's protests as Ras Thavas retreated into the
pits. Lakor looked at Nalia Dovan, shrugging.
"I better see what's going on," he said.
"He is your friend," Nalia Dovan agreed. "I'll go with you."
"It's not that," Lakor assured her. "It's just that that's my head,
and I'd kind of like to get it back some day."
"Your head?" Nalia Dovan said, trotting alongside Lakor as they trailed
the old surgeon. "You know, I've always thought it was kind of cute."
Lakor didn't have time to blush. They'd come upon the huge sub-barsoomian
chamber that Ras Thavas had retreated to. In the center of it was a huge
vat of bubbling protoplasm, a grotesque concoction of evil-smelling blesphemy.
Human appendages stuck up from the wriggling mass. A foot. A head. Genitals.
For a minute, Lakor thought he'd seen Loola's breasts -- obscenely huge
things that drooped and dripped.
Ras Thavas climbed to the top of a wooden ladder overlooking the vat,
clutching Nolando by the ear. The lesser thern was screaming. When the
surgeon got to the top, he hurled Nolando -- and Lakor's head -- into the
center of the steaming, boiling vat of gooey flesh. It landed with a thunk
and sank out of sight.
"Ugh," said Nalia Dovan.
"Ugh is right," agreed Lakor, who felt much the way he'd felt on his
wedding night: a dull nausea just wouldn't go away.
Ras Thavas turned and spotted the two. At first the surgeon seemed miffed
that he'd been spied upon. But then his consternation turned into a shrug.
He motioned to two white apes, who were apparently animated by human brains,
and then nodded in the direction of Lakor and Nalia Dovan.
Before the two could do anything to prevent it, they had been grabbed
and unceremoniously flung into the vat.
They, too, sank out of sight. A single bubble burst up from the cauldron,
and popped loudly after rising a few inches into the thin Barsoomian air.
Were Lakor, Nolando and Nalia Dovan dead? Had they shucked the mortal
coil? Was Lakor's one chance for true happiness finally, mercifully, snuffed
out for good? Did anyone really care? And what of the unfolded laundry?
Only time would tell.
The Labors of