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Volume 1745a
Presents
Secret Masters of Callisto
By Charles R. Rutledge
Chapters 2 & 3
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Chapter Two

      I spent the next few days wandering around the vine-clotted streets of Arangkhor, looking for any signs of a more rational explanation for Althea Quinn's disappearance. Even with the evidence of the well itself, I was still having trouble fully believing that Carter's novels had been nonfiction after all. Still I made use of Professor Stamp's satellite phone to call my brother and have him overnight my copies of Carter's Callisto books to Cambodia. Doug was a little weirded out by my request, but he dutifully located the books amidst my vast collection of paperbacks, and two days later a package arrived for me along with supplies for the dig.

   I read my way through books one and six first. Jandar of Callisto and Lankar of Callisto both dealt with the operation of the gate. Lankar was particularly useful in that it told of Carter's own trip to Cambodia. Re-reading his narrative I became more and more convinced that Althea was indeed on Thanator. There were just too many parallels between the descriptions in the books and the reality of the ruined city. I paid particular attention to Carter's maps of the jungle moon. I could only hope they were accurate. I did my best to commit them to memory. It wasn't likely that the paperbacks could travel through the gate, for while the pages themselves were made from wood pulp, the ink and processing chemicals were doubtless at least partially synthetic.

   It was almost a week since the day of my arrival when the beam appeared.  I'd spent an unproductive day trying to work my way through the vagaries of the local Cambodian law enforcement agency. The dig site was a long way from civilization and the law in the closest village turned out to be one man, who was a cross between a sheriff and a deputy Mayor. His grasp on English was tenuous and mine on Cambodian non-existent. Needless to say, it took some work to communicate. In the end it wasn't really worth the effort. He still had no clues and no real theories.

   He did tell us that there were sometimes groups of bandits operating in the jungle but there were no recent reports of any major activity. He promised to give Althea's case as much attention as he could.

   The trip down the river, and its disappointing results made for a long, grim ride back to the dig site. That, added to the heat and humidity, didn't leave Quinn or me in the mood for conversation. We sat outside his tent, listening to the night sounds of the jungle and staring into the darkness. A little after midnight, with no warning at all, a blindingly bright beam of light suddenly shot into the air from amidst the ruins of Arangkhor.

   Quinn stood up so quickly that he dropped the coffee mug he'd been holding. "My god," he said, "It's true."

   I could only nod. The beam did indeed resemble a searchlight, but one of incredible intensity. It seemed to glimmer with an odd, twinkling effect. In spite of the seriousness of the situation, I couldn't help grinning. I was looking at the Gate between Worlds.

    “We’d better get moving,” I said. “We don’t know how long the beam stays activated.”

   I ducked back into the tent and began changing into my all organic wardrobe. We’d managed to find some cotton pants with a drawstring waist, not unlike the pants from my karate gi. I had two pair of pants and five 100% cotton t-shirts. I stuffed the spares into a cotton laundry bag. A fifty-foot coil of grass rope went into the bag as well. I only wished I could carry a weapon of some sort, but even a knife wouldn’t travel on the beam. Quinn came in as I was stepping into my woven grass sandals.

   “Charles, I’ve changed my mind. I can’t let you do this.”

   I said, “What are you talking about? That’s the transference beam. It’s what we’ve been waiting for. It’s as much proof as we’re likely to get that Althea is on Callisto.”

   “I don’t think I really believed it before. But now that it’s a reality, I can’t ask you do this. We’ve no idea what’s on the other side of that beam.”

   “You have no idea. I read the books, remember?”

   “It’s too dangerous. Besides, I should be the one going to find Althea.”

   “Quinn, you know that’s not possible.” I rapped my knuckles on his chest. “Your pacemaker won’t make the trip. It has to be me. Now stop arguing and grab the flashlights.”

   Quinn looked as if he wanted to say more but instead he gave a short jerk of his head and then turned to his open suitcase and snatched up two flashlights. I threw my bag over my shoulder and we left the tent.

   Not that we really needed the lights. The strobing beam of the gate illuminated our path to the ruins. Shadows danced and flickered around us. Huge moths, both drawn and confused by the light, spun in dizzying patterns through the humid night air.

   We threaded out way through Arangkhor’s narrow streets, tripping over uneven paving stones and thick vines as we kept our gazes focused on the beam. We reached the plaza and walked toward the circle of statues. Here the pulsating light played strange tricks with the carven features of the stone figures. Their frozen expressions seemed to change as the shadows played across them, running through the gamut of emotions from joy to sorrow to rage.

   This close to the gate I could see that the strobe effect was caused by waves of glimmering golden flecks that traveled up the beam. The scintillating light ray rose straight up until it was lost in the cloudless night sky. Somewhere, far above, was the planet Jupiter.

   I sat down on the edge of the concave stone ring that surrounded the well. Unlike Jon Dark and Lin Carter, I planned to enter the beam in my own good time. I looked back over my shoulder at Quinn.

   “Try not to worry,” I said. “I’ll be as careful as I possibly can and I’ll get back as quickly as I can.”

   Quinn said, “Don’t worry? My daughter is on another planet, and one of my best friends is about to follow her. I think I can be forgiven for a little worrying.”

   “You’ve got a point there,” I said. I gazed down the gentle slope to where the beam erupted from the mouth of the well. The light was almost too bright to look at. “Wish me luck.”

   “Luck,” Quinn said. “Bring my daughter back. Don’t get killed.”

   I gave him a thumbs up gesture and then, placing my hands on the cold stone, I pushed off and slid slowly down toward the well. I tried to use my hands to slow my slide but the jade-like stone was as smooth and as slick as a sheet of ice. I watched the beam come rushing up and then my feet entered the light and I dropped into the Gate Between Worlds.


   There’s no good way to explain what happened next. All I can say is that as soon as I entered the beam, the world seemed to become one huge, bright, wall of light and sound and then seconds later it was all darkness and cold, and a sensation of falling at an incredible rate of speed.

   I think I may have blacked out or at least partially lost consciousness. My memories of the transferal get jumbled and confused. That may be because for a time I really was disassembled molecule by molecule and then reassembled millions of miles across the solar system. I have a vague memory of seeing Jupiter. Of the great red eye, which I remember reading somewhere is a huge thunderstorm that has been raging for centuries.

   Like Dark and Carter before me I saw a frozen, rocky sphere come hurling into my field of vision, all blue snow and jagged peaks, which then blurred and became a vista of scarlet jungles and glittering rivers. I was falling toward Callisto. Toward Thanator. And then everything went black.

   Unlike my two predecessors I woke neither naked nor alone. My organic wardrobe and the laundry bag had made the trip with me. I was still fully dressed when I came to and flat on my back on the hard surface of the receptor disc of the gate. I was glad to have the clothing because the only thing worse than awakening to find a man holding the tip of a sword against your throat would be to wake up naked and in the same situation.

   I considered my options. If this had been an action movie, I’d have slapped the blade aside with my palm and swept the man’s feet from under him with my legs. I’ve studied karate for over twenty years. I know how things like that work.

   Good sense won out over bravado. I was completely disoriented after my trip through the gate. I’d be lucky if I could even move, let alone perform a leg sweep. The man standing over me, on the other hand, would simply have to press his weight forward to skewer my throat.

   Besides I didn’t think I was in much danger. The man could have killed me while I was unconscious had he wished. Since he hadn’t, I felt pretty sure he was just being cautious. Unless I was mistaken, the man was a member of the amber skinned race of Callisto, the Ku-thad. He was tall and slender with the vivid red hair and clear green eyes common to his people. He looked to be in his mid thirties by earth standards. He was wearing a leather tunic with an odd design worked into the leather over his heart and a scarlet loincloth. Knee high boots completed his ensemble.

   The man spoke to me in a language I’d never heard and certainly didn’t understand. I said, “Sorry, I don’t speak the language, pal. I’m from earth. I need to talk to Jandar.”

   According to Lin Carter, the Ku-thad are aware of the gate and of earth. I figured finding the only other earthman I knew of on the planet was probably a good way to start my search for Althea. Also, the man looked to be a soldier of the city of Shondakor and since Jandar was a prince, I thought it probably wouldn’t hurt to drop his name as well.

   “Jandar,” the man said, nodding. He turned and shouted something else I didn’t understand. Someone out of my line of sight shouted back. Apparently the man got the idea that I was a visitor from the world of his prince’s birth because he moved the sword away from my throat. He didn’t sheath the weapon however, showing that my earlier appraisal of him as a cautious man wasn’t off the mark.

   I let out a deep breath, and sat up. The Callisto terminus of the gate was a huge, flat disc of the same jade-like substance that made up the well on earth. A vast, open meadow of hip high grass stretched out on one side of the disc. The grass was of a deep, scarlet color. On the other side of the gate, the grass ran up to the edge of a dense growth of trees. This would be the Grand Kumala, the huge jungle that bordered the kingdom of Shondakor. Like the grass, the foliage of the gnarled, black trees was bright red, like nothing ever seen on earth. I looked up and saw that the sky was a dome of strange, crawling,  amber mists. Now that I wasn’t being threatened with impalement, it was beginning to sink in. I was really on Callisto.

   There was a group of perhaps a dozen people standing between the gate and the jungle, all of them looking at me. Most of them appeared to be Ku-thad soldiers like my friend with the sword, however a few looked to be civilians and two of them were women. The civilians were carrying short spears. A hunting party perhaps, with an escort of guards.  My examination of them was abruptly halted as a dark shadow swept across the group. One of the soldiers shouted something that even I could tell was a warning. The group scattered and began to run toward the trees.

   I heard a loud, rushing noise, like a high wind and then the man who had been standing in front of me was jerked off his feet and carried screaming into the air. I looked up and saw a huge, bulky shape and a great span of leathery wings.

     Only the day before, in the glossary of one of the Callisto books, I had read of the giant flying reptiles that hunted in the amber skies of Thanator. I knew that it was a creature called a ghastozar that had carried off the soldier. I could remember no mention in Carter’s books of the ghastozars hunting in packs, but as I sat, opened mouthed and staring, I saw at least four more of the winged monsters wheeling above. I scrambled to my feet, finding that my legs were rubbery and uncertain. I snatched the laundry bag up and began half running and half stumbling toward the only available shelter, the jungle trees. One of the ghastozars let out a deafening screech and veered toward me. The trees were too far away and I was moving far too slowly. I wasn’t going to make it.


Chapter Three

   Adrenaline was fast overcoming the disorientation brought on by the trip through the gate, but I was still moving too slowly. I heard the same loud rush of air that I’d heard just before the Ku-thad soldier had been snatched away. A dark shadow fell across me and I threw myself forward just as something hard and sharp scraped across my back. Part of my shirt was ripped away and I went sprawling into the scarlet grass.

   I rolled over just in time to see the ghastozar swinging away. It screeched in anger and began turning to make another pass. I’d been stupid and I’d been lucky. Stupid because I’d stepped into the gate as if I were on some vacation day trip and not traveling to a far away land of unknown dangers. Lucky because I’d dodged away, apparently just as the monster’s claws were closing around me. The ghastozar’s own momentum had carried it past me like a hawk missing a fish in a river. I rolled to my feet and darted into the trees out of the creature’s reach.

   I bent forward, hands on knees, breathing hard and shaking my head. I’d been on Callisto a matter of minutes and I’d already almost fallen prey to one of the jungle moon’s most dangerous life forms. It was almost funny, like something out of an Edgar Rice Burroughs novel, but I sure as hell didn’t feel as confident as John Carter. Or even Lin Carter as far as that went. At that point I just felt fortunate and very glad to be alive.

   My relief was short lived however. I’d scarcely made it into the shelter of the trees when I heard a high-pitched scream from off to my left. I looked toward the sound and saw that one of the Ku-thad women hadn’t been as lucky as me. A ghastozar had caught her up in its claws and was now beating its wings fiercely, trying to gain altitude. The creature’s flight path would bring it directly in front of my hiding place in a few seconds, but I had no weapons and no way to help the woman.

   Or did I? There had been quite a few aimless hours at the dig site near Arangkhor. At one point I’d tied a noose at one end of my coil of rope and spent most of an afternoon wandering the ruins, lassoing statues and spires. It was a skill my father had taught me years before. I’d been the terror of neighborhood dogs, lassoing the unfortunate pets as they’d tried to cross our back yard.

   The ghastozar was moving a lot faster than any of those canines, but it was also a damn sight bigger target. I jerked the laundry bag open and pulled the rope free. The noose was still tied. I hurried out of the trees, uncoiling the rope as I went. The ghastozar was almost on top of me and I could see the Ku-thad woman struggling in its grasp. She was still alive.

   The ghastozar paid no attention to me, intent I suppose in guarding its prize from its circling brothers. I opened the noose wide, twirled it once, twice, and then released it. I wouldn’t get a second shot. The lasso spun toward the monster and, far more due to luck than skill, settled over the ghastozar’s head.

   The rope was playing out quickly. I grabbed the far end and ran to the nearest tree of any size. I ran around the tree and then tied a hasty slipknot; almost losing a couple of fingers as the rope was jerked taunt a second or so after I finished the knot.

   The ghastozar gave a surprised squawk as the rope tightened. The effect was rather like running into a clothesline. The great, winged monster’s legs and tail swung forward under its body as its head was snatched backwards. Its claws opened and the woman fell free. She hit the ground hard and didn’t move.

   Moments later the ghastozar hit the ground too, but the creature wasn’t nearly as stunned as its former captive. It rolled about on its back, beating its wings and raising a cloud of dust as it uprooted the scarlet grass. I ran forward, narrowly avoiding the edges of the ghastozar’s thrashing wings and reached the fallen woman. There wasn’t time to be gentle. I stooped forward and grasped her arms. I pulled her up and swung her over my shoulders in the classic ‘fireman’s’ carry and rushed away from the ghastozar.

   The winged monster had finally twisted its neck around and found the rope. It bit through the line with its mouthful of knifelike teeth. Seconds later it scrambled onto its feet and tried to waddle after us. Much like the pterodactyls of earth’s dim past, the ghastozars were better at gliding and flying than at taking off or at walking. The span of their great wings and the comparative shortness of their legs made them awkward and ungainly on the ground. This time I reached the trees well ahead of my pursuer.

   The ghastozar made a half-hearted effort at pushing its way among the trees, but its bulk was too large and clumsy. Soon it gave up and went in search of easier prey. I lowered the woman to the ground as gently as I could. My arms and legs were shaking from exertion and fear. I slumped down beside her on the jungle floor.

   The woman still wasn’t moving, but her breathing seemed regular enough. None of her limbs looked to be broken at first glance, but I couldn’t be sure of course. She was covered with dust and strands of grass. Her mane of thick, red hair was disheveled and her clothing disarrayed, but I couldn’t remember ever having seen a more beautiful woman.

   For a moment I wondered if this was perhaps Jandar’s princess Darloona, but then I realized that this woman was far too young. Jon Dark had made the trip to Callisto in 1969 when he had been in his early twenties. Both he and his princess would be into their fifties by now. I figured the woman I was looking at to be around twenty-five or so. Possibly younger.

   The woman’s eyelids fluttered. She moaned and then her eyes opened suddenly. I’d expected her eyes to be green like those of the now dead soldier I’d seen back at the gate but instead they were a pale blue. Those blue eyes widened in fear as she saw me, and she scrambled backwards on her elbows.

   “Take it easy,” I said, hoping my tone if not my words would calm her. “I’m not going to hurt you. Look, I know you don’t understand me, but I’m not your enemy.”

   The woman looked at me for a long moment, then said, “I understand you. Or I can if you don’t talk so quickly. I don’t use English that often.”

   The surprise must have shown in my face because the woman smiled slightly. Then she winced as she moved to a seated position and leaned against the deep black trunk of one of the jungle trees.

   “Careful,” I said. “You took a pretty bad fall.”

   “I’ve had worse falls while riding thaptors,” she said. She looked around, as if suddenly remembering where she was. “What happened to the ghastozar? I was running for the trees and it swooped down in front of me. I tried to turn but it caught me and lifted me off the ground. It gets pretty confusing after that. I saw you running out of the jungle and then I was falling.”

   I explained about the rope and the lasso trick. Her eyes widened and then she laughed. “I don’t know of anyone in the history of Thanator who has bested a ghastozar with a piece of rope.”

   I shrugged and smiled. “It was the best I could do on the spur of the moment. Besides, I didn’t really best him. I just slowed him down and gave him a bad case of whiplash.”

   Her expression grew serious for a moment. “You saved my life. Thank you. I am grateful.”

   “You’re welcome. I’m just glad my crazy idea worked. We were lucky.”

   “You’re from Earth aren’t you? How did you get here?”

   “I thought that would be fairly obvious considering where your party found me. I came through the gate between worlds.”

   “Then the gate is working again? It hasn’t opened in years. In almost half my lifetime in fact.”

   I got a cold feeling in my stomach. If the gate wasn’t working or a regular basis, it would help to explain why no one had rediscovered Arangkhor in the years since Jerrold’s expedition had been forced out of the city. But it also meant that the gate’s recent openings could be a fluke, in which case Althea and I could be trapped on Thanator. The quicker I could find her and get back to the gate, the better off we’d be.

   I said, “That’s why the soldier was surprised to hear me say Jandar’s name. You didn’t expect to see anyone at the gate.”

   She looked downward at the mention of the dead man. “Yes, poor Kahoun. He was always the first to rush into any situation. Now I will have to tell his father of his death. I wonder how many others were lost to the ghastozars? I saw my mother reach the jungle just before the ghastozar caught me. We need to find the rest of the hunting party. They can’t be far from here.”

   "Listen," I said, rising to my feet. "I came through the gate to find a friend, a young girl who's lost on Thanator. I'm going to need help. I need to get to Shondakor and talk to Jandar as soon as possible."

   She nodded. "That won't be very difficult once we find the hunting party. My mother, Princess Darloona, will be more than happy to introduce her husband to the man who just saved their daughter's life."

   "You're Jandar's daughter? That would explain the blue eyes, I guess."

   "Yes, my name is Darisha. Darisha Dark, I suppose, going by Earth custom. May I know the name of my rescuer?"

   I didn't want to spend the rest of my time on Thanator known as Charel of Callisto so I very carefully pronounced my name.

   "Charles," she said, with only a trace of a Thanatorian accent. "It's an unusual name."

   "Fairly common where I come from."

   "I had hoped to visit Earth one day, back before the gate stopped working," Darisha said. "It's one of the reasons my brother and I learned to speak English. Father had thought we might travel to his home world at some point."

   My reply was cut short by the arrival of a tall muscular Ku-thad warrior who burst from a wall of thick leaves and launched himself at me. He grabbed two fistfuls of what was left of my t-shirt and yelled something unintelligible at me.

   I was still feeling the adrenaline rush from the ghastozar chase and my reflexes took over. I grasped his right arm with my left hand, slid my right arm under his left and pivoted. I slammed my hip into his midsection, then bent at the waist and threw him over my hip, just the way I'd done it literally thousands of times in class and tournaments. All the wind was knocked out of him as he hit the ground, but I cinched his arm into a tight and very painful submission hold out of habit.

   Unfortunately half a dozen or so other Ku-thad men rushed out of the trees, drawing swords as they came. But as they crowded around me, Darisha shouted and the men froze in their tracks. She got slowly to her feet and walked to where I crouched over my attacker.

   "You can let him go, Charles," she said with an amused note to her voice. "I'd like to present my brother, Prince Kaldar of Shondakor."

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Secret Masters of Callisto by Charles R. Rutledge
Intro & Ch. 1
Ch. 2 & 3
Ch. 4 & 5
Ch. 6 & 7
Ch. 8 & 9
Ch. 10 & 11



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