"A Shot in the Dark"
Novelization of the JCB strip by Dale R. Broadhurst
From the days of her earliest memories Dejah Thoris
had always felt most alive and electrified when in the face of grave danger.
Barsoom is a dangerous place, of course, and her opportunities to feel
that delicious thrill had not been meager. There had been a time, when
her grandfather was yet Jed of Hastor, when the buoyancy tanks on his personal
flyer had burst and the little craft spun down from the sky, out of control.
She was only a hatchling then but she had understood the danger perfectly.
Her mother held the babe in her protective arms, but little Dejah broke
free and gazed on in wonder, as the ground seemed to be rushing up into
the sky at her. The emergency containment balloon suddenly shot open, the
diving craft slowed considerably and the crash was not one-tenth as bad
as it could have been. The family survived. Little Dejah, sole heir to
the the double star insignia of Tardos Mors, only cried when her mother
said the esciting flyer ride was over.
"A strange time to be thinking of my mother!" the
princess said aloud, but the Jasoomian did not answer.
There was something resembling a horizontal stone
walkway attached to the palace wall outside of the window. What its original
purpose might have been, John Carter could not imagine, but it was intricately
carved and only offered a very unsure footing at best. It ran along several
feet below the level of the window and it was only with the greatest difficulty
that he managed to reach the narrow ledge, after having lowered Dejah Thoris
down upon it by a strap from her own harness. A rare layer of clouds hid
the later hour's starlight, but reflected back a dim glow from the bonfires
kept burning all night at Thark's major street intersections. With only
this faint light as a guide, the Earthman crept along the narrow shelf
and waited for his eyes to become more accustomed to the dark. Then a heavy
body dropped down from out of nowhere, right beside him!
"Stand aside, you idiot!" shouted an officer among
the palace guards in the throne room. He pushed down the swordsman who
had chased Woola through the window, jumped up upon the giant's lower back
and pulled his own lanky olive-skinned body over the window sill. His great
bulging eyes scanned the darkness for any sign of movement. There was a
rustling in the trees below, at some distance from the window. The officer
repeatedly fired the radium pistol blindly at the sound. He instantly heard
the distinctive squealing of a thoat in great pain. He fired again.
The Earthman smelled the calot before he could see
him. Then once again Woola nearly knocked John Carter from the precarious
ledge. How the big creature managed to get around him, on a slippery stone
path not quite so wide as his master's shoulders, the Virginia swordsman
never understood. But by the time the green officer was firing the pistol,
six feet above from the window, John Carter could make out the dim figures
of Woola and Dejah Thoris, not far from him on the walkway. They were perfect
targets for a Thark gunman!
Owing to the peculiar design of the Martian firearm
cartridges, they do not explode in a loud concussion when fired in the
dark. The shots the officer had popped off sped silently down into the
darkness, with a couple of the bullets pierced two living bodies, far below.
It was purely blind luck but the green shooter did some serious damage
to the creatures. Unfortunately for him the recipients of his barrage were
the courtyard sentry who was chasin the speeding thoat through the blackness
of the old arboretum, and the thoat itself!
No sooner had the green officer hit the squealing
thoat in the trees, then Captain Carter's calot began to rumble with the
peculiar noise that passes for a warning growl among Martian watchdogs.
Of course the growling gave away his position at once. A radium cartridge
whistled past Woola's left ear, then another, even closer.
The shooter in the window had not yet seen John Carter,
below him in the dark, and the Earthman knew he had but a second to act.
With his short sword belt and scabbard fully extended, Carter whipped the
belt assembly up into the space above his head and the metal scabbard clanked
against the ersite windowsill, setting off a shower of sparks in the night.
A split-second later the shooter plunged from the window to the ground
with a wail of pain. Then again all was quiet.
"My God! what a lucky hit!" cried the bronzed swordsman,
but somehow he knew that the officer had not fallen from the window as
a result of the noisy scabbard. Something inexplicable had just occurred
and the Earthman did not have time to ponder the sudden salvation. Facing
outward from the wall he looked down and saw the dim outline of a lithe
figure, mounted on a restless thoat, sixty feet below. Beside the rider
and mount was a second steed with an empty saddle. Fifteen feet to his
left, on the narrow ledge, crouched Dejah Thoris, short sword in hand,
with the calot in front of her. Then John Carter glanced to his left. Twice
that distance away, just emerging from the coal black shadows, were three
more Thark swordsmen!
The Princess of Helium glanced once again at the
courtyard so far off, under her feet. She measured the distance in her
mind and tried to conceive of some way to reach the ground without critical
injury. Surely Woola could jump that far safely. Perhaps, if she hung onto
his back and he leaped off the ledge -- no, not in the dark. She surely
would knocked off the beast. If her luck was bad, she might even land under
his heavy body. There must be another way.
"John Carter! Can you jump down there with me in
your --- Oh! look out!"
A pistol discharged directly above his head, sending
its missile flying right through his wavy hair. A new marksman was in the
window! Then, again, silence for many heartbeats.
Strange as it may sound, it was not until many days
after the night's ordeal had passed, that John Carter and Dejah Thoris
put together enough small clues to guess what it was that had saved them,
there in the shadows of Tal Hajus' palace. After two green men had met
their deaths at the window, it became obvious to both the humans that some
exterior force was knocking down the most threatening members of the guard,
before they could use their deadly firearms effectively. The most obvious
answer, that occurred simultaneously to both the swordsman and the princess,
was that Sola was using John Carter's missing gun to eliminate the dangerous
attackers. Probably that exchange of thoughts was the first telepathic
interchange between the young woman and the man. Subsequently, however,
they discovered that they were both wrong in making this logical guess.
Although they could not see the source of their salvation,
the two escapees were aware that the presence of Tal Hajus' warriors in
the window above their heads had ceased to be so threatening. Soon, however,
the whole area would be swarming with more Thark guardsmen. They had to
reach the ground as quickly as possible. Once more the couple traded these
common thoughts by the silent communication that so often passes between
attuned minds on the red planet.
"Courage, Princess!" John Carter said aloud. But
one glance into her beautiful, flashing eyes told the gentleman from Virginia
that there was no fear in her.