Erbzine.com Homepage
The First and Only Weekly Online Fanzine Devoted to the Life and Works of Edgar Rice Burroughs
Since 1996 ~ Over 10,000 Webpages in Archive
Volume 0506
Presents:

PART II
Continued from ERBzine 0505
It had been a dreamless night.

Thankfully, I hadn't had that strange dream with John Carter again. I felt myself waking up, and uncurled my body in the bag. The cat murmured, being woken up as my legs moved. I pulled down the top of the sleeping bag, uncovering my head. I cracked my eyes opened, and was shocked to death. Two inches from me, Sakoma's face hovered, intensely scrutinising and sniffing me.

I waved groggily at him, "Get out of my face, you're wrinkling the material!" He birded his head back jerkily. He pointed his stump at his mouth, and then at his stomach.

"Yeah, yeah, I'll feed you in a minute." I really hate mornings. The cat crawled out past my face, furring my tongue because I had neglected to close my mouth quickly enough.

"Ptooi, ptooi..." I guess it wasn't meant for me to loll in bed that morning. The cat ran to his dish and meowed and meowed and meowed...

"all right, already! I get the picture!" I threw back the cover and glared at the both of them. I stumbled to the cat's dish and filled it. Cats never thank you. He just shoved his face into the bowl and wolfed down the Science Diet Light.

Then I pulled out two bowls and filled them with low-fat granola. I retrieved a jug of milk from the fridge. Sakoma made a grab for the milk and I batted his hands away.

"Hands off! This stuff doesn't grow on trees, y'know!" I snarled. I poured the milk into the bowls and threw the jug back into the fridge. I grabbed my bowl and headed for a corner to eat in peace, alone. I was just about to take the first spoonful when I felt his eyes on me again.

He looked at his stumps and at the bowl.

He looked at his stumps and at the bowl .

He looked at his-

I put down my bowl with some force, splashing a bit of milk on me. I stalked back over to him.

"Okay, Sakoma, we're just going to have to teach you how to do things for yourself, because I ain't feeding you for the rest of your days," I said, rooting through a cupboard for a, "Ah-ha! That's what I was looking for!" I pulled out a large elastic band and made motions for him to stick out one of his stumps.

He did so and I snapped the elastic around his wrist. I shoved the handle of a spoon under it and made sure it was secure. He looked at it. I got my bowl and showed him how to use the spoon, taking that first wonderful bite of food of the day. I immediately felt better. Sakoma carefully imitated me, placing the spoon in his mouth and closing his jaw around it.

However, a clink came out of his mouth, and the spoon came out headless. He looked like a dog who knew that he had made a mess on the rug. I took the spoon's corpse from his wrist and held my other hand under his mouth. He let the head fall from his mouth. After I wiped the saliva from my hands, I mounted a new spoon for him. He raised the freshly loaded spoon to his lips and opened his mouth.

"Gently, Sakoma, gently..." I coached him. There was only a little clink this time, and he settled into eating his cereal.

He continued to watch me as I ate mine, trying to pick up the fine art of breakfast cereals, no doubt. The three of us had survived breakfast. I put away the dishes and sat down in the cockpit to continue my diagnostics of the systems. Outside the canopy, it was a beautiful clear day, the sky the colour of rich salmon. It gave the feeling of eternal sunset.

The cat was meowing again, scratching at the exit. I turned off the invisibility shield when the radar showed no movement in the area, and opened the port. The cat scurried out and Sakoma indicated that he was going outside too. I nodded acknowledgment. He hadn't been able to stand up in the cabin, so I imagined that he wanted to stretch out. This was confirmed as I saw him limbering up as he walked around the ship, inspecting it.

I turned my attention back to the panels, and was shocked and dismayed to find out that we wouldn't be travelling any further by ship. While I had restored battery power last night, I had failed to notice that the chamber of the eighth ray was slowly dissipating. It was nearly empty.

I jumped out of the seat and ran backwards to the eighth ray tank. There it was. A small, hissing crack had grounded us, dammit! After I had finished fuming, the blood-chilling realisation hit me that I wasn't going to be able to get home.

An anxiety attack gripped me.

What the hell had I been thinking of, flying a ship millions of kilometres from my home! I was stranded on Mars, for God's sake! I felt nauseous and cold sweat ran down my face and back. I doubled over and held my stomach, panting and gasping. I began to shiver.

I would never see Earth again.

Never see my family.

Never see my friends.

Tears ran down my face, and I sobbed uncontrollably for many minutes.

Eventually, I exhausted my nervous system, and I calmed down. A dull depression overcame me and I looked about the cabin. I wiped the tears away with the back of my hand, and took a few deep breaths to calm myself. The heartbeat slowed and the shakes dissipated somewhat. I was an emotional basketcase. I could not control the stresses that pulled at me. I got up and using the wall for support, I headed toward the cockpit again. I sat down in my seat and looked at the gauges and controls. They appeared abstract and amorphous to my shocked mind. What had I been thinking of? Some romantic vision of adventure. Life was never big enough for me. I always had to be rash, always had to run to look over that next rise to see what was beyond. And now, I had paid the price.

At that moment, I was without hope, without a future.

Perhaps the old me had finally died, waiting for something else to come and fill its place. My world was undefined, no detail or concept defined my vision. Colour appeared pale and washed.

Without a thought in my head, I looked up and out the cockpit bubble. Sakoma sat on some rocks, dragging a bit of leather from his harness across the surface. The cat was playing with it, chasing it back and forth, jumping on and off the green man's body. Finally, the cat settled down in his lap, gnawing on the leather fob. Sakoma, more gentle than stealthy, rubbed a forearm down the cat's back. The cat hardly noticed, and let the Martian stroke him in the early morning sun. Revelation staggered me. I hadn't come to Mars for slapstick comedy or high adventure.

I knew that now.

What I came here for I couldn't have told you at that moment, but I had the feeling that it would be contained in that simple gesture of flesh gently caressing fur. I stood up and began packing all the gear I felt we would need for an extended trek across the scarred planet. The desert would give me my answers, and if I was very lucky I would still be alive at the end of the journey.

We had been walking across the plains for almost two weeks, with no sign of any landmark other than rock and sand. The dust bit into our faces when the winds picked it up, and the winds were there more often than not. My skin felt as rough and weathered as the landscape, the taste of the land always in my mouth. Sakoma took this all in stride. Each day, because of the rations I was able to provide us, he looked more and more like the green warriors of old. He relished the harsh weather like a viking battling the North Sea. His incredible height and mass never diminishing his steady, solid pace through the twisting sands.

Sometimes I would carry the cat, especially during the sandstorms. A cat though, is a highly independent creature and he wanted to do most of his walking for himself. This gave him the opportunity to survey his new territory. Once in a while I would see him top a rise, look over it, and look back, almost as if saying, "Hey, y'know, I still don't smell any other cats. Heck, I don't even smell a dog." At least, that's what I thought his cautious meows meant.

Only twice had we seen any people, and then only far off in the distance. I had to pull out my Leitz binoculars to see them clearly. One group had been a small band of green men, much like the ones I had encountered with Sakoma, and the other, much to my surprise, had been a motley crew of yellow men.

"Yellow men," I had said incredulously, "but they live in the northern ice cap." Yet another puzzle.

Sakoma had taken an interest in my equipment. He was getting quite adept with a couple of right-angle screwdrivers strapped to his stumps, and handled the binoculars easily, imitating my movements. He was very impressed with them.

"Sakoma carry?" he had asked.

"Sure," I had replied. He slung the strap around his neck. We had been teaching each other our languages. His was far more simple and direct than English. So while we were speaking a mixture of English and Martian right then, it would probably end up just being Martian we spoke.

He looked through the binoculars again and said, "Not green men."

"Yes. I know. Yellow men. Why?" I returned.

He shrugged. "Everybody walk." The answer told me very little.

I pulled my Leica out of its pouch and bayoneted on the telephoto lens. I took a few pictures of the wandering group and was about to put it away when the ugliest slug-caterpillar I had ever seen walked over the tip of my boot. So there were insects here after all. It was about 20 centimetres long, with an additional 5 or 6 centimetres devoted to thorny antennae that probed the ground in front of it. They also had the singularly disgusting habit of secreting slime from their tips. For what purpose I could not imagine.

"Yee-uuuckkk," I said casually, wanting to dislodge the thing from my boot, but hesitating because I couldn't see if the thing had big teeth. Its body had the colour and texture of a slimy, open wound that was rotting. It undulated along on more legs than a millipede had, its soft body pulsing with some weird breathing rhythm. Multiple eyes clustered on top of its head looked like, for lack of a more tasteful description, large whitehead pimples ready to burst. It lifted its front end and sniffed the wind with its sphincter-like mouth. Nope, no teeth, but a pointed, stiff tongue shot in and out similarly to a ballpoint pen being clicked back and forth. That looked like it could pierce my boot. Without taking my gaze off of it, I said- "Uhhh, Sakoma," no response, "Sakoma?", a little more sharply.

I caught his movement out of the corner of my eye.

A screwdriver came down deftly and pierced the little abomination. The insect screamed as it was impaled. Sakoma raised it to his mouth and tipped back his head. He swallowed it whole cutting short the little beast's death cry, and grinned back at me.

"Good eat," he said, obviously satisfied with his morning snack. In my life I have eaten roasted grasshoppers and beetles, and chocolate-covered ants. I knew that if I was ever starving, I could live on insects to survive. However, Martian insects are a breed apart. I'd have to get pretty darn desperate before I took a bite of one of those walking wounds. That was a pretty good name for them, so I opened up my notebook and wrote down a brief description and made a quick sketch. I wished I had had the presence of mind to take a photograph of it before it had become Sakoma's cruller, but there were probably more walking around, sliming up the neighbourhood. I put away the camera and took a small sip of water to wash the distaste from my mouth.

I looked out across the harsh plain. The band of yellow men had disappeared into the folds of the land. I stood up and let the hot wind blow against me. The moisture on my lips evaporated, leaving them rough and dry again. We had enough water to last us for about two weeks longer.

Sakoma needed very little, probably due to evolutionary adaptation to his environment going back hundreds of generations. I would have no such luxury, and neither would the cat. I explained this as best I could to Sakoma, and he confirmed to me that he could survive for extended periods of time without water, as long as his food had moisture. I presumed this meant things like the Walking Wound.

We used the common sense of the desert as well. We did not travel in the hot sun of the midday, but dug into a convenient rock formation and put up a sun reflecting tarp to keep the temperature lower than our surroundings. Only one of us slept at a time, and it was Sakoma who set that rule in place. Often though, we would sit and talk. He would tell me of things he had seen and done, but he was a much better listener, and coaxed me constantly to tell him of Earth and its many wonders. Sometimes, while remembering something that I particularly loved back there, I would become wistful, and would have to stop talking for a while. Sakoma would only tilt his head at me, unaccustomed as he was to softer emotions in his kill-or-be-killed life. While it often hurt me to speak of some things, it helped me put my past life in some kind of perspective and it improved our communication skills.

While my body weighed much less than on Earth, I often found myself panting with exertion, due to the lack of oxygen in the atmosphere. I wondered the fate of the atmosphere plants. In this arid waste, I had little hope that those mechanical marvels had survived the catastrophe. Yet, though the air was indeed thin for my needs, I could still breathe it. Science told me long ago that Mars had a mostly carbon dioxide atmosphere, so much so that I should be gasping like a fish out of water, yet I could breathe. Science was also contradicted in the range of temperatures. According to Earth's best minds, it should be much hotter by day, and much colder by night.

While I had to agree that it was hotter than Death Valley by day, the nights were no cooler than your average Earth desert night. You bundled up in a good heavy coat and moved around, but we hardly froze.

Many nights we logged long marches. I would look up into the sky then, the inky blackness pierced by thousands upon thousands of stars. Earth has a thicker, dirtier atmosphere and light pollution abounds, dimming its own heavens. Here, where there was only the thinnest canopy of gases and no neon tubes cutting away the night, the cosmos dazzled the senses with its intensity.

I had no idea where we were headed, and I don't think Sakoma did either. He had never been this way before, that much I knew, but we seemed to be following the simple idea of, "Everybody walks".

To help myself deal with the stress of this unknown world, I set up a number of routines in my daily life. That way I could count on something mundane to give our journey a bit of structure. I didn't want a repeat of my earlier anxiety attack. With that in mind, I would go through a series of martial arts forms after every sleep. This limbered up my body, often stiff after sleeping on the desert floor, and cleared my mind of doubts. On Earth, I worked out a few times a week, but here on Mars I was working out every day in addition to being constantly physical, and as a result my body was losing whatever softness it had. Tendons I didn't know I had corded tautly under my leathery skin. I was in the best condition of my life.

Sakoma and I were now speaking in Martian for conversation, I having finally obtained a working grasp of it, and so, when Sakoma questioned me about my 'strange movements', I was able to explain.

"Martial arts started out as a way of fighting, a way to use the body skilfully, with efficiency and power. The people were ruled by warriors who would not let them carry weapons for fear of the citizens revolting against their rule. Their hands and feet became their weapons.

"Later on, a philosophy developed that shaped the mind to match the strength of the body. When body and mind work together, the idea is that the person will be whole." I illustrated my point with my hands. One was the body, the other the mind. The hands joined to show their strength.

Sakoma screwed up his face, "Warriors train to fight. The stronger warrior takes what is his." I shook my head at him.

"No, you should only use these skills in self-defence. To attack somebody is wrong." Clearly, the concept wasn't getting through to him.

"In the ruins, you attacked and killed."

"Sakoma," I protested, "I did that to save your life. You would have died there if I hadn't stopped them. I didn't want to hurt them, but I had no choice. I take no pride in knowing that I took a life, even if it was to save yours."

"I did not ask you to save my life, Chestur! It was none of your affair. You should have left me to- " and he cut himself off with a slice of his arm through the air. Then he turned back to me and said slowly, with venom, "You are weak, Earthman."

"Just a goddamn minute, Sakoma!" I snapped, bringing myself up to my full height, somewhere around his navel, if he had had one. I felt that that comment had come from left field.

I reacted quickly without thinking much- "Who the hell are you to judge me?! We do not understand much about each other, but where I come from we try to help those who need it. God knows, my people have one hell of a time trying to live up to that, but we try! What has war brought you?!" I made an expansive gesture indicating the land. "Destruction all around you. Your world is dying, Sakoma! It's all gone!" He roared down at me and tried to envelop me in his arms.

I grabbed his harness and shifted my weight, using his momentum to lever him up and over. He flew quite nicely and landed hard in the dust. He was up on his feet in a fraction of a second. He looked bewildered and shocked.

"Well, look at the biiigg Martian, taken down by the simplest of judo tosses! How's that for weakness, Mr. Nu?" He was enraged and charged at me.

I sidestepped him and grabbed his harness as he sailed past, spinning him around. I tripped him with an outstretched ankle and his face dropped to my level. His arms flailed at me and I blocked and parried them easily. Then I made a few hard, straight shots to his chest, and one cutting blow just over his eye. A trickle of his blood ran down his face. I grabbed his upper arms.

"While we're talking about being soft, Sakoma Nu, let me ask you a question: Why didn't you attack those two groups we saw? Huh?! Green warriors take what they want, they rule the plains of Mars on their wild thoats. Why Sakoma?! WHY?! Why didn't you take from them. You're stronger than they are now, thanks to the food I've given you!"

"I..."

"Come on Sakoma! Tell me the truth!"

"I cannot..."

"Tell me!"

"I am not a warrior! I should have died! You should have let me die! There is no thing left! I want to die!" I was aghast, but I had known what he was going to say before I had provoked him. I had to keep going with it.

"So why not kill me while I sleep! You could have your revenge on me for saving your worthless life. So why, if you want to die so badly, do you strap screwdrivers to your wrists and learn to use my tools? Why learn my language? I know yours, but you still want to know mine. Why Sakoma? If you're already dead, why are you still learning and adapting?" I threw his arms aside and backed up a step or two.

His shoulders dropped and he hunched over. He had no answer for me, but I knew what was in his heart. I understood him, and through that understanding the first ideas of a plan came together.

"Why haven't you killed me if you hate me like this Sakoma."

He was through playing games. He knew that I had laid him bare before himself. "I did not kill you because you did save my life. In the old days, that would have meant little to me, but for so long I have been alone here, wandering since the great disaster. The green warriors were fierce, but we were not without our own kind of compassion and devotion to our family and friends. When I awoke in your ship, I looked into your eyes and saw a thousand emotions there, guided by intelligence. Your heart had not been turned to dust by the desert as mine has, and at that moment I remembered how I had once been a long time ago." I sat down on the ground next to him.

"The great green tribes, the Thark and the Warhoon destroyed each other, and Mars, didn't they?" I said.

He looked at me and nodded.

"I am Warhoon," he said with pride, "for twenty years we waged bloody war across the great plains, razing everything in our path: cities, factories, forests, everything!" He swallowed hard.

"We had destroyed most of the atmosphere plants, and the moss started to die. We were so short-sighted," he said wistfully.

He got up and paced, "'What does moss matter?' we spat arrogantly at the time. This is war, THE war to end all wars. Either Thark or Warhoon, but by Issus, only one tribe shall be left on Mars when we're done!

"Then came the duststorms..." he said hollowly.

He stood up straight, and looked off into the distance.

My eyes widened.

My voice was barely a whisper, "Without the moss to keep the dirt moist and covered... massive environmental disaster... "

"The dust whipped across our world, ripping away whatever we had not already destroyed. The stone of buildings dissolved before our eyes. Millions perished then, or were pelted to death by shards of debris, or picked up in the winds and never seen again.

"The water evaporated from every crack and hollow, the animals disappeared, the plants withered," he said with bitterness in his voice.

"How long did it take?" I asked reflexively.

"Days, weeks. I cannot remember. It all happened so fast." He sat down again. He tilted his head up, and thought for a moment.

"While we are being so revealing, " he said, smiling, "tell me how you know so much and so little about us at the same time."

"On Earth, your Mars is thought to be the fantasy world of a popular writer. A few weeks ago I would have laughed if someone told me they believed those stories to be real, but all the same I knew them in great detail. Most of them were about John Carter, Warlord of Mars."

"Carter!" he spat viciously. "He and his precious red men and their Thark puppets. Long have the Warhoon thirsted for his blood." And then he calmed. "All so useless," he added. "I will say one thing, for all their superior technology, the red men have done little to rebuild our world. I have heard that they hoard what they have for themselves." This puzzled me.

"I'm not disagreing with you Sakoma, but from what I know, John Carter would be the first to act for his planet, to save it from destruction." He gawked at me.

"His planet! It was our planet for millions of years before he came, and millions of years from now it will still be ours."

It was my turn to get a little steamed, but instead of aggressively defending my childhood adventure hero, I stood up quickly to pace it off. I hate it when some remembered fact or truism pops into my head to disprove a line of thought I like particularly, but it was unavoidable. I put my hands on my hips and looked out at the banded red sky and the cracked desert. "History is always written by the victors," I said finally. I had to burn away my preconceptions and deal with the facts as they revealed themselves to me. For now, it had to be assumed that John Carter was not going to be coming to our rescue, so...

"Sakoma, do you know where Helium is?" I asked, turning back to him.

"Forty years ago, I could have. But now, the land changes too quickly, I have gone too far."

"How about a map? Do you have a map of what Mars used to look like?"

"No, why?"

"Because in my portable computer, a storage device for information, I have accurate maps of what Mars looks like today. If I had an accurate map of what Mars used to look like, I could combine them and we could find Helium, and perhaps a way to fix my ship." My mind was racing with ideas. Throughout our conversation, one thought sparked another, grew, transformed, suggested something bigger, and finally I had it. A moment of incredible clarity chilled me to my toes, making me shiver.

"Are you all right, Chestur? Why is your ship so important?" I was grinning like an idiot.

"I'm fine! The ship!" I was jumping up and down.

In the low gravity I sailed up and down five metres at a leap.

"The ship came from a bigger ship. A HUGE ship if I read that letter right. A ship that big can do things you can't imagine."

"Like what?"

"Ha haha ahahahahah!! You're the perfect straight man, Sakoma Nu! We can save this damn world!!!" I somersaulted and landed sprawling, overrotating in the low gravity, but I didn't feel a thing. I felt glorious.

"What are you talking about? There is little water left! The food is almost gone!" He was becoming agitated again.

"Sakoma, all my life I've been looking for the great cause. Something to build, something to make my vision of how things should be real. Do you agree there is nothing to lose here?!"

"Yes!"

"Good! Then let's get started!" I picked up my things and trotted down the hillock. The cat crawled out from under an escarpment, groggy with nap. Sakoma scrambled to get his gear back on, and hurried after me.

"Wait Chestur! What is this plan of yours?"

"Well, you're not going to like parts of it, maybe a lot of it." He caught up with me and stopped me with an arm on my shoulder.

"Chestur," he said seriously, "I will follow you anywhere. In part, because you saved my life. In part, because there is nothing to lose by doing so. And in part, because I am ready to learn again. I- I am sorry I called you weak."

Just as seriously I replied, "Strength has many faces, Sakoma, yours is just as important as my own. Will you teach me to be a warrior? I need to know what you know."

"If you will teach me your martial arts."

"Deal." I shook his stump.

"What is first?" he asked as we continued our trek.

"Nothing big, but if we come across anybody, and I mean anybody, we don't kill them or avoid them, we get them to join us. We need all the people we can get."

"Even black and yellow men?"

"As far as I'm concerned, you're all Martians. Anyone, Sakoma."

"Grrrr," was all the response I got out of him.

"I told you you wouldn't like some of it."

"A lot of it," he spat.

I let him have the last word.

It was late afternoon, and we had just arisen from our midday rest. We stretched our limbs to loosen up. We took up the ready stance and began slowly moving through a series of tai chi forms. Sakoma was a quick study, adjusting the moves to his physical requirements, always maintaining his balance beautifully. After twenty minutes the sweat was evaporating off me with rapidity. We returned to the ready position and finished the routine.

Sakoma grabbed our harnesses and tossed me mine. I donned it and pulled the sword from its scabbard. Sakoma anchored his to his forearm and we started practising. I would like to tell you that I was learning swordsmanship as fast as Sakoma was learning martial arts, but alas, such was not the case. I couldn't get my feet to work in time with my sword movements. This was particularly distressing to me given my training. Whole body co-ordination was not unknown to me.

"Dammit," I swore under my breath.

"No, Chestur, like- no, you should- agh, Chestur, you- are you all right?"

"I'm fine!" I snapped, holding my hand to my cheek to feel the cut I had just inflicted upon myself. "I just can't seem to get it right, Sakoma."

"Hunff," was his grunted response. Something was going on behind those red wall-eyes, and I became wary.

He circled me casually and my adrenalin kicked in. The sword bobbed in my hand, the tip almost touching the ground. Sakoma was behind me, breathing inaudibly. The hair on the back of my neck stood up and goosepimples ran in waves down my body. I heard/felt his harness shift and the world tilted in slow motion. For an eternity my body twisted. Blood roared in my ears and my vision monochromed. I still twisted around, my teeth baring in a fierce snarl, the growl of a stalking cat rumbling from my guts. Tendons corded and my sword arm shot ever so slowly upwards. The glint of light off of polished steel flashed in my eyes, a sword falling in slow time towards my unprotected back. The sword attached to my arm came out of nowhere, not controlled by me, and the two blows of death strained to meet each other. Time halted and suddenly they met.

The world exploded and I fought for my life against one of the finest warriors in the universe. We flew at each other, twisting and clashing. I used my superior strength to leap into the air and try and attack from above and every time one of his quick arms whipped out of nowhere to knock me back down. He tried to overwhelm me with his height and his incredible reach. Every time I rolled, dodged, and parried his vicious blows. We blocked swords at the hilt and growled at each other.

"You son-of-a-bitch!" I spat, all canines and froth.

"Chestur," he gritted back at me, "you do not need me to show you how to be a warrior. All you need is practise!"

"Gonna beat your-- " I started, then paused suddenly, "where the heck did that come from?" I continued, but not relaxing my body. I still pressed hard against his equally matched force.

His eyes bored down at mine, and he said hoarsely, "You made me face myself. Now face yourself, Jasoomian! You are a warrior! You were always a warrior! It took this planet to wake you up to the fight!"

My legs flexed hard, and I choked out, "You're, unff, probably right, Nu, but just between you and me: SHUT UP AND FIGHT!" With that I rolled backwards, using his own force against him. I rolled onto my back and brought my feet up into his midsection as he fell forward and levered him up and over. He did a half-twist in the air and was on his feet charging at me the same time I was charging at him, sword flashing at the ready. The clang of metal rang through the arid waste for kilometres. We fought like nothing else mattered, and in truth, at that moment, nothing else did. In the twilight of that planet, in that desert, nothing could mean more than fighting for your life.

The sun finally set, and thoroughly exhausted we plopped down on our butts hard in the dust. One of us started laughing and the other took it up. We were friends, with a friendship as strong as any I had ever had in my life. The cat realised that it was safe to come out of hiding and harassed us loudly with wails of meowing. Reluctantly, we got up out of the dirt and broke camp.

I realised we wouldn't make that much distance that night, having so strenuously worked out, but the day's work had been accomplished. I pulled on my pants and top and we set out, the canopy of stars brilliant overhead. We had been walking at an easy pace for an hour when Sakoma waved for me to stop and get down. I did so immediately.

He dropped beside me and we passed the binoculars back and forth. "Three green warriors," he said. I nodded.

"I would have preferred daylight," I replied, "but... we'll make do with what fate throws at us."

Sakoma sighed and shook his head, but he was game. He picked up the cat and placed it inside my backpack. That would the safest place for it for now. The cat meowed pathetically, not wanting to be confined, but by now he was used to it. A few moments later, as I was looking through my binoculars, I felt him settle down.

I felt loose and confident. The afternoon's sword fight had dispelled any doubts I had about my ability to fight. My body and mind had come together after a lifetime's struggle.

"We should come upon them unawares," Sakoma said, "they will want to kill us and take our metal."

I nodded. "That's exactly what they would expect someone to do, and if they caught us doing it, we would have a fight on our hands, to be sure." I stood up and leaned against the boulder that had hidden us. I pulled a lightstick from my harness and shook it to life. Before Sakoma could protest, I headed out into the open with the glowing rod above my head, calling to the party. Their metal clattered noisily as they realised they weren't alone.

Sakoma trotted up beside me. "Amazing," he said, "they haven't charged you." I could see him in the green light of the stick, sword before him, anxious for the fight.

"It's not amazing," I replied, "I just did something they would never have expected. They don't know how to react to this because they've never seen it before. Hear them talking?" Their voices carried faintly across the desert floor in the cold night air. They talked hurriedly. Before they could come to the conclusion to attack, I had to keep control.

"Hello!" I called loudly in their tongue, "We mean you no harm! May we approach to talk?!"

"We have nothing! Go away or we will kill you!" At least the answer hadn't been to kill us no matter what. That was a good sign. Sakoma wanted to jump ahead and take the battle to them but a harsh word from me held him in check.

We were getting quite close when they told us to come no closer. "All right," I said calmly, but did not try to sound too gentle about it. They would have thought I was weak. I threw the lightstick into the space between us, and another after it.

"Come into the light," I said, "so that we may see each other's faces while we talk." Before they could protest, I took slow steps forward, my palms up to show that they were empty. I took off my ball cap and smoothed my hair back. Sakoma stood close to my left, looking fierce without even trying. His sword point was aimed at the ground, but we all knew that with a green warrior that meant little.

They came closer. They looked like all the other green men we had seen, ragged and desperate looking. Their swords bobbed in their hands nervously.

"You are a red man!" the centre one spat viciously.

By now, I knew what that meant to them. "No," I replied, "it's even worse than that, I am from Jasoom." I smiled coldly. Their swords raised themselves, and Sakoma began to raise his. I drew my sword from it's scabbard and slapped Sakoma's blade down in one impossible to follow movement. The three hesitated, snarling in the green glow. "We could have snuck up on you in the darkness and you would be dead by now. Are you not in the least bit curious why?"

The one on the left sneered. "It is a trick. Let us kill them and take their metal. Red men are weak and the other has no hands." He said the last with a condescending chuckle to his voice. Sakoma barely endured the insult. The one on the right seemed younger and less sure of himself. He kept quiet and looked to the centre man for his cues.

I slowly sheathed my sword and drew closer to the light. I sat down on a rock and said, "Please, sit. I only wish to talk. And once again, I am not a red man. I am from the planet Jasoom.."

The centre one hesitated a moment and then sheathed his two swords as well. The one on his left sneered again. "No, we must kill them now!" I took an instant dislike to this man.

"Koldas!" the centre man said, confirming to me that he was their their leader, "if it is a trick, we will still be three to their two and we shall win." He said that looking straight into my eyes. He sat down gracefully across the lights from me. The younger sat down and then finally the suspicious Koldas.

"You are from Jasoom," the leader began after Sakoma sat down, sheathing his sword as well. "You are an ally of Carter's."

"No," I replied, "I know of him, but have never met him. I am only recently come from Jasoom. My name is Chester Ventura. This is Sakoma Nu of the Warhoon."

The leader nodded. "I am Keilis Kree. Koldas Torka," he jerked his head to indicate the belligerent one, "and Fel Nek," he tipped his head towards the young one. "Your companion is Warhoon. We are Thark. It does not bode well for you."

His words were measured and said with calm assurance. It was not so much a threat as a statement. There was no posturing or intimidation. They were Thark, Sakoma was Warhoon. In his eyes, it was completely obvious.

"It is true, Sakoma is Warhoon, but even more important is that he, like you, is a green warrior, and green warriors are from Barsoom, and Barsoom needs all its children if it is to survive."

"Ha!" spat Koldas. "You speak like a red man," he said contemptuously. "You will say what you think will make us do what you want, but gone are the days when the Thark did the bidding of the red men."

"It is good you have realised your own strength, but only a fool thinks that cooperation is weak."

Koldas moved to leap across the lights, but Keilis held him back. "What are you saying?" Keilis said, his big eyes narrowing.

"I have no wish to command you, but I know that five are better at survival than two or three."

"And then?" he came back.

"If five are better, then why not ten, a hundred, a thousand?" I said calmly, giving no weight to one word or another.

He shook his head. "No! Big groups draw attention and are easily destroyed. That is how war began. That is how it ended." It was a cold and final answer, said as if it were perfectly obvious and I was worse than a fool to suggest otherwise.

I pondered that for the moment. I had not considered before this moment why a communal race like the green men had not reorganised, why they and the rest of Barsoom wandered its wastes like ghosts, fearing contact of any sort.

Fear had entered their consciousness. Fear where none had been before. Kill or be killed had always been the rule, with no thought for death other than victory over your enemy. Now they realised the cost, and as a race they knew how close they were to extinction.

John Carter had come to Mars from an Earth of almost 150 years ago. He had not had the benefit of the beginnings of our maturity as a race. He had not learned the lessons of World War II, the genocide, and the atomic bomb. He had not seen the cold war and the fear. He had not experienced the tumult of the 1960's, Viet Nam, and the great hope.

Even myself, I had not been born until the mid-60's, but I had paid attention to history and just how precious and precarious our existence really was. I had seen rthe Berlin Wall come down and communism fall apart in Russia. I had seen the Challenger space shuttle blow apart and the pictures from the Hubble telescope.

I had learned that no matter what, there was always a cost for everything, good or bad. It had made my people less willing to do harm. The Barsoomians had, at least, learned the first part, though not completely. Killing on a grand scale was undesirable. Now they needed to learn that killing on a small scale, individual to individual, would eliminate them just as easily.

To realise that, they needed something as important as life itself. Something was as alien to them as I was.

They needed hope.

"Yes," I said, beginning again, "I do wish to help you reorganise your world. I have many things I can teach and share with you, but just as important is the knowledge of the green men. You are the great men of the desert. The only thing I ask of you right now is that we do not kill each other. Let us travel together for a time."

"And where are you headed?" Keilis asked.

"We seek the city of Helium:"

"I told you! They are in league with the despot Carter!" Koldas spat. Once again Keilis held him back and I held back Sakoma.

"Why Helium?" Keilis said, tension in his voice.

"The red men built the atmosphere plants and the flying ships. I can't help put Barsoom back together without either."

"They are that important?"

"Without them nothing changes. Without them we walk until we die." My backpack began to squirm and I pulled it off my back and opened the flap. The cat stuck his head out and meowed.

"At least he brought food," young Fel Nek said speaking up for the first time, eying the cat hungrily.

I held the cat and pet him to calm him down. "This is not food. He is my friend." I passed him to Sakoma and pulled out some rations from my pack. I passed them out to the three warriors and showed them by example how to open the plastic. "We have plenty of food like this, enough to last us 30 more days, if you eat like Sakoma does. However, my need for water is greater than yours, as is the cat's. We have only enough for two days. Do you know of a well nearby? The last we found was five days ago."

"Our wells are for us only, Jasoomian!" Koldas snarled.

"At least you're not calling me a red man anymore."

Near midday a great duststorm rose out of the desert, breaking our sleep. We sat huddled in a shallow depression in the rocks, covered with tentcloth. We sat there silently, sweating in the close quarters. At least I did, the water pouring off me as if I was in a sauna. The cat panted, and you knew it was too hot if you saw a cat panting. The green men did not sweat much, not that I could see, but they gave off a certain unique aroma. I hope my own smell was not as pungent to them as theirs was to me.

"What stinks?" said Koldas, looking in my direction. So much for that.

Fel Nek kept looking at the cat, hungrily. I wondered when the last time they had fresh game was.

The heat was oppressive and I dozed off and on, my legs cramping under me. By the time the storm abated, it was mid-afternoon. We loaded up our gear, distributed over the five of us now, for the three did not have anything to speak of before meeting up with Sakoma and myself.

"It is not far to the well now," Keilis said, "we shall be there before night has fully taken the day."

"Good," I replied, wiping the back of my neck with a dirty cloth. The cat was still tired. I gave him some more water, which he lapped up greedily. I forced myself to drink slowly. This was nervous business. I had never been without a steady supply of water in my life. I did not let my anxiousness show though. The green warriors would never have understood. If we got water this evening, it would be all right, but if it went past tomorrow, the cat and I would be in grave danger. Already I had cut our rations back by a third. I was dehydrated and not thinking perfectly clearly. The little water I was taking in was the only thing preventing me from falling into the dirt.

I put one foot in front of the other and kept to the centre of the group. The cat sat inside the top of the backpack, his front paws and head on my left shoulder. He was too tired to walk.

Sakoma took point using the binoculars that had become his to help his eyes sweep the horizons. We had been walking for an hour, mostly in silence, when Keilis said, "It is very... unusual that a green man, even a Warhoon, would allow himself to live after that had been done to him." He meant Sakoma's hands, of course.

"Perhaps," I said, "It is true he is handicapped somewhat, but he is a great warrior regardless."

Keilis almost replied, but thought better of it.

After Sakoma waved us on, we topped a low rise and a dead lake was on the other side. We climbed down the steep, ringed shore to the bottom. Here the ground was dried clay, cracked like a dried orange peel. Fel Nek lead us along the shoreline until we came upon what looked like an effluvial discharge. Some ancient underground river had once emptied itself here, deep underneath the surface. Now the great sedimental deposits were dried, cracked ribs that spread out in their distinctive fan. Koldas and Fel cleared away some heavy rocks, revealing a hole about two feet across in the wall. Fel reached inside with one of his long arms and came back with only the fingertips wet.

"It has almost run dry. It is late in the year," Fel announced. Koldas spat. Keilis nodded knowingly.

"There will be more water until the new season. Four teanns hence."

Four months! This was almost too much to bear. I looked at the hole and got angry. I began to take off my pack. "Did you ever think of crawling into the hole to find out where the water comes from? Perhaps it's just a little further back." The three looked at each other blankly.

Sakoma rescued them, taking my pack onto his own shoulder, "It may seem obvious to you, Chestur, but we are much bigger than you."

I wiped my face. "Yes," I said, feeling the chill of heat exhaustion, "my apologies. I take my size for granted." I pulled off my cap and gloves. I made sure I had some light sticks and moved towards the hole. Koldas towered in front of me.

I looked up at him with as much malice as I could muster. I think I just looked ill. "Look Koldas, I don't care if you don't trust me. In fact I'd be worried if I became your best buddy right away, but I'm going to tell you the truth. If I don't get a fresh supply of water, and a fair bit of it, I'll be dying by the day after tomorrow. I'm not going to destroy the well. I'm going to find out where the water went."

Surprisingly, he did not say anything. He looked down at me with an indecipherable expression and then grudgingly moved aside. I pulled my sword and scabbard from my belt and handed it to him for safekeeping. I had my knife if I needed to cut anything.

At the dark entrance to the hole I turned and looked back over my shoulder. The cat looked ill. "Give the cat the rest of my water ration. Slowly. If I don't find water, it won't matter anyways." I tried to remember if I was claustrophobic as I stepped forward into the darkness. It was humid in here and the temperature was a bit cooler and continued to drop the further I travelled into the crevice.

Before it got too narrow I shook a lightstick and held it before me. The rocks glistened with moisture low on the walls and the ground beneath my feet was silty mud. The walls were worn smooth. In the spring, somewhere in the long past, the waters must have rushed through here to fill the lake. The lines showing the water flow cuts in the walls told me that the waters had steadily dropped over time. High up, the crevice was narrower, but as they continued down the opening got wider.

It was good to be in the cool and the dark. My head was clearing, the moist air allowing me to breathe a little easier. The ceiling got steadily lower and I was having to stoop, and it felt like I was descending, or were my legs weak and they were having to work harder to hold me up than normal?

My foot slipped momentarily and I knew that I wasn't wrong. This channel was descending. I was having to brace myself and not doing a good job of it. The walls were slick with some form of algae that was, good God, moving of its own accord. The light stick was dimming quickly and before I could grab another, it popped from my hand and fell into the muck at my feet. At that same moment, the channel took a steep drop and in my weakened state I could not keep my footing. My hands slid ineffectually against the living walls and my feet banana-peeled out from under me. I fell with a sickening thud and shot down into the darkness, quite unable to arrest my fall.

After a couple of bumps that hurt a lot, I realised that protecting my head was more important than trying to get ahold of the impossibly slick walls. I tucked my head into my shoulders and held onto it with my arms. I slid down, down, down in the pitch black. The algae coated me like living grease and every moment I increased my speed, the underground channel twisting and turning. Twice I fell for short distances but continued on unabated. I was travelling so fast that if I had tried to dig in with my heels or grab with my hands I would have been sent spiralling and tumbling to break my neck, or worse.

Somewhere ahead? above? below? I could hear a rumbling? an echo? certainly something other than the tight confines of this ancient river. I felt a rush of air come up the tunnel and then I had air all about me. It took a terrifying moment to realise that I had been ejected from the channel and was falling, falling, towards what I did not know. The hollow sound around me abruptly disappeared and before I could even think of taking a breath I was plunged deep into cold water. Briefly I struggled to regain the surface. There was strong pressure on my eardrums. I kicked my legs hard, but could feel no movement forward. To my horror I was being dragged even further down.

Something had my leg! Frantically I pulled a large lightstick out and shook it to life. An obscene squid-like beast had me in his tentacles. Thankfully my eyes were seeing through water, for if I had seen him clearly I would have died of fright to be sure. My lungs were already crying for air and I had to get away from this beast quickly. We had ceased to descend and the thing entered a tunnel in the underground lake's wall. Where we were headed, I did not know, but I had to break free. My fingers were feeble as I unsuccessfully tried to pry the suction cups from my calf.

Enough was enough. I pulled my knife out and stabbed at the tough skin, but it wasn't enough. I sheathed the knife and held the lightstick in my teeth as I drew my sword and worked up as much momentum as I could. We cleared the tunnel and I hacked at the tentacle, drawing blood.

Now the huge creature, easily 10 metres long, turned its attention back at me. You may not believe me, but it screamed and the water shook about me with its sonic fury. Its many arms spread wide and I felt tiny before its massive display, but I would not die easily. I hacked the last of the tentacle free from my leg and swam into the centre, away from the tentacles that moved to encircle me. I speared it with my sword and twisted it about. In the dimness I could only hope that I was hitting in its most vital parts. I felt the blade jerk through its innards, and then the water was filled with a bright yellow liquid, thicker than blood. It screamed horribly again and the tentacles lashed about chaotically.

Get out of here! Get out of here! I thought. A tentacle bashed me on the hip shooting pain down my leg and then I was clear. I swam hard to try to reach the surface an unknown distance above me. Something brushed past me, and then another. They were headed below, presumably to make a meal of the mortally wounded squid creature.

I kicked as hard as I could but I was beginning to fade. My hip throbbed and the air in my lungs was stale and burning. I fished out a fresh lightstick and shook it to life, just in time as it turned out, but what I saw nearly made me suck the water into my aching lungs then. A solid rock ceiling loomed above me.

There was no air space in here. This was a sealed pocket of water. Deep underneath me lay the tunnel to the first chamber I had landed in, but I did not have the strength to return, even if I could have found the tunnel.

But even in my weakening state, something kept me thinking. I looked down about me, touching pockets and pouches, searching for my freedom. I knew that I must be under the dry lakebed. Perhaps... perhaps...

I pulled the radium pistol from its holster and held it up. It would not fire under water, but it did have an incredibly powerful energy cell. I popped it free from the butt of the gun and jammed it as far as I could into a crack in the rocky ceiling. I pulled a waterproof flare from a pouch. I only had a few of these, compared to the lightsticks.

I was close to succumbing when I pulled the cap off the flare and struck it to life. It glowed fiercely. Creatures circled about me, but I had more pressing problems. Besides, if this worked...

There was no other way. I could not set it and get to a safer distance. I placed myself against the ceiling, making sure I was not below the radium cell. I heated the cell with the flare and it began to glow. From red to orange to yellow to white, and a high pitched screech came from it, drawing in the fanged creatures waiting for me to die so they could scavenge my cold flesh.

And then, with startling suddenness, they were ripped away into the darkness. It was a stunning sight to see the shockwave ripple outwards like a flower blossoming in quick time. I was thrown backwards as well, but I held onto the ceiling with a knife stuck into the rock as a piton. Rocks showered down into the cavern and the ceiling began to collapse as a whole. I dodged them as best I could and then there it was. Blessed daylight!

With the last of my strength, I kicked for the surface letting the last of the stale oxygen from my body escape. As I broke the surface I took the sweetest breath of air I had ever taken. Shaking and gasping, I held onto the crumbling walls of the wide pit I had created. I used my knife to climb the ragged wall, hoisting my aching body up inch by inch.

It took a few moments before I realised I was screaming. I sagged into the wall and let myself work it out before I continued. Eventually, I heard someone calling down to me from above. I looked up and there was Sakoma looking down at me, as close an expression of concern on his face that he could manage.

"Good. You found water," was all he said.

"Yeah," I said, mumbling into the clay, "I found the water." I climbed the last 5 or 6 metres to the top of the crater and Sakoma gave me his arm and pulled me out. "What is with this world!" I shouted furiously, "Why the hell does everything want to kill you! You people need serious therapy! I'm crazy to be here! What was I thinking?!!"

Unfortunately, my rant was in English, having forgotten Barsoomian for the moment, and so the green warriors watched me with their eyes, not moving a muscle otherwise. I sat down hard in the dirt and the cat came over and meowed plaintively. I picked him up and he began licking the water off me.

Keilis said, "We will use ropes to lower the water bags."

"The explosion was impressive," Fel said. I looked about. We were a half kilometre from the shore. "It shook the ground like an earthquake and sent water high into the air.

The ring of water around the hole was easily a hundred metres in diameter. There were low hills all around. My eyes narrowed as I scanned them. I wondered how many people ringed the lake, knowing that it still held water, and how many of those had seen and felt the explosion.

Sakoma brought over a hide of water and gave it to me. I took off my cap and filled it with water and placed it down for the cat. He stuck his face in it and drank. I put the bag spout to my mouth poured the life back into me until my belly hurt. I lay back in the sun and let my clothes dry out. It did not take long.

I must have dozed because by the time I awoke it was starting to get dark. Deimos and Phobos were low on the horizon. The night was cooling off rapidly. I pulled my pants and top on.

"Ah, good. You are awake, Chestur," Keilis said, looking over at me. I picked up my gear and the green men arose. Keilis handed me something to eat. I did not recognise what it was but I smelled it and it seemed okay. A taste confirmed that it was edible and had a rich, satisfying flavour.

"Do I want to know what I'm eating?" I asked Sakoma.

He shook his head. The cat rested on the cradle made by Sakoma's lower arms, cleaning its face.

Fel said, "We are not alone." His sharp eyes scanned the lakeshore.

"I thought as much," I said. "They're probably waiting for dark before they come out."

"You underestimate the value of water," Koldas said, looking at me sideways. "When they all realise that there are small groups all around the lake, and that they are not alone against us, there will be battle." He looked down at the livid hickies all over my right calf where the squid had gripped me. He said nothing about them, merely nodding before his eyes returned to watching the shore.

I stood beside him, finishing off the unknown meat, I assumed it was meat, and said, "On my world we have a saying, 'the best defence is a good offence'." I took a deep breath and bellowed at the top of my lungs, "Sons of Barsoom! Come and drink! There is enough for all! We will share our good fortune with you!" To emphasise my words, I took out my weapons and dropped them on the ground before me. I spread my arms wide and turned about through the four points of the compass. "We will not fight you! Come and drink!"

The green warriors, with the exception of Sakoma Nu, looked at me aghast. At once, they all began to argue with me. I silenced them with a wave of my hand.

We could hear the whispering of the groups hidden around us as they debated my strange actions. For long moments I stood there motionless. Every time one of my party tried to speak up I shushed him. Eventually they stood as still as I did. I kept taking long drinks of water and dousing my head. I tossed the bag to Sakoma and he did the same, as did the others. It was an extravagant show in this near-waterless planet.

I hosed down the cat, who barely protested. I made a tent for him out of my jacket and he set himself down in the shade to clean himself. We would not die today. At least not of thirst.

The whispers continued. I caught glimpses of heads peering over the hills, but the heads ducked back down just as quick. Finally, one stood up and walked forward. We watched him descend to the lakebed. As he got closer we saw he had all his weapons drawn, but he did not come at us. Keilis, Koldas, and Fel drew their weapons.

"Easy, boys," I said, and walked out to meet the stranger. Sakoma walked out behind me but kept his distance.

I closed on the stranger and he stopped, weapons raised, ready.

"It's all right," I said, raising my hands to show that they were empty. "My name is Chester Ventura and I am from Jasoom. You are welcome to drink from the well that we have made. What is your name?"

"I am Mudu Shome of the Thark." I stepped right up to him, avoiding the blades hovering about me.

"You are brave to come out. You do not need your weapons with me. I am no threat to you."

He huffed. A moment later he sheathed the swords and hooked his spear onto his back. "I am not brave. I am the lowest in my group and was considered expendable."

"Whatever. The well's over here. You can have as much as you'd like." When I saw Keilis look at Mudu blackly I shook my head. "This warrior is our guest. Sheath your weapons." When he did not, I looked at Sakoma. He trotted back and spoke in harsh whispers. With much complaining the three did, Koldas relenting first.

I stayed between Mudu and my group and lead him to the well. He dropped in a large bag and we hauled it out together. He drank deeply, the water pouring down his long, gaunt body. When he was done, he sat down heavily in the dust, panting.

I smiled down at him. "You have great power at this moment Mudu Shome. The green warriors will not believe me, but they will believe you. Tell them it is safe and they do not have to fight for the water." I gave him my hand and he stood up. He spread his four arms in an X and bellowed:

"There is water here for all! They do not lie!"

Nothing.
Nothing.
Nothing.
We waited.
Nothing.

An then, a head. Another. Over there. Right behind us. To the left. Yellow men. Green warriors. Kaldanes and their rykors.

All spied each other warily, weapons drawn. I quickly counted the heads. There were close to a hundred. There were no red men among them. Before they could all close on one another I yelled, "Sons of Barsoom! Sheath your weapons! This is a moment of peace! We shall not spill each other's blood today! This is the only price I exact for all the water you can drink!"

"Who are you," a yellow man said with an accent strange to my ears, "to exact any price from us, red man?!"

"I am from Jasoom!" I was getting tired of making that distinction. "And before you ask, no I do not know John Carter! I too am a great warrior, and would send many of you to the Valley D'Or before I travelled there! Why fight, when all can drink and live?! I beg you to put away your weapons and remember what it is to be men, and not scavengers in the waste!"

"Listen to him!" Sakoma chimed in. "He can fight any warrior to a standstill! He could become a great warlord, he has the cunning, the wisdom, the strength to do this! Yet, and yet my brothers, he brings us a different message! Will you not drink with us?! Will you not listen to what he plans?! Or have you become carrion feeders one and all?!"

I stood there, wanting to grin like an idiot, but I held my composure. I had actually reached him. He held hope in his heart once again. I had the first man.

Then Koldas stepped forward and shocked me to my bones by sheathing his weapons and picking up a water bag. He walked out to a group of green warriors and handed them the bag. "Drink!" he bellowed, "Drink, for today is a good day to live!" I had the second man.

Swords and knifes and spears clattered as they were put away. "Good!" I said, allowing myself an affirming smile. "Come on in, orderly now, you'll all get water. That's it! You there, shove around the hole and make room!"

A kaldane scuttled between my legs and I nearly yelped. I am not a big fan of spiders. Its rykor bumped into me and I did jump when I turned and saw its headless body. "You! Kaldane!" I shouted, "Come back here and get this before it wanders into the well and you have no body!" The kaldane stalked back giving me a dark look. It scaled the body and reseated itself on the neck. He bumped my shoulder rudely as he passed. I shook my head. I sat down next to my cat and watched as man after man drank his fill.

The day had faded and night was upon us. Fires dotted the dry lakebed. After they had drank, they had split off into their groups. My leg ached where the squid had pulled on the flesh with its suckers, but otherwise I felt just fine. Occasionally a man came up and introduced himself. They questioned me, challenged me, insulted me, and in return I took no offence and invited them to sit with me. Some did for a time, others walked off into the dark. Each one I told my ideas for a future for Barsoom. My passion only increased as I related to each successive man.

Sakoma had been making the rounds to each fire and when he found me alone once again, he sat down. Not one to mince words, he said, "They will not follow you. Most think you a gutless coward for not fighting to keep the well for yourself, the rest look to kill the others and keep it for themselves."

"Wonderful," I said drily. "I should speak to them as a whole." Thoughts of a great speech were forming in my brain. I went to get up, but Sakoma put an arm on my shoulder.

"No, Chestur. You have convinced me, but it was not with your words. It is what you have done. Unless you back up what you have said with action, they will all leave come the morning."

I knitted my brows and thought to say something. Then I thought better of it. "What do you suggest?"

He actually smiled, and not fiercely, but with possibility.

I awoke at dawn when Sakoma touched my shoulder. I carefully lifted myself out of the sleeping bag. The cat looked up sleepily before tucking its head under his paw again. I lay the cover over him and left him in the peace of the tent, zipping it shut lest he wander off.

"They are ready," Sakoma said. I looked past him and saw the great circle of men and thanked God that I had a good night's rest, some food, and the water fleshing my tissues. I shed my harnesses and extra clothing until I stood only in my shorts, t-shirt, and boots. I took my sword and long dagger from their scabbards and walked to the assembled. I kept my eyes straight forward, giving them nothing to latch onto, no sense of my mental state. Sakoma kept step with me, walking behind my right shoulder. Koldas and Fel parted to let me through. Koldas nodded and I acknowledged him in kind.

The circle seemed a very empty place and being in its centre the loneliest spot on all of Barsoom. I looked about at the faces and was surprised I felt no fear. This had to be done. There was no other way. Still:

"Sakoma Nu of the Warhoon has proposed a plan to you. I will ask you one last time to find it in yourselves to see things differently."

No response.

"Very well," I said. "Sakoma?"

He walked out to me and said to the circle, "You have all agreed to these terms. Any man here may challenge Chestur to single combat. If you lose, you agree to follow him in whatever he may ask of you. If he dies, we all go our separate ways, to live our lives the way they have always been for us. At the end of the day, if Chestur still stands, we all agree to follow him. Does anyone dispute these terms?"

After a short pause a green warrior shouted, "Let us kill this fool and be on our way!"

Sakoma nodded slowly and then turned to me. "Remember your wits," he said so that only I could hear, "You are smarter than all of them. That is what will save you."

"Thanks," I said flatly. "That's incredibly reassuring." Sakoma laughed softly and walked to the circle's edge.

I took a deep breath to centre myself and spread my arms, raising my sword and long dagger into the air. Slowly I rotated about. "Well, how's about it, lads? Who shall kill a fool?"

The green warrior of a moment ago stepped forward and drew two long swords. He came at me head on, not rushing, not stalking. He raised an arm to swing a sword at me and I ducked under and stuck him in the side with my dagger, rolling out behind him. He had not expected such speed.

Angered now, he tried to envelop me with his arms, but I nimbly jumped over him, my Earth-toughened legs carrying me high in the lighter Barsoomian gravity. Over and over again he tried to get me with a frontal attack. I let him come to me, striking only minor wounds upon him. Finally, an easy opportunity presented itself and when he was overbalanced I let loose a kick to his head that stunned him and sent him sprawling. In a breath I was upon him and held my sword to his throat.

"Do you yield and will you honour your word?" I said firmly.

He glared at me, but he was in no shape to continue. "Yes!" he spat and I let him up. A murmur ran through the circle. Clearly, they expected me to kill him, as they would have done to me. I needed every one of them alive, though. I was playing for different stakes.

I offered him a hand and helped him to his feet. "On my world," I said to the assembled, "we applaud a warrior that has conducted himself with honour." I staked my sword and dagger into the lakebed and clapped. Only Sakoma echoed it.

"Chestur!" shouted Sakoma and I barely avoided being cut in two by the kaldane from the well yesterday. I rolled out of the way of his sword, but it took me away from mine, planted as they were in the ground. Now the crowd chose to applaud. This was great sport to them. The kaldane had some skill as a swordsman and I used all of my abilities to keep out of his reach. Sakoma was going to come to my aid.

"No! Stay out of it!" I shouted. The kaldane was doing an effective job of keeping himself between me and my swords. I had only one way around him, but it was risky. So be it. I launched myself in the air, but he was ready for it. I felt the sword go through my leg and I came down hard on it as well, but a tuck and roll and I had my sword and dagger back in my hands. Blood streamed down my calf, but it didn't appear to be more than a deep cut. Thankfully, it didn't hurt yet.

This kaldane had me angered. With fierce determination I hacked my way at him, giving him no quarter. I could see it loosening itself from the rykor's neck as I pressed in at him. He was getting ready to jump free. I would have none of it. With savage fury I broke through its parries and buried my dagger in the rykor's chest. Without pause I swung my sword high over my head and cleaved through the kaldane itself and down into the rykor. I planted my foot in the rykor''s chest and yanked the sword and dagger from its lifeless body. They fell to the dirt and the kaldane rolled off the rykor in two pieces, leaving a trail of its organs and fluids.

"And that," I said, breathing hard, "is how we reward treachery!" For this, they clapped. I shook my head in dismay. My leg had begun to sting. Blood dripped from my blades.

I would like to say that I remember every man who challenged me that day, but in truth there were too many of them. After a while they began to blur into one. At times he was a better fighter than others and I took my wounds, and other times he fell before me, but always he got up to fight again, and I was glad I did not have to kill him. Only the kaldane and its rykor had been sent down the River Issus.

Every so often a break was called and Sakoma dressed my wounds and doused me with water. The heat was nothing new to me, but he knew that I did not store water as he and other Barsoomians did naturally. I had ceased to feel my limbs in any normal fashion. I was ache and burn, sting and agony, but I felt alive and there was the joy of life in my blood.

I smiled as I fought, taunting and challenging them. I heard the cheers and the emotions of the crowd and when a battle finished, they applauded and clapped the man on the back as he left the circle and no man felt ashamed for having been bested. They shook their head and urged on the next fellow, and at some point I realised they weren't trying to kill me anymore. They wanted to test themselves and they fought fairly and with pride in their abilities. They avoided the killing stroke, as did I. I barely won some of those battles I'm sure, and maybe some of them let me win, unwilling to end the great spectacle.

Fel Nek had come in there somewhere. As young as he was, he showed some skill, but his sword had flown through the air as I disarmed him. He laughed and clapped me on the shoulder. I had done my best to not fall over.

When the day began to dim, the mood of the men changed and an opponent had not presented itself for a few minutes. I sat down in the dust to rest. Koldas brought me some water and I thanked him. I knew the moment was upon me. I had survived. They could trust me now according to their values and traditions. I had survived their challenges, proved my worth.

I nodded to Sakoma and he said, "Are we agreed? We will listen to Chestur and try what he says?" The assents were beginning to be murmured when a strong voice said:

"The sun has not yet set! I challenge the Jasoomian!" I looked over into the eyes of Keilis. What I thought had been nobility in him turned out to be something else entirely: ambition.

"Y'know, Koldas," I said as I got to my feet wearily, "when we met I thought that you'd kill me as soon as look at me, and Keilis could be counted on to be a leader."

"I would have killed you at that moment, but as you say, you can trust an honest enemy more than a dishonest friend. I will still kill you if you turn out to be an ineffective leader."

"Yeah," I said, handing him back the water bag. "It's good to know where you stand in this world." I looked at Keilis limbering up. "I'm going to have to kill him, aren't I?"

"Most likely." He turned and walked to the edge of the circle. The euphoria of the day was wearing off and I was merely exhausted. My wounds stung. I felt every bruise and pulled muscle, but still I raised my hand and waved Keilis forward.

"No Jasoomian will ever rule me again!" he shouted. "The Warlord Carter did not save us from the great disaster! No green warrior shall ever bow down to another race ever again.!"

"You are a fool, Keilis," I said, as we circled one another. He took no chances with me. He had watched me all day, studying my every move I was sure. To get everything he wanted, he was willing to risk nothing. "The old ways are gone! Barsoom has been swept clean! Join us and rebuild a world worth living in!"

"Never!" he screamed defiantly and rushed me. I moved to dodge but he spun and slashed me hard down my right arm. A ribbon of fire raced up and down it and with a spasmodic twitch the dagger flew from my hand and lay in the dust. My arm hung useless. I could not lift it for all my efforts.

The men no longer cheered. Silent, they knew what was transpiring before them, even though they could do nothing about it by the rules of the challenge. Keilis had me backing up all over the circle. Only my superior reflexes kept me from being killed outright. Blood streamed from a dozen fresh wounds. To my credit, Keilis was not unscathed. He had lost part of one of his hands, but he still had three to my one. I could use my legs to kick and jump and did so when I could. He could not. A green warrior is precariously balanced on such a long body and thin limbs as it is. I ducked under him, using my size to my advantage. His legs were cut up because of it. I scored a major blow when I sliced through the equivalent of his Achilles tendon. He was far less mobile, hobbling about on one good leg.

Exhaustion kept me from pressing towards victory. Every time I ducked in it seemed an arm came out of nowhere and sliced me a new gash. Later Sakoma and others told me they thought that I was going to be killed for sure. Keilis was an excellent swordsman and they could not believe that I avoided as many fatal blows as I did. It was all Sakoma could do to not jump in there and cleave the treacherous Keilis in two. He did what he could. He and others encouraged me to keep fighting, even though I was fading.

I remembered Sakoma's advice to keep thinking. It was about all I could do, as my body continued to fail me. Keilis had three arms. I could parry one blow, dodge another, and still strike, but it was the third arm that was doing the damage. I had no way to avoid it, and I had to disable one of those blasted arms if I was to survive, let alone triumph.

There was no other choice. I could only choose the way it happened. I watched how he set up his striking patterns. No. That way would be certain death. That would maim me. That I don't even want to think about. There. That one.

I pressed in and deflected one blade away. An instant later I had the most unusual sensation of my life as I felt a blade pass through my right lung and go out my back, but the sword was immobilised. I parried the last and thrust my blade straight forward and up, stopping for nothing.

Keilis stood there, his jaw opening and closing reflexively. He was very still, stiff. I heard the quiet around us. I smelled the desert. With a grunt I pulled my sword free. It had gone in under his chin and out the top of his head. As Keilis fell backwards I pulled away and fell to my knees, his sword still impaling me.

"Good Christ," I managed to gasp out. The pain was exquisite. Keilis lay there twitching in the dust. Weakly, I raised a shaking hand to my chest and tried feebly to pull the blade out. One tug and I fell over, nearly unconscious. To me, it felt like this had taken forever, but it must have been the briefest of moments. The ground shook around me and a sea of faces appeared. Then I did, mercifully, pass out.

It was dark and I was swimming. I had been swimming for a long time. I must have been because my body ached with the exertion. I could not find the surface no matter how much I tried to claw my way there. There was no light. Was I swimming up or down? It did not seem to matter. I held my breath as long as I could and when I could do it no longer let it out and reflexively sucked back in. I could breathe! But still, I was lost and I could not rest. I had to keep swimming. I had to get where I was going, even if I had forgotten where it was.

Oh, my head hurt, and I did not want to be conscious, but I knew that that must be what I was. Voices I knew to be whispers were intolerably loud. I think I said, "Shut up." At least, that's what I intended to say. I didn't recognise what came out of my mouth as language.

"What was that he said?"

"I do not know. It is his native tongue."

Rustling. Someone drawing near. I could not open my eyes. I didn't want to.

"Ah, good. His fever has broken," said the voice with relief.

"Gods! I almost wish he had died! I cannot see how he will do what he says he will do!"

"Believe him. Any man who dares to travel through the heavens with only a hope in his heart is surely favoured by the Gods."

"I have never known hope."

"Not until now, you mean."

"Yes."

I rolled over because my side ached and nearly squished the cat who chackled at me for such rude behaviour. "Sorry, buddy," I said hoarsely and sat up. My vision swam for a moment but I didn't have to lay back down. I could tell that it was very early in the morning. It was cool. I carefully got up and found myself weak and sore, but in one piece. The recent scars were still livid on my body, but the mauve salve had done its work. I was conscious of time having passed. How much I did not know. Days for sure. Maybe a week.

The cat crawled into the sleeping bag and settled down. I lifted a waterbag off the tent pole and drank deeply before replacing it. I noticed that it was dead silent. I sighed, too exhausted to feel badly about what had happened. With the others gone Sakoma and I would just have to start over again, trying to convince one man at a time that Barsoom could be saved.

I threw a jacket over my t-shirt and grabbed my cap where it hung by the flap and pushed my way out into the pale light of dawn.

I stood there unable to comprehend what I saw. We were still camped on the lakebed by the well, as was every other man that had been there the day of the battle, and by some glorious act there were more. Dozens more.

It was silent because they were all asleep. It seemed that they didn't like being up with the crows. I padded over to a near fire. A pot hung over the still warm coals and inside were leftovers. I was famished and ate rapidly with my fingers. It tasted good, and once again I didn't want to know what I was eating.

Every time I inhaled or moved my right arm, I felt a twinge. It was most likely scar tissue that had adhered to the surrounding flesh. Eventually it would pull free. Thankfully, the lung had not collapsed.

When I had finished the one pot off, I moved on until I found another. By the time the others began to awake, I was on my third.



 
Want more?... Let Scott know...
E-mail:
dutton@catspawdynamics.com
Download the complete novel at:
http://ebooks.catspawdynamics.com

Catspaw Dynamics eBooks
© & Scott Dutton


Volume 0506

BILL HILLMAN
Visit our thousands of other sites at:
BILL AND SUE-ON HILLMAN ECLECTIC STUDIO
ERB Text, ERB Images and Tarzan® are ©Edgar Rice Burroughs, Inc.- All Rights Reserved.
All Original Work ©1996-2010 by Bill Hillman and/or Contributing Authors/Owners
No part of this web site may be reproduced without permission from the respective owners.