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Volume 4848

Hair and the Heroes: Barsoom
or, A Doom With a View:
a Hair-Raising Tale in Eight Scenes
by Brian Kunde

John Carter art by Paul Privitera


(Ulysses Paxton, Jana Gridley, and Harold and Belphebe Shea enter stage right, proceed to mid-stage, and there contrive to keep trudging in place -- the men in apparent weariness, the ladies as if on a Sunday stroll, while Barsoomian scenery scrolls from stage left to stage right behind them. A discretely concealed treadmill might facilitate the former, while the latter might be managed either by an actual roll or a projection. For much of the scene the background depicted is little more than a dead, moss-covered sea bottom, which should ameliorate the labors of the artist employed. All five non-Barsoomians are made up as Red Martians and accoutered in the customary harness, pouches, weapons, bells and whistles of native travel garb, filled out more interestingly by the females than the males. Belphebe bears, in addition, a bow and quiver-full of arrows.)

Paxton (grumbling): That Kantos Kan is a sadist.

Harold: No argument there. You would think he would have flown us further.

Belphebe: La, are we not supposed to be incognito? Such anonymity would ill have been served by diving into Zodanga aboard a Heliumite airship of war. And 'tis well to be back out of doors, away from confining buildings and cramped flight decks. True, this Barsoom lacks the blithe brooks and bonny trees of home--

Paxton: On Barsoom trees tend to be mobile, blue, and anthropophagous, and fortunately, in that light, rare.

Jana: Just as well. Whence I hail they may be rooted, but they conceal from sight other creatures equally anthro-- anthrippy -- carnivorous. But I agree with Phebe, it's good to get out and stretch your legs.

Harold: Speak for yourself. How you two can make so light of this weary trudge is behind me.

Belphebe: Good, clean living in the great outdoors. You men but pay the price for your sedentary habits.

Paxton (groaning): I used to be a man of action, really. This is what I get for marrying a princess. They don't get out much, save when abducted, and hence neither do I.

Harold: It's what we get for marrying, period. Suddenly there are responsibilities to face, mouths to feed. I used to flit between worlds on a regular basis, but once Voglinda was on the way I had to buckle down and take my professorship seriously. A department head doesn't get spare time to gallivant around other dimensions. Truth to tell, I don't get out much these days except when someone's abducted, either.

Paxton: Oh, my feet!

Jana: Men! You don't hear me complaining, and I've a baby on the way.

Belphebe: What? And you fare abroad in your condition?

Jana: Why not? Think you a hungry Thipdar cares a morsel whether or not its prey be gravid? In Pellucidar I belike would be RUNNING more oft than walking. Such a hike as this is nothing on Mars, where one's weight lies on one less heavily.

Belphebe (in perplexity): Does it? In truth, I have read of this phenomenon, but I confess I feel the tug of gravity as much on this Barsoom as on Earth, or in Faerie.

Harold: That's because the syllogismobile attunes us to the worlds we visit. Along with such beneficial adaptations as a local's command of the languages we get a local's experience of the environment. So no bouncing along like grasshoppers for us. (Looks to Paxton and Jana.) Our companions should not be so inhibited, however.

Paxton: I've been here too long, and its use it or lose it, as they say. Were I as active as John Carter, or even Carthoris, I might feel more bouncy, I suppose. I understand John's daughter Tara never did get any benefit from her heritage of Earthly musculature. Upper class women here are basically birds in a gilded cage, with little to do but lounge around a lot.

Jana: A truly wretched existence! For my own part, I might happily bounce about, as you put it, save for my condition. One does what one must, of course, but there's no point in taking unnecessary chances.

Belphebe: How many children have you, pray?

Jana: This will be my first.

Belphebe: What? But from what your Jason said, I had thought you bore previously in Pellucidar, or soon thereafter.

Jana (shrugging): Babies come when they come, and nowhere more than Pellucidar, where duration hews to individual experience. Though I left my native land, it appears the child received not the news, and still develops on Pellucidar time. Hence, after suspending our lives in wait for it some years, even Jason agreed we might as well resume living. Though I misdoubt me he had consented to this sojourn on Mars, save he believed the lightened conditions might be beneficial to my state.

Belphebe (laughing): He is more accepting than my Harold, I perceive.

Jana (smiling more thinly): It is occasionally possible to beat some sense into him, yes.

Harold (sighing): None of this chitchat is getting us to Zodanga any quicker. Oh, for a good rugged automobile! Only the Barsoomians seem to eschew such terrestrial conveyances.

Paxton (shrugging): Aside from the odd cart or two employed by the Green Men on their migrations, I fear you are correct. I've asked about it on occasion. Seems the locals are concerned they might upset the delicate desert ecosystem by tearing up the landscape with wheeled vehicles.

Harold: Weird. We're much more sensible on Earth.

Paxton (ironically): Aren't we just? Can't imagine that kind of thinking catching on there.

Belphebe: Brutes! For myself, I delight in such tender concern and solicitude for the wild.

Paxton: You go right ahead. The Barsoomians, though, they're just afraid of massive dust storms, which is what you end up with when you rip up the moss cover.

Belphebe: Whatever the cause, I applaud the result.

Paxton: Plus, you lose the wild zitidars and thoats, and after them go the white apes and the banths and the calots, and then there goes the whole hunting season. Folks are reduced to taking pot-shots at ulsios in back alleys.

Jana: My aren't you just a little ray of sunshine. Not that there would be any bigger rays, here. Your sun's puny, even compared to Earth's, and it won't even take a decent stand but insists on moving around.

Paxton: Yes, real suns tend to do that, though I confess I found its reduced size took some getting used to. But what really burns me up is still how we have to trudge, trudge, trudge, while Kan and his ilk lounge around in comfort back there somewhere (waves vaguely behind him) like the upper echelons in the Great War. Christ, it's just like being a grunt in the French trenches again! Just less muddy.

Harold: Yes, Barsoom has been an education in all sorts of ways. I've yet to see any of these so-called heroic characters described in the books.

Paxton (wryly): Hey, don't I qualify? I narrated one of those books.

Harold: No offense, but letting yourself be blackmailed into this damn fool expedition reeks not of heroism.

Paxton (sighing): I know. It was so much easier back when loved ones were simply kidnapped -- bodynapped, in the case of my own love -- and all one had to do was chase after the perpetrators and stick swords through them. Or so it seemed. Felt bloody complicated at the time, let me tell you. The Heliumites, alas, are a bit more sophisticated than that. Anyway, I never was the type to just charge in and lop off heads like John Carter.

Harold: He might not have either in this instance, those heads happening to belong to friends and family.

Paxton: Right. Be that as it may, you want to see a real hero, he's the guy. THAT lot (waves behind him again) may not be worth all this, but HE is. Assuming he's still kicking, anyway. (Looks around at the others.) Too bad OUR little band of heroes isn't a bit bigger.

Jana: If you wish my Jason here, so do I. (To Belphebe): It astounds me yet how the runt managed to weasel out of another rescue.

Belphebe (to Jana): Oh fie, Mistress Jana, 'twas your own doing. Was it not you who insisted the men was well as the women cast lots on who must remain in Helium to babysit Voglinda? Had your Jason and my Harold their wills, the task had fallen on one of us.

Harold (sullenly): You've got that right. What if both of us die in this little escapade, leaving our little girl parentless?

Belphebe (turning on the charm): What, Harold, has not your valor ever carried you through your every adventure? Be not dispirited now.

Harold (little mollified): The gods do favor fools, they say, and that description pretty well sums me up in some of my past decisions. Facing down broadsword-bearing knights with an epee, for instance. Such rashness is bad enough in bachelor as I then was; in a family man, it's unforgivable.

Belphebe: In what way have you been rash? Have you not upped your armament of late, with a stouter blade and a shirt of mail?

Harold: Yes, and a good thing, or I'd have been eaten by that giant snake in Dej. But the mores of Barsoom ban armor, and here I'm just a run-of-the-mill swordsman among a multitude of blade-waving maniacs. Remember that assassin Malambroso hired against us? I barely held my own, and I'd have cashed in my chips for sure if not for you and Ras Thavas.

Jana: What are chips?

Paxton: What I want to know is where you managed to find knights on Barsoom?

Belphebe: Oh, 'twas not on Barsoom, but in my own native realm, the land of Faerie.

Paxton (regarding her oddly): Fairy as in fairy tale? (to Harold) Your pardon, Mr. Shea, but is your wife quite right in the head?

Harold (stiffly): Perfectly right. Faerie is as real as Barsoom -- on another plane of existence. I traveled there the same way we got here, through attuning ourselves to the assumptions of this world by the application of symbolic logic.

Paxton: Sounds complicated. Astral projection did the trick just fine for me. Better than fine, since it fixed my up legs -- shellburst blew the bloody things clean off back home. Least I assume it did, since I never happened to encounter them again in the brief time remaining to me there.

Harold: Nice trick, but I doubt it would have worked for us. On the plane I come from, Barsoom is as fictional as Faerie.

Paxton (edging away slightly): Hang on, you just said both were real. Are YOU quite right in the head?

Harold (sighing): Look, it's like this. There are as many versions of Earth -- or Mars, for that matter -- as there are grains of sand on the beach, each existing in its own unique universe. SOME of these versions just happen to correspond to settings in the literary fiction of others. So on another Earth the characters in Jules Verne's novels might be living, breathing people, while another Mars might harbor the tentacled horrors of Wells in place of your red and green men. The fact that in MY universe, and presumably yours as well, such things are only to be found in books does not preclude their actuality in other universes. In fact, their presence in fiction actually helps us get there, since the fiction provides a template from which to extract the logical assumptions that guide and facilitate--

Paxton: Whoa, lost me quite a while ago, old fellow. I think I'll just stick to brain surgery. It's easier. (Cranes his neck, looking ahead.) The city looks closer than it did.

Jana: Let's pick up the pace. (She and Belphebe match action to intention, striding forth vigorously, as the boys lag.)

Paxton: Hey, wait for us, we weren't all raised in the wild.

Jana (sniffing but slowing): Wimps!

Harold (groaning): Pity we don’t have six legs each, like a thoat.

Paxton: You mean eight.

Harold (irritated): No, I mean six, like every other bloody beast on this planet that isn't human!

Paxton: You don't wear glasses when you aren't traipsing about the Martian countryside, do you?

Harold: No, there's nothing wrong with my sight.

Paxton (to Belphebe): Delusional, then?

Harold: Not at all! What makes you ask? (As he speaks he stops walking, folding his arms across his chest. The others also pause, and gather round.)

Paxton: What, aside from the fact that you can't count legs? Oh, little things. The way you keep referring to the eighth ray as a lighter than air gas, or when you asked Carthoris where we store the gunpowder supplies for the radium rifles. One has to wonder. (To Belphebe): Do you ever worry about him?

Belphebe (shrugging): Only since we came to Barsoom. He's ordinarily quite level-headed.

Harold: You too?

Belphebe (sighing): Harold, we BOTH visited Helium's zoological gardens, and the only creatures I've seen on this world with six limbs are Green Men and White Apes. Thoats have eight. Calots and Banths have ten apiece. As for technics, when I glance about a city of the Red Men I see a wonderland, while you appear to perceive something out of one of your movie Westerns. Perchance 'tis some misalignment of perception to world, as you spoke of Sir Reed as having suffered in the world of Don Quixote, else a phase you go through, born mayhap of the stress of parenthood--

Harold: Why didn't you SAY something?

Belphebe (shrugging): It seemed not worth the argument.

Harold (murmuring): Is everyone crazy here, or is it me?

Jana (bluntly): Oh, it's you, believe me.

Belphebe (gently): Is not our presence in this world dependent on our absorption of your author Burroughs's descriptions? How, then, could we have reached one at variance with it? If you misdoubt, but consider how the Barsoom of which he writes is the one all here perceive, yourself excepted. It pains me to remind you, but you yourself have spoken of Sir Reed's theory that dementia consists truly of an imperfect attunement of the senses to the universe one inhabits.

Harold: Well, crap. (Pulls a pistol from a pouch at his side and examines it.) Radium, eh? Sure as hell looks like a six-shooter to me…

Paxton (sighing): Let's move on.

(He does so. The others fall in step. Harold shakes his head and holsters the pistol.)

Paxton (muttering): Just when I thought I'd found a kindred soul in this loony bin he turns out loony…

(They continue on in silence. After a time, buildings begin to appear along the moving backdrop behind them, quickly developing into a futuristic cityscape. At the same time, a dim noise begins to swell.)

Jana: What's that sound, Mister Varo?

Paxton: Odd. Sounds like a riot of some sort.

(They start running. Exeunt, stage left.)


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