“During all this time Tul Axtar’s officers have been training the males for war. From earliest consciousness the thought of war has been implanted within their minds. To war and to war alone do they look for relief from the hideous conditions which oppress them until today countless millions are clamoring for war, realizing that victory means loot, and that loot means food and riches. Already Tul Axtar commands an army of such vast proportions that the fate of Barsoom might readily lie in the palm of his hand were it not for but a single obstacle.”
“And what is that?” I asked.
“Tul Axtar is a coward,” replied Nur An. “Having fulfilled his dream of manpower, he is afraid to use it lest by some accident of fate his military plans should fail and his troops meet defeat. Therefore, he has waited while he urged on the scientists of Jahar to produce some weapon that would be so far superior in its destructive power to anything possessed by any other nation of Barsoom that his armies would be invincible.
“For years the best minds of Jahar labored with the problem until at last one of our most eminent scientists, an old man named Phor Tak, developed a rifle of amazing properties.
“The success of Phor Tak aroused the jealousies of other scientists, and though the old man had given Tul Axtar what he sought, yet the tyrant showed no gratitude, and Phor Tak was subjected to such indignities and oppressions that eventually he fled from Jahar.
“That, however, is of no import; all that Phor Tak could do for Tul Axtar he had done, and with the new rifle in his possession, the Jeddak was glad to be rid of the old scientist.”
Naturally I was much interested in the rifle which Nur An had mentioned and I hoped that he would go into a further and more detailed description of it, but I dared not suggest that for fear that the natural loyalty which every man feels for the country of his birth might restrain him from divulging her military secrets to a stranger. I was to learn, however, that those lofty sentiments of patriotism, which are a part of every man of Helium, were induced as much by the love and respect in which we held our great jeddaks as by our natural attachment to the land of our birth; while, upon the other hand, the Jaharians looked only with contempt and loathing upon the head of their state and feeling no loyalty for him, who was in effect the state, they looked upon patriotism as nothing more than an empty catchword, which an unworthy master had used to his own end until it had become meaningless, and so, while at the moment I was surprised, I later came to understand why it was that Nur An voluntarily explained in detail to me all that he knew about the strange new weapon of Jahar and the means of defense against it.
“This new rifle,” he continued after a moment’s silence, would render all the other armies and navies of Barsoom impotent before us. It projects an invisible ray, the vibrations of which effect such a change in the constitution of metals as to cause them to disintegrate. I am not a scientist; I do not fully understand the exact explanation of the phenomenon, but from what I was able to gather while the new weapon was being discussed in Jahar I am under the impression that these rays change the polarity of the protons in metallic substances, releasing the whole mass as free electrons. I have also heard the theory expounded that Phor Tak, in his investigation, discovered that the fundamental principle underlying time, matter and space are identical, and that what the rays projected from his rifle really accomplish is to translate any mass of metal upon which it is directed into the most elementary constituents of space.
“But be that as it may, Tul Axtar had the manpower and the weapon, yet still he hesitated. He was afraid and he sought for some excuse further to delay the war of conquest and loot which his millions of subjects now demanded, and to this end he hit upon the plan of insisting upon some medium of defense against this new rifle, basing his demands upon the possibility that some other power might also have discovered a similar weapon or would eventually, by the use of spies or informers, learn the secret from Jahar. Probably greatly to his surprise and unquestionably to his embarrassment, a man who had been an assistant in Phor Tak’s laboratory presently developed a substance which dissipated the rays of the new weapon, rendering them harmless. With this substance, which is of a bluish color, the metal portions of the ships, weapons and harness of Jahar are now painted.
“But yet again Tul Axtar postponed his war, insisting upon the production of an enormous quantity of the new rifles and a mighty fleet of warships upon which to mount them. Then, he says, he will sail forth and conquer all Barsoom.”
The destruction of the patrol boat above Helium the night of the abduction of Sanoma Tora was now quite clear to me, and when Nur An told me later that Tul Axtar had sent experimental fliers to attack Tjanath, I understood why it was that the blue flier in which Tavia and I had arrived had caused such consternation, but the thought that upset my mind almost to the exclusion of the plight of Sanoma Tora was that somewhere in the thin air of dying Barsoom a great Heliumetic fleet was moving to attack Jahar, or at least that was what I supposed since I had no reason to doubt that the message that I had given to the major domo of Tor Hatan’s palace had not been delivered to the Warlord. To lie here enchained in the pits of Tjanath, while the great fleet of Helium sped to its destruction, filled me with horror. With my own eyes had I seen the effects of this terrible new weapon and I knew that it was no idle dream upon the part of Nur An when he had stated that with it Tul Axtar could conquer a world; but there was a defense against it. If I could but regain my freedom, I might not only warn the ships of Helium and save them from inevitable doom, but also in connection with my quest for Sanoma Tora in the city of Jahar, I might discover the secret of the defense against the weapon which the Jaharians had evolved.
Freedom! Before it had only seemed the most desirable thing in the world; now it had become imperative.
VI.— SENTENCED TO DIE
I WAS not long in the pits of Tjanath before warriors came, and, removing my fetters, led me from my dungeon. There were only two of them and I could not but note their carelessness and the laxness of their discipline as they escorted me to an upper level of the palace, but at the time I thought it meant only that the attitude of the officials had altered and that I was to be free.
There was nothing remarkable about the palace of the Jed of Tjanath. It was a poor place by comparison with the palaces of some of the great nobles of Helium, yet never before, I imagined, had I challenged with greater interest every detail of architecture, every corridor and doorway, or the manners, harness and decorations of the people that passed us, for, though in my heart was the hope that I was about to be free, yet I considered this place my prison and these people my jailers, and, as my one object in life was to escape, I was determined to let no detail elude my eye that might possibly in any way aid me if the time should come when I must make a break for liberty.
It was such thoughts that were uppermost in my mind as I was ushered through wide portals into the presence of a bejeweled warrior. As my eyes first alighted upon him I knew at once that I was in the presence of Haj Osis, Jed of Tjanath.
As my guard halted me before him, the Jed scrutinized me intently with that air of suspicion which is his most marked characteristic.
“Your name and country?” he demanded.
“I am Hadron of Hastor, padwar in the navy of Helium,” I replied.
“You are from Jahar,” he accused. “You came here from Jahar with a woman of Jahar in a flier of Jahar. Can you deny it?”
I told Haj Osis in detail everything that had led up to my arrival at Tjanath. I told him Tavia’s story as well, and I must at least credit him with listening to me in patience, though I was constantly impressed by a feeling that my appeal was being directed at a mind already so prejudiced against me that nothing that I might say could alter its convictions.
The chiefs and courtiers that surrounded the Jed evidenced open skepticism in their manner until I became convinced that fear of Tul Axtar so obsessed them that they were unable to consider intelligently any matter connected with the activities of the Jeddak of Jahar. Terror made them suspicious and suspicion sees everything through distorted lenses.
When I had finished my story, Haj Osis ordered me removed from the room and I was held in a small ante-chamber for some time while, I imagined, he discussed my case with his advisors.
When I was again ushered into his presence I felt that the whole atmosphere of the chamber was charged with antagonism, as for the second time I was halted before the dais upon which the Jed sat in his carved throne-chair.
“The laws of Tjanath are just,” proclaimed Haj Osis, glaring at me, “and the Jed of Tjanath is merciful. The enemies of Tjanath shall receive justice, but they may not expect mercy. You, who call yourself Hadron of Hastor, have been adjudged a spy of our most malignant enemy, Tul Axtar of Jahar, and as such I, Haj Osis, Jed of Tjanath, sentence you to die The Death. I have spoken.” With an imperious gesture he signaled the guards to remove me.
There was no appeal. My doom was sealed, and in silence I turned and left the chamber, escorted by a guard of warriors, but for the honor of Helium I may say that my step was firm and my chin high.
On my return to the pits I questioned the padwar in charge of my escort relative to Tavia, but if the fellow knew aught of her, he refused to divulge it to me and presently I found myself again fettered in the gloomy dungeon by the side of Nur An of Jahar.
“Well?” he asked.
“The Death,” I replied.
He extended a manacled hand through the darkness and placed it upon one of mine. I am sorry, my friend,” he said.
“Man has but one life,” I replied; “if he is permitted to give it in a good cause, he should not complain.”
“You die for a woman,” he said.
“I die for a woman of Helium,” I corrected.
“Perhaps we shall die together,” he said. “What do you mean?”
“While you were gone a messenger came from the major domo of the palace advising me to make peace with my ancestors as I should die The Death in a short time.”
“I wonder what The Death is like,” I said.
“I do not know,” replied Nur An, “but from the awe-hushed tones in which they mention it, I imagine that it must be very terrible.”
“Torture, do you imagine?” I asked.
“Perhaps,” he replied.
“They will find that the men of Helium who know so well how to live, know also how to die,” I said.
“I shall hope to render a good account of myself also,” said Nur An. I shall not give them the satisfaction of knowing that I suffer. Still, I wish I might know beforehand what it is like that I might better be prepared to meet it.”
“Let us not depress our thoughts by dwelling upon it,” I suggested. “Let us rather take the part of men and consider only plans for thwarting our enemies and effecting our escape.”
“I am afraid that is hopeless,” he said.
“I may answer that,” I said, “in the famous words of John Carter: ‘I still live!'”
“The blind philosophy of absolute courage,” he said admiringly, “but yet futile.”
“It served him well many a time,” I insisted, “for it gave him the will to attempt the impossible and to succeed. We still live, Nur An; do not forget that—we still live!”
“Make the best of it while you can,” said a gruff voice from the corridor, “for it will not long be true.”
The speaker entered our dungeon—a warrior of the guard, and with him was a single companion. I wondered how much of our conversation they had overheard, but I was soon reassured, for the very next words of the warrior that had first spoken revealed the fact that they had heard nothing but my assertion that we still lived.
“What did you mean by that,” he asked, “‘remember, Nur An, we still live?'”
I pretended not to hear his question and he did not repeat it, but came directly to me and unlocked my fetters. As he turned to unlock those which held Nur An, he turned his back to me and I could not but note his inexcusable carelessness. His companion lolled at the doorway while the first warrior bent over the padlock that held the fetters of Nur An.
My ancestors were kind to me; little had I expected such an opportunity as this, yet I waited—like a great banth ready to spring I waited until he should have released Nur An, and then, as the fetters fell away from my companion, I flung myself upon the back of the warrior. He sprawled forward upon his face on the stone flagging, falling heavily beneath my weight, and as he did so I snatched his dagger from its sheath and plunged it between his shoulder blades. With a single cry he died, but I had no fear that the echo of that cry would carry upward out of the gloomy pits of Tjanath to warn his fellows upon the level above.
But the fellow’s companion had seen and heard and with a bound he was across the dungeon, his long sword ready in his hand, and now I was to see the mettle of which Nur An was made.
The affair had occurred so quickly, like a bolt of lightning out of a clear sky, that any man might have been excused had he been momentarily stunned into inactivity by the momentousness of my act, but Nur An was guilty of no fatal delay. As though we had planned the thing together it seemed that he leaped forward the instant that I sprang for the warrior and ran to meet his companion. Barehanded, he faced the long sword of his antagonist.
The gloom of the dungeon reduced the advantage of the armed man. He saw a figure leaping to meet his attack and in the excitement of the moment and in the dark of the cell, he did not know that Nur An was unarmed. He hesitated, paused and stepped back to receive the impetuous attack coming out of the darkness, and in that instant I had whipped the long sword of the fallen warrior from its scabbard and was charging the fellow at a slightly different angle from Nur An.
An instant later we were engaged and I found the fellow no mean swordsman; yet from the instant that our blades crossed I knew that I was his master and be must soon have realized it, too, for he fell back, fully on the defensive, evidently bent upon escaping to the corridor. This, however, I was determined not to permit and so I pressed him so closely that he dared not turn to run; nor did he call for help, and this, I guess, was because he realized the futility of so doing.