A Fighting Man of Mars (Barsoom #7)

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He told us the story of his wanderings after he had left Jahar and of how he had stumbled upon this long deserted castle, whose builder and occupants had left no record other than their bones. He told us that when he discovered it skeletons had strewn the courtyard and in the main entrance were piled the bones of a score of warriors, attesting the fierce defense that the occupants had waged against some unknown enemy, while in many of the upper rooms he had found other skeletons—the skeletons of women and children.

“I believe,” he said, “that the place was beset by members of some savage horde of green warriors that left not a single survivor. The courts and gardens were overgrown with weeds and the interior of the building was filled with dust, but otherwise little damage had been done. I call it Jhama, and here I am carrying on my life’s work.”

“And that?” I asked.

“Revenge upon Tul Axtar,” said the old man. “I gave him the disintegrating ray; I gave him the insulating paint that protects his own ships and weapons from it, and now some day I shall give him something else—something that will be as revolutionary in the art of war as the disintegrating ray itself; something that will cast the fleet of Jahar broken wrecks upon the ground; something that will search out the palace of Tul Axtar and bury the tyrant beneath its ruins.”

We had not been long at Jhama before both Nur An and I became convinced that Phor Tak’s mind was at least slightly deranged from long brooding over the wrongs inflicted upon him by Tul Axtar; though naturally possessed of a kindly disposition he was obsessed by a maniacal desire to wreak vengeance upon the tyrant with utter disregard of the consequences to himself and to others. Upon this single subject he was beyond the influence of reason and having established to his own satisfaction that Nur An and I were potential factors in the successful accomplishment of his design, he would fly into a perfect frenzy of rage whenever I broached the subject of our departure.

Fretting as I was beneath the urge to push on to Jahar and the rescue of Sanoma Tora, I could but illy brook this enforced delay, but Phor Tak was adamant—he would not permit me to depart—and the absolute loyalty of his slaves made it possible for him to enforce his will. In our bearing he explained to them that we were guests, honored guest as long as we made no effort to depart without his permission, but should they discover us in an attempt to leave Jhama surreptitiously they were to destroy us.

Nur An and I discussed the matter at length. We had discovered that four thousand haads of difficult and unfriendly country lay between us and Jahar. Being without a ship and without thoats there was little likelihood that we should be able to reach Jahar in time to be of service to Sanoma Tora, if we ever reached it at all, and so we agreed to bide our time, impressing Phor Tak with our willingness to aid him in the hope that eventually we should be able to enlist his aid and support, and so successful were we that within a short time we had so won the confidence of the old scientist that we began to entertain hope that he would take us into his innermost confidence and reveal the nature of the instrument of destruction which he was preparing for Tul Axtar.

I must admit that I was principally interested in his invention because I was confident that in order to utilize it against Tul Axtar he must find some means of transporting it to Jahar and in this I saw an opportunity for reaching the capital of the tyrant myself.

We had been in Jhama about ten days during which time Phor Tak exhibited signs of extreme nervousness and irritability. He kept us with him practically all of the time that he was not closeted in the innermost recesses of his secret laboratory.

During the evening meal upon the tenth day Phor Tak seemed more distraught than ever. Talking, as usual, interminably about his hatred of Tul Axtar, his countenance assumed an expression of maniacal fury.

“But I am helpless,” he almost screamed at last. “I am helpless because there is no one to whom I may entrust my secret, who also has the courage and intelligence to carry out my plan. I am too old, too weak to undergo the hardships that would mean nothing to young men like you, but which must be undergone if I am to fulfill my destiny as the savior of Jahar. If I could but trust you! If I could but trust you!”

“Perhaps you can, Phor Tak,” I suggested.

The words or my tone seemed to soothe him. “Heigh-oo! he exclaimed. “Sometimes I almost think that I can.”

“We have a common aim,” I said; “or at least different aims which converge at the same point—Jahar. Let us work together then. We wish to reach Jahar. If you can help us, we will help you.”

He sat in silent thought for a long moment. “I’ll do it,” he said. “Heigh-oo! I’ll do it. Come,” and rising from his chair he led us toward the locked doorway that barred the entrance to his secret laboratory.

 

X.— THE FLYING DEATH

PHOR TAK’S laboratory occupied an entire wing of the building and consisted of a single, immense room fully fifty feet in height. His benches, tables, instruments and cabinets, located in one corner, were lost in the great interior. Near the ceiling and encircling the room was a single track from which was suspended a miniature cruiser, painted the ghastly blue of Jahar. Upon one of the benches was a cylindrical object about as long as one’s hand. These were the only noticeable features of the laboratory other than its immense emptiness.

As Phor Tak ushered us within he closed the door behind him and I heard the ominous click of the ponderous lock. There was something depressing in the suggestiveness of the situation induced, perhaps, by our knowledge that Phor Tak was mad and accentuated by the eerie mystery of the vasty chamber.

Leading us to the bench upon which lay the cylindrical object which had attracted my attention, he lifted it carefully, almost caressingly, from its resting place. “This,” he said, “is a model of the device that will destroy Jahar. In it you behold the concentrated essence of scientific achievement. In appearance it is but a small metal cylinder, but within it is a mechanism as delicate and as sensitive as the human brain and you will perceive that it functions almost as though animated by a mind within itself, but it is purely mechanical and may be produced in quantities quickly and at low cost. Before I explain it further I shall demonstrate one phase of its possibilities. Watch!”

Still holding the cylinder in his hand, Phor Tak stepped to a shallow cabinet against the wall and opening it revealed an elaborate equipment of switches, levers and push buttons. “Now watch the miniature flier suspended from the track near the ceiling,” he directed, at the same time closing a switch. Immediately the flier commenced to travel along the track at considerable speed. Now Phor Tak pressed a button upon the top of the cylinder, which immediately sped from his extended palm, turned quickly in the air and rushed straight for the speeding flier. Slowly the distance between the two closed; the cylinder, curving gradually into the line of flight of the flier, was now trailing directly behind it, its pointed nose but a few feet from the stern of the miniature ship. Then Phor Tak pulled a tiny lever upon his switchboard and the flier leaped forward at accelerated speed. Instantly the speed of the cylinder increased and I could see that it was gaining in velocity much more rapidly than the flier. Half way around the room again its nose struck the stem of the fleeing craft with sufficient severity to cause the ship to tremble from stem to stern; then the cylinder fell away and floated gently toward the floor. Phor Tak opened a switch that stopped the flier in its flight and then, running forward, caught the descending cylinder in his hand.

“This model,” he explained, as he returned to where we stood, “is so constructed that when it makes contact with the flier it will float gently downward to the floor, but as you have doubtless fully realized ere this, the finished product in practical use will explode upon contact with the ship. Note these tiny buttons with which it is covered. When any one of these comes in contact with an object the model stops and descends, whereas the full-sized device, properly equipped, will explode, absolutely demolishing whatever it may have come in contact with. As you are aware every substance in the universe has its own fixed vibratory rate. This mechanism can be so attuned as to be attracted by the vibratory rate of any substance. The model, for example, is attracted by the blue protective paint with which the flier is covered. Imagine a fleet of Jaharian warship moving majestically through the air in battle formation. From an enemy ship or from the ground and at a distance so far as to be unobservable by the ships of Jahar, I release as many of these devices as there are ships in the fleet, allowing a few moments to elapse between launchings. The first torpedo rushes toward the fleet and destroys the nearest ship. All the torpedoes in the rear, strung out in line, are attracted by the combined masses of all the blue protecting coverings of the entire fleet. The first ship is falling to the ground and though all of its paint may not have been destroyed, it has not the power to deflect any of the succeeding torpedoes, which one by one destroy the nearest of the remaining ships until the fleet has been absolutely erased. I have destroyed a great fleet without risking the life of a single man of my own following.”

“But they will see the torpedoes coming,” suggested Nur An, and they will devise some defense. Even gunfire might stop many of them.”

“Heigh-oo! But I have thought of that,” cackled Phor Tak. He laid the torpedo upon a bench and opened another cabinet.

In this cabinet were a number of receptacles, some tightly sealed and others opened, revealing their contents which appeared to be different colored paints. From a number of these receptacles protruded the handles of paint brushes. One such handle, however, appeared to hang in midair, a few inches above one of the shelves, while just beneath it was a section of the rim of a receptacle that also appeared to be resting upon nothing. Phor Tak placed his open hand directly beneath this floating rim and when he removed his hand from the cabinet, the rim of the receptacle and the portion of the handle of the paint brush, floating just above it, followed, hovering just over his extended fingers, which were cupped in the position that they might assume were they holding a glass jar, such as would ordinarily have belonged to a rim like that which I could see floating about an inch above his fingers.

Going to the bench where he had laid the cylinder, Phor Tak went through the motions of setting a jar upon it, and, though there was no jar visible other than the floating rim, I distinctly heard a noise that was identical with the sound which the bottom of a glass jar would have made in coming in contact with the bench.

I can assure you that I was greatly mystified, but still more so by the events immediately following. Phor Tak seized the handle of the paint brush and made a pass a few inches above the metal torpedo. Instantly a portion of the torpedo, about an inch wide and three or four inches long, disappeared. Pass after pass he made until finally the whole surface of the torpedo had disappeared. Where it had rested the bench was empty. Phor Tak returned the handle of the paint brush to its floating position just above the floating jar rim and then he turned to us with an expression of child-like pride upon his face, as much to say, “Well, what do you think of that? Am I not wonderful?” And I was certainly forced to concede that it was wonderful and that I was entirely baffled and mystified by what I had seen.

“There, Nur An,” exclaimed Phor Tak, “is the answer to your criticism of The Flying Death.”

“I do not understand,” said Nur An with a puzzled expression upon his face.

“Heigh-oo!” cried Phor Tak. “Have you not seen me render the device invisible?”

“But it is gone,” said Nur An.

Phor Tak laughed his high cackling laugh. “It is still there,” he said, “but you cannot see it. Here,” and he took Nur An’s hand and guided it toward the spot where the device had been.

I could see Nur An’s fingers apparently feeling over the surface of something several inches above the top of the table. “By my first ancestor, it is still there!” he exclaimed.

“It is wonderful,” I exclaimed. “You did not even touch it; you merely made passes above it with the handle of a paint brush and it disappeared.”

“But I did touch it,” insisted Phor Tak. “The brush was there, but you did not see it because it was covered by the substance which renders the Flying Death invisible. Notice this transparent glass receptacle in which I keep the compound of invisibility and all that you can see of it is that part of the rim which, by chance, has not been coated with the compound.”

“Marvelous!” I exclaimed. “Even now, although I have witnessed it with my own eyes I can scarce conceive of the possibility of such a miracle.”

“It is no miracle,” said Phor Tak. “It is merely the application of scientific principles well known to me for hundreds of years. Nothing moves in straight lines; light, vision, electromagnetic forces follow lines that curve. The compound of invisibility merely bows outward the reflected light, which, entering our eyes and impinging upon our optic nerves, results in the phenomenon which we call vision, so that they pass around any object which is coated with the compound. When I first started to apply the compound to The Flying Death, your line of vision was deflected around the small portions so coated, but when I coated the entire surface of the torpedo, the curve of your vision passed completely around it on both sides so that you could plainly see the bench upon which it was resting precisely as though the device had not been there.”

I was astounded at the apparent simplicity of the explanation, and, naturally, being a soldier, I saw the tremendous advantage that the possession of these two scientific secrets would impart to the nation which controlled them. For the safety; yes, for the very existence of Helium, I must possess them and if that were impossible, then Phor Tak must be destroyed before the secret of this infernal power could be passed on to any other nation. Perhaps I could so ingratiate myself with old Phor Tak as to be able to persuade him to turn these secrets over to Helium in return for Helium’s assistance in the work of wreaking his vengeance upon Tul Axtar.

“Phor Tak,” I said, “you hold here within your grasp two secrets which in the hands of a kindly and beneficent power would bring eternal peace to Barsoom.”

“Heigh-oo! he cried. I do not want peace. I want war. War! War!”

“Very well,” I agreed, realizing that my suggestion had not been in line with the mad processes of his crazed brain. “Let us have war then, and what country upon Barsoom is better equipped to wage war than Helium? If you want war, form an alliance with Helium.”

“I do not need Helium,” he cried. “I do not need to form alliances. I shall make war—I shall make war alone. With the invisible Flying Death I can destroy whole navies, whole cities, entire nations. I shall start with Jahar. Tul Axtar shall be the first to feel the weight of my devastating powers. When the fleet of Jahar has tumbled upon the roofs of Jahar and the walls of Jahar have fallen about the ears of Tul Axtar, then shall I destroy Tjanath. Helium shall know me next. Proud and mighty Helium shall tremble and bow at the feet of Phor Tak. I shall be Jeddak of Jeddaks, ruler of a world.” As he spoke his voice rose to a piercing shriek and he trembled in the grip of the frenzy that held him.

He must be destroyed, not alone for the sake of Helium, but for the sake of all Barsoom; this mad mind must be removed if I found that it was impossible to direct or cajole it to my own ends. I determined, however, to omit no sacrifice that might tend to bring about a satisfactory conclusion to this strange adventure. I knew that mad minds were sometimes fickle minds and I hoped that in a moment of insane caprice Phor Tak might reveal to me the secret of the Flying Death and the compound of invisibility. This hope was his temporary reprieve from death; its fulfillment would be his pardon, but I knew that I must work warily—that at the slightest suggestion of duplicity, Phor Tak’s suspicions would be aroused and that I should then be the one to be destroyed.