A Fighting Man of Mars (Barsoom #7)

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I tossed long upon my sleeping silks and furs that night in troubled thought and planning. I felt that I must possess these secrets; yet how? That they existed within his brain alone, I knew, for he had told me that there were no written formulas, or plans or specifications for either of them. Somehow I must wheedle them out of him and the best way to start was to ingratiate myself with him. To this end I must further his plans insofar as I possibly could.

Just before I fell asleep my thoughts reverted to Sanoma Tora and to the urgent mission that had led me to enter upon what had developed into the strangest adventure of my career. I felt a twinge of self-reproach as I suddenly realized that Sanoma Tora had not been uppermost in my mind while I had lain there making plans for the future, but now with recollection of her a plan was suggested whereby I might not only succor her but also advance myself in the good graces of Phor Tak at the same time, and, thus relieved, I fell asleep.

It was late the following morning before I had an opportunity to speak with the old inventor when I immediately broached the subject that was uppermost in my mind. “Phor Tak,” I said, “you are handicapped by lack of knowledge of conditions existing in Jahar and the size and location of the fleet. Nur An and I will go to Jahar for you and obtain the information that you must have if your plans are to be successful. In this way, Nur An and I will also be striking a blow at Tul Axtar while we will be in a position to attend to those matters which require our presence in Jahar.”

“But how will you get to Jahar?” demanded Phor Tak.

“Could not you let us take a flier?” I asked.

“I have none,” replied Phor Tak. “I know nothing about them. I am not interested in them. I could not even build one.”

To say that I was both surprised and shocked would be putting it mildly, but if I had previously entertained any doubts that Phor Tak’s brain was abnormally developed, it would have vanished with his admission that he knew nothing about fliers, for it seemed to me that there was scarcely a man, woman or child in any of the flying nations of Barsoom but could have constructed some sort of a flier.

“But how without fliers did you expect to transport The Flying Death to the vicinity of the Jaharian fleet? How did you expect to demolish the palace of Tul Axtar, or reduce the city of Jahar to ruins?

“Now that you and Nur An are here to help me, I can set my slaves to work under you and easily turn out a dozen torpedoes a day. As these are completed they will immediately be launched and eventually they will find their way to Jahar and the fleet. Of that there is no doubt, even if it takes a year they will eventually find their prey.”

“If nothing chances to get in their way,” I suggested; “but even so what pleasure will you derive from your revenge if you are unable to witness any part of it?”

“Heigh-oo! I have thought of that,” replied Phor Tak, “but one may not have everything.”

“You may have that,” I told him.

“And how?” he demanded.

“By taking your torpedoes aboard a ship and flying to Jahar,” I replied.

“No,” he exclaimed stubbornly, “I shall do it my own way. What right have you to interfere with my plans?”

“I merely want to help you,” I said, attempting to mollify him by a conciliatory tone and attitude.

“And there is another thought,” said Nur An, “that suggests that it might be expedient to follow Hadron’s plans.”

“You are both against me,” said Phor Tak.

“By no means,” Nur An assured him. “It is our keen desire to aid you that prompts the suggestion.”

“Well, what is yours then?” asked the old man.

“Your plan contemplates the destruction of the navies of Tjanath and Helium following the fall of Jahar,” exclaimed Nur An. “This, at least in respect to the navy of Helium, you cannot possibly hope to accomplish at so great a distance and without any knowledge of the number of ships to be destroyed, nor will your torpedoes be similarly attracted to them as they are to the ships of Jahar because the ships of these other nations are not protected by the blue paint of Jahar. It will, therefore, be necessary for you to proceed to the vicinity of Tjanath and later to Helium and for your own protection you will use the blue paint of Jahar upon your ship, for you may never be certain unless you are on the ground at the time that you have destroyed all of the navy of Jahar, or all of their disintegrating ray rifles.”

“That is true,” said Phor Tak thoughtfully.

“And furthermore,” continued Nur An, “if you dispatch more than the necessary number of torpedoes, those that remain at large will certainly be attracted by the blue paint of your own ship and you will be destroyed by your own devices.”

“You ruin all my plans,” screamed Phor Tak. “Why did you think of this?”

“If I had not thought of it you would have been destroyed,” Nur An reminded him.

“Well, what am I to do about it? I have no ship. I cannot build a ship.”

“We can get you one,” I said.

“How?”

The conversation between Nur An and Phor Tak had suggested a plan to me and this I now explained roughly to them. Nur An was enthusiastic over the idea, but Phor Tak was not particularly keen for it. I could not understand the grounds for his objection, nor, as a matter of fact, did they interest me greatly since he finally admitted that he would be compelled to act in accordance with my suggestion.

Immediately adjacent to Phor Tak’s laboratory was a well equipped machine shop and here Nur An and I labored for weeks utilizing the services of a dozen slaves until we had succeeded in constructing what I am sure was the most remarkable looking airship that it had ever fallen to my lot to behold. Briefly, it was a cylinder pointed at each end and closely resembled the model of The Flying Death. Within the outer shell was another smaller cylinder; between the walls of these two we placed the buoyancy tanks. The tanks and the sides of the two envelopes were pierced by observation ports along each side of the ship and at the bow and stern. These ports could be completely covered by shutters hinged upon the outside, but operated from within. There were two hatchways in the keel and two above which led to a narrow walkway along the top of the cylinder. In turrets, forward, and aft were mounted two disintegrating ray rifles. Above the controls was a periscope that transmitted an image of all that came within its range to a ground glass plate in front of the pilot. The entire outside of the ship was first painted the ghastly blue that would protect it from the disintegrating ray rifles of Jahar, while over this was spread a coating of the compound of invisibility. The shutters that covered the ports being similarly coated, the ship could attain practically total invisibility by closing them, the only point remaining visible being the tiny eye of the periscope.

Not possessing sufficient technical knowledge to enable me to build one of the new type motors, I had to content myself with one of the old types of much less efficiency.

At last the work was done. We had a ship that would accommodate four with ease and it was uncanny to realize this fact and yet, at the same time, be unable to see anything but the tiny eyes of the periscope when the covers were lowered over the ports, and even the eye of the periscope was invisible unless it was turned in the direction of the observer.

As the work neared completion I had noticed that Phor Tak’s manner became more marked by nervousness and irritability. He found fault with everything and on several occasions he almost stopped the work upon the ship.

Now, at last, we were ready to sail. The ship was stocked with ammunition, water and provisions, and at the last minute I installed a destination control compass for which I was afterward to be devoutly thankful.

When I suggested immediate departure, however, Phor Tak demurred, but would give me no reason for his objection.

Presently, however, I lost patience and told the old man that we were going anyway whether he liked it or not.

He did not fly into a rage as I had expected, but laughed instead, and there was something in the laugh that seemed more terrible than anger.

“You think I am a fool,” he said, “and that I will let you go and carry my secrets to Tul Axtar, but you are mistaken.”

“So are you,” I snapped. “You are mistaken in thinking that we would betray you and you are also mistaken in thinking that you can prevent our departure.”

“Heigh-oo!” he cackled. “I do not need to prevent your departure, but I can prevent your arrival at Jahar or elsewhere. I have not been idle while you worked upon this ship. I have constructed a full-size Flying Death. It is attuned to search out this ship. If you depart against my wishes, it will follow and destroy you. Heigh-oo! What do you think of that?”

“I think that you are an old fool,” I cried in exasperation. “You have the opportunity to enlist the loyal aid of two honorable warriors and yet you choose to turn them into enemies.”

“Enemies who cannot harm me,” he reminded me. “I hold your lives in the hollow of my hand. Well have you concealed your thoughts from me, but not quite well enough. I have read enough of them to know that you think me mad and I have also received the impression that you would stop at nothing to prevent me from using my power against Helium. I have no doubt but that you will help me against Jahar, and against Tjanath, too, perhaps, but Helium, the mightiest and proudest empire of Barsoom, is my real goal. Helium shall proclaim me Jeddak of Jeddaks if I have to wreck a world to accomplish my design.”

“Then all our work has been for nothing?” I demanded. “We are not going to use the ship we have constructed?”

“We may use it,” he said, “but under my terms.”

“And what are they?” I asked.

“You may go alone to Jahar, but I shall keep Nur An here as hostage. If you betray me, he dies.”

There was no moving him; no amount of argument could alter his determination. I tried to convince him that one man could accomplish little, that, in fact, he might not be able to accomplish anything, but he was adamant—I should go alone or not at all.

 

XI.— “LET THE FIRE BE HOT!”

AS I arose that night into the starlit splendor of a Barsoomian night, the white castle of Phor Tak lay a lovely gem below me bathed in the soft light of Thuria. I was alone; Nur An remained behind the hostage of the mad scientist. Because of him I must return to Jhama. Nur An had exacted no promise from me, but he knew that I would return.

Twenty-five hundred haads to the east lay Jahar and Sanoma Tora. Fifteen hundred haads to the southwest were Tjanath and Tavia. I turned the nose of my flier toward the goal of duty, toward the woman I loved, and, with throttle wide, my invisible craft sped toward distant Jahar.

But my thoughts I could not control. Despite my every effort to keep them concentrated upon the purpose of my adventure, they persisted in wandering to a prison tower, to a tousled head of refractory hair, to a rounded shoulder that had once pressed mine. I shook myself to be rid of the vision as I sped through the night, but it constantly returned and in its wake came harrowing thoughts of the fate that might have overtaken Tavia during my absence.

I set my destination control compass upon Jahar, the exact position of which I had obtained from Phor Tak, and thus relieved of the necessity of constantly remaining at the controls, I busied myself about the interior of the ship. I looked to the ammunition of the disintegrating ray rifles and rearranged it to suit my own ideas.

Phor Tak had equipped me with three types of rays; one would disintegrate metal, another would disintegrate wood and the third would disintegrate human flesh. I had also brought along something which Phor Tak had refused me when I had asked him for it. I pressed the pocket pouch in which I had placed it to make sure that I still had the vial, the contents of which I imagined might prove of inestimable value to me.

I raised all the port shutters and adjusted the ventilators, for at best the interior of this strange ship seemed close and stuffy to one who was accustomed to the open deck of the fast scout fliers of Helium. Then I spread my sleeping silks and furs and settled myself down to rest, knowing that when I arrived at Jahar my destination control compass would stop the ship and an alarm would awaken me if I still slept, but sleep would not come. I thought of Sanoma Tora. I visualized her cold and stately beauty, but always her haughty eyes dissolved into the eyes of Tavia, sparkling with the joy of life, soft with the light of friendship.

I was far from Jhama when at last I sprang determinedly from my sleeping silks and furs, and going to the controls, I cut off the destination control compass and with a single, swift turn swung the nose of the flier toward Tjanath.

The die was cast. I felt that I should experience remorse and self loathing, but I experienced neither. I joyed in the thought that I was rushing to the service of a friend and I knew in the most innermost recesses of my heart that of the two, Tavia had more claim upon my friendship than had Sanoma Tora, from, whom I had received at best only scant courtesy.

I did not again try to sleep. I did not feel like sleeping; instead I remained at the controls and watched the desolate landscape as it rushed forward to pass beneath me. With the coming of dawn I saw Tjanath directly ahead of me and as I approached the city it was difficult for me to realize that I could do so with utter impunity and that my ship with its closed ports was entirely invisible. Moving slowly now, I circled above the palace of Haj Osis. Those portions of the palace that were topped by flat roofs revealed sleepy guardsmen. At the main hangar a single guardsman watched.