A Fighting Man of Mars (Barsoom #7)

Page 22

At first it was difficult to accustom myself to my invisibility and as I suddenly entered an apartment in which there were several people, my first impulse was to turn and flee, but though I had stepped directly into the view of one of the occupants of the room and at a distance of little more than five or six feet without attracting his attention, although his eyes were apparently directly upon me, my confidence was quickly restored. I continued on across the room as nonchalantly as though I had been in my own quarters in Helium.

The royal apartment seemed interminable and though I was constantly seeking a way out of them into one of the main corridors of the palace, I was instead constantly stumbling into places where I did not care to be and where I had no business, sometimes with considerable embarrassment, as when I entered a cozy, private apartment in the women’s quarters at a moment when I was convinced they were not expecting strange gentlemen.

I would not turn back, however, for I had no time to lose, and crossing the room I followed another short corridor only to leap from the frying pan into the fire—I had entered the forbidden apartment of the Jeddara herself. It is a good thing for the royal lady that it was I and not Haj Osis who came thus unexpectedly upon her, for her position was most compromising, and from his harness I judged that her good looking companion was a slave. In disgust I retreated, for there was no other exit from the apartment, and presently I stumbled, entirely by accident, upon one of the main corridors of the palace—a busy corridor filled with slaves, warriors and courtiers, with men, women and children passing to and fro upon whatever business called them, or perhaps seated upon the carved benches that lined the walls.

I was not yet accustomed to my new and surprising state of invisibility. I could see the people about me and it seemed inevitable that I must be seen. For a moment I had hesitated in the doorway that had led me to the corridor. A slave girl, approaching along the corridor, turned suddenly toward the doorway where I stood. She was looking directly at me, yet her gaze appeared to pass entirely through me. For an instant I was filled with consternation, and then, realizing that she was about to collide with me, I stepped quickly to one side. She passed by me, but it was evident that she sensed my presence for she paused and looked quickly about, an expression of surprise in her eyes. Then, to my immense relief, she passed through the doorway. She had not seen me, though doubtless she had heard me as I stepped aside. With a feeling of renewed confidence I now joined the throng in the corridor, threading my way in and out among the people to avoid contact with them and searching diligently all the while for the entrance to a ramp leading upward. This I presently discovered, and it was not long thereafter that I reached the upper level of the palace, where a short search brought me to the guard room at the foot of the ramp leading to the royal hangars.

Idling in the guard room, the warriors then off duty were engaged in various pursuits. Some where cleaning their harness and polishing their metal; two were playing at jetan, while others were rolling tiny numbered spheres at a group of numbered holes—a fascinating game of chance, called yano, which is, I presume, almost as old as Barsoomian civilization. The room was filled with the laughter and oaths of fighting men. How alike are warriors the world over! But for their harness and their metal they might have been a detachment of the palace guard at Helium.

Passing among them I ascended the ramp to the roof where the hangars stood. Two warriors on duty at the top of the ramp almost blocked my further progress. It would be a narrow squeeze to pass between them and I feared detection. As I paused I could not but overhear their conversation.

“I tell you that he was struck from behind,” said one. “He never knew what killed him,” and I knew that they were talking about the guardsman I had killed.

“But from whence came his assassin?” demanded the other.

“The padwar believes it may have been a fellow member of the guard. There will be an investigation and we shall all be questioned.”

“It was not I,” said the other. “He was my best friend.”

“Nor was it I.”

“He had a way with women. Perhaps—”

My attention was distracted and their conversation terminated by the footsteps of a warrior running rapidly up the ramp. My position was now most precarious. The ramp was narrow and the man coming from behind might easily bump into me. I must, therefore, pass the sentries immediately and make my way to the roof. There was just sufficient room between the warrior at my left and the sidewall of the ramp for me to pass through, if he did not step back, and with all the stealth that I could summon I edged myself slowly behind him and you may rest assured that I breathed a sigh of relief when I had passed him.

The warrior ascending the ramp had now reached the two men. “The assassin of the hangar sentry has been discovered,” he said.

“He is none other than the spy from Jahar who called himself Hadron of Hastor and who, with the other spy, Nur An, was sentenced to die The Death. Through some miracle he escaped and has returned to the palace of Haj Osis. Besides the hangar sentry, he has slain Yo Seno, but he was captured after attacking the prince, Haj Alt. Again he has escaped and he is now at large in the palace. The padwar of the guard has sent me to direct you to redouble your watchfulness. Great will be the reward of him who captures Hadron of Hastor, dead or alive.”

“By my metal, I’d like to see him try to escape this way,” said one of the sentries.

“He’ll never come here by daylight.”

I smiled as I walked quickly toward the hangar. To reach the roof without disarranging my robe of invisibility was difficult, but I finally accomplished it. Before me lay the empty roof; no ship was in sight, but I smiled again to myself, knowing well that it was there. I looked about for the eye of the periscope that would reveal the craft’s presence to me, but it was not visible. However, that did not concern me greatly since I realized that it might be turned in the opposite direction. It was only necessary for me to walk where I had left the ship, and this I did, feeling ahead of me with extended hands.

I crossed the roof from one side to the other, but found no ship. That I was perplexed goes without saying. I most certainly knew where I had left the ship, but it no longer was there. Perhaps a wind had moved it slightly, and with this thought in mind I searched another section of the roof, but with equal disappointment. By now I was truly apprehensive, and thereupon I set about a systematic search of the roof until I had covered every square foot of it and was convinced beyond doubt that the worst of disasters had befallen me—my ship was gone; but where? Indeed the compound of invisibility had its drawbacks. My ship might be and probably was at no great distance from me, yet I could not see it. A gentle wind was blowing from the southwest. If my ship had risen from the roof, it would drift in a northeasterly direction, but though I strained my eyes toward that point of the compass I could discern nothing of the tiny eye of the periscope.

I must admit that for a moment I was well-nigh discouraged. It seemed that always when success was about within my grasp some malign fate snatched it from me, but presently I shook this weak despondency from me and with squared shoulders faced the future and whatever it might bring.

For a few moments I considered my position in all its aspects and sought to discover the best solution of my problem. I must rescue Tavia, but I felt that it would be useless to attempt to do so without a ship, therefore I must have a ship, and I knew that ships were just beneath me in the royal hangars. At night these hangars would be closed and locked and watched over by sentries in the bargain. If I would have a ship I must take it now and depend upon the swiftness and boldness of my act for its success.

Royal fliers are usually fast fliers and if the ships of Haj Osis were no exception to this general Barsoomian rule, I might hope to outdistance pursuit could I but pass the hangar sentry.

Of one thing I was certain, I could not accomplish that by remaining upon the roof of the hangar and so I cautiously descended, choosing a moment when the attention of the sentries was directed elsewhere, for there was always danger that my robe might blow aside, revealing my limbs.

Once on the roof again I slipped quickly into the hangar and inspecting the ships I selected one that I was sure would carry four with case, and which, from its lines, gave token of considerable speed.

Clambering to the deck I took my place at the controls; very gradually I elevated the ship about a foot from the floor; then I opened the throttle wide.

Directly ahead of me, through the open doorways of the hangar, the sentries were standing upon the opposite side of the room. As the ship leaped into the sunlight they voiced simultaneously a cry of surprise and alarm. Like brave warriors they sprang forward with drawn long swords and I could see that they were going to try to board me before I could gain altitude, but presently one of them halted wide-eyed and stood aside.

“Blood of our first ancestors!” he cried. “There is no one at the controls.”

The second man had evidently discovered this simultaneously, for he, too, shrank aside, and with whirling propeller I shot upward from the royal hangar of the Jed of Tjanath.

But only for an instant were the two sentries overwhelmed by astonishment. Immediately I heard the shriek of sirens and the clang of great gongs and then, glancing behind, I saw that already they had launched a flier in pursuit. It was a two-man flier and almost immediately I realized that it was far swifter than the one I had chosen, and then to make matters even worse for me I saw patrol boats arising from hangars located elsewhere upon the palace roof. That they all saw my ship and were converging upon it was evident; escape seemed impossible; each way I turned a patrol boat was approaching; already I had been driven into an ascending spiral, my eyes constantly alert for any avenue of escape that might open to me.

How hopeless it looked! My ship was too slow; my pursuers too many.

It would not be long now, I thought, and at that very instant I saw something off my port bow at a little greater altitude that gave me one of the greatest thrills I had ever experienced in my life. It was only a little round eye of glass, but to me it meant life and more than life, for it might mean also life and happiness for Tavia—and of course for Sanoma Tora.

A patrol boat coming diagonally from below was almost upon me as I drew my flier beneath that floating eye, judging the distance so nicely that I just had clearance for my head beneath the keel of my own ship. Locating one of the hatches, which were so constructed that they opened either from the inside or the out, I scrambled quickly into the interior of the Jhama, as Phor Tak had christened it.

Closing the hatch and springing to the controls, I rose quickly out of immediate danger. Then, standing to one side, I watched my former pursuers.

I could read the consternation in their faces as they came alongside the royal flier that I had stolen, and realized that it was unmanned. Not having seen either me or my ship, they must have been hard put to it to find any sort of an explanation for the phenomenon.

As I watched them I found it constantly necessary to change my position, owing to the number of patrol boats and other craft that congregating. I did not wish to leave the vicinity of the palace entirely for it was my intention to remain here until after dark when I should make an attempt to take Tavia and Phao aboard the Jhama. I also had it in my mind to reconnoiter the east tower during the day and try to get into communication with Tavia if possible. It was already the fifth zode. In fifty xats (three hours) the sun would set.

I wished to initiate my plan of rescue as soon after dark as possible, as experience had taught me that plans do not always develop as smoothly in execution as they do in contemplation.

A warrior from one of the patrol ships had boarded the royal craft that I had purloined and was returning it to the hangar. Some of the ships were following and others were returning to their stations. A single patrol boat remained cruising about and as I watched it I suddenly became aware that a young officer standing upon its deck had espied the eye of my periscope. I saw him pointing toward it and immediately thereafter the craft altered its course and came directly toward me. This was not so good and I lost no time in moving to one side, turning the eye of my periscope away from them so that they could not see it or follow me.

I moved a short distance out of their course and then swung my periscope toward them again. To my astonishment I discovered that they, too, had altered their course and were following me.

Now I rose swiftly and took a new direction, but when I looked again the craft was bearing down upon me and not only that, but she was training a gun on me.

What had happened? It was evident that something had gone wrong and that I was no longer clothed in total invisibility, but whatever it was, it was too late now to rectify it even if I could. I had but a single recourse and I prayed to my first ancestor that it might not now be too late to put it into execution. Should they fire upon me, I was lost.

I brought the Jhama to a full stop and sprang quickly aft to where the rear rifle was mounted on a platform just within the after turret.

In that instant I had occasion to rejoice in the foresight that had prompted me to rearrange the projectiles properly against the necessity for instant use in such an emergency as this. Selecting one, I jammed it into the chamber and closed the breech block. The turret, crudely and hastily constructed though it had been, responded to my touch and an instant later my sight covered the approaching patrol vessel, and through the tiny opening provided for the sight I witnessed the effect of my first shot with Phor Tak’s disintegrating ray rifle.

I had used a metal disintegrating projectile and the result was appalling.

I loved a ship and it tore my heart to see that staunch craft fall apart in midair as its metal parts disappeared before the disintegrating ray.

But that was not all, as wood and leather and fabric sank with increasing swiftness toward the ground, brave warriors hurtled to their doom. It was horrifying.

I am a true son of Barsoom; I joy in battle; armed conflict is my birthright, and war the goal of my ambition, but this was not war; it was murder.

I took no joy in my victory as I had when I laid Yo Seno low in mortal combat, and now, more than ever, was I determined that this frightful instrument of destruction must in some way be forever banned upon Barsoom. War with such a weapon completely hidden by the compound of invisibility would be too horrible to contemplate. Navies, cities, whole nations could be wiped out by a single battle thus equipped. The mad dream of Phor Tak might easily come true and a maniac yet rule all Barsoom.

But meditation and philosophizing were not for me at this time. I had work to do and though it necessitated wiping out all Tjanath, I purposed doing it.