A Fighting Man of Mars (Barsoom #7)

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Again the sirens and the gongs raised their wild alarm; again patrol boats gathered. I felt that I must depart until after nightfall, for I had no stomach to again be forced to turn that deadly rifle upon my fellow men while any alternative existed.

As I started to turn back the controls my eyes chanced to fall upon one of the stern ports and, to my surprise, I saw that the shutter was raised. How this occurred I do not know; it has always remained a mystery, but at least it explained how it had been possible for the patrol boat to follow me. That round port hole moving through the air must have filled them with wonder, but at the same time it was a clue to follow and though they did not understand it, they, like the brave warriors that they were, followed it in the line of their duty.

I quickly closed it, and, after examining the others and finding them all closed, I was now confident that, with the exception of the small eye of my periscope, I was entirely surrounded by invisibility and hence under no immediate necessity for leaving the vicinity of the palace, as I could easily maneuver the ship to keep out of the way of the patrol boats that were now again congregating near the royal hangar.

I think they were pretty much upset by what had happened and evidently there was no unanimity of opinion as to what should be done. The patrol ships hovered about, evidently waiting orders, and it was not until almost dark that they set out in a systematic search of the air above the city; nor had they been long at this before I understood their orders as well as though I had read them myself. The lower ships moved at an altitude of not over fifty feet above the higher buildings; two hundred feet above these moved the second line. The ships at each level cruised in a series of concentric circles and in opposite directions, thereby combing the air above the city so closely that no enemy ship could possibly approach. The air below was watched by a thousand eyes; at every point of vantage sentries were on watch and upon the roof of every public building guns appeared as if by magic.

I began to be quite apprehensive that even the small eye of my periscope might not go undetected and so I dropped my ship into a little opening among some lofty trees that grew within the palace garden, and here I waited some twenty feet above the ground, my periscope completely screened from view, unseen and, in consequence, myself unseeing, until the swift night of Barsoom descended upon Tjanath; then I rose slowly from my leafy retreat.

Above the trees I paused to have a look about me through the periscope. Far above me were the twinkling lights of the circling patrol boats and from a thousand windows of the palace shone other lights. Before me rose the dark outlines of the east tower silhouetted against the starry sky.

Rising slowly I circled the tower until I had brought the Jhama opposite Tavia’s window.

My ship carried no lights, of course, and I had not switched on any of the lights within her cabin, so that I felt that I might with impunity raise one of the upper hatches, and this I did. The Jhama lay with her upper deck a foot or two beneath the sill of Tavia’s window. Before venturing from below I replaced my cloak of invisibility about me.

There was no light in Tavia’s room. I placed my ear close against the iron bars and listened. I could hear no sound. My heart sank within me. Could it be that they had removed her to some other part of the palace? Could it be that Haj Alt had come and taken her away? I shuddered at the mere suggestion and cursed the luck that had permitted him to escape my blade.

With all those eyes and ears straining through the darkness I feared to make the slightest sound, though I felt that there was little likelihood that the open hatch would be noticed in the surrounding darkness; yet I must ascertain whether or not Tavia was within that room. I leaned close against the bars and whispered her name. There was no response.

“Tavia!” I whispered, this time much louder, and it seemed to me that my voice went booming to high heaven in tones that the dead might hear.

This time I heard a response from the interior of the room. It sounded like a gasp and then I beard someone moving—approaching the window. It was so dark in the interior that I could see nothing, but presently I beard a voice close to me.

“Hadron! Where are you?”

She had recognized my voice. For some reason I thrilled to the thought of it. “Here at the window, Tavia,” I said.

She came very close. “Where?” she asked. “I cannot see you.”

I had forgotten my robe of invisibility. “Never mind,” I said. “You cannot see me, but I will explain that later. Is Phao with you?”

“Yes.”

“And no one else?”

“No.”

“I am going to take you with me, Tavia—you and Phao. Stand aside well out of line of the window so that you will not be hurt while I remove the bars. Then be ready to board my ship immediately.”

“Your ship!” she said. “Where is it?”

“Never mind now. There is a ship here. Do just as I tell you. Do you trust me?”

“With my life, Hadron, forever,” she whispered.

Something within me sang. It was more than a mere thrill; I cannot explain it; nor did I understand it, but now there were other things to think of.

“Stand aside quickly, Tavia, and keep Phao away from the window until I call you again.” Dimly I could see her figure for a moment and than I saw it withdraw from the window. Returning to the controls I brought the forward turret of the ship opposite the window, upon the bars of which I trained the rifle. I loaded it and pressed the button. Through the tiny sight aperture and because of the darkness I could see nothing of the result, but I knew perfectly well what had happened, and when I lowered the ship again and went on deck I found that the bars had vanished in thin air.

“Quick, Tavia,” I said. “Come!”

With one foot upon the deck of the flier and the other upon the sill of the window, I held the ship close to the wall of the tower and as best I could I held the cloak of invisibility like a canopy to shield the girls from sight as they boarded the Jhama.

It was difficult and risky business. I wished I might have had grappling hooks, but I had none and so I must do the best I could, holding the cloak with one hand and assisting Tavia to the sill with the other.

“There is no ship,” she said in slightly frightened tone.

“There is a ship, Tavia,” I said. “Think only of your confidence in me and do as I bid.” I grasped her firmly by the harness where the straps crossed upon her back. “Have no fear,” I said and then I swung her out over the hatch and lowered her gently into the interior of the Jhama.

Phao was behind her and I must give her credit for being as courageous as Tavia. It must have been a terrifying experience to those two girls to feel that they were being lowered into thin air a hundred feet above the ground, for they could see no ship—only a darker hole within the darkness of the night.

As soon as they were both aboard, I followed them, closing the hatch after me.

They were huddled in the darkness on the floor of the cabin, weak and exhausted from the brief ordeal through which they had just passed, but I could not take the time then to answer the questions with which I knew their heads must be filled.

If we passed the watchers on the roofs and the patrol boats above, there would be plenty of time for questions and answers. If we did not, there would be no need for either.

 

XIII. — TUL AXTAR’S WOMEN

WITH propellers moving only enough to give us headway, we moved slowly and silently from the tower. I did not dare to rise to the altitude of the circling fliers for fear of almost inevitable collision, owing to the limited range of visibility permitted by the periscope, and so I held to a course that carried me only above the roof of the lower part of the palace until I reached a broad avenue that led in an easterly direction to the outer wall of the city. I kept well down below the roofs of the buildings, where there was little likelihood of encountering other craft. Our only danger of detection now, and that was slight indeed, was that our propeller might be overheard by some of the watchers on the roofs, but the hum and drone of the propellers of the ships above the city must have drowned out whatever slight sound our slowly revolving blades gave forth, and at last we came to the gate at the end of the avenue, and rising to top its battlements, we passed out of Tjanath into the night beyond. The lights of the city and of the circling patrol boats above grew fainter and fainter as we left them far behind.

We had maintained absolute silence during our escape from the city, but as soon as our escape appeared assured, Tavia unlocked the flood gates of her curiosity. Phao’s first question was relative to Nur An. Her sigh of relief held as great assurance of her love for him as could words have done. The two listened in breathless attention to the story of our miraculous escape from The Death. Then they wanted to know all about the Jhama, the compound of invisibility and the disintegrating ray with which I had dissolved the bars from their prison window. Nor was it until their curiosity had been appeased that we were able to discuss our plans for the future.

“I feel that I should go at once to Jahar,” I said.

“Yes,” said Tavia in a low voice. “It is your duty. You must go there first and rescue Sanoma Tora.”

“If there was only some place where I might leave you and Phao in safety, I should feel that I could carry on this mission with far greater peace of mind, but I know of no other place than Jhama and I hesitate to return there and let Phor Tak know that I failed to go immediately to Jahar as I had intended. The man is quite insane. There is no telling what he might do if he learns the truth; nor am I certain that you two would be safe there in his power. He trusts only his slaves and he might easily become obsessed with an hallucination that you are spies.”

“You need not think of me at all,” said Tavia, “for no matter where you might find a place to leave us, I should not remain. The place of the slave is with her master.”

“Do not say that, Tavia. You are not my slave.”

“I am a slave girl,” she replied. “I must be someone’s slave. I prefer to be yours.”

I was touched by her loyalty, but I did not like to think of Tavia as a slave; yet however much I might loathe the idea the fact remained that she was one. “I give you your freedom, Tavia,” I said.

She smiled. “I do not want it and now that it is decided that I am to remain with you” (she had done all the deciding), “I wish to learn all that I can about navigating the Jhama, for it may be that in that way I may help you.”

Tavia’s knowledge of aerial navigation made the task of instructing her simple indeed; in fact she had no trouble whatsoever in handling the craft.

Phao also manifested an interest and it was not long before she, too, took her turn at the controls, while Tavia insisted upon being inducted into all the mysteries of the disintegrating ray rifle.

Long before we saw the towers of Tul Axtar’s capital, we sighted a one-man flier painted the ghastly blue of Jahar, and then far to the right and to the left we saw others. They were circling slowly at a great altitude. I judged that they were scouts watching for the coming of an expected enemy fleet. We passed below them and a little later encountered the second line of enemy ships. These were all scout cruisers, carrying from ten to fifteen men. Approaching one of them quite closely I saw that it carried four disintegrating ray rifles, two mounted forward and two aft. As far as I could see in either direction these ships were visible, and if, as I presumed, they formed a circle entirely about Jahar, they must have been numerous indeed.

Passing on beyond them we presently encountered the third line of Jaharian ships. Here were stationed huge battleships, carrying crews of a thousand men and more and fairly bristling with big guns.

While none of these ships was as large as the major ships of Helium, they constituted a most formidable force and it was obvious that they had been built in great numbers.

What I had already seen impressed me with the fact that Tul Axtar was entertaining no idle dream in his contemplated subjection of all Barsoom. With but a fraction of the ships I had already seen I would guarantee to lay waste all of Barsoom, provided my ships were armed with disintegrating ray rifles, and I felt sure that I had seen but a pitiful fraction of Tul Axtar’s vast armament.

The sight of all these ships filled me with the direct forebodings of calamity. If the fleet of Helium had not already arrived and been destroyed, it certainly must be destroyed when it did arrive. No power on earth could save it. The best that I could hope, had the fleet already arrived, was that an encounter with the disintegrating ray rifles of the first line might have proved sufficient warning to turn the balance of the fleet back.

Far behind the line of battleships I could see the towers of Jahar rising in the distance, and as we reached the vicinity of the city I descried a fleet of the largest ships I have ever seen, resting upon the ground just outside the city wall. These ships, which completely encircled the city wall that was visible to us, must have been capable of accommodating at least ten thousand men each, and from their construction and their light armaments, I assumed them to be transports. These, doubtless, were to carry the hordes of hungry Jaharian warriors upon the campaign of loot and pillage that it was planned should destroy a world.

Contemplation of this vast armada prompted me to abandon all other plans and hasten at once to Helium, that the alarm might be spread and plans be made to thwart the mad ambition of Tul Axtar. My mind was a seething caldron of conflicting demands upon me. Countless times had I risked my life to reach Jahar for but a single purpose and now that I had arrived I was called upon to turn back for the fulfillment of another purpose—a larger, a more important one, perhaps, but I am only human and so I turned first to the rescue of the woman that I loved, determined immediately thereafter to throw myself wholeheartedly into the prosecution of the other enterprise that duty and inclination demanded of me. I argued that the slight delay that would result would in no way jeopardize the greater cause, while should I abandon Sanoma Tora now there was little likelihood that I would ever be able to return to Jahar to her succor.

With the great ghastly blue fleet of Jahar behind us, we topped the city’s walls and moved in the direction of the palace of the jeddak.

My plans were well formulated. I had discussed them again and again with Tavia, who had grown up in the palace of Tul Axtar.