Swords of Mars (Barsoom #8)

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I knew that I had made an enemy of Rapas; but that did not concern me greatly, since being forewarned I could always be watchful of him. Anyway, I had never trusted him.

“You are prepared to enter my service at once?” asked Fal Sivas.

“I am in your service now,” I replied.

He smiled. “I think you are going to make me a good man. Rapas wants to go away for a while to attend to business of his own. While he is away, you will remain here as my bodyguard. When he returns, I may still find use for you in one way or another. The fact that you are unknown in Zodanga may make you very valuable to me.” He turned to Rapas. “You may go now, Rapas,” he said, “and while you are away, you might take some lessons in swordsmanship.”

When Pal Sivas said that, he grinned; but Rapas did not. He looked very sour, and he did not say good-bye to me as he left the room.

“I am afraid that you offended his dignity,” said Fal Sivas after the door had closed behind the assassin.

“I shall lose no sleep over it,” I replied, “and anyway it was not my fault. It was his.”

“What do you mean?” demanded Fal Sivas.

“Rapas is not a good swordsman.”

“He is considered an excellent one,” Fal Sivas assured me.

“I imagine that as a killer he is more adept with the dagger and poison.”

“And how about you?” he asked.

“Naturally, as a fighting man, I prefer the sword,” I replied.

Fal Sivas shrugged. “That is a matter of small concern to me,” he said. “If you prefer to kill my enemies with a sword, use a sword. All I ask is that you kill them.”

“You have many enemies?” I asked.

“There are many who would like to see me put out of the way,” he replied. “I am an inventor, and there are those who would steal my inventions. Many of these I have had to destroy. Their people suspect me and seek revenge; but there is one who, above all others, seeks to destroy me. He also is an inventor, and he has employed an agent of the assassins’ guild to make away with me.

“This guild is headed by Ur Jan, and he personally has threatened my life because I have employed another than a member of his guild to do my killing.”

We talked for a short time, and then Fal Sivas summoned a slave to show me to my quarters. “They are below mine,” he said; “if I call, you are to come to me immediately. Good night.”

The slave led me to another room on the same level. In fact, to a little suite of three rooms. They were plainly but comfortably furnished.

“Is there anything that you require, master?” the slave inquired, as he turned to leave me.

“Nothing,” I replied.

“Tomorrow a slave will be assigned to serve you.” With that he left me, and I listened to see if he locked the door from the outside; but he did not, though I would not have been surprised had he done so, so sinister and secretive seemed everything connected with this gloomy pile.

I occupied myself for a few moments inspecting my quarters. They consisted of a living room, two small bedrooms, and a bath. A single door opened from the living room onto the corridor. There were no windows in any of the rooms. There were small ventilators in the floors and in the ceilings, and draughts of air entering the former indicated that the apartment was ventilated mechanically.

The rooms were lighted by radium bulbs similar to those generally used throughout Barsoom.

In the living room was a table, a bench, and several chairs, and a shelf upon which were a number of books. Glancing at some of these, I discovered that they were all scientific works. There were books on medicine, on surgery, chemistry, mechanics, and electricity.

From time to time, I heard what appeared to be stealthy noises in the corridor; but I did not investigate, as I wanted to establish myself in the confidence of Fal Sivas and his people before I ventured to take it upon myself to learn any more than they desired me to know. I did not even know that I wanted to know anything more about the household of Fal Sivas; for, after all, my business in Zodanga had nothing to do with him. I had come to undermine and, if possible, overthrow the strength of Ur Jan and his guild of assassins; and all I needed was a base from which to work. I was, in fact, a little disappointed to find that Fate had thrown me in with those opposed to Ur Jan. I would have preferred and, in fact, had hoped to be able to join Ur Jan’s organization, as I felt that I could accomplish much more from the inside than from the out.

If I could join the guild, I could soon learn the identity of its principal members; and that, above all other things, was what I wished to do, that I might either bring them to justice or put the cross upon their hearts with the point of my own sword.

Occupied with these thoughts, I was about to remove my harness and turn into my sleeping silks and furs when I heard sounds of what might have been a scuffle on the level above and then a thud, as of a body falling.

The former preternatural silence of the great house accentuated the significance of the sounds that I was hearing, imparting to them a mystery that I realized might be wholly out of proportion to their true importance. I smiled as I realized the effect that my surroundings seemed to be having upon my ordinarily steady nerves; and had resumed my preparations for the night when a shrill scream rang through the building.

I paused again and listened, and now I distinctly heard the sound of feet running rapidly. They seemed to be approaching, and I guessed that they were coming down the ramp from the level above to the corridor that ran before my quarters.

Perhaps what went on in the house of Fal Sivas was none of my affair, but I have never yet heard a woman scream without investigating; so now I stepped to the door of my living room and threw it open, and as I did so I saw a girl running rapidly toward me. Her hair was disheveled; and from her wide, frightened eyes she cast frequent glances backward over her shoulder.

She was almost upon me before she discovered me; and when she did she paused for a moment with a gasp of astonishment or fear, I could not tell which; then she darted past me through the open door into my living room.

“Close the door,” she whispered, her voice tense with suppressed emotion. “Don’t let him get me! Don’t let him find me!”

No one seemed to be pursuing her, but I closed the door as she had requested and turned toward her for an explanation.

“What is the matter?” I demanded. “From whom were you running?”

“From him.” She shuddered. “Oh, he is horrible. Hide me; don’t let him get me, please!”

“Whom do you mean? Who is horrible?”

She stood there trembling and wide-eyed, staring past me at the door, like one whom terror had demented.

“Him,” she whispered. “Who else could it be?”

“You mean—-?”

She came close and started to speak; then she hesitated. “But why should I trust you? You are one of his creatures. You are all alike in this terrible place.”

She was standing very close to me now, trembling like a leaf. “I cannot stand it!” she cried. “I will not let him!” And then, so quickly that I could not prevent her, she snatched the dagger from my harness and turned it upon herself.

But there I was too quick for her, seizing her wrist before she could carry out her designs.

She was a delicate-looking creature, but her appearance belied her strength.

However, I had little difficulty in disarming her; and then I backed her toward the bench and forced her down upon it.

“Calm yourself,” I said; “you have nothing to fear from me—nothing to fear from anybody while I am with you. Tell me what has happened. Tell me whom you fear.”

She sat there staring into my eyes for a long moment, and presently she commenced to regain control of herself. “Yes,” she said presently, “perhaps I can trust you. You make me feel that way—your voice, your looks.”

I laid my hand upon her shoulder as one might who would quiet a frightened child. “Do not be afraid,” I said; “tell me something of yourself. What is your name?”

“Zanda,” she replied.

“You live here?”

“I am a slave, a prisoner,”

“What made you scream?” I asked.

“I did not scream,” she replied; “that was another. He tried to get me, but I eluded him, and so he took another. My turn will come. He will get me. He gets us all.”

“Who? Who will get you?”

She shuddered as she spoke the name. “Fal Sivas,” she said, and there was horror in her tone.

I sat down on the bench beside her and laid my hand on hers. “Quiet yourself,” I said; “tell me what all this means. I am a stranger here. I just entered the service of Fal Sivas tonight.”

“You know nothing, then, about Fal Sivas?” she demanded.

“Only that he is a wealthy inventor and fears for his life.”

“Yes, he is rich; and he is an inventor, but not so great an inventor as he is a murderer and a thief. He steals ideas from other inventors and then has them murdered in order to safeguard what he has stolen. Those who learn too much of his inventions die. They never leave this house. He always has an assassin ready to do his bidding; sometimes here, sometimes out in the city; and he is always afraid of his life.

“Rapas the Ulsio is his assassin now; but they are both afraid of Ur Jan, chief of the guild of assassins; for Ur Jan has learned that Rapas is killing for Fal Sivas for a price far lower than that charged by the guild.”

“But what are these wonderful inventions that Fal Sivas works upon?” I asked.

“I do not know all of the things that he does, but there is the ship. That would be wonderful, were it not born of blood and treachery.”

“What sort of a ship?” I asked.

“A ship that will travel safely through interplanetary space. He says that in a short time we shall be able to travel back and forth between the planets as easily as we travel now from one city to another.”

“Interesting,” I said, “and not so very horrible, that I can see.”

“But he does other things—horrible things. One of them is a mechanical brain.”

“A mechanical brain?”

“Yes, but of course I cannot explain it. I have so little learning. I have heard him speak of it often, but I do not understand.

“He says that all life, all matter, are the result of mechanical action, not primarily, chemical action. He holds that all chemical action is mechanical.

“Oh, I am probably not explaining it right. It is all so confusing to me, because I do not understand it; but anyway he is working on a mechanical brain, a brain that will think clearly and logically, absolutely uninfluenced by any of the extraneous media that affect human judgments.”

“It seems rather a weird idea,” I said, “but I can see nothing so horrible about it.”

“It is not the idea that is horrible,” she said; “it is the method that he employs to perfect his invention. In his effort to duplicate the human brain, he must examine it. For this reason he needs many slaves. A few he buys, but most of them are kidnaped for him.”

She commenced to tremble, and her voice came in little broken gasps. “I do not know; I have not really seen it; but they say that he straps his victims so that they cannot move and then removes the skull until he has exposed the brain; and so, by means of rays that penetrate the tissue, he watches the brain function.”

“But his victims cannot suffer long,” I said; “they would lose consciousness and die quickly.”

She shook her head. “No, he has perfected drugs that he injects into their veins so that they remain alive and are conscious for a long time. For long hours he applies various stimuli and watches the reaction of the brain. Imagine if you can, the suffering of his poor victims.

“Many slaves are brought here, but they do not remain long. There are only two doors leading from the building, and there are no windows in the outer walls.

“The slaves that disappear do not leave through either of the two doorways. I see them today; tomorrow they are gone, gone through the little doorway that leads into the room of horror next to Fal Sivas’s sleeping quarters.

“Tonight Fal Sivas sent for two of us, another girl and myself. He purposed using only one of us. He always examines a couple and then selects the one that he thinks is the best specimen, but his selection is not determined wholly by scientific requirements. He always selects the more attractive of the girls that are summoned.

“He examined us, and then finally he selected me. I was terrified. I tried to fight him off. He chased me about the room, and then he slipped and fell; and before he could regain his feet, I opened the door and escaped. Then I heard the other girl scream, and I knew that he had seized her, but I have won only a reprieve. He will get me; there is no escape. Neither you nor I will ever leave this place alive.”

“What makes you think that?” I inquired.