Библиотека «Артефакт» — http://andrey.tsx.org/
Swords Of Mars
THE moon had risen above the rim of the canyon near the headwaters of the Little Colorado. It bathed in soft light the willows that line the bank of the little mountain torrent and the cottonwood trees beneath which stood the tiny cabin where I had been camping for a few weeks in the White Mountains of Arizona.
I stood upon the little porch of the cabin enjoying the soft beauties of this Arizona night; and as I contemplated the peace and serenity of the scene, it did not seem possible that but a few years before the fierce and terrible Geronimo had stood in this same spot before this self-same cabin, or that generations before that this seemingly deserted canyon had been peopled by a race now extinct.
I had been seeking in their ruined cities for the secret of their genesis and the even stranger secret of their extinction. How I wished that those crumbling lava cliffs might speak and tell me of all that they had witnessed since they poured out in a molten stream from the cold and silent cones that dot the mesa land beyond the canyon.
My thoughts returned again to Geronimo and his fierce Apache warriors; and these vagrant musings engendered memories of Captain John Carter of Virginia, whose dead body had lain for ten long years in some forgotten cave in the mountains not far south of this very spot—the cave in which he had sought shelter from pursuing Apaches.
My eyes, following the pathway of my thoughts, searched the heavens until they rested upon the red eye of Mars shining there in the blue-black void; and so it was that Mars was uppermost in my mind as I turned into my cabin and prepared for a good night's rest beneath the rustling leaves of the cottonwoods, with whose soft and soothing lullaby was mingled the rippling and the gurgling of the waters of the little Colorado.
I was not sleepy; and so, after I had undressed, I arranged a kerosene lamp near the head of my bunk and settled myself for the enjoyment of a gangster story of assassination and kidnaping.
My cabin consists of two rooms. The smaller back room is my bedroom. The larger room in front of it serves all other purposes, being dining room, kitchen, and living room combined. From my bunk, I cannot see directly into the front room. A flimsy partition separates the bedroom from the living room. It consists of rough-hewn boards that in the process of shrinking have left wide cracks in the wall, and in addition to this the door between the two rooms is seldom closed; so that while I could not see into the adjoining room, I could hear anything that might go on within it.
I do not know that I am more susceptible to suggestion than the average man; but the fact remains that murder, mystery, and gangster stories always seem more vivid when I read them alone in the stilly watches of the night.
I had just reached the point in the story where an assassin was creeping upon the victim of kidnappers when I heard the front door of my cabin open and close and, distinctly, the clank of metal upon metal.
Now, insofar as I knew, there was no one other than myself camped upon the headwaters of the Little Colorado; and certainly no one who had the right to enter my cabin without knocking.
I sat up in my bunk and reached under my pillow for the .45 Colt automatic that I keep there.
The oil lamp faintly illuminated my bedroom, but its main strength was concentrated upon me. The outer room was in darkness, as I could see by leaning from my bunk and peering through the doorway.
“Who's there?” I demanded, releasing the safety catch on my automatic and sliding my feet out of bed to the floor. Then, without waiting for a reply, I blew out the lamp.
A low laugh came from the adjoining room. “It is a good thing your wall is full of cracks,” said a deep voice, “or otherwise I might have stumbled into trouble. That is a mean-looking gun I saw before you blew out your lamp.”
The voice was familiar, but I could not definitely place it. “Who are you?” I demanded.
“Light your lamp and I'll come in,” replied my nocturnal visitor. “If you're nervous, you can keep your gun on the doorway, but please don't squeeze the trigger until you have had a chance to recognize me.”
“Damn!” I exclaimed under my breath, as I started to relight the lamp.
“Chimney still hot?” inquired the deep voice from the outer room.
“Plenty hot,” I replied, as I succeeded at last in igniting the wick and replacing the hot chimney. “Come in.”
I remained seated on the edge of the bunk, but I kept the doorway covered with my gun. I heard again the clanking of metal upon metal, and then a man stepped into the light of my feeble lamp and halted in the doorway. He was a tall man apparently between twenty-five and thirty with grey eyes and black hair. He was naked but for leather trappings that supported weapons of unearthly design—a short sword, a long sword, a dagger, and a pistol; but my eyes did not need to inventory all these details before I recognized him. The instant that I saw him, I tossed my gun aside and sprang to my feet.
“John Carter!” I exclaimed.
“None other,” he replied, with one of his rare smiles.
We grasped hands. “You haven't changed much,” he said.
“Nor you at all,” I replied.
He sighed and then smiled again. “God alone knows how old I am. I can recall no childhood, nor have I ever looked other than I look tonight; but come,” he added, “you mustn't stand here in your bare feet. Hop back into bed again. These Arizona nights are none too warm.”
He drew up a chair and sat down. “What were you reading?” he asked, as he picked up the magazine that had fallen to the floor and glanced at the illustration. “It looks like a lurid tale.”
“A pretty little bedtime story of assassination and kidnaping,” I explained.
“Haven't you enough of that on earth without reading about it for entertainment?” he inquired. “We have on Mars.”
“It is an expression of the normal morbid interest in the horrifying,” I said. “There is really no justification, but the fact remains that I enjoy such tales. However, I have lost my interest now. I want to hear about you and Dejah Thoris and Carthoris, and what brought you here. It has been years since you have been back. I had given up all hope of ever seeing you again.”
He shook his head, a little sadly I thought. “It is a long story, a story of love and loyalty, of hate and crime, a story of dripping swords, of strange places and strange people upon a stranger world. The living of it might have driven a weaker man to madness. To have one you love taken from you and not to know her fate!”
I did not have to ask whom he meant. It could be none other than the incomparable Dejah Thoris, Princess of Helium, and consort of John Carter, Warlord of Mars—the woman for whose deathless beauty a million swords had been kept red with blood on the dying planet for many a long year.
For a long time John Carter sat in silence staring at the floor. I knew that his thoughts were forty-three million miles away, and I was loath to interrupt them.
At last he spoke. “Human nature is alike everywhere,” he mid. He flicked the edge of the magazine lying on my bunk. “We think that we want to forget the tragedies of life, but we do not. If they momentarily pass us by and leave us in peace, we must conjure them again, either in our thoughts or through some such medium as you have adopted. As you find a grim pleasure in reading about them, so I find a grim pleasure in thinking about them.
“But my memories of that great tragedy are not all sad. There was high adventure, there was noble fighting; and in the end there was—but perhaps you would like to hear about it.”
I told him that I would, so he told me the story that I have set down here in his own words, as nearly as I can recall them.
RAPAS THE ULSIO
OVER nineteen hundred miles east of The Twin Cities of Helium, at about Lat. 30º S., Lon. 172º E., lies Zodanga. It has ever been a hotbed of sedition since the day that I led the fierce green hordes of Thark against it and, reducing it, added it to the Empire of Helium.
Within its frowning walls lives many a Zodangan who feels no loyalty for Helium; and here, too, have gathered numbers of the malcontents of the great empire ruled over by Tardos Mors, Jeddak of Helium. To Zodanga have migrated not a few of the personal and political enemies of the house of Tardos Mors and of his son-in-law, John Carter, Prince of Helium.
I visited the city as seldom as possible, as I had little love either for it or its people; but my duties called me there occasionally, principally because it was the headquarters of one of the most powerful guilds of assassins on Mars.
The land of my birth is cursed with its gangsters, its killers, and its kidnappers but these constitute but a slight menace as compared with the highly efficient organizations that flourish upon Mars. Here assassination is a profession; kidnaping, a fine art. Each has its guild, its laws, its customs, and its code of ethics; and so widespread are their ramifications that they seem inextricably interwoven into the entire social and political life of the planet.
For years I have been seeking to extirpate this noxious system, but the job has seemed a thankless and hopeless one. Entrenched behind age-old ramparts of habit and tradition, they occupy a position in the public consciousness that has cast a certain glamour of romance and honor upon them.
The kidnappers are not in such good odor, but among the more notorious assassins are men who hold much the same position in the esteem of the masses as do your great heroes of the prize ring and the baseball diamond.
Furthermore, in the war that I was waging upon them, I was also handicapped by the fact that I must fight almost alone, as even those of the red men of Mars who felt as I did upon the subject also believed that to take sides with me against the assassins would prove but another means for committing suicide. Yet I know that even this would not have deterred them, had they felt that there was any hope of eventual success.
That I had for so long escaped the keen blade of the assassin seemed little less than a miracle to them, and I presume that only my extreme self-confidence in my ability to take care of myself prevented me from holding the same view.
Dejah Thoris and my son, Carthoris, often counseled me to abandon the fight; but all my life I have been loath to admit defeat, nor ever have I willingly abandoned the chance for a good fight.
Certain types of killings upon Mars are punishable by death, and most of the killings of the assassins fell in such categories. So far, this was the only weapon that I had been able to use against them, and then not always successfully, for it was usually difficult to prove their crime, since even eyewitnesses feared to testify against them.
But I had gradually evolved and organized another means of combating them. This consisted of a secret organization of super-assassins. In other words, I had elected to fight the devil with fire.
When an assassination was reported, my organization acted in the rôle of detective to ferret out the murderer. Then it acted as judge and jury and eventually as executioner. Its every move was made in secret, but over the heart of each of its victims an “X” was cut with the sharp point of a dagger.
We usually struck quickly, if we could strike at all; and soon the public and the assassins learned to connect that “X” over the heart as the mark of the hand of justice falling upon the guilty; and I know that in a number of the larger cities of Helium we greatly reduced the death rate by assassination. Otherwise, however, we seemed as far from our goal as when we first started.
Our poorest results had been gained in Zodanga; and the assassins of that city openly boasted that they were too smart for me, for although they did not know positively, they guessed that the X's upon the breasts of their dead comrades were made by an organization headed by me.
I hope that I have not bored you with this exposition of these dry facts, but it seemed necessary to me that I do so as an introduction to the adventures that befell me, taking me to a strange world in an effort to thwart the malign forces that had brought tragedy into my life.
In my fight against the assassins of Barsoom, I had never been able to enlist many agents to serve in Zodanga; and those stationed there worked only in a half-hearted manner, so that our enemies had good reason to taunt us with our failure.
To say that such a condition annoyed me would be putting it mildly; and so I decided to go in person to Zodanga, not only for the purpose of making a thorough investigation, but to give the Zodangan assassins a lesson that would cause them to laugh out of the other side of their mouths.
I decided to go secretly and in disguise, for I knew that if I were to go there as John Carter, Warlord of Mars, I could learn nothing more than I already knew.
Disguise for me is a relatively simple matter. My white skin and black hair have made me a marked man upon Mars, where only the auburn-haired Lotharians and the totally bald Therns have skin as light colored as mine.
Although I had every confidence in the loyalty of my retainers, one never knows when a spy may insinuate himself into the most carefully selected organization. For this reason, I kept my plans and preparations secret from even the most trusted members of my entourage.
In the hangars on the roof of my palace are fliers of various models, and I selected from among them a one-arm scout flier from which I surreptitiously removed the insignia of my house. Finding a pretext to send the hangar guard away for a short time early one evening, I smuggled aboard the flier those articles that I needed to insure a satisfactory disguise. In addition to a red pigment for my own skin and paints for the body of the flier, I included a complete set of Zodangan harness, metal, and weapons.
That evening I spent alone with Dejah Thoris; and about twenty-five xats past the eighth zode, or at midnight earth time, I changed to a plain leather harness without insignia, and prepared to leave upon my adventure.
“I wish you were not going, my prince; I have a premonition that—well—that we are both going to regret it.”
“The assassins must be taught a lesson,” I replied, “or no one's life will be safe upon Barsoom. By their acts, they have issued a definite challenge; and that I cannot permit to go unnoticed.”
“I suppose not,” she replied. “You won your high position here with your sword; and by your sword I suppose you must maintain it, but I wish it were otherwise.”
I took her in my arms and kissed her and told her not to worry—that I would not be gone long. Then I went to the hangar on the roof.
The hangar guard may have thought that it was an unusual time of night for me to be going abroad, but he could have had no suspicion as to my destination. I took off toward the West and presently was cutting the thin air of Mars beneath the myriad stars and the two gorgeous satellites of the red planet.
The moons of Mars have always intrigued me; and tonight, as I gazed upon them, I felt the lure of the mystery that surrounds them. Thuria, the nearer moon, known to earth men as Phobos, is the larger; and as it circles Barsoom at a distance of only 5800 miles, it presents a most gorgeous sight. Cluros, the farther moon, though only a little smaller in diameter than Thuria, appears to be much smaller because of the greater distance of its orbit from the planet, lying as it does, 14,500 miles away.
For ages, there was a Martian legend, which remained for me to explode, that the black race, the so-called First-born of Barsoom, lived upon Thuria, the nearer moon; but at the time I exposed the false gods of Mars, I demonstrated conclusively that the black race lived in the Valley Dor, near the south pole of the planet.
Thuria, seemingly hanging low above me, presented a gorgeous spectacle, which was rendered still more remarkable by the fact that she apparently moved through the heavens from west to east, due to the fact that her orbit is so near the planet she performs a revolution in less than one-third of that of the diurnal rotation of Mars. But as I watched her this night in dreamy fascination, little could I guess the part that she was so soon to play in the thrilling adventures and the great tragedy that lay just beyond my horizon.
When I was well beyond The Twin Cities of Helium, I cut off my running lights and circled to the South, gradually heading toward the East until I held a true course for Zodanga. Setting my destination compass, I was free to turn my attention to other matters, knowing that this clever invention would carry the ship safely to its destination.
My first task was to repaint the hull of the flier. I buckled straps onto my harness and onto rings in the gunwale of the craft; and then, lowering myself over the side, I proceeded to my work. It was slow work, for after painting as far as I could reach in all directions, I had to come on deck and change the position of the straps, so that I could cover another portion of the hull. But toward morning it was finally accomplished, though I cannot say that I looked with pride upon the result as anything of an artistic achievement. However, I had succeeded in covering the old paint and thus disguising the craft insofar as color was concerned. This accomplished, I threw my brush and the balance of the paint overboard, following them with the leather harness that I had worn from home.
As I had gotten almost as much paint upon myself as upon the hull of the boat, it took me some little time to erase the last vestige of this evidence that would acquaint a discerning observer with the fact that I had recently repainted my craft.
This done, I applied the red pigment evenly to every square inch of my naked body; so that after I had finished, I could have passed anywhere on Mars as a member of the dominant red race of Martians; and when I had donned the Zodangan harness, metal, and weapons, I felt that my disguise was complete.
It was now mid-forenoon; and, after eating, I lay down to snatch a few hours of sleep.
Entering a Martian city after dark is likely to be fraught with embarrassment for one whose mission may not be readily explained. It was, of course, possible that I might sneak in without lights; but the chances of detection by one of the numerous patrol boats was too great; and as I could not safely have explained my mission or revealed my identity, I should most certainly be sent to the pits and, doubtless, receive the punishment that is meted to spies—long imprisonment in the pits, followed by death in the arena.
Were I to enter with lights, I should most certainly be apprehended; and as I should not be able to answer questions satisfactorily, and as there would be no one to sponsor me, my predicament would be almost equally difficult; so as I approached the city before dawn of the second day, I cut out my motor and drifted idly well out of range of the searchlights of the patrol boats.
Even after daylight had come, I did not approach the city until the middle of the forenoon at a time when other ships were moving freely back and forth across the walls.
By day, and unless a city is actively at war, there are few restrictions placed upon the coming and going of small craft. Occasionally the patrol boats stop and question one of these; and as fines are heavy for operating without licenses, a semblance of regulation is maintained by the government.
In my case, it was not a question of a license to fly a ship but of my right to be in Zodanga at all; so my approach to the city was not without its spice of adventure.
At last the city wall lay almost directly beneath me; and I was congratulating myself upon my good fortune, as there was no patrol boat in sight; but I had congratulated myself too soon, for almost immediately there appeared from behind a lofty tower one of those swift little cruisers that are commonly used in all Martian cities for patrol service, and it was headed directly toward me.
I was moving slowly, so as not to attract unfavorable attention; but I can assure you that my mind was working rapidly. The one-man scout flier that I was using is very fast, and I might easily have turned and outdistanced the patrol boat; however, there were two very important objections to such a plan. One was that, unquestionably, the patrol boat would immediately open fire on me with the chances excellent that they would bring me down. The other was, that should I escape, it would be practically impossible for me to enter the city again in this way, as my boat would be marked; and the entire patrol system would be on the lookout for it.
The cruiser was steadily approaching me, and I was preparing to bluff my way through with a cock-and-bull story of having been long absent from Zodanga and having lost my papers while I was away. The best that I could hope from this was that I should merely be fined for not having my papers, and as I was well supplied with money, such a solution of my difficulties would be a most welcome one.
This, however, was a very slim hope, as it was almost a foregone conclusion that they would insist upon knowing who my sponsor was at the time my lost papers were issued; and without a sponsor I would be in a bad way.
Just as they got within hailing distance, and I was sure that they were about to order me to stop, I heard a loud crash above me; and glancing up, I saw two small ships in collision. I could see the officer in command of the patrol boat plainly now; and as I glanced at him, I saw him looking up. He barked a short command; the nose of the patrol boat was elevated; and it circled rapidly upward, its attention diverted from me by a matter of vastly greater importance. While it was thus engaged, I slipped quietly on into the city of Zodanga.
Правда, ученого сбило с ног, и при падении он оцарапал щеку. Поднявшись на ноги и тронув лицо ладонью, он потрясенно разглядывал...
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