The Caverns of Mars
by The Bards of Barsoom
Tars Tarkas, Jason Gridley & Tangor
(Don Bearden, Andy Nunez & Tangor)
Copyright © 1997
A "round robin" is a story circulated between authors who surprise each other as the manuscript grows. Of course, if the episodic nature of such an exercise can be tied into a (relatively) cohesive whole, then nimble minds have been at work! The Caverns of Mars was produced via a very rigid format of 25 lines per author before passing on to the next fellow.
Tal Yajas scowled. "Officers! Would that it were possible to make them vanish from the face of Barsoom!"
Ghal Wyn chuckled, an unpleasant sound emanating from the green man's massive chest. "You red men exhibit varying degrees of loyalty to your leaders. You are not from Helium."
"Or Gathol or Kaol or any of a hundred other places where honor and goodness of heart are known qualities."
Ghal Wyn unsuccessfully struggled against the bonds savagely secured about his multiple arms. "Where from, red man?"
"No place where the well-bred dwell."
"Guessing games have no appeal to me, small man. Answer my questions or"
It was Tal Yajas' turn to laugh, though hanging head down from a thick rope over a barely visible hole of undetermined depth in a darkened room rife with dense shadows was far from amusing. "Save your threats, monster, for those who have placed us here. We work together and live, or fight each other and die. I have not yet tasted Artolian wine, or dallied with long-limbed pleasure slaves from Kamtol, thus it is not my intention to perish."
The massive green man rumbled grudging agreement. "Heads will roll to avenge this dishonor. How were you captured red man?"
"I am Tal Yajas. And who might you be?" The panthan repeated the green man's name. "Well, Ghal Wyn, I was asleep. Like a child I was taken in my sleep!"
"As I," the Thurd admitted. "A strange place we come to be, a land haunted by demons and shape-shifters."
"Are all you Green men so superstitious?" Tal Yajas chided. "All I have seen is a dark hole. The only shapes that I see shifting are spots coming before my eyes as I hang here above this pit. The only demon about is the one squeezing my bladder. I am attempting not to dishonor myself by fouling my person."
"I have only a vague fear," Ghal Wyn muttered. "My only thought is to escape this hole while you fret over your hygiene."
"Pin thy tongue upon thy tusks," Tal Yajas admonished. "I weary of hanging here like ripe somp. Would that I had my longsword. I would wait! Perhaps we may yet have succor. The famed tusks of the green man may yet win our egress from this pit."
"You are mad," Ghal Wyn grunted. "My tusks cannot reach my bonds."
Without replying, Tal Yajas began to wriggle his body. His movements began to sway his bound form much like a pendulum. It took half a zode of trial and error, but finally he managed to direct his body to collide with Ghal Wyn. The Thurd grasped one of Tal Yajas' arms and the two maneuvered themselves so that Ghal Wyn could worry at the red man's bonds. After another length of time, the panthan's ropes loosened and he was forced to cling to Ghal Wyn to keep from falling.
Chafing his wrists and ankles to return circulation, Tal Yajas then worked at the Green Man's bonds, first with his fingers, then with metal from his harness. After another clutch of xats, the Thurd was free, and both swarmed up ropes until they reached the top of their prison, there to find a trap door.
"What now?" Ghal Wyn demanded.
"Now, we get out of here."
Tal Yajas began swaying on his ropeeach swing bringing him closer to the walls of the pit. His eyes searched the walls for any handhold, but it appeared that the sides were too flat and smooth to grab onto.
Seeing what Tal Yajas was doing, Ghal Wyn attempted to do the same. All this accomplished was a collision between them causing Tal Yajas to loose his grip on the rope and begin falling.
The red man grasped at thin air for an instant, but then he felt a hand wrap around his wrist. Looking up he saw the Thurd's lower left hand reaching to him. Ghal Wyn easily lifted Tal Yajas back to his precarious handhold upon the roof.
The green man pointed to a spot below them, "When you fell, I reached for you and saw that."
Tal Yajas looked and saw a small opening in the side of the wall. It was too far to safely risk jumping. Hanging in mid-air, the two prisoners attempted to discover a way to reach the hole.
Ghal Wyn twisted one arm in the rope and began removing his harness and fastening it together with the other three. Soon he had a harness long enough to reach below the hole. "Here, take the end of my harness," he said.
With Tal Yajas holding one end of the harness, Ghal Wyn began swinging him toward the hole using his lower arms.
Swinging below the Thurd, Tal Yajas tried to reach the opening. He swayed back and forth until he spotted a small projection just below the opening. He reached outward as he sped toward the wall.
Just as his hand reached the wall, Tal Yajas felt the harness go slack. In the next instant, the Thurd and his harness went hurdling downward behind his back.
His hand stretched for the crag jutting from the wall, but the protrusion was too slick. Tal Yajas lost his grip and followed the plummeting Thurd into the darkness. Both bodies caromed from the perpendicular walls, red and green skin abraded by sharp-edged silicates.
"Why, red man?" Ghal Wyn cried.
"Why what?" the panthan responded.
Through the rising scream of wind past ears and antennae the Thurd inquired: "Why swing for the side of the shaft when we were at a trap door?"
Tal Yajas grunted as his forearm, raised in front of his face, collided with rock. "Have you ever seen good come through a trap door in either direction?"
The Thurd laughed hideously. "As good a reason to die as any!" The green man roared.
Tal Yajas smiled ruefully. "I had planned a different death, Thurd."
"How so? Dead is dead."
"Surrounded by beautiful women, kegs of the finest wines, old and enfeebled by dissipated living. That's how I planned to die."
"I think death as a wet smear at the bottom of a long shaft is preferable than being subjected to convoluted speeches by garrulous red men!"
"Well, my over-large friend, when are you hitting bottom? I want to know how many blinks I have to say prayers to the false gods of Barsoom."
There was no answer.
"Ghal Wyn!" the panthan shouted.
Tal Yajas's next shout was muffled by a yielding softness that engulfed him completely. The combination of sinking into something and total blackness made him panic. He thrashed about until a heavy hand grasped his outstretched arm.
"Hush!" Ghal Wyn admonished. "Be glad that you are alive. I do not know what this material is, but it feels like gauze."
The material was web-like, yet interwoven to a density such as the spun pink sugars by the confectioneers of Tjanath. It undulated gently like water, but Tal Yajas was able to sit up and to look about. As his eyes became accustomed to the darkness, he saw there were several holes the height of Ghal Wyn in the sides of the pit. He attempted to stand and fell back. The Thurd used his lower set of arms and legs like a quadruped and was able to scramble about with better luck. Tal Yajas was forced to follow on hands and knees, and the two eventually reached one of the openings. Suddenly, the panthan's hand encountered something cold and leathery. He drew his hand back then, steeling himself, gingerly felt the object again.
"Ghal Wyn!" Tal Yajas exclaimed. "I have found a body."
The Thurd came over. "Ouch," he muttered. "Here is another. It seems to be several bodies jumbled together. Ah!"
Tal Yajas heard the scrape of metal, and in the light which was darker than any twilight on Barsoom, saw that Ghal Wyn held a longsword in one green fist. The panthan immediately searched about and discovered another one, suitable to his size. It lay beside the body he had touched. He ran his hand over its surface, finding it to be pitted with rust.
"Not all went to this pit meekly," the red man said to the Thurd.
"List!" snarled Ghal Wyn, his cup-like ears twitching. "Something comes down that hole."
The panthan's ears picked up a hiss-like gobbling, and the sound of a large, wet body scraping along the tube before him.
"This is not just a pit," he whispered to the Thurd. "It is the lair of some creature."
"He is about to be evicted," Ghal Wyn stated, gripping his sword firmly. "Prepare to fight!"
Holding his sword before him, Tal Yajas began to creep forward into the tunnel. He hugged the wall to his right, so as to leave his left hand free to use his weapon. If ever he needed the ears of a calot, it was nowthe tunnel was as black as the inside of a merchant's heart.
Tal Yajas heard Ghal Wyn moving on the other side of the tunnel. The Thurd came abreast of him just as a wild, unnerving scream cascaded through the tunnel before them. Neither had ever heard such a weird sound, and both had traveled over much of Barsoom!
Creeping forward, Tal Yajas listened closely for sounds of danger approaching, but all he heard was Ghal Wyn behind him.
Time came to have no meaning to the two Barsoomians as the darkness was unrelenting, thus gave no clue to temporal passage of the world above. They had no knowledge of how long or how far they had crept into the tunnel when once again, the scream echoed around them.
"What could it possibly be?" wondered Ghal Wyn.
"I do not know," replied the red man as they stopped to listen, "but I shall not wait for whatever it is come to me. Let us continue ahead and hope that whatever it is cannot see any better than we."
Another timeless trek brought the strange pair to a junction in the tunnel. To the right and straight ahead there was nothing but silence, but to the left Tal Yajas could hear the sound of running water.
"Come," the panthan said, turning to the left. "We must have water."
After a few steps Tal Yajas bumped into the tunnel wall. The red man and the Thurd discovered the tunnel curved sharply to the left yet again. The panthan continued in this direction with Ghal Wyn a few steps behind.
Tal Yajas became aware that the blackness was less complete. Rounding another turn Tal Yajas looked into a huge underground cavern. The chamber was lit by radium bulbs set along its periphery. A stagnant stream of unknown depth ran though the cavern. Along the watercourse were dozens of strange humans who had white skins. They had great, flowing locks of yellow hair.
Ghal Wyn arrived in the opening and gasped. "What are they doing here this far from the Valley Dor?"
"You recognize them!" exclaimed the red man.
The green man nodded slowly. "Yes. They are Holy Therns. My people kill anyone who returns from Valley Dor and the Therns are tale-carriers to make sure we know who to kill."
"Thurd, you can fear these creatures if you wish," Tal Yajas said, boldly stepping into the cavern, "but not I!"
To the green man's astonishment the red man sheathed his sword and knelt to drink from the river. "Are you insane like all your red brothers?"
"I fear the living," Tal Yajas spat the water out of his mouth. "Foulmaybe that is what killed them." He swept his hand in an all encompassing gesture.
Ghal Wyn exited the tunnel then cautiously tapped one of the human forms nearby. It immediately crumbled to dust. "Not just dead, but long dead," the green man remarked. "The water is bad?"
"Whether it is poisoned or too mineralized, which I cannot say, but I have no desire to put more of it in my mouth. Look, there is a path beyond that ledge."
Ghal Wyn rose to his full height, elevating his viewpoint seven feet higher than the panthan's. "There is a ramp at the end of it. It goes up."
"That is the right direction," Tal Yajas said. The red man picked up a handful of stones and threw them, one by one, at the statue-like mummies until a clear passage was made. "Coming, Ghal Wyn?"
The ramp was lit by radium bulbs, overlaid with an eon of dust. Ghal Wyn wrenched one from the wall and wiped it clean, increasing the light three-fold. "What is this place?"
"I do not know, but it is oldperhaps older than the death of the oceans themselves."
A voice, seeming to emanate from the very walls, said, "Ah, there you are! To answer the large one's question: older than the birth of life itself."
"Where are you?" Tal Yajas cried. His sword sprang to the ready.
The uncanny scream shattered the escapees' senses. Ghal Wyn went to his knees, Tal Yajas fell prostrate.
"Demon!" the green man shrieked, then collapsed.
An uncomfortable jolting sensation met Tal Yajas' return to consciousness. He knew that he was being borne along, but by what? He looked down to see the stark body of a white ape. He felt a rough hand clamped about his leg. Holding up his head, he could see two more of the Barsoomian anthropoids bearing along the limp form of his green companion. Twisting his head, though it ached abominably, the panthan could see that they were in another corridor lit by radium bulbs.
He dared not move too much, lest his massive captor notice and perhaps do him harm. He examined the pair behind him as covertly as possible. They appeared to be normal, save for an unusual collar bearing curious devices on its circumference. So, the red man thought, they were pets. Formidable pets, to be sure, but being pets meant that someone or something of great power controlled them. He would have to wait and see.
During the entire journey through the corridor Tal Yajas could discern no clue that Ghal Wyn had awakened. By no sign or movement did the greenman indicate he was even alive.
Finally, the apes deposited their cargo before a tall door of tarnished brass. Exhibiting an eagerness to leave, verging on complete fear, the giant simians swiftly departed. Once they had passed around a bend, Tal Yajas scuttled to the Thurd and attempted to rouse him.
"Ghal Wyn!" he hissed. "To your senses."
"I have been awake for some time," the Thurd whispered, opening one eyelid to reveal its blood-red iris. "By Issus, I was afraid those apes would rend me to shreds if I moved. One I would have challenged, but two? And with nought but you to fend off the third? Only the famed John Carter could have gotten me out of that predicament."
"What now then?" The panthan queried. "We are lost in this maze of tunnels and now, again, are unarmed. There lies a door, yet I see no method of opening it."
Again came the rasping whisper, seeming to issue directly from the walls. "It is not for the likes of you to know the secrets of Higher Beings." The sibilant hiss warned: "Prepare, for now you will see wonders no mortal man hath seen since the breaking of the first seed pod on the Tree of Life!"
The two captives looked about them. Nowhere could they see sign of anyone else in the room, then the door opened and a stoop-shouldered, dried- up man entered. He was of extreme age, even for a Barsoomian. His body showed the signs of degeneration that come upon all Barsoomians when it is time for their journey to the Valley Dor; but this little old man appeared older than any either Ghal Wyn or Tal Yajas had ever seen.
The little man, whose head was extremely large and fringed by white hair, cackled. "Welcome to hell, warriors of Barsoom. It is here that you will live the remaining minutes of your days. I am Ras Thavas."
The old man began to caterwaul like some strange animal. "You have invaded my realm and I shall be the last human being you ever see. I cannot allow you to return to the surface world to reveal my hideaway."
Ghal Wyn looked askance toward his companion.
"Ras Thavas was the greatest scientist on Barsoom," said the panthan in an amused lecture voice. "For centuries this madman gave people the bodies of others through the almost magical surgical procedures he had developed. John Carter and Jasoomian Vad Varo, put the so-called creator of hormads, the so-called Synthethic Men, out of business. Ras Thavas disappeared shortly after, but it now seems the old man had a place already prepared."
"It would have been better had they killed him," grunted the Thurd. "It seems that he has totally lost his mind. We Thurds do not suffer old fools to live." Suiting action to his words, Ghal Wyn rushed toward the old man.
He had only taken a few steps when he crashed into NOTHING! Lightning flashed and the Thurd crumbled to the floor.
Tal Yajas rushed to his companion's side. The big man was not breathing.
"He's dead! How? Come out and fight like a true man of Barsoom!" Tal Yajas raged, "Come out and face a man."
Ghal Wyn swung his great sword left and right, charging at top speed. Suddenly he was upon Ras Thavas, then THROUGH the wizened apparition and into the very wall! Startled, the green man hurriedly stopped, but too late! He tottered on the brink of yet another abyss.
"Stupid calot!" the Mastermind of Mars cackled as Ghal Wyn tumbled over the edge.
Ghal Wyn flailed with three arms, seeking purchase on the walls which were illuminated by a strange phosphorescent fungus. "At least I shall not die in the dark," the barbarian remarked.
The glow was pervasive. He could define no top or bottom to the tube-like tunnel. It seemed endless. Ghal Wyn knew he was falling a tremendous rate of speed. The wind tugged at his body and every movement of hand or arm seemed to set him spinning. The free fall was unending to the huge Thurd, and the longer death was belayed, the less fearful and the more interesting the experience.
"I am falling to the world's core," Ghal Wyn mused. "It is said the Kaldanes have a world of their own in the deep recesses, a world devoid of atmosphere and light. Perhaps I will pass out from lack of breathable air before I impact upon the cold rocks which must lie below."
The green man's soliloquy continued: "I have won but two names in personal combat and there is now no time to win more or to work my way upwards through the ranks until I might achieve the lofty title of Jed. My wives, all six, will mourn me briefly before they are claimed by the brutes in my tribe. 'Tis an untimely end for a promising barbarian, and were I less than I am I might rail against the unfairness of it all."
"I may end it sooner," the disembodied voice admonished the startled green man, "if you continue such convoluted recriminations!"
Tal Yajas shook like a man with ague. He had been tricked and his friend killedthe Thurd appeared lifeless, but it was hard to tell. The panthan raged against the invisible voice of Ras Thavas.
"I will fight you on whatever terms and with whatever weapons you choose, product of an addled egg," he snarled.
"Be careful," came the crackling voice. "I might choose to send you out a white ape with the brain of a man. Vor Daj was such."
"It would be a quick and noble death," Tal Yajas replied. "Better than listening to the disjointed ravings of a madman. Should you know the meaning of fairness then send forth a foeman that I have a chance of defeating."
"Do not speak to me of fairness," the voice continued. "Was John Carter fair to me?"
"You plagued us with synthetic men and their vile brethren," said the panthan. "I remember Pew Mogel and his terrible giant. What treatment would you expect from men of valor and honor?"
"I am the greatest mind on Barsoom," the voice snapped. "I have made life out of inanimate matter. I am a greater power than even Issus in her most magnificent moment. But I am also a scientist and humanitarian. I will give you a chance to serve me and perhaps earn rewards beyond your imagining."
"No," the panthan said. "I fight for personal honor or for gold, either 'tis sufficient reward for a panthan worthy of his metal, but I will never serve a madman out of fear."
"Very well, then. You shall have your challenge. Defeat the opponent I send you and, should you succeed in defeating this foe, I shall offer a mountain of gold in exchange for your service."
"More is required," Tal Yajas stated, ever shrewd in negotiations. "You will revive the Thurd."
"You dare to bargain when I hold your life between my fingers?"
"I do. He and I have shared much of late."
"Accepted," the voice said.
The door slid open soundlessly and a hideous form shambled forth. It was as tall as the panthan, but stooped. Thick, bloated features were set at odd angles upon its face, and instead of a normal set of limbs, a third arm grew from its chest. Tal Yajas knew immediately it was one of Ras Thavas' synthetic men. In one misshapen fist it had a wicked cudgel, while another weilded a thick-bladed short sword. Drool fell in a thin rope from its twisted lips onto its hairless breast. Poorly cured skins covered its thick body, and it stood upon ill-formed legs.
"Number 13 will deal with you," the voice cackled.
Ghal Wyn continued falling. Now, he knew he must be falling to the center of Barsoom it seemed that days had already past. The disembodied voice had not spoken for so long, the Thurd would have almost welcomed the sound of even that.
The glow from the walls had faded long ago. Only the fear of showing fear had kept him from panicking. What Barsoomian, red or green, had ever fallen for such a distance? Maybe more than he thought. After all, the old man had had many enemies; where were they now? Were they the remains he and Tal Yajas had found in the chamber with the soft webbing?
Before the Thurd could follow that curious thought, a strange dizziness struck the green man, causing him to lose consciousness.
Ghal Wyn opened his eyes. His vision was blurred as though something was wrong with his eyes. He was motionless upon some hard rock and he could see a faint light. Now that he realized that he had light, he began to take stock of his condition. His eyes still blurred, but that was not the worst of it there was no sensation from his lower arms.
"Is this death, then?" the green man pondered. "I have fallen to the depths of Hell. My sight is nearly useless and something has happened to my arms."
Ghal Wyn looked down. The sight that met him was more horrendous than he could have imagined. His legs and one pair of arms blocked all else from his mind!. Wait! This wasn't his legs and arms; they belonged to some strange white skinned creature.
"Well, hello, mighty Thurd," the strange voice was now returned. "That didn't take long."
"What have you done to me?" demanded the warrior. "This is sorcery! Give me back my body!"
"HA! HA! HA!" The voice was laughing more now than it had before. "Your body is lying on the floor in another room, dead. My brother has transferred your mind into this body. The only way you'll ever get your body back is to fight the warrior who guards it."
"Who guards my body?"
"Just a wandering panthan, Thurd. Surely you can kill a red man to recover your body. Do you want to try?" The voice didn't give Ghal Wyn time to answer.
"Now we will find out if you are a fighting Thurd or not," it went on. "Ras Thavas has called for you. If you do not fight, and win, you shall live in the misshapen body currently housing your brain, as a slave to my brother and I until Barsoom's tired core has cooled completely."
A wall in front of Ghal Wyn openned. The transformed Thurd stepped into the chamber beyond and his blurred vision reported first, Ras Thavas standing before him, and then Ghal Wyn's body and beside it, sword drawn...TAL YAJAS.
"Come Number 13," cried the Mastermind of Mars. "Kill this red fool and I will make you the greatest warrior in all Barsoom!"
At that moment the light failed again, but it was different this time as all sound had vanished as well. He felt a tapping against his forehead protected by a face-enclosing helmet. It was an insistent, annoying tapping! Grasping fingers searched for the sword which had disappeared as suddenly as the light. There were no knives at his waist, no radium pistol; unarmed, defenseless, and in the dark!
Still, terror did not possess the warrior though a great frustration did. The tapping continuedpersistentannoying beyond endurance. "What?" eight year old Andrew Donald Bruce exclaimed, ripping the virtual reality helmet from his head.
His mother scowled at him. Stern-voiced, Mrs. Bruce repeated herself. "I said dinner was ready. Downstairs, young man!"
"Aw, do I have to. I was about to whack a guy"
Andy stomped out of the room decorated with posters of Tarzan and John Carter. Action toys of the heroes of Barsoom and the apeman's Jungle littered the floor. Mrs. Bruce sighed, gazing at the disorganized chaos that is a young boy's room.
Then, while everyone downstairs was seating themselves at the dining table, Mom glanced left, then right, then smiled and pushed the power button. The helmet went over her head and
-Dejah Thoris faced the panthan with drawn sword.
"That is my body!" she cried. Leaping forward, with sword point extended, the Heliumatic princess proclaimed, "I mean to have it back!"