DEAD CITIES OF MARS
DAVID BRUCE BOZARTH
Copyright © 1980, 1985, 1988, 1997, 2001
Illustrated by James D. Bozarth © 1982
I. ADVENT ON MARS
II. THE CITY
III. BEYOND THE CLOSED DOOR
IV. THE STRANGE BEASTS OF MARS
V. OASIS IN THE DESERT
VI. STARTLING DISCOVERIES
VII. WHITE APES, RED MARTIANS, AND LOVE
VIII. HEADING FOR CIVILIZATION
IX. IN THE GRASP OF THE GREEN HORDE
X. CHETA FINDS A WAY
XI. THE RECALCITRANT RYKOR
XII "IF ANYONE CAN, KANTOS KAN
XIV. A FORTUITOUS CIRCUMSTANCE
XV. A CLOSE ENCOUNTER WITH DEATH!
XVII FAIR HELIUM
XVIII JOURNEY'S END
XIX. UNEXPECTED DEVELOPMENTS
XX ON BOARD THE SITH
XXI. TO SHAKE A WORLD
Tony Martin and Connie Wescott lay dying, victims of society's most technologically advanced form of mass murderthe automobile. The young couple, miraculously thrown from the burning wreckage, would not; however, long survive.
The burly young man gathered Connie into his arms, dragging the pitiful, bleeding form of the woman he loved beyond the crimson inferno. Martin, with frantic desperation powering his battered body, ignored inhuman pain and a broken spine to move the woman and himself from immediate danger solely through the incredible strength of his arms. Heart pounding frightfully from the enormous effort, Tony lay beside Connie Wescott, fifteen feet from the twisted metal, shattered glass and melting plastics of his restored 1966 Ford Mustang.
The young right tackle's indomitable will had thus far staved off the Grim Reaper, though Tony Martin held no delusions regarding the severity of their injuries.
Tony Martin's actions were dictated by that mysterious and little known portion of the human psyche responsible for the many unbelievable instances of super-human endurance; that invisible force powered his bruised muscles and broken form, forcing a fatally-injured body to respond to his desires. This unyielding determination so saturated Tony Martin that it also supported the dimming life-spark in Connie Wescott's body.
The orange glow from the hellish gasoline fire was reflected by low clouds partly obscuring the cold brilliance of the summer moon. Martin knew he was dying, yet he valiantly fought against this undesired fate as a shard of window glass worked into his brain through the shattered socket of his right eye. Tony Martin knew his time was short and, therefore, most precious; yet, his only concern was for his semi-conscious companion which argued greatly for his moral fiber and strength of character.
Connie Wescott's eyes opened for the first time since the accident. A froth of blood on her smashed lips indicated massive internal hemorrhaging. When she tried to speak, a red flood spewed forth. She convulsively cleared her lungs with a single wail. Her eyes, blinded by blood, strained to see the youth leaning over her. "So much is gone!" she cried. "We had so much to live for!"
Awkwardly, disregarding his pain, Tony pressed the shattered body close to his breast. Despite unbearable pain, the young couple clung to each other and Tony, angry with frustration, felt cheated of what might have been. He screamed his rage to the cold, uncaring stars winking above the blazing inferno.
Martin's head spun crazily; his dimming sight drawn to the dull red gleam of distant Mars. A thin smile played about his once handsome features.
"I still live! Connie still lives!" he whispered hoarsely. "I won't let cold, cruel death claim us!" He coughed blood, eyes narrowed with agony. "Where one has gone before, others may follow!"
A single, diamond-hard thought formed in the pain-numbed brain of the determined man. His fast failing will was instantly channeled into a single idea a single, burning desire. An onlooker, if any witnessed the tragic accident other than the deceased drunk in the other vehicle, might have felt pity for the heart-breaking efforts of the football player.
But to Tony this mad thought represented a way of survival! Connie sensed the athlete's grim concentration on the misty red eye of Mars and, when Tony Martin demanded, she gave freely of the ebbing will left in her burned and broken body. She poured her vitality forth, her diminishing consciousness augmenting Tony's. She gave unselfishly, supporting the direction of her friend's incredible thought. It was the only hope left to them and Connie Wescott fought the black waves crashing against her senses.
Eyesight began to fail, life fluids drained onto the dirty, grease-spattered roadway, but the sharply defined thought held in both young minds gathered strength. Life at any cost fueled the desperate gamble of Tony's promised salvation. A bizarre event, once read in an Edgar Rice Burroughs novel, was their only hope. And they believed because they must!
"We still live!" Tony cried, grimly holding Connie Wescott in his arms.
There was a sharp, crackling sound, an instant of utter cold and silence, thenoblivion.
I. ADVENT ON MARS
Tony Martin shook Connie Wescott's shoulder. When she failed to respond, he nervously shouted. "Come on, Princess! Wake up!"
The man almost let the shapely girl sleep; the unexpected view of smooth, white skin was delightful and provocative, but Tony Martin's mind tottered on the brink; desperately in need of reassurance. The husky-built youth was mortally afraid he was off his nut, that both oars weren't in the water, that his elevator didn't go all the way to the top; which meant he was too terrified to truly enjoy Wescott's superb nakedness. Tony's all-consuming fear overcame his normal gracious manners: he shook the girl so violently Connie's teeth rattled inside her skull.
The brunette's eyes fluttered open. Connie moaned as she groggily focused on the big youth leaning over her. The woman's voice slurred petulantly as she struggled towards consciousness. "Tony! Stop that! You'll chip a tooth!" The petite brunette peevishly placed tiny hands against Martin's bare chest. At the touch of his naked warmth, Connie Wescott simultaneously discovered her own rather informal lack of attire.
"Tony!" she screamed, fending his hands away, "What have you done? Oh My God! If you've..." Connie bit off her accusation as she swiftly covered herself. Comically, the young girl was unable to decide which was more important for concealmenttop or bottom. She split the difference. She hissed at him, scathingly.
"If you'd asked I might've been eager to let you to jump my bones, Tony Martin, but this? You didn't have to hit me over the head! You're the most despicable person I've ever met!" Connie trembled as the night breeze whispered against her pale skin.
Turning her head, seeking her clothes, Connie's eyes grew wide. They were in the lowest part of a small depression, sitting on a springy moss, under a sky that had too many stars. "What is this place?" Connie cried breathlessly. "If you had to rape me, why not pick a nice, warm hotel, or the back seat of your car?"
The plaintive note in the woman's puzzled voice lasted only a moment before hardening into outraged anger. "Okay! Joke's over! Where's my clothes?"
"Probably where mine are," Martin replied. "Connie, didn't you hear me?" he whispered. "I think we're on Barsoom."
Frowning, the bemused football player lowered his eyes from the night sky. He saw the disbelief on the girl's face, heard the contempt as she sneered, "You've read too many Burroughs books, me bucko! Barsoom's an impossibility: the figment of a gifted writer's imagination!"
"Take a look, Princess!" Tony swept his thickly muscled arm in a wide arc. He gazed out over the moss-covered terrain. "You've read nearly as many Barsoom novels as I have. Damn it, girl, I loaned them to you! Think about it! This is Barsoom!"
He sounded so convincing the woman made no comment as she tilted her head to gaze at the multitude of stars. A moment later she asked Tony how many people helped build this fantastic sound stage, then her breath caught in her throat a second time in as many minutes. Connie Wescott's contemptuous appraisal faded into a series of unrecognizable sounds. She gasped, eyes bulging in amazement. The young woman, so startled by the sight on the horizon beyond Tony's broad shoulders, and without a thought for modesty, raised a shapely arm to point at the night sky. "What the hell is that?" she demanded.
Tony sighed with audible relief. "If you can see it I haven't lost my grip on reality!" Martin's eyes followed the direction of Connie's outstretched arm. "I told you what I thought, Princess. You should knowyou helped. I remember you helping."
Bewildered confusion in their eyes, the shivering pair stared at the tiny moons rising over the far horizona horizon which seemed to suggest a ring of low lying hills in the darkness. The moons hurtled toward them at markedly different speeds. Against the backdrop of a sky filled with more stars than either had ever observed at night, the smaller moon moved with such swiftness its pace was easily marked by the naked eye. The other moon traveled at a more sedate velocity, though incredibly faster than the silver orb they had known from birth. The pale illumination reflected from the tiny orbs made it possible to note, in greater detail, the resilient ocher-tinged moss covering the ground.
With his attention centered on the celestial display, Tony didn't observe the awe on Connie's pretty face when the shifting light from the moons revealed certain features of the athlete's well-muscled anatomy. Despite the disturbing circumstances and her indignant anger, the young woman was suddenly and totally interested in the scenery. This was her first opportunity to see the huge right tackle au natural and the sight took her breath away. When Martin lowered his head, Connie quickly diverted her eyes toward something less visually stimulating. She was so self-conscious of the fever in her belly that she nearly missed his whispered question.
"What were we doing before we woke up?" Tony inquired.
Connie Wescott was relieved to discover the night sufficiently dark to conceal the crimson flush suffusing her cheeks. When the meaning of his words penetrated her discomfort, she stared at him with perplexed bewilderment. "You weren't taking unfair advantage of me?" Her voice shook tremulously from more than the bitter chill in the night air.
"We've known each other a few months, Connie. I've never given you the least reason to suspect my behavior. I've always treated you with the greatest respect. In all that time we've never" Tony Martin lowered his gaze to the ground, stammering bashfully. "I remember we had talked about doing it tonight, but if we'd been screwing I sure as hell would have remembered!"
"Me, too," Connie chuckled with a sweet leer.
Tony covered his privates as a hot flush crept from shoulders to pate. "Cut the comedy, Princess," he implored. "This is no time for clowning around." The sincerity in Tony's voice made Connie instantly regret her teasing, yet, it was all so absurd, sitting under a strange sky naked as the day she was born.
Wescott's voice hardened. "You've had your fun and scared the shit out of me with your cleverness. This is a great gag, Tony, but enough is enough. Give my clothes back. I want to go home." The girl rose to her feet. She briskly rubbed warmth into her deliciously curved buttocks.
"Fine with me!" Martin almost shouted with frustration. "Go ahead, look under the rocks. See if you can find our clothes. Go ahead! I dare you!"
Connie looked down at the cross-legged youth with the first stirring of alarm. He was too sincere, too nervous, too willing for her to accept his challenge. Tony Martin was either the best actor she'd ever met, or something was drastically wrong.
She didn't want to believe him. "Come on, Tony, it is a joke, isn't it? You're just trying a novel way to get a piece of my assright?" Her laughter faded when there was no response in kind. Connie Wescott abruptly felt colder than the physically numbing chill of the breeze. Tony Martin did not argue with her and this was so unlike the Tony Martin she knew. Her knees became weak, she knelt on the ground, eyes begging the football player to reveal this bizarre circumstance as an elaborate hoax.
"Why can't you believe me?" Tony asked. He massaged his forehead, fingers distractedly tugging at his thick black hair. "Why do you think I asked what we were doing?" Tony blurted with exasperation. "I'm a bit hazybut wasn't I taking you to the fencing match at Chandler Stadium?"
Connie chewed the knuckle of her right index finger as she struggled with her memory. As events began to come back, the look of concentration gradually changed from bewilderment to amazement.
"I'm competing in the State Championship finals in women's fencing..." Connie hugged herself, shaking violently as a premonition of disaster descended over her. "You picked me up at the house. We were driving down Ferguson. We turned onto Mulberry toward MacDonald's." Connie's eyes glazed as she visualized the immediate past.
Suddenly Connie Wescott screamed: "Tony! He's run the light! Look out!" The terrible memory of the accident caused Connie to cover her face with both hands and fall to the moss. "The car's on fire!" she cried. "Get me out! Tony! Help me! My God! Tony!"
As he'd done before Tony Martin pulled Connie Wescott into his arms. He protectively embraced her shuddering form as they reexperienced that awful horror. Connie collapsed in tears, clinging to the young man.
A shadowy pain forced Tony's hand to involuntarily cover his right eye, fingers exploring the area where the glass splinter had entered. Consciously, he knew the fatal shard was non-existent, but he could not refrain from making sure.
Connie noted his action, raising her trembling hand to draw his hand away. She touched his face, making sure it whole. "You were hurt, Tony." A look of horror crossed her expression as memory cleared. "So was I I remember." Her body twitched spasmodically in empathy. "We died, didn't we?"
Tony didn't trust his voice, so he merely nodded. Martin held the tiny woman, a tight embrace that was much more than mutual comfort: it was frantic desperation, groping for an anchor in a new and unexpected reality. For long moments the young couple shared inconceivable panic until Tony, in spite of that ghastly memory of fiery death, took delight in the soft, smooth curve of Connie's satiny skin. When Connie became aware of her companion's wandering touch, she quickly pulled away.
"Just what do you think you're doing?"
"I just realized you didn't feel very dead to me," Tony blushed. His breast rose rapidly with sudden ardor. He leaned down to nuzzle Connie's neck and shoulders.
Connie Wescott allowed that affection to continue for all of three seconds. "Stop that!" Connie abruptly lifted her shoulder with such force it met Martin's chin with a painful thump! Tony withdrew, a wounded expression etched on his confused features.
Tony rubbed his jaw and scowled. "Why'd you do that?"
"That's all you jocks ever think about!" Connie chastised the football player. "Sex, sex, sex! I don't know why I ever started dating you!"
Hearing her talk so disparagingly made Martin smile. He chuckled impishly. "Glad to see you're back to your old self!"
Connie continued to glare at him. Tony's attempt at humor vanished as he realized she was not interested in changing the subject. The set of her chin, the tightness of her lips; the frightened look in her eyes made his next words come out in a very sober tone.
"Sorry. You're right. Not about the sex thing, Princess, but about being scared shitless. If this isn't some dream, some nightmare before death, you'll see a lot more of me than you might have intendedand probably John Carter, Dejah Thoris, Tara, Tars Tarkas, Gahan of Gathol..."
"Stop it!" Connie shouted, arms akimbo on the swell of her hour-glass hips. "I don't want to be here!"
"Come on, kitten!" The varsity right tackle pleaded. "Back home we'd be dead. The accident wasn't a dream. It happened! We weren't ready to die. That's why we're here. I love life, and if living to the end of my natural days means an unnatural existence on Barsoom, I'll take what I get without complaint!" He shook his head, deep in thought. Tony Martin's next words made the girl cringe. "We can't go back, Princess."
"This can't be happening, Tony! Do something!"
"What?" Martin helplessly spread his hands. "You want to go back and be dead? Or if you didn't die in the wreck, how about being a faceless cripple for the rest of your life? I saw you, Connie! Must've broken every bone in your body..."
It was not difficult to accept Tony's logic. Connie recalled that brief nightmare of choking pain, that red agony which twisted her body. No matter how brief that terrible experience had been, it had lasted far too long. The tense desperation riding her emotions abruptly vanished. "When you put it that way" Wescott made an attempt at wry humor "I suppose Barsoom 'red' is better than body-bag dead."
"That's my girl!" Tony reached out to embrace her. His efforts cultivated a swift smack to the chops. Tony backed off, massaging his tingling lips. "Hey!"
"Keep your distance, Mr. Martin!" Connie's voluptuous breasts heaved with contradictory emotions as she struggled against her sense of displacement and her very real desire to cling to the man. The frightened woman's next words were acidic, more than intended since she felt true affection for the great hulking brute sitting before her. "I'm not sure I want to play house with you!"
"Okay, Connie," Tony sulked. "If that's the way you want it, it's fine by me. But what makes you think I'd be interested?" he growled.
Tony was hurt. He thought their relationship was long past friendship, especially now; yet, the opportunity to explore that intimate next phase had not previously occurred while dating the tiny brunette. Connie's harsh reaction, however, made it clear to Martin it might never occur. He turned his broad back to the sulking girl to stare at the alien skyscape.
Connie swiftly sensed his injury and was ashamed. She liked Tony. She more than likedno, she wouldn't admit that just yethowever, she couldn't let Tony think she didn't care at all. Connie Wescott hung her head and stammered an embarrassed apology.
Tony heard her heartfelt words and gratefully acknowledged them. "I can wait," he declared hopefully. "Any guy'd wait for a pint-sized Elizabeth Taylor."
"Down, tiger," said Connie. She almost giggled with relief, tenderly touching his cheek. "Just because you're the spittin' image of a muscle-bound Burt Reynolds doesn't mean I'm going to give you a tumble." She laughed when his face split into a wide grin.
"Don't be too stuck on yourself, hero! Speaking of which," Connie asked, "what do you propose to do about our current situation? I'm freezing!" Her practical tones made Tony's eyes catch fire, his grin become even wider. Connie had no difficulty discerning the youth's thoughts. "There's other ways of keeping warm besides screwing!" she quickly reminded him.
Tony chuckled as he rose to explore the immediate area. To his chagrin, his first step resulted in a precipitous landing on his nose. Connie vacillated between laughter and tears as she gazed upon the great, sprawling hunk sitting shamefacedly on the crimson sward.
"I forgot about Mars' lesser gravity," Tony admitted with a wry grin. He gingerly rubbed the side of his nose. "I've played football for ten years and never broke my nose. Seems like I've once again managed to retain my good looks."
Connie could no longer restrain herself. She burst out laughing. "You look silly sitting there," she gasped. "Get up!"
Tony carefully complied. Connie found her vision centered on the sway of his all too obvious manhood following the dictates of the lesser Martian gravity. She concealed a wanton smile, deciding she wouldn't play too hard to get. At the same time the young woman knew she wasn't quite ready to make a commitment of that magnitude. Tony was a very good friend, an extremely pleasant companion, but what would happen to their friendship if he became a lover? Connie was much too bewildered, too confused by extraordinary circumstances, to make a decision of that importance. To be whole after that horrible wreck was almost more than she could believemuch less being on Barsoom! She attempted to convince herself that the paramount and immediate considerations revolved about their survival. When Connie realized she was lying to herself, she blushed. When she spoke, the tremor in her voice passed for shivering from cold, not her breathless attention on Tony Martin's handsome body gingerly crossing the moss-covered sward.
As he drew near, Connie Wescott said, "This is your chance to live all the fantasies you've ever had, Tony Martin." Though the comment was meant to be amusing, it finished as a rising wail of despair. "You've proven we are on Barsoom!"
Tony offered his arm as he towered over her petite figure. Connie nervously shied away. "Hey, Princess!" Tony pleaded. "I'm cold, too!"
Connie was embarrassed for a second time. She apologized by meekly accepting the tender, sheltering strength of his embrace.
The girl smiled bravely, looking up to his strong, regular features shadow-etched by the nebulous light of the twin moons. "Which way, John Carter of Mars?"
"You pick it, Princess."
And so, beneath the twin moons of Mars, Connie Wescott and Tony Martin learned to walk in the lesser gravity of Barsoom.
II. THE CITY
Dawn arrived like a shot from a rifle. The Martian atmosphere is so rarefied there is no true pre-dawn or twilight; the sun swiftly rose above the eastern terminator line, casting a harsh light that left ink-black shadows in the low hills surrounding the moss-covered desert.
Topping a rise, the two earthlings slowly walking across the resilient sward, were startled by the electrifying appearance of a huge Martian city on the rim of the dead sea basin. The tops of the ancient towers, some cracked and shattered, glowed with ruddy fire from the stark solar illumination.
Awe-struck by the alien tableau several hundred feet above him, Tony cried: "A city! One of the dead cities of Mars!" The petite woman stepped forward, eagerness plain on her features. Tony stopped her with an urgent warning by grabbing her shapely arm. "Careful, Connie!" he ominously intoned. "There be Tharks in there!"
"Or white apes, or the evil Ras Thavas," Connie teased light-heartedly. "The dead cities Burroughs described always seemed to have something of value for bone-weary travelers. What I want most is a new set of clothes. I can't run around naked on Barsoom like Dejah ThorisI get goose bumps!" Connie began to scale the lower edge of the incline. She paused, looking back, when the girl realized her companion had not immediately followed.
In the full light of day Connie lustily appraised her male companion. Tony Martin was certainly stud quality. "To think," she breathed in mute soliloquy, "I've dated Tony all this time, never dreaming..." The lushly proportioned maid quickly stilled the too provocative thoughts. She called out to him. "Aren't you coming? If you're too scared, hero, I can hold your hand..."
"Sit on it, Connie." Tony smarted under the sting of her whimsically delivered assessment of his courage. "I was visually reconnoitering the city for any signs of danger." He angrily stomped up the slight incline at the foot of the escarpment. As he passed her, Tony voiced a gruff command. "Stay behind me!"
Tony scrambled up the steeper part of the slope then suddenly stopped dead in his tracks when Connie's husky "With pleasure!" belatedly announced exactly what sort of spectacle his swinging testicles presented to the laughing woman from her particular vantage point. He hoped the hot flush creeping from forehead to foot was not as obvious as it felt to him. "Come on up," he said, voice sounding strained to his own hearing. "We'll go together."
Connie's impishly amused expression did nothing to ease Tony's discomfort. Tony managed to overcome his embarrassment as he happily observed the gentle sway of Connie's firm breasts as she gingerly ascended the incline. An involuntary stirring in his groin caused Tony to quickly locate something else in the way of visual interest before he made a true ass of himself.
Tony regained control of his aroused libido long before Connie reached his side. Then, hand in hand, the couple scaled the time-eroded cliff once hidden beneath the vanished oceans of Mars. Topping the upper edge of the worn granite, covered in places by patchy areas of thick moss, they chose the first avenue encountered as an entry into the city.
Tony restrained the anxious woman while cautiously examining the rubble-filled street. He moved forward one hundred feet where he stopped to repeat the same intense examination of the ancient, weathered towers. He felt uneasy; The outer parts of the city were in ruins with huge mounds of stone or Martian concrete choking the streets. There were too many places where danger could close on them unexpectedly. After traveling three blocks in this cautious, crawling fashion, Connie stamped her pretty foot in exasperation.
"At this rate," she pouted, "it'll take forever! We haven't seen anything dangerous, Tony. Let's get downtown so I can find something to wear! I've got delicate skinI sunburn easily!"
The central core of the city lay at least two miles away. Tony was forced into grudging agreement. At their current rate of progress, the young woman's exasperated 'forever' would be an entirely proper estimate of the time needed to reach the imposing inner edifices. Tony grumbled his reluctance, though he submitted to Connie's demands. "We'll go faster, babe, but if anything happens, you stay behind me!"
"I will, Tony," the young woman meekly replied.
Connie Wescott decided to avoid an argument for the time being. She was appreciative of the big youth's gallant offer to protect her; but there remained her own unvoiced determination to share in any danger they might encounter. Wescott demurely matched Martin's lengthened stride. She noted his eyes constantly searching the side-streets and buildings. Some of the young right tackle's intense caution possessed the perspiring woman. She began to use eyes, ears, and nose to extend her senses as an early warning system.
The earthlings eventually entered an area of older, more finely crafted edifices. Some of the ancient piles soared hundreds of feet in the air. The windows were ebony-black shadows in the glaring light of the sun. Ornate carvings embellished the towers from ground level upwards to the fifteenth or twentieth stories; though more than one building had intricate designs from base to crown.
With the morning sun still so close to the horizon, the wide avenue was shrouded in gloomy semi-darkness. The earthlings quietly endured the alien strangeness, the oppressive aura of impending doom. To Connie's silent relief, Tony gradually slowed the pace. She, too, had felt awe in the ghostly center of the silent city as they ventured deeper into the forest of cold Martian concrete, granite and marble.
There were no sounds within the city except a gentle breeze and the tiny snap, crackle and pops of expanding building materials as the sun heated the stone. They saw no signs of life and their sense of smell became quite useless dealing with so many alien scents.
Tony proceeded with caution without reverting to his "lead point and squad follow" method of movement. It seemed better to have Connie at his side or no more than a few paces behind rather than so far to the rear he could not easily protect her. Still, he felt inadequately armed to defend them from whatever horrors might lurk within the immense buildings hemming the rubble clogged avenue.
Tony Martin cautiously examined the open, doorless, archway entrances of each building they passed. He entered none; however, the dark, dusty interiors were too foreboding and their chosen destination, the central core of the city, still lay before them.
Sunlight dispelled the wide avenue's gloom near midday; the heat gradually increasing until both humans sweated profusely under the harsh, brilliant white light. Connie, hot, weary, and impatient, could stand it no longer. "When are we going inside? We probably passed Saks, J. C. Penney and Kmart!"
Tony sighed when he faced the petulant, glistening, wonderfully naked maiden. Dirt smudges from climbing over debris marked her creamy arms, legs, and torso. Despite the sweat-streaked grime, Connie Wescott was the most tantalizingly desirable woman the young man had ever known. Martin knew he looked equally bedraggled and suddenly wondered if Connie found him attractive. What if she were disappointed? Maybe he wasn't what she expected. That would explain why she rebuffed him the previous night. This unaccustomed personal insecurity prompted Tony's weary response.
"You're right." Martin rubbed the back of his stiff neck with a shaky hand. "We're getting worn out. I suppose we're close enough to the center of the city. Pick one, kitten, we'll see what we can find."
In reply to his statement, Connie Wescott abruptly entered the doorway of the nearest building. After scanning the street one last time with a wary eye, Tony quickly followed the impetuous young woman into the cool interior of the huge edifice.
It took a moment for their eyes to adjust to the building's spooky darkness. The first floor was a tremendous hall. Magnificent frescoes of heroic size adorned the walls. Connie ignored the works of art since the lower level was obviously bare of any artifacts. Only wind blown sand, lying in drifts on either side of the entrance, relieved the stark barrenness. Wescott traversed the hall towards the nearest spiral ramp giving access to the upper stories. Tony trotted unsteadily in her wake.
Connie's easy adjustment to the difference in gravity made it possible to swiftly outdistance her huge companion. Tony continued to have difficulty with locomotion, due to his great bulk and the inherent inertia thereof. He could manage walking without falling; though he tended to overcompensate. In an effort to catch up he inadvertently passed Connie, who gracefully jogged toward the ramp.
Tony's Nautilus-trained body deceived him once again; he could not stop. Tony rolled his shoulder and crashed into the wall, strong arms absorbing the shock. He grinned with grid-iron memory: he'd been hit harder by running backs trying to escape him on the scrimmage line.
Tony slowly pushed himself away from the wall. Something about the mural beneath his palms caught Martin's eye and he knelt to examine the lower section, a perplexed frown furrowing his brow. The woman stopped at his side. Connie grunted in surprise when Tony's strong hands gripped her arm, pulling her beside him on the dusty floor. He directed the woman's attention to the wall with an excited jab of his finger.
"Look at this!" Tony showed her the time-faded mural depicting the struggles of a maritime nation contending with the evaporation of the five great oceans of Mars. He pointed out a series of marks at the base of the painting. "Am I seeing things?"
Connie compressed her lips in anger. "You're always seeing things." She resisted his demand to examine the painting until her attention was riveted on the stylized Martian hieroglyphics. Shocked by what she read, the stunned woman suddenly announced: "The Failing of Throxeus by J...A... can you make that out, Tony? Is it 'H' or 'N'?"
"'H' ... I think. Jah Nur," he supplied. Tony whirled her about, his huge hands tightened spasmodically on her soft-curved shoulders. He trembled with bewilderment. "How can we read this? Isn't this supposed to be Martian?"
"Maybe we're seeing things," Connie countered with uncertainty. "Let's look at another one."
At her suggestion the young couple eagerly crossed the great hall in enormous leaps impossible to duplicate on Earth. Connie squatted to read the inscription of a mural illustrating a great conflict between the Orovars, the white race of Mars, and the six-limbed barbaric green men.
"War with the WarhoonsThe Marshes of Zanathia. Tony! It's a picture of our dead city! See the towers in the painting? That's the same skyline we saw from the basin! They must've fought a great battle near here before the marshlands evaporated!"
"I guess you didn't notice them on the way in, but I thought I could read street signs as we came through the city," Tony said. "They're carved on the second story of all the buildings. I thought I was imagining things. Do you suppose this city used a form of English for its written language? Burroughs said the written languages varied among nations, or even cities within a nation, while the whole of Barsoom shared a common oral language."
"If Burroughs actually is the godfather of Barsoom," Connie bit her lip as she focused her thoughts, "it's reasonable to assume his 'Martian' is really English with a few invented words thrown in to create the illusion of an 'alien' language."
Tony raised his eyebrows as he digested Wescott's diagnosis. His active mind pursued her explanation as they ascended the nearest ramp. His next words were chosen with care. "We know Barsoom is an impossibility in our own universe. The Viking Landers proved Mars barren of life and having a thin, unbreathable atmosphere of carbon dioxide." He was gripped with excitement, "What if this Marswhere we are right nowis part of an alternate universe? Suppose it's really real!"
"I'm not into metaphysics, or crystal ball gazing," Connie took another step up the twenty-five degree ramp, "If you want to get into weirdies," she chuckled, "be my guest. I'm more inclined to believe Burroughs' imagination was so powerful that Barsoom sprang into existence from the sheer force of his personality. Do we call that an alternate universe, or an alternate reality? We both believed in Barsoom after the accident. I know. I heard it in your mind. Perhaps" Connie Wescott froze in mid-stride.
Dumfounded, she faced her companion. "I actually heard it in your mind! You said 'We still live!' and I heard it! Tony! It really was you!" The grateful woman threw her arms about Martin's neck and kissed him, her eyes glistening with tears. She brushed at the moisture on her cheek with an embarrassed gesture. She drew back and gazed at the youth with adoration. "You saved my life!"
"We both did, darling." Tony blushed under the compliment. "I couldn't let you die, but I almost failed until I got some help from you. I couldn't have done it alone..."
"I don't care about that!" she cried. "I couldn't have done it at all!" Connie stepped close to the six-foot-two right tackle and kissed him a second time (she had to pull his face down and stand on tiptoe). The kiss was much longer and executed with more enthusiasm. "Thank you," she whispered.
"For what?" Tony blushed. "I thought you were pissed about being on Barsoom."
Connie giggled sweetly, shaking her head. "Don't mind a thing I said last night. You were right. 'Alive' is everything. 'Dead' is a date with the coronerUgh!" She shivered as if a chill wind had blown through the hot corridors. "I look terrible in black plastic!"
"You'd look pretty in anything," Tony complimented shyly, trying to capture the delicious creature in his arms.
Connie laughed merrily, spinning free. "Not now, lover!" she promised. "First I've got to find something to wear!"
Connie led the way. She was first to explore each floor, which made Tony nervous. The first time she got out of sight he asked her to slow down. She laughed. The second time he mentioned it, she told him to jump out the nearest window. Martin decided it best to let Connie have her way since there was nothing he could do short of physically restraining her. No matter how delightful the prospect of wrestling with those gorgeous curves might be, the football player was afraid it might permanently damage their future relationship. He resigned himself to stay as close to the impatient young woman as possible.
The layer of fine dust covering the floors had been undisturbed for centuries. The first three levels were vacant, the fourth level revealed the first evidence of the original inhabitants though there was little enough to see. By the time they investigated the seventh level, they'd discovered a few large pieces of furniture, some of which crumbled to dust at the slightest touch. The majority; however, had survived uncounted years since Zanathia was abandoned.
"Must be sorapus wood," Tony commented as Connie marveled at the attractive grain of a handsome chest they found in a small room on the eighth floor. "Sure is pretty."
"Yes it is, but it might be skeel," Connie added, her fingers sliding over the polished surface coated with an inch of dust. "Burroughs said both were hardwoods highly prized for strength, durability, and beauty."
"You actually did read those books I gave you!" Tony breathed in amazement. "I kind of thought you were putting me on. Imagine that, a brainy chick who enjoys athletics and a bit of fantasy on the side. No wonder I love you!"
Tony's candid declaration triggered a hot blush on the woman's cheeks. Overwhelmed by his spontaneity, and sincerity, Connie Wescott unconsciously sought to contain his affections. "Why not?" she said haughtily. "Didn't you think I could read?"
She noted Martin's furrowed brow and immediately regretted her disparaging comment. "I didn't mean that, Tony." She reached out, asking forgiveness. "Just don't say you love me. I'm not sure I'm ready for that" Connie denied him a chance to reply or to continue his declaration of love. She slipped her sun-redden arm beneath his. Further conversation was avoided as she led the way back to the ramp. "How about it?" Connie asked. "Ready for the next floor?"
Tony rubbed his day old stubble as if he were troubled with a delicate decision. He understood why Connie had snapped, he was pushing too hard. Shrugging his massive shoulders, Martin gave the nervous woman a toothy grin. "Why not? Palm Beach, Christian Dior, and Botany 500 here we come!"
The hulking youth led the way to the next floor. It was Tony who discovered the air-tight door on the left side of the corridor. Long moments passed as he studied the seal on the wooden door. He could find no easy method of opening the panel.
"They must've had a damn good reason to seal this room," he said.
"Why?" Connie asked. She stared at the door which resisted Tony's repeated efforts. "Jewels? Riches?" She was eager to force the door. She tried adding her own shoulder to the panel, but there was not enough room for them both.
"I have no idea, princess," Tony cried, "but I'm going to find out! Stand back, kitten. I'm going to break it in!"
III. BEYOND THE CLOSED DOOR
"Don't use your shoulder!" Connie yelled.
"Are you kidding?" Tony grinned. "That's television! I'll show you how it's done at the police academy." Tensing his iron-hard muscles, Tony moved back two paces. Raising his right foot, he delivered a terrific kick to the solid panel.
"Oh shit!" he yelped. Martin hopped about on one foot as he clutched the other in agony. "Son-of-a-bitch!"
"Are you hurt?" Connie watched her friend's gyrations with concern.
"Hell, yes!" Tony replied. "But, I'll live!"
"Sit down, honey," Connie advised. She offered a shoulder as support and Tony let her help him hobble to the wall where he leaned back, foot in hand.
The ridiculous pained look on his face made it difficult for the young woman to hide her amusement once she was sure Martin was not permanently maimed. "I'll take a look around, Tony. Maybe I can find something to pry that door open."
Connie started down the corridor but stopped short. Her full lips twitched with a smile as she held back a laugh. "Do you know what a Barsoomian crow-bar looks like?"
"You be careful," Tony grimaced as he massaged the heel of his foot. "Keep your eyes open. Yell if you have troubleI'll be there in a flash."
Tony's pride suffered more than his bruised foot. He sank to the marble floor over-laid with eons of undisturbed dust. His appendage ached, but a good part of his attention was centered on Connie's shapely buttocks dipping in gorgeous figure eights toward the first room to the right.
"Nothing here," the woman declared when she reappeared. "I'll check the next one." She emerged, empty handed, and tried the next. When she came out, her face was creased with a white-toothed smile. Her small hands clutched a heavy something-or-other which vaguely resembled a 1950's floor lamp.
Tony hobbled in her direction, the pain in his foot forgotten. Years of football taught Martin to endure pain without complaint. After high school several colleges offered athletic scholarships based on Martin's ability to take, as well as deliver, bruising punishment.
Connie laughed as she skipped past the big right tackle. She swung the 'floor lamp' at the enigmatic panel. Tony reached out for the metal bar with a growl. "Give me that!"
The muscles of Tony's back and shoulders rolled under his sun-bronzed skin as he raised the 'floor lamp' over his head. It hit the door with bone-crushing force. The wood shuddered from the jarring impact. A tiny fracture appeared. Encouraged, Tony repeatedly struck the panel, each blow backed by his enormous strength.
Connie watched breathlessly, fascinated by the supple movements of his Herculean frame. She found herself becoming aroused from watching the unconfined movements of Tony's love muscle as he wreaked havoc on the door. Moments later, glistening with sweat, Tony's strong hands ripped the few remaining pieces from the door frame.
Connie feverishly rushed into the room beyond. In her haste to conceal the trembling of her inflamed body, the young woman's shoulder knocked the football player off-balance. Tony slipped on powder-fine dust and banged his head against the ersite stone doorway. Tony swore, rubbing his cranium with an angry hand. Entering the room, sealed a million or more years since the death of the Martian oceans, Martin growled at Connie Wescott's beautiful back.
"That was totally uncalled for, Connie." Tony wiped moisture from his brow as he looked around the interior of the chamber. "I'd have gladly moved aside."
Connie ignored Martin's complaint by averting her face, afraid to display the hot flush on her cheeks. The young woman was determined not to reveal the libertine thrill which consumed her in the hallway. She kept her back turned toward the muttering man and concentrated her attention on the stacks of fine silks and bolts of cloth lining the room. In hopes of concealing her heated excitement the trembling woman reached for a bolt of blue fabric; she was extremely fond of blue. As her hand touched that heavenly silk the shimmering cloth disintegrated. The one next to it vanished as swiftly, and so it was with each of the remaining bolts on the shelf. She went to the next rack with similar results and began to think she was being punished for her lascivious behavior. Rack after rack crumbled at her slightest touch.
Tony's mischievous chuckles echoed inside the storeroom each time the frustrated woman voiced her dismay. Connie knew his snickers were retaliation for the bump on his head; however deserved, it irritated her no end. Connie faced him with ill-controlled fury. "Will you keep your damn mouth shut? I'm sorry! Okay?
"Hey!" Martin's smile vanished, the bump forgotten. "This is Tonyremember me? I'm one of the good guys..."
His simple plea cut deeply. Connie was mortified and outraged with her undisciplined and childish behavior. The woman picked up the nearest solid object: a goblet encrusted with a king's ransom of emeralds, rubies, and diamonds. She threw it. She did not aim, only wishing to release all tension and embarrassment in a physical act. The goblet crashed into the quartzite window pane of the sealed room. The quartz, instead of shattering, exploded into dust.
"Connie? Kitten?" Tony's voice was filled with self-reproach. He tried to change the subjectto still her quiet tears with gentle words. He made a production out of examining an array of leather harnesses suspended on numerous pegs near the entrance. When he touched one it remained solid.
"Connie? These things don't turn to dust..." He showed her a harness, popping the leather straps between his massive hands. "The silks are too far gone."
Tony's fence-mending did not go unnoticed. Connie blinked, a look of repentance softening her angry pout. Remorseful, eyes downcast, Wescott traced the edge of a tightly- fitted flooring block with her toe.
The big man's heart went out to his companion. "I know it's rough, Princess, but we've just got to keep trying..."
"Let's have a look-see." Connie sniffed back tears and rubbed at her eyes. Ashamed of her recent behavior, the woman avoided Tony's kindly gaze as she inspected the harness he presented.
There was not much to the simple Martian garment: a belt which buckled at the waist, a single strap that crossed over the shoulder from front to back, a variety of hooks and snaps embedded in the leather. Most of the harnesses were of a similar style; though some were embossed with intricate tooling, or encrusted with precious gems, or varied in the color of the material. There were plain and utilitarian harnesses as well. Connie's sigh of frustration as she moved along the wall brought a tender smile to Tony's face.
"I think the only reason," he observed, "women want clothes is to make themselves sexier. Madam," he displayed a harness, bowing at the waist, "this particular style is most becoming. Perhaps I could show you something more suited to your abundant figure? More, shall we say, exotic?" Tony pulled down another harness with double straps that criss-crossed at mid-chest and mid-back.
"As you can see," Tony's easy grin was quite infectious, "this model is most flattering for unbound bosoms. It offers full separation of madam's most spectacular mammary glands. May I suggest..."
Connie's immediate vexation evaporated under the grinning jock's showroom manner. She burst out with the giggles. "You've got a lot of nerve! Talk about unbound? What about that weather vane of yours? Stands straight out when the wind blows!"
"All the more reason," Tony replied, pleasantly chagrined, "for us to find something to wear." Without waiting for a response, Martin tried on the harness in his hands. He quickly discarded it when it became obvious it was much too small. He looked to another and as he reached for it, Connie's playfully caustic remark was fully understood. He laughed, raising an amused eyebrow towards the woman feverishly trying harnesses for size and almost as rapidly discarding them on the floor.
Connie's eyes questioned his sudden amusement. Tony explained with a huge smile on his face. His hand dropped to his crotch, massaging his genitals. "So you noticed which way the wind was blowing, eh?"
Wescott blushed from head to foot. Not only was she embarrassed by his statement, she was totally unprepared for his gesture. It didn't help the situation in that she'd entertained similar thoughts of touching his impressive masculinity ever since he'd broken through the sealed door. She turned away, covering her face with her hands.
This distressed reaction disturbed Tony Martin. He'd anticipated laughter, not tears. "Sorry," he mumbled an awkward apology. "Too crudehuh? We better get some clothes in a hurry so we can talk to each other like we used to..."
Connie silently nodded her agreement. Tight-lipped, the anxious maiden quickly sorted through the harnesses on the wall. Twenty minutes later they had selected and helped each other don the unusual Barsoomian costumes.
Tony was hardest to fit since ancient Orovars rarely achieved his great height or stature. There were two different harnesses which embraced his titanic proportions but Tony's final choice was a double-strapped harness of plain, unadorned leather with matching g-string, and short paneled breech clout.
"Why didn't you chose the other one, Tony?" Connie referred to the second harness lying on the floor. She touched the gem encrusted leather with her booted foot. The afternoon sun shining through the broken window made the harness sparkle. "All those jewels," she sighed. "Must be worth a fortune!"
Martin disagreed. "Diamonds Are A Girl's Best Friend, so Ms. Channing says, and Diamonds Are Forever, to quote Ian Fleming. MeI've never had a yen for jewelry, with the one exception of a Super Bowl ring."
Tony tightened the harness strap across his shoulder with more force than necessary. He jerked the leather about his waist, checking the fastening a second time. His voice dropped an octave as he bit his bottom lip. "I doubt I'll ever have a chance to win one now..."
Tony sat on the edge of a table to measure his foot against one of the many pairs of boots lying on the floor beneath the harnesses. He found an approximate fit. Bending over, he pulled the amazingly well-preserved, supple lizard-skin boots over his bare feet.
Connie detected the remorse in Martin's voice. Wescott had been so engrossed with her own thoughts of death and Mars that she had neglected to consider her best friend's reactions. Connie instinctively knew any existence was better than none, but to discover Tony felt the same dislocation in space and time came as a shock. Martin had been so cheerful, so strongso Tonythat the young woman had somehow assumed his adjustment to the transition in worlds.
With a guilty start Connie realized how much they both had lost: families in tears, friends who mourned; the careers they might have pursued. She'd have ended up a housewife, teacher, or secretary; Connie Wescott had no delusions about her abilities or drives, but Tony Martin had lost a promising professional football career.
She recalled late night conversations when he visited her home. Her father often joined in, proud of the young man's accomplishments and as eager as Tony for his shot at the big time. Connie remembered Tony's ambitious dreams and how he'd always included her in his wonderful visions, beginning with their second date. She silently vowed to distract his thoughts from the what-might-have-been. With a brave laugh the lady fencer performed a pirouette, calling for Tony's approval.
"What do you think? Like it?"
Tony's eyes rose from tiny booted feet, to whirling brown hair, his stubble-bearded face etched with a broad smile of appreciation. A single broad strap crossed Wescott's right shoulder over the smooth curve of her gorgeous back then down between her generous, firm breasts. The skimpy leather breech clout barely covered the area between her legs. Oddly, the brief costume drew Tony's eyes more imperatively than her previous nudity.
"STUNNING!" he shouted with a happy laugh. If Connie Wescott could make shopping on Barsoom as normal as going to Sears for a new blouse, he could do no less. He gave her his best old lecher leer. "You look good enough to eat! Reminds me of the pretty ladies in porno mags!"
Wescott spun once more before stopping to catch her breath. She stepped close, caressing Tony's bristly cheek. Her eyes sparkled mischievously. "You read those, too?" Connie smiled impishly, laying her palms the great arch of his chest. "PornoEdgar Rice Burroughsand probably Sports Illustrated! That's what I call a well-rounded literary diet!" Her gaiety fueled Martin's sheepish grin. Connie gave him a playful shove. "I'll tell you what, though, outfits like this might look good in those sleazy publications or on the cover of science fiction paperbacks but in real life it's for the birds!". Connie surprised herself by emulating Tony's earlier suggestive action by deliberately running a provocative finger beneath the harness strap between her breasts. She suddenly laughed. "I'll get chaffed in this thing!"
"Beats having your buns exposed to the cold." Tony replied, rising to the occasion, the melancholy dissipating under her cheerful influence.
"Just BARELY!" Connie giggled. She presented her backside to him, flipping her short leather breechcloth like a can-can girl. His whistles and applause brought a flush to the woman's cheeks as she playfully tossed one of the previously discarded harnesses at him for being too appreciative. Tony instinctively attempted an interception, but the missile was too far over his head.
Martin's eyes followed the air-borne object as it sailed past. The leather harness landed on an untouched pile of silks with the expected result; the ancient fabric vanished in a swirling cloud of dust, but this time something more than wood racks and stone flagging was revealed. Connie's ecstatic cry echoed in the ancient corridors. "Swords!"
Hidden beneath the fragile silks were more than thirty finely-crafted examples of the Barsoomian sword-maker's art. Connie's shriek of delight brought a smile to Martin's face as she crossed the room in a single leap. She tested the weight and feel of each sharp-edged instrument. Tony watched the excited woman enthusiastically examining the Martian weapons so similar to the ones she used with such skill in fencing tournaments on Earth.
Connie found eight matched sets of long sword, short sword, and dagger as described in the Barsoomian books. The other pieces were an assortment of unmatched styles and were ignored by the exuberant woman. Tony maintained his seat, pleased Connie found something on Barsoom that was a plus instead of a minus.
Connie constantly returned to a single set of weapons fashioned with a plain curved guard and adorned with a single large emerald in the pommel of each. The green of the gems perfectly matched Wescott's beautiful eyes. Her pleasure with the gleaming lengths of metal was evident in her ecstatic smile and the careful way she set them aside before she went back through the weapons. Another set was carefully chosen; heavier and of longer reach. These weapons were embellished with rubies instead of emeralds. Connie deposited all six weapons on the table where Tony sat.
"Move that big butt of yours," she ordered. Tony speedily obliged as the glowing woman caressed the gleaming blades on the table. "There must be some sheathes around here..."
Her eyes searched the room. Connie returned to the pile of discarded swords. She touched the bundled silks on either side. Under the brittle fabric to her left were the objects of her hunt. Eyes sparkling, she selected the proper sheathes and brought them back to her treasures. Connie slammed the emerald-hilted long sword into a leather sheath then snapped it onto her harness.
"Now," she declared with a bold grin, "I don't feel so naked! Here's a set for you." Connie handed Tony the long sword with the ruby studded hilt. "The longest and heaviest I could find. Try it! Might make the difference between life and death some day."
Martin experimentally wrapped his ham-sized fist about the hilt, awkwardly swinging the shiny weapon. "I can't tell if it feels right or not, Connie." Tony didn't hide behind macho pretenses. "Anything bigger'n a hunting knife and I'm all thumbs."
"You'll learn!" she promised. "I'll teach you." Connie assisted Tony by snapping the weapons to his harness. She stepped back and crossed arms beneath generous breasts to inspect her companion's new appearance. "You'll do, John Carter!"
Tony looked with dismay at the swords suspended from his thick waist. "I can't use these things, Connie! I'll cut myself!" Martin gave Wescott an oblique shrug of his great shoulders. "On you they look goodbut me Klutz Martin?" He snorted with uncertainty. "By the way, girl, why didn't you get gaudy? Your harness is as plain as mine."
"I'm the simple type." Connie replied.
"Right" Tony chuckled, never one to pass a golden opportunity"Simple in the head."
"Why, you little fart!" Connie cried, picking up the nearest thing to hand: her short sword. She deftly turned the blade to pop his back side with the broad face of the steel.
"Ouch! I was only kidding!!"
Connie stuck out her tongue and giggled. "I know," she said mischievously, "I was just testing my quick draw and the heft of the sword." She sheathed the rigid length of Martian steel, eyes still sparkling with amusement.
Tony grinned sheepishly, then sobered in an instant when his hand brushed the hilt of his great sword. "You don't really think I'll ever have to use this, do you?"
"I've read six of the eleven Martian books by E.R.B., Tony. You've read them allyou tell me." There was a terrifying hint of practicality behind her words.
Tony sighed unhappily. "Looks like I'll end up as cut-bait, Princess. I can't use one of these things," he patted the hilt of the great sword. "MeI'm the M-16 type. Give me a couple of grenades, lots of ammunition, and the 101st Airborne and then I'll feel adequately armed for the terrors of Barsoom."
"What are you complaining about, Tony? If the situation should ever arise I'll take care of you." Her voice was filled with confidence.
What cut Tony to the bone was his awareness Connie Wescott could actually do as she declared. "Great," Tony scowled with resentment, "the big football hero being nurse-maided by a little girl..."
"I'm a woman and I'm not little!" Connie's tone contained a hint of exasperation. "You'll do just fine after you learn the basics, Tony! Give it a chance!"
Tony sighed. "Rather have a rifle or a pistol."
"All right! We'll get you one of each!" Connie cried with exasperation. "Burroughs had something called a radium rifle in his stories. They could shoot a hundred miles or more, if you can believe that! We'll get you a Mars rifle!"
"Barsoom," Tony corrected with a tight smile. "We better start using Barsoomian words."
"Right," Connie agreed. "JasoomEarth; BarsoomMars..."
"BosoomsTits... Hey! Ouch! Connie! Quit!"
Connie Wescott disregarded Martin's protests as she paddled his bum with the broad side of her great sword. Tony jumped at the first stinging blow. Subsequent efforts to evade her failed. Connie continued to apply her punishment. The unfamiliar swords at his waist brought about Tony's ignominious defeat: the scabbards tangled between his long legs, tripping him. The right tackle slid the length of the room. His head and torso disappeared beneath a pile of silks which erupted into a great cloud of dust.
"Yahoo!" Tony cried before succumbing to an attack of sneezing as the powdered fabric entered his nostrils. "I'm ready for anything now!"
When the particulate matter began to settle, Connie Wescott made out the figure of her immense friend searching though the piles of dust at his feet. In one hand Tony held a Martian long bow manufactured from nearly indestructible skeel wood. It was the longest of the three bows he'd blundered into by chance. A pair of quivers dangled over his sturdy wrist by their leather straps.
"There must be over a hundred arrows!" Tony grinned as he crossed the room. He stopped at a nearby table covered with an assortment of hammered gold objects of incredible beauty and various sacks of jewels. The exquisite trinkets were swept aside by a single stroke of his brawny arm so that his real object d'arte could be laid upon the surface for closer examination.
Fingering flaps which covered various compartments on the quivers Tony extracted a dozen bow strings which curiously appeared to be made of a bright, flexible metal. The arrows were fletched with some unknown material; forty inch shafts as straight and strong as the day they were made. Tony whistled his appreciation of the viciously barbed arrowheads.
Tony had no difficulty stringing the powerful Martian bow due to his Earthly-endowed strength. He slipped the metal string over the steel-capped ends of the weapon. The bow string thrummed satisfactorily when Tony tested its tension with a flick of his finger.
"Dad and I hunt with these all the time. Bagged a brown bear last summer. If you want my unbiased opinion, I'm Freakin'-A-Number-One with these critters! Damn! I feel a lot better now!"
Tony went to the window, nocked an arrow, drew, aimed, and released. Such was the strength of the bow and the arm which drew it that the shaft whistled in a high arc over the buildings. Before disappearing from view, the arrow had travelled over five hundred yards. "Wow!" Tony exhaled slowly, his astonishment plain to read in his wondering gaze. "That's what I call one hell of a bow!"
Connie was about to add her enthusiastic approval when they were startled by a wall-shaking roar. The earthlings whirled about to face a pair of the dreaded man-eating white apes of Barsoom!
IV. THE STRANGE BEASTS OF MARS
The huge beasts were an unlovely breed standing ten to fifteen feet tall in the Barsoomian books; these particular specimens were twelve and fourteen. They had six limbs; two for walking erect and two at the shoulders near the thick neck covered with a huge, bristly shock of white hair. The third set of limbs, located below the upper pair, could be used for locomotion or an extra set of hands, depending on the needs of the beast. The head, in both shape and contour, was strikingly similar to that of the African gorilla.
The awesome beasts advanced on Tony and Connie, emitting coarse, guttural growls. The apes displayed complete confidence in their prey by splitting ranksan earthling apiece.
The petite earth woman did not hesitate for an instant. Whipping her long sword free, Connie charged the beast closing with her. Tony's astonishment at her incredible bravery lasted only a micro-secondthe other ape was charging him!
The earthman nocked an arrow to hurriedly fire at the huge beast. The shot was poorly aimed, but such was Martin's luck the creature crashed to the floor. The wickedly barbed point of the arrow shattered the ape's skull, splashing great gouts of blood and grey matter across the room. Tony contained his surprised relief while reloading to face the ape attacking Connie. What he saw was so astounding he lowered his weapon in awe, staring with open-mouthed wonder.
Connie had completely severed two of her assailant's thick arms. The ape's head and shoulders were hacked and bleeding from a dozen cuts. Connie leapt forward, the point of her sword accurately skewering the right breast of the ape. She'd remembered Burroughs' Martian creatures had their hearts center and rightthe opposite of humans and the various warm-blooded creatures of Earth.
Her thrust was backed by the greatly enhanced strength of her supple body in the lesser gravity of Mars. Connie ended her lunge with a twist of her wrist. The ape fell to the blood-stained marble with a cry of agonized rage on its ugly lips.
"Ugh!" Connie shook her blood-spattered body from head to toe. "What a mess! Did I get any in my hair?" The woman placed her boot against the ape's crimsoned breast to wrench her blade free. "Gosh that was fun!"
"Fun, my ass!" Tony replied, looking pale around the gills. The adrenaline still thumped through his body.
Connie noted his nauseated expression as he stared at the still twitching corpses. "Perhaps I got carried away," the panting woman admitted as she wiped the blade on the hairless chest of her deceased opponent. "But this is the first time since I started fencing I could hack away for real!"
"Remind me not to get you pissed off at me."
"Oh, pooh!" Connie chided with a tremulous laugh. She faced Tony with genuine admiration after viewing the gory mess Tony's arrow made of the ape's skull. "What a shot! Right through the eye! Damn! You weren't kidding, were you?"
Tony's self-esteem revived as Connie glowingly complimented his apparent marksmanship. He declined to admit pure chance had directed his shaft. "Thanks," he managed with a straight face. "You weren't too bad yourself. Regular hell on wheels with that meat cleaver of yours."
"Why thank you, kind sir," Connie curtsied. She eyed the apes then looked back at Tony. "You hungry?"
"Very, but if you're thinking what I think you're thinking, count me out. My appetite just got up and went. I don't think I could stomach raw ape."
"Me either." Connie's cute nose wrinkled expressively. "I was trying to be practical. What do you say? Should we move onsee if we can find something edible?"
Connie stepped closer, shining approbation in her beautiful green eyes. Tony found the admiration of the blood-spattered woman much too sensual for him to handle. He gained breathing time by pulling the arrow out of the ape's skull. He replaced it in one of his quivers.
"Fine with me," Tony replied, basking in her approval, "but watch out, there may be other apes lurking about."
"Right you are," Connie nodded. "Let's not push our luck."
Connie led the way out. Tony quickly scanned the apartment to see if there might be other arrows hidden beneath the silks. He quickly discovered he carried all which had been stored in the sealed room. Martin joined Wescott on the descending ramp.
When they emerged on the sunlight street Connie frowned. "What did Burroughs put on this planet for people to eat? Do you remember?"
Tony silently kicked the question about before answering. "Mantalia, usa, sompus, thoat, zitidars, fruits, berries, roots and tubers, fish, breads, cakes, and honeybut he didn't give exact descriptions of the plants. We'll probably walk right through a land of plenty and starve to death."
"Don't be such a pessimist," Connie groused. She booted a chip of stone in their path. It skipped a dozen feet before it disappeared in a sand drift at the base of a tower. "What do we look for?"
"I have no idea, but I'll tell you this: I'm more thirsty than hungry. We've got to have water, Connie. Soon"
"I'll go for that, my chieftain. Which way do we travel?"
Her words brought Tony to an abrupt, breathless, halt. Connie's green eyes narrowed as she gazed nervously at his suddenly intense expression.
"My chieftain?" Tony scanned her delicious, abundant beauty displayed in brief barbaric costume with bated breath. "You mean 'my chieftain' the same way Burroughs meant it?"
Connie shrugged her shoulders with an upturning of her full lips. "Perhaps I'm playing 'Lost on Barsoom' a little too realistically, sweetheart. I'm not sure I'm ready to make that kind of commitment, Tony. But until something better comes along you'll do quite nicely." Tony's bitter frown perplexed the woman. "What is it, darling?"
"Want to find out how nice it could be?" he asked.
"I thought you were thirsty." Connie laughed.
"I am." Tony's husky emotion pleased the woman. She hoped she didn't show her feelings to the young man. His next words flustered her. "For you!"
"So what else it new?" Wescott avoided the direct answer, not trusting herself. She nervously led the way. "We've got places to gothings to do. Can't be fooling around..."
Tony's only comment as they passed out of the city onto the dead sea bottom was: "Spoil Sport!"
By late afternoon they were beyond sight of the city, desperately hot and fatigued. The blood stains on Connie's smooth, white skin had turned into long, ragged smears as the sun's boiling heat sucked moisture from her body. Tony, while not exhibiting the crimson evidence of Connie's encounter with the white apes, smelled rank enough that he was no longer enamored with his own company.
Logic told them that water runs downhill. Therefore, they descended into the gigantic depression that was, millions of years ago, covered by the rolling waters of a great Martian ocean. The city of Zanathia, which once stood on the ancient shoreline, disappeared from sight as the long slopes and miles intervened. The two humans struggled onward, weakened by dehydration and hunger. Connie frequently stumbled and came to depend on Tony's generous support.
"Burroughs made this one hell of a big planet," Connie remarked as casually as she could with a swollen tongue filling her mouth. Attempts at bravado were wearing thin. She was still gamely confident, however, or so she thought until they topped a ridge and looked down into yet another empty ravine. Wescott sank to the moss, cursing. "Are we going to die?"
Tony patted her shoulder, lifting Connie to her feet, "We're both ready to drink a river and eat a horse. Please don't quit on me now."
The earthlings heard a soft padding sound in the distance. They anxiously whirled about. With the frightening example of the white apes of Zanathia still vivid in their minds, they faced their back trail with weapons at ready. Connie used both hands to steady her sword in a weak, though determined grip. Tony, shoulders back and head held high, braced his legs and calmly nocked an arrow to the powerful Orovar bow. For long eternities the young couple searched the ridges to the rear with intent eyes. Suddenly, a huge, ugly, reptilian-shaped head topped the last rise to the rear.
The earthlings beheld a monster-sized beast warily trotting in their direction. The eight legged creature, over ten feet high at the shoulder, had not scented the humans who watched it stagger to the top of the ridge. The animal was equipped with a long tail, broader at the tip than at the base. Its head was split by a large mouth from the fanged snout to where it joined the thick, massive neck. The creature's general coloration was dark slate and it was entirely devoid of hair. The belly was white, gradually becoming a vivid yellow at the feet that were heavily padded and without nails.
"What is it?" Connie lowered the point of her sword in awe.
"I think it's a thoat. A Martian horse."
"Looks more like an eight-legged alligator to me." Connie said. "Whatever it is, kill it, Tony! I'm hungry!"
Tony started to comply, but a sun reflection from the animal's slick hide made him lower his weapon. "Connie," he said softly, "I think there's a rider..."
Connie peered through the heat shimmers to eventually agree with Tony. "But," she added after long observation, "Whoever he is, he's been dead for a long time. Somebody tied him to the thoat."
"I can see that!" Tony whispered harshly. "Must have been Warhoons!" Tony shivered as he thought of the fierce green Martian tribe who callously reduced their thoat herds by turning unwanted creatures out with a dying torture victim lashed to their backs. The blood scent invariably attracted vicious ten-legged Martian lions banths that would ruthlessly pursue, then devour, both thoat and unfortunate passenger.
"Damn it, Tony! It's his problem not ours! Kill the beast! I'm hungry! Quick, I think he's seen us!"
The thoat's ugly snout rose at an oblique angle, fleshy nostrils extended to the wind. Tony estimated the distance with a shake of his head. "Too far for a clean shot. I'll have to get closer."
"Why don't you call it over?" Connie snapped. "John Carter and the green Martians controlled those animals by telepathy!"
"Now that's a thought!" Tony quipped, trying to reassure his agitated lady. He set his mind to the task of sending out a mental command to the thoat, not knowing exactly how, but trying just the same. For a time nothing happened, then the creature's grotesque snout jerked in their direction. The thoat slowly padded towards the earthlings.
Tony considered the strength of the bow, the size of the thoat, the distance from which to release the shaft: fifty feet. The thoat plodded nearer, head down and drooping. Soon the beast would be near enough for the barbed arrow to penetrate the thick hide.
(Curious mental feedback side effect:) Fatigue. Six banths... fear... stinking weight... dead man on my back...
Tony nearly stumbled as the mental images from the thoat entered his mind like a ghostly shadow of his own thoughts. Animal telepathy, mentioned in the Barsoom books and considered by the athlete too fantastic to believe, caused the burly tackle to release the tension on his bow and turn away. "I can't," he said. Connie gazed at him with disbelief.
Tony, filled with unhappy embarrassment, ducked the woman's accusing stare. "The damn thing's talking to me!" Tony explained. "I can't kill it."
"Are you bull-shittin' me, Tony?" Connie hissed. She was incredulous.
"Can't do it. I'm gonna cut that dead man from his back."
"Like hell you will! If you can't do it, I will!" Connie started forward, sword at the ready. "I'm hungry!"
"So am I," Martin whispered. "But I just can't do it"
Connie moved towards the tired Martian animal, her brow furrowed in concentration as she sent forth a mental summons. She called to the thoat, calmed it, prepared it for her sword. Five minutes later she was cutting the ropes which held the dead Martian to the thoat. Her hand timidly rose to caress the thick neck of the great beast. Tony came to her side.
Connie lowered her eyes, feeling as embarrassed as the football player had just moments before. "Gets to you, don't it?" she said. "I can't kill it either." There were tears of apology, frustration, and hunger in her eyes.
"Hard to kill something which can talk to you," Tony patted the leathery side of the beast, grinning at Connie. The smile vanished as the young man dismally gazed upon the body of the red man. "The Warhoons sure did a job on him..."
Connie stared at the dead man as if she were seeing it for the first time. "I was so concerned with killing the thoat I never realized that was a human being" she swallowed hard, turning green. "Oh, God, Tony! They didn't leave much of his face and look at his hands...oh, Tony!" The tiny brunette shivered violently, plunging herself into the athlete's arms.
The big man wasn't too steady either. The Martian, perhaps as tall as the right tackle but much slimmer in build, was horribly disfigured. Tony was used to the sight of blood and broken bones; you can't play football without seeing some of that from time to time, but none of those injuries were done with such calculated cruelty as the corpse exhibited. The red man, slightly darker in color than the American Indian, almost a copper-bronze in tone, was naked and there was nothing on the man's body or the thoat which might identify the victim. Tony Martin gently led Connie away from the mute evidence of Barsoomian violence, hoping distance would reduce the shock.
"Burroughs created a savage, barbaric world, Tony. We've got to remember that!"
The tackle nodded, his arm trembling about her shoulder. "We knew that, Connie, but seeing proof is quite different than reading about blood and gore, slash and blunder. You stay here, I'll go bury him." Tony turned and walked into the huge thoat's snout. The huge animal, momentarily forgotten, had silently followed the young couple.
"Hey, big fellah!" Martin chuckled as the great fanged snout dipped to nuzzle his chest. "Bet you're glad to be rid of that..." Tony was surprised to receive that exact message in the form of chaotic mental images from the giant beast. Foremost in the creature's mind was the fearful image of a half-dozen banths which had pursued it for days.
"Stay with Connie," he silently commanded the thoat. Martin nervously walked back to the corpse. His sudden apprehension had nothing to do with burying the dead man. His concern focused on the thoat's anxiety regarding the proximity of banths. After meeting Barsoomian white apes in Zanathia, Tony wasn't eager to face the dangerous Martian lions because, it seemed, ERB hadn't pulled anyone's leg about the ferocity of white apes. Knowing this, Tony surmised, Barsoomian banths were to be greatly feared!
Tony used his sword to hurriedly flip sand and moss over the red man's mutilated body. He swiftly rejoined Connie, who unashamedly allowed her companion to inter the deceased Martian by himself. She took Tony's hand, gazing wistfully at the massive fang-filled snout of the thoat. "Do you suppose we could get a ride from the great beastie?"
As soon as she uttered the statement, Connie Wescott vaulted astride the thoat's neck. The beast remained docile, unaffected by her slight weight. Connie made room for Tony by sliding forward on the creature's thick neck. Martin awkwardly mounted the huge animal, taking a position behind the petite woman.
"Let's go, nice thoat," Connie whispered.
Tony added his thought to hers, concentrating on sending the same message with his mind. To the woman's delight the great beast accepted the mental rapport and amicably responded to their soothing efforts, eventually becoming quite tractable. The thoat soon moved into in a ground eating trot which threatened to jar every tooth from the heads of the newly-arrived Jasoomians.
Intent on their search for water, the young couple continued north, descending ever deeper into the immense depression of the dead sea bottom. Tony and Connie maintained a constant mental contact with the thoat, a prospect made difficult by the ever present images of dangerous banths clouding the animal's limited consciousness. The thoat, a sub-sentient creature, was unable to be specific; though it did inform the humans that it had narrowly avoided its persistent, carnivorous pursuers over the last few days.
Near sun down, after hours of riding, the weary riders became alarmed by a series of high and low pitched grunts, growls and roars. The nervous thoat reacted violently, nearly throwing its riders to the crimson sward.
"What's that?" Connie tried to shut out the horrible sounds by covering her ears. She trembled as vehemently as the terrified thoat beneath her.
"Banths!" Tony snarled, watching the back trail.
Connie's first sight of the multi-legged demons froze the blood in her veins. One of the horrible creatures emitted a thunderous roar which set the others off, a tremendous cacophony that echoed through the ravines. Connie desperately clung to Tony before she reached over his shoulder to pull an arrow from his quiver. The young man smiled at her while swallowing his own fear.
"Princess, as long as you keep your chin up we'll be fine!" He strung his bow and nocked the arrow. "Keep a tight rein on the thoat. I'll see what I can do..."
The thoat's massive head turned round, its eyes wild as the banths closed in along both flanks and rear. Connie slapped the neck of the creature several times as her face contorted with concentration. "Get going, you ugly thing!" she cried.
"No! Hold him steady!" Tony shouted.
Denying her own desire to flee, Connie managed to bring the thoat under a semblance of control just as Tony released his first arrow. Before the whistling shaft sank into the breast of his primary target, the lead banth, he coolly nocked a second arrow. The wounded banth frantically tore at the skeel shaft protruding from its breast. The scent of fresh blood caused its fellows to turn on the shrieking creature. A younger banth, maddened by the hot gush of blood, turned from the hunt to snap at its stricken companion. The older banth retaliated with a single, mighty blow which nearly decapitated its attacker.
"Get the hell out of here! Move it, girl!" Tony shouted as he watched the feeding frenzy with astonished disbelief. The other banths, amid great roars and blindingly fast lunges, tore their wounded and dying pack members to bloody bits.
Connie sent a sharp mental command to the thoat, which responded so willfully that Tony tottered precariously. Had the agile woman not reached back to grasp his harness, locking her strong thighs tight about the thoat's quivering neck, Tony Martin would have fallen to the ground.
"Thanks!" Tony whispered in the diminutive brunette's ear.
His thickly-corded arm encircled Connie's waist from behind. Wescott banished the terrible image of Tony Martin lying somewhere behind the galloping thoat, threatened by hordes of vicious banths. She reached down to grip that hard column of bone and muscle, his encircling arm, as it strained against her middle.
She couldn't speak, just then, her throat too tight at the thought of her handsome young man savagely mauled by wild beasts and the sudden, near paralyzing fear of being left alone in the Martian barrens. Instead of communicating these thoughts to Tony Martin, Connie reinforced her will upon the frightened thoat until the frenzied banths' raucous din faded in the distance.
V. OASIS IN THE DESERT
All through the night Tony Martin and Connie Wescott clung to the back of the mighty thoat. The huge beast bravely stumbled across the increasingly difficult terrain, hard on the edge of exhaustion. Known as a creature accustomed to the brutal hardships of the Barsoomian dead sea bottoms, the thoat's normally incredible endurance was well over-extended. Denizens of the desert, thoats were adapted by harsh evolution to survive deprivation. They could go as long as a month, if necessary, without food or water. Unwanted by his harsh green Martian masters, Throxeus was denied nourishment for several weeks before the unfortunate red man was lashed to his back as bait for the vicious banths roaming the wilds of Mars. Green Martians often reduced their thoat herds by this cruel fashion, though the bait could have been any fresh-slaughtered creature capable of producing a blood scent. Throxeus had been fleeing banths for three days before the Earthlings removed the corpse from its over-taxed body. The two young humans clinging to the mighty thoat's back weren't in much better shape than the stumbling animal.
Connie Wescott's head lay limp on the right tackle's breast. "I'm starved!" she softly complained.
"Hello, Starved," Tony replied with a tired grin. "I'm Famished." His fatigued play on words echoed their pitiful condition; both humans reeled unsteadily on the Barsoomian creature's broad back. Connie attempted a thin smile, but the effort was too great. She collapsed against Tony's breast, an uncontrollable trembling seizing her hands as the sun cleared the horizon.
"I don't think I can make it." Connie gasped an hour later, throat so parched her voice cracked. Though the words were difficult to enunciate her meaning was clear; the girl surrendered to a feverish, fitful sleep.
"Don't give up on me, Princess," Tony whispered into the thick mass of Wescott's brown curls. "I'm not as good at this survival thing as old John Carter, kitten. We need to stick together..."
The weary thoat stopped frequently to stand head lowered, sides heaving. Tony Martin was relentless, immoderately expending vast amounts of mental energy to urge the huge beast into a shuffling gait. The strain of maintaining the unfamiliar telepathic contact increased until sometime in the fifth hour of the day when the thoat suddenly became animated. The animal raised its unlovely head to sniff shifting breezes from out of the north.
"What is it, boy?" Tony breathed. "What have you found? Water?"
The thoughts Tony received from the thoat were only vague images, but he had an impression of cool, open water somewhere ahead.
"Go for it, Throxeus!" Tony urged the animal he'd named after the greatest of the five ancient Barsoomian oceans. "Find the water!"
Throughout the long afternoon, Tony's on-going struggle narrowed to supporting Connie's limp figure and maintaining his seat astride the great thoat. More than once the haggard man nearly fell from the animal; both man and beast reeled with fatigue and hunger. However, the thoat's mental eagerness of "something good!" strengthened Tony Martin's grim determination.
At sundown the thoat began a brisk trot; a gait it sustained without urging from the Earthman. Tony's heart quickened as Throxeus descended a relatively steep slope into a gigantic depression. The beast's ugly snout centered on the lowest part of the basin where a towering spire of rock, like an acupuncturist's needle protruding from wrinkled flesh, jutted from the floor of the colossal bowl-shaped valley. When the oceans of Barsoom rolled over this wasteland the crest of the towering peak might have been a tiny island far off the original coast line.
Tony forced sand-begrimed eyes to focus on the mountain. At least six or seven miles lay between them and its base. The dark verdure surrounding the peak held a tantalizing promise of water and vegetation. The young man hoped that splash of vibrant color so welcome after the monotony of ocher moss and so briefly glimpsed before darkness fell was a sure sign of food and water.
Throxeus negotiated the rugged terrain while Tony Martin tightened his grip on the massive neck. The thoat snuffled the air and began to move with a sense of urgency. Even the Earthman's citified nostrils could detect the evidence of moisture in the air.
Connie's head lolled on her breast as the athlete tried to rouse her. Nearing the peak, Tony tried to communicate his news to the tiny brunette. He became frantic when the girl failed to respond to gentle shakes. He pressed trembling fingers against the unconscious girl's jugular, relieved to feel the steady heartbeat.
"Don't you dare give up the ship, kitten!" Tony whispered to the unresponsive girl. "We'll be just fine when Throxeus gets us to the water!"
Tony urged greater effort from the thoat. The huge beast stumbled across the rim of the final slope and slid precariously downward, all eight legs stiffly braced. A blinding cloud of dust accompanied beast and riders all the way to the bottom.
"Okay, Throxeus?" Martin patted the animal's thick hide as the thoat regained its footing. Tony loved horses, spending every summer on his father's small breeding ranch. To his mind Throxeus was a horse, though far more hideous than the magnificent thoroughbreds his father raised; yet, the youth found no fault with the magnificent heart of the grotesque beast. Whenever he spoke to Throxeus, Tony adopted the same quiet tones used when handling the fine stallions and mares on the ranch of his childhood. His father, a true master of horse, taught him that animals were not mere property, they were cherished friends to be treated with respect and kindness.
The thoat, within its limited span of intelligence, knew the difference between this soft-voiced Jasoomian master and the fierce green Martians who turned him out on the desert as banth fodder. In response to this kindness Throxeus expended the remainder of his titanic strength moving toward the promise of water without displaying the characteristic foul temper thoats usually exhibited.
Though they were now on level ground and well into scrub brush rising as thin shadows about the thoat's mighty flanks, Tony realized his original distance estimate was distorted by the uncommonly rarefied atmosphere. It was well past dark when Throxeus finally entered the strange Barsoomian forest at the base of the mountain.
Thuria's pale, mad, shadow-shifting glow fitfully illuminated the path chosen by the thoat. Tony peered intently ahead, marveling at the unfamiliar shapes and forms of the vegetation of Mars.
Acutely concerned for Connie Wescott, Tony pressured Throxeus to even greater speed. The stout-hearted animal redoubled its efforts, stumbling into a fast walkthe best pace the thoat could manage. Tony stroked Connie's cheek, whispering encouragement. Moments later, despite its fatigue, Throxeus trumpeted with pure joy when the trio entered the clearing at the foot of the imposing granite spire.
Cluros, the farther moon, had cleared the horizon and his greater light, added to that of his lunar lover Thuria, disclosed a scene welcomed by thoat and humans. A narrow stream of water fell down the side of the eight-hundred-foot mountain, ultimately confined in a rock bound pool no more than forty feet across. A fine mist from the waterfall saturated the air; a pleasant moisture that excited the thoat and reminded Tony of the ever-present humidity of the Texas Gulf Coast.
Throxeus waded into the pool's shallow depths to dip fanged snout into the life-giving fluid. Tony slipped into the cool, knee-deep water then lifted Connie from the thoat's back. The football tackle laid the woman's quiet form on the soft sward at the edge of the pool. He gently cradling Wescott's head and dipped water to dribble over her parted lips.
Connie's eyes slowly opened, then suddenly aware of the moisture, she gasped once and avidly sucked what her companion offered. Tony brushed ape-blood encrusted hair from the girl's eyes and heaved a sigh of relief.
"Feeling better?" The concern in his voice was quite evident.
"No shit Sherlock! Lead me to it!" Connie's brave words were feeble in delivery but strong with determination. Martin proudly helped the woman to the water's edge, watching as she dipped trembling hands into the clear fluid. Once Tony was certain Connie Wescott could manage her own needs, he lay full-length on the bank and pressed sun-blistered lips to the surface of the restorative liquid.
Connie became more alert as the minutes passed. When her tongue no longer seemed too large for her mouth, she splashed water over face, neck and arms. Rising to shed the recently acquired leather harness and weapons, Connie waded into the pool. At knee-depth she sat on the rock-lined bottom with a grateful sigh. She washed the last of the white ape's blood from her sun-burned body.
Tony Martin, aware of his own locker room stench, asked, "Do you mind if I join you?"
"Please do, Stinky!" Connie replied with a shadow of her former spirit.
Tony removed his Orovarian harness and joined Connie in the refreshing water. He stopped long enough to give her a kiss on the forehead before wading out to the deepest part of the pool. He found enough depth for swimming, enjoying the sensation of liquid on his dry, wind-roughened skin. Tony completely immersed himself several times, vigorously scrubbing sand from his hair. The water cleared his eyes and relieved a thousand itches and, in general, renewed his outlook on life. Martin swam towards Throxeus, intending to care for the beast, but the creature was so intent on draining the pool it would not even mind-link with the Earthling. Tony thankfully patted the thoat's flank before leaving the pool.
Connie spent more time at her ablutions. She longed for a brush or a wash-cloth to scrub her skin. The cool water eased the feverish heat of prolonged exposure to the sun. Oddly, the girl found herself more concerned about blisters and peeling than the lack of soap to shampoo her thick brown hair. She'd picked up quite a burn. Gods! she thought to herself. What if I get freckles? What will Tony think?
While Connie finished her bath, Martin rinsed their harnesses and weapons. Connie had carefully cleaned her blade after the battle with the apes and there was little blood left on the weapon, but Tony diligently scrubbed it with a handful of wet sand just the same. Later, as the air gradually chilled toward the near freezing temperatures of late night, the two humans huddled together. Connie snuggled against Tony while they waited for the harnesses to dry. Her damp head lay on his shoulder. She was no longer self-conscious of her nudity, or his, for sometime during the last few days they had lost that prohibitive tabu of American society. The young people were as relaxed as if they sat on the couch of the Wescott's house watching the Oilers getting beat for the umpteenth time.
"I'm hungry," Connie declared, pulling away from his arm. She quickly poked a rough warning into Tony's ribs, "I do not want to hear 'Hello, Hungry, I'm Starved' again!"
"Won't have to, Princess," Tony chuckled. "You said it for me!" He poked her in the ribs and got an embarrassed laugh in return.
"Cheeky bastard," Connie light-heartedly chuckled. She pouted, "What's for din-din, Tony?" She edged away, her hand enfolding the jeweled pommel of the Martian steel, eyebrow arched in playful warning.
"Maybe nothing." Tony, tired of the game, shrugged. He glanced at the great thoat leaving the pool to wallow on the moss. Throxeus settled, blew a long sigh, then tucked his massive head under his right foreleg. Within a dozen heartbeats it appeared the beast was sleeping. "Maybe Throxeus?" Tony speculated.
"Tony!" Connie was appalled by the suggestion. "I couldn't eat him!" She slapped him on the shoulder. "Neither could you!"
"You're right, Connie." Tony laughed for exactly three seconds then dejectedly bowed his head. "Sowe're back to square one, darling. Nothing to eat."
Thuria, Cluros' flirtatious lover, spanned a half degree of the Martian heavens as the young people consoled each other. Suddenly, like a part of the earth rising up, Throxeus headed for the brush growing at the perimeter of the clearing. Both Earthlings fought vague visions of steak on the hoof departing until they observed the thoat grazing. Throxeus greedily stripped a strangely shaped bush liberally covered with dark, glistening berries which seemed to delight the massive brute.
Connie raised an eyebrow in thought. She looked to Tony with a fatalistic shrug. "We can die now or later... Throxeus says it's delicious and safe to eat. Want to try?"
"Did he actually say that?" Tony asked.
"No," Connie admitted, "but if bad got worst, wouldn't you eat what the animals ate?" She rose on unsteady legs, drawing her dagger. Tony jumped up to grab her wrist. Connie frowned, jerking free to angrily turn on Martin. "I'm not thinking of Throxeus, you big, soft-hearted dummy! Berries! I'm going to try the berries, before that big pig eats them all!"
"What the hell," Tony apologized, "we might as well but I draw the line at the leaves, Connie! Looks too damn much like spinach to me!"
"You better be glad we're on Barsoom and Popeye's not around!" The naked girl smiled impishly and ran to the edge of the clearing.
Thuria flew two-thirds of the Barsoomian sky before the Jasoomians lay back with full stomachs. The night was chill, but neither bothered to don the damp harnesses which, after all, offered little in the way of protection. Throxeus lay on the sward near them; his enormous body cutting off the brisk wind from the high-reaches of the desert. Connie scooted across the moss until her back was six inches from the thick hide of the immense thoat. Throxeus's ungainly head twisted on it's short, massive neck until the fanged snout dipped toward the diminutive girl.
"I'm going to find out how neat a 'person' Throxeus is," Wescott announced. She sidled back on her buns until her shoulders pressed against Throxeus. She leaned torso and head against the heaving side of the animal and grinned when Throxeus allowed her to do so.
"Come on, Tony!" Wescott cried. She patted the moss-covered ground beside her. "Old Throxeus is a giant, heated recliner!"
Martin did not require a second invitation. The night was cold and any source of heat was better than none. Tony was amazed at how closely the thoat's smell reminded him of the horses on his father's ranch. "Just like sleeping in a hay barn," he told Connie. "Good old Throxeus!" The youth pounded the beast's side with a hearty hand. Throxeus heaved a tremendous sigh and tucked its huge, ugly head under one foreleg. The great eyes closed.
Connie slipped her slim arm between Tony's and his hard-muscled ribs. "How about me? Do I remind you of a hay barn?"
Tony chuckled, pulling her into his lap, hugging her close. "You remind me of what you do in a hay barn!"
When Connie giggled, he kissed her. Connie released a long, slow breath before putting her arms about the man's massive neck. Her lips pressed against his, her right hand tugging gently at the hair on the back of his neck. Tony Martin no longer felt cold. Her caress ignited inner fires. His husky voice trembled unsteadily when he finally gathered breath to speak. "That was nice! Want to get to know each other a little bit better?" His grin was acceptably lecherous.
"All balls and no brains!" Connie quickly unwound his arms and slipped to the ground beside him. Hugging knees to breast, she was plagued with indecision, wanting to say "yes", yet unable to do so. "Please don't push it, Tony. We'll have to see how things work out..." Connie laid her head on his shoulder.
Feeling emotionally trampled, Tony pulled back so abruptly Connie's skull thumped against the thoat's slippery hide. "Fine with me," he growled.
"Ouch!" Connie cried, rubbing her head. "Don't be so mean!" Her full lips tightened into a thin-line pout.
Tony nodded towards Connie's right hand firmly gripped about the hilt of her Martian dagger. "I wasn't the one threatening violence, my dear..."
"Damn!" Connie disbelievingly stared at the knife. She tossed it to one side. She rested her chin on her knees and stared at the surface of the pool reflecting the too-brilliant stars overhead. After a long moment of silence Connie spoke. "This is happening too fast. Can we just wait awhile?"
Tony leaned back against the thoat. He crossed arms on chest, then crossed legs at ankles. He snorted with disgust. "You've made that clear enough! First you're on, then you're off. You remind me of a traffic light. Stop! Go! Stop! Are you waiting for something better? Is that it?"
Connie turned to kneel beside the youth, her pleading hand on his crossed wrists. She stared at him, an injured look on her face. "No," she replied softly.
"Really?" Tony wasn't convinced. "And what were you planning just now, handing me my guts on a platter?"
"I wasn't going for the knife. I don't know why I" Connie was frustrated: her explanation sounding vague even to herself. Wescott straightened her back, frowning, and hugged herself against the chill. The woman's nipples were painfully contracted from the temperature, her teeth chattered. "It's getting colder. Truce?"
"There's plenty of thoat" Tony's meaning was clear: he didn't trust her. This pained Connie.
"Tony, please. I over-reacted. Since we arrived we've been starved, frozen, attacked by apes and banthscan't a girl's nerves wear a little thin?"
Her sincere apology made Tony feel like an uncaring brute. He grinned sheepishly and opened his arms. Connie gratefully crawled into his embrace with a sigh of relief.
"Just don't take things for granted," Connie whispered, snuggling close. "Okay?"
Martin resisted his immediate impulse to thrust her away. She came begging, then demanding. Fatalistically he shrugged his shoulders. He had no desire to fight with the gorgeous young woman whose lovely breasts threatened to burn a hole in his side. Unable to construe her delicious proximity as an acceptance of his earlier advance Tony's thoughts bordered on frustrated chaos as Cluros hovered over the rim of the depression.
Lulled by the comfort of the athlete's embrace the woman was nearly asleep. Her voice slurred with fatigue when she responded. "Huh?"
"I do like you, princessa lot." He gave her a tender squeeze. "You're the best. I can't think of anyone I'd rather be with than you. The absolute best. I mean it."
"You're not too bad yourself, Tony Martin." She gave him a quick peck on the cheek. "Now shut up and let's get some shut-eye."
VI. STARTLING DISCOVERIES
The young couple lay curled together, spoon fashion, at the side of the thoat. Simultaneous with the golden splendor of the Barsoomian dawn came the sound of voices. Throxeus, head alertly raised and sensitive nostrils testing the air, remained motionless. The beast appeared restive because of the noises in the forest beyond the pool clearing.
"What is it?" Connie urgently whispered as she and Tony gazed upon the strange alien foliage surrounding their life-saving oasis in the Martian desert. She had no time to examine the vegetation because Tony grabbed his bow, a grim expression on his handsome features.
Tony Martin anxiously gazed in the direction of the sounds. "Stay put, I'll check it out." Connie nodded, silently wishing the big man luck as he moved into the forest.
Tony was aware of Connie's confidence in him, but he had no delusions about his abilities or bravery. He was just a 'good ole boy' trying to make it from one day to anotherwithout becoming banth fodder!
The muted roar of the falls made it difficult for the football tackle to determine the exact origin of the mysterious voices. Tony scaled a skeel tree to pinpoint the location of the hauntingly familiar sounds.
Accompanying the voices were the sounds of feet crunching forest mold and the occasional swish of foliage parted by moving bodies. Tony had just reached his chosen position twenty feet above the ground when a most unusual sight passed beneath him.
A red man of Mars came into view. Clad in a light-colored cloak, a worn leather harness from which his blade weapons depended, the red man seemed quite casual in the company of seven white apes! He was an impressive figure, nearly six feet in height, slim and wiry in build and apparently used to commanding men; his baritone voice rang with authority. Tony had expected to one day meet red Martians, but not talking white apes only two and one-half feet tall!
"... and so, Kantos Kan," the leader of the ape party said to the red man strolling at his side, "you think your John Carter will push this legislation past the thirty-one jeddaks of Barsoom? We, of course, have water in abundance but this irrigation plan of Carter's might make it possible to raise more food which will result in the extension of the realms of the red man. I would be interested in learning how this would affect our humble city since we have been so isolated over the last thousand years."
The red man paused before he replied. "Let's be realistic for a moment, Takar. Even if John can raise water from the vast underground Omean Ocean beneath the south pole, pending the consent of the First Born of course, this ambitious project has no guaranty of success. Let's suppose all goes according to plan," the well-built Martian rubbed a weary hand over his eyes as he sought words to explain his feelings, "the population will increase! Not only the red man, but green, yellow, black and white will become more numerous and you know how war-like humans are. My well meaning friend, John Carter, as a result of this enterprise, will promote aggression, death and destruction on an even greater scale. Haven't we endured enough?" As if he realized the fatalistic tenor of his pronouncement, Kantos Kan chuckled, clasping a reassuring hand on the little ape's shoulder.
"I love John Carter but I'm damn tired of blood-shed in the name of righteous causes. Thank Issus Dejah Thoris hasn't been kidnapped these last fifty years! The first few times it happened John Carter came close to depopulating the entire planet single-handed!"
"This Warlord of Mars is a man of violence?" Takar the ape inquired.
"He's a hell of a man and a good friend, but J.C. would rather cut a throat than ride a thoat. What can you do with a mind like that?" The Martian shrugged his shoulders. Kantos Kan started forward, lifting a low-hanging multi-hued frond away from his face. The apes followed, Taker keeping pace with the red man.
"I have no idea, Kantos Kan," the ape leader avowed.
"I want to thank you for your hospitality, Takar. Clixia and I..." The conversation grew fainter as the small group moved farther from Tony's perch in the trees. Martin was stunned. His jaw gaped open and it was difficult to maintain his grip on the tree bole.
"Connie was right! I understood every word!" The astonished Earthling leaned broad shoulders against the main trunk of the tree, his mind a conflicting riot of thoughts and emotions.
John Carter! Dejah Thoris! Kantos Kan! My God, they're real! The Earthling closed his eyes, struggling to control the wild beating of his heart.
A shudder in the tree froze Tony's heart. The rustle of leaves over head alerted Martin that something was moving toward him. The youth tried to ready his bow, but the close-set branches and his need to maintain a grip on the tree made it almost impossible to nock an arrow. Just as he thought himself prepared, the leaves above parted with an ominous rustle. Tony stared into a gruesome, fang-filled visage grinning down at him.
Tony was so startled by the little white ape's unnerving appearance he lost his grip and fell out of the tree. I've been discovered! he said to himself, jumping up from the ground. The young man took to his heels and proceeded to turn in his life time best for the 100 yard dash. If Tony's coach could have viewed the right tackle's astounding performance, he would have taken young Martin off the defensive line and turned him onto the biggest, meanest, and fastest tight-end football had ever known.
Tony shouted a warning to Connie as he crashed through the underbrush. He desperately hoped she'd not been discovered by the apes. When Martin burst into the clearing, he found his lady not only safe but enjoying herself immensely. Connie had a tiny white ape in her lap, which was chattering excitedly in a high-pitched voice. Though four other apes were in the clearing Connie's easy laughter alleviated the athlete's apprehension. Two stood at the edge of the pool, another of the miniature creatures investigated a patient Throxeus; the disinterested fourth ape hung upside down from a tree limb at the edge of the clearing.
There was a fifth personage which held Tony's undivided attention. He nearly dropped his beloved bow as his sight became riveted on the briefly-attired, breath-takingly beautiful, red Martian woman. She was giggling, which made her bounteous bare breasts jiggle in a delightful manner. The statuesque woman was clad in diaphanous silks which accentuated rather than concealed her incredible beauty. Her long, well-shaped legs were bare to the Barsoomian breeze stirring the foliage bordering the pond. The woman wore a pair of sandals exhibiting hand tooling on the supple leather straps which crossed trim ankles. Her hair, blown by the wind, was significantly lighter than Connie's, showing copper-bronze highlights under the rays of the rising sun. The red woman's eyes, beneath high arched brows, were equally enigmatic, changing from brown to iridescent gold when she tilted her head in Tony's direction. Her lips smiled as she moved to greet the young man.
The stunning woman, whose cunningly draped silks flowed from shoulder to the junction of her rounded thighs, induced a wanton fever in the awed tackle. Tony's heartbeat increased until it seemed his cardiovascular system would overload as he imagined what it would be like to run hands over that unblemished copper-bronze skin; to cup the weight of smooth breasts in his palms; to fondle the perfect curve of her buttocksand instantly had his fervent wish fulfilled before he knew it was coming.
The older woman smiled and came into his arms, pressing her, taut, vibrant body close. Warm lips sought his through the scratchy stubble of new beard. Tony dropped his Orovarian bow and tried to control his Cupid's arrow, which threatened to breach his loin cloth and pierce this fantastic woman.
Connie, playing with the little ape sitting in her lap, introduced the woman to Tony without looking up. "TonyLady Clixia. She's a friend of Kantos Kan."
The youth's only thoughts were of the firm breasts threatening to cave in his ribs. The last time he'd been this excited was the night his mom forbade him taking Coach's evening field trip. The field trip was to a local bawdy house to psyche the team up for a championship game (which they won). Tony's mother, unaware of the true nature of the "field trip" refused to allow her son to go, thinking the scheduled hours were inappropriately late. She did not, however, say 'no' when Coach's wife called to see if Tony could come over and "help" move bedroom furniture. And how she and Tony had moved it that night!
"Am I glad to meet you!" Clixia whispered breathlessly, embracing the quivering youth. "Thank Issus all Jasoomians aren't egotistical prudes like John Carter and Ulysses Paxton!"
"They were from a different time," Tony stammered. His voice was so husky the football player hardly recognized it. "If we keep this up, I'll get my ass in a sling!"
"Maybe we can swing in your sling together..." the lady suggested with a wink.
Tony gave up. He attempted to determine the total capacity of the lady's lungs by pressing his lips to hers. Clixia of Barsoom wrapped herself about the right tackle as tightly as bacon around filet mignon. One hand tugged at his thick black hair, the other tried to squeeze the hard, thick muscles of his buttocks. Tony thought events were progressing inordinately well until Connie Wescott's shrill cry pierced the clear Martian air.
"Get your mitts offa my old man you man-hungry Martian bitch! He's mine! I saw him first!"
"Pardon me!" Clixia slowly unwound her ample abundance from Tony's quivering body. "How was I to know that this fine-looking warrior carrying the weapons of Kar Komak's hallucinatory legion was yours?"
"Kar Komak is a figment of Barsoomian imagination!" Connie shrieked. She laid a possessive hand on Tony's well-muscled shoulder. "Tony's real and he's mine! You got that, you old hussy?"
"Yours?" Clixia slowly unwound graceful arms from the panting young man. She let one delicate hand linger caressingly on Tony's rough cheek before she faced Connie. "My apologies, Jasoomian. Apparently your world has friends and 'friends'".
Tony hoped to cool his companion's unexpected jealousy. "Connie, I"
"I'll get to you later!" The petite brunette growled so fiercely Tony quelled a sudden desire to take a finger countto determine how many were missing.
Clixia smiled with unabashed amusement, taking not the slightest insult at Connie's behavior. Against his better judgment Tony Martin chuckled. He was flattered to be the center of contention between two beautiful women.
Connie quickly flushed with embarrassment. She realized how ridiculous she appeared to Clixia and Tonyespecially Tony, since she'd told him 'no' the night before! Chagrined, Connie Wescott chewed her lip, fighting to regain control of herself. The tiny brunette mumbled an apology to the red woman.
"I'm sorry, Clixia. I shouldn't have acted that way. I thought you were trying to steal my old man." Connie lowered her gaze, her voice tight, low, "Actually, I have no claim on Tony..."
Clixia placed her hands on her hips and giggled. "I'm supposed to be Kantos Kan's, Connie," she told the jealous Jasoomian Jill. "However, that great idiot friend of John Carter has yet to make up his mind! Kantos Kan says he has to consider the future of Helium and his family. Well," she pouted sweetly, "if Kantos Kan feels he must keep his options open, so do I. If Tony Martin champions your cause, I'll back off."
"You just better get used to the idea!" Connie replied, glaring at Tony.
"What?" Tony asked, confused by the brunette's imperious anger.
Connie narrowed her eyes, shaking a finger in his face. "You better watch it, buster!"
Before Tony Martin could fathom the full content of Wescott's ambiguous warning, a gruff male voice interrupted from the brush. "What goes on here?"
The trio of humans quickly turned to see Kantos Kan, Overlord of Helium's vast aerial navy, briskly enter the clearing. Takar, leading his band of miniature apes, closely followed the grim-visaged warrior. "Once again, I say: What goes on here?" the red man cried.
"Cut the stilted dialogue, Kanty," Clixia gently admonished. "We're among friends, dear. This is Connie Wescott," the red woman said sweetly, gesturing toward the attractive Earth woman. Turning to the well-muscled athlete, her voice took on the illusion of warm honey. "And this is Tony Martin!" She wrapped her arms about the young Earthling for a second time. Tony was startled by the woman's impulsive action, sensing sudden death as Kantos Kan and Connie Wescott converged upon him with drawn swords.
"Wait a minute!" he cried, pushing, however reluctantly, the glamorous red lady to one side. "Let's talk this over!"
"There's nothing to talk about, defiler of women!" Kantos Kan shouted.
"I'll have your ass for breakfast!" Connie added, her voice filled with menace.
"Enough!" Clixia screamed, fists clenched, chin trembling. "Kantos Kan! You're the most asinine, egotistical bastard I've ever met!" She petulantly stamped a sandled foot on the crimson sward before turning to face Connie. "And you're the most jealous, insecure, blind, stupid bitch I've ever met!"
Connie stopped so abruptly her heels slipped on the wet moss. She sputtered with anger, indignation, then blushed. She slammed the sword into her sheath and turned away. Kantos Kan went through a similar sequence, though he did not display his feelings as vividly as the Earth girl.
Clixia walked over to Kantos Kan. She defied him to continue. For a long moment the warrior glared at his fair lady's determined eyes, then sheathed his blade to pull her into his arms. Connie, standing to one side, grabbed Martin by the arm and towed him to the edge of the pool.
"I think we ought to leave them alone, Tony," she whispered. "Apparently they have problems of their own to work out..."
"Okay," the big youth replied, his feet shuffling through the moss, "as long as you don't stick me with that great butcher knife of yours just for reacting to that lovely lady's invita"
"I might have, too." Connie frowned. She suddenly slapped his shoulder then quickly kissed him. "I can't blame you much, she's so damn pretty!" Connie leaned her forehead against his breast.
The apes were greatly interested in this by-play between humans. Those who'd arrived with Takar joined the other apes. They spoke together in whispers which the Earthlings could not overhear. Tony and Connie silently waited while the Martians had a low voiced conversation, occasionally accompanied by violent gestures from Kantos Kan.
A subdued Jedwar of the Navy finally released Clixia to face the wary Jasoomians. "Please forgive us," his words were quietly delivered with courtly elegance. "This unfortunate incident has nothing to do with you. Milady Clixia and I have certain matters to resolve between ourselves. You were, unfortunately, caught in the middle."
"Can we," Tony gallantly offered, "start all over?"
"Admirable idea!" Kantos Kan replied. His smiling face, the pleasant entreaty in his voice relieved the tension. His next words were quite amiable. "How came you to this place?"
Tony and Connie alternately related the astonishing events following their deaths and the subsequent adventures which brought them to the beautiful oasis hidden in the vast Barsoomian desert. Kantos Kan and Clixia listened with interest and without comment until the amazing story was concluded.
"It appears," Kantos Kan remarked sympathetically, "that you survived a great tragedy, thank Issus, and seem none the worse for wear. It is fortunate indeed you arrived at no great distance from Zanathia and thus outfitted yourselves with the means of survival, then were able to command this magnificent thoat to bring you hither to this incredible lost city of hospitable apes. Any other location on the face of this dry, desolate planet might have resulted in your pre-mature deaths by the agency of any number of potentially vicious inhabitants indigenous to this bizarre world."
"The banths and white apes were enough," Tony replied, ears tingling under the convoluted phrasing of the red man. He shot a quizzical glance at Connie and wondered if they'd escaped the horrors of the desert only to be consumed by vagarious assaults of flowery language.
Kantos Kan continued, his early animosity entirely forgotten. "Clixia and I are also victims of ill-fated circumstance. I had been pursuing Clixia's abductors for several days without success. By mere chance I located her crossing the dead sea bottomafter escaping her kidnapperssome 700 haads south of Gathol. I brought her aboard my tiny two man flier. We joyously headed for glorious Helium where her anxious family awaited news of her safety and health.
"Shortly after, at one of our night camps, we were attacked by a band of howling savages. We managed to get aloft in the flier which prevented further devilment from the savages but we were caught in the grip of a terrible Barsoomian windstorm that carried our frail craft far to the southacross the equator and thousands of haads beyond Helium. The craft was severely damaged during the storm; yet, by the kind grace of Issus, we contrived a safe landing near this lost and forgotten city. Of all the strange and exotic places of Mars, this fortunately turned out to be the most hospitable; especially if one must be lost and far from home."
"Mars?" Tony exclaimed. "I thought this was Barsoom!"
"And it is, my friend," Kantos Kan replied. "We use Barsoom and Mars interchangeably. This is due to the many, varied religious groups. The cults of Tur, Issus, Komal, the followers of Burroughs; all have used the term 'Mars' on occasion."
"Burroughs?" Tony and Connie cried simultaneously. "You know about Edgar Rice Burroughs?" Tony's voice was filled with incredulous wonder.
The red man slipped his arm about Connie Wescott's waist. "Just through minor contact with the religion," Kantos Kan explained. "I, myself, do not subscribe to any deity beliefs, with the sole exception of using a god's name in colorful blasphemies." His laughter was heartening and genuine. Tony found himself liking the man who'd been ready to cut his gizzard out a moment earlier. "The Burroughs Cult believes him to be the true father of Barsoom." The red Martian shrugged broad shoulders and continued. "Who is to say? As far as I am concerned: I live. For me, that is all I require."
This revelation stunned the Earthlings. However, Kantos Kan did not allow the Jasoomians to dwell over long on the startling information which revealed Burroughs as the Creator, or the injection of the historical Roman name for the fourth planetMarsin the ordinary language of Barsoom. The red warrior turned his attention to immediate matters.
"What do you intend to do on Barsoom?" he asked Connie Wescott.
Kantos Kan's arm was still about the young woman's waist and Connie did not seem overly eager to break the embrace of the strikingly handsome red man. She answered the smooth-faced Martian without hesitation.
"Our long range plans are rather nebulous, Kantos Kan." Connie's eyes never left the Martian's face, she was as smitten by the Overlord's physical appearance as Tony had been by Lady Clixia. "At the moment, mainly survival..."
"A subject worthy for any rational being's contemplation," Kantos Kan's laugh was warmly contagious. "But, my dear friends," the Heliumite continued with a congenial display of even, white teeth, "what have you envisioned beyond that?"
Tony took a deep breath and shrugged his shoulders. He knelt to retrieve his Orovarian bow. For a brief instant he entertained the thought of sending a forty-inch shaft through the Martian who held Connie so tightly. He curbed the peevish desire and answered the man's question. "Have some exciting adventures, perhaps?"
Kantos Kan chuckled as he clapped a hand to the young Earthling's brawny shoulder. "Perhaps"
An ape suddenly appeared amidst the fronds of a fantastically blooming glorestra bush. "The sun has risen high, milords. Shall we retire to the city for food and water, or, for those who wish, fine wines with vintages over a million years old?"
"Excellent suggestion," Takar, leader of the apes acknowledged. "Will you join us, Kantos Kan, Tony Martin?"
Kantos Kan answered for them all: "Best idea I've heard all day." With a swirl of his cloak, the red man led the way to the well-travelled pathway carved into the granite of the imposing butte. He kept Connie Wescott on his arm and Tony was determined not to be outdone in the gallantry department. The Earthling bowed and offered his arm to the graciously smiling and very attentive Martian princess, for she was so beautiful Clixia could be nothing less in the young man's eyes.
The humans and apes began the long ascent to the ancient ape city high above the dead sea bottom.
VII. WHITE APES, RED MARTIANS, AND LOVE
Tony Martin, feeling slightly self-conscious, stood at the center of the large, well-appointed room chosen for this meeting of Martian, ape and Earthlings. "As you well know, Connie and I are new to Barsoom. We thank you for the generous kindness you have shown two strangers in your land." Martin attempted a courtly bow without doing too badly. He gazed over the assemblage, a winning smile on his beard-stubbled face.
"We aren't totally ignorant of Barsoom," he continued. "An American writer gave us a series of fine books detailing your world; but we are, however, sadly out of date. The last novel written about Barsoom occurred in 1942, some twenty-odd years before Connie and I were born. Would you mind telling us what important events have transpired since that time?"
Nods of eager assent from the Martian couple and the score of tiny white ape elders infused Tony with a feeling of warm acceptance. Takar rose, politely gesturing for Tony to resume his seat on one of the ornately carved marble benches lining the frescoed walls of the huge auditorium. The kindly ape's grizzled countenance smiled as Takar cleared his throat.
"Perhaps a brief history of our ape culture will be of assistance, large sir. Our conversations with Kantos Kan and his lady have revealed that we talking apes of Mokur are apparently quite unique on Barsoom." Taker dramatically paused, tiny chest puffed with self-importance. He proudly continued his narration.
"A million years ago, Orvorarian scientists began breeding experiments with the wild white apes of the forest regions. This was, of course, long before the oceans receded. Our present mountain home was then a tiny island quite isolated from the mainland. Mokur was built to house special genetic projects developed by the scientifically advanced Orovars and it was here that a thousand of years of breeding experiments resulted in increasingly smaller apes than our more vicious giant brethren, who still roam the vast wilderness areas of Barsoom.
"We were bred to our present size about the time the oceans began to recede, but unfortunately the cross-breeding for intelligence and vocal qualities was left incomplete as scientists were called away to construct the gigantic plants which supply this desolate planet with a breathable atmosphere. It was interesting to note that, according to Kantos Kan, how construction of those atmosphere generation plants has erroneously been credited to the war-like red race of Barsoom; however, Tony Martin, I digress.
"Our Orovarian masters were eventually forced to abandon the island when nothing more than a marsh swamp encircled the base of the mountain. Since that terrible time, while barbaric green Martian hordes overran the desert basins of Mars, our ape ancestors utilized their genetically increased intelligence to improve our race until we reached our present development.
"Yes, we are unique; yet our contacts with the present dominate race of Barsoom have been rare. The last encounter was over 700 years ago when a dying red warrior expired by our pool at the foot of the mountain. We have lived in a cultural vacuum until Kantos Kan and Clixia arrived; though we have done much to rectify our ignorance in these few days since their arrival.
"Where we once despaired of learning more about the red race, Kantos Kan and Clixia have been most helpful. It was illuminating to discover the mating rituals of humans differs but little between ape and man, aside from the vastly more prominent size of human genitalia. We are rather looking forward to observing your conjugal techniques with Lady Connie so we can..."
Connie's hot blush was mild compared to Kantos Kan's rage. "You've been spying on us?" The furious red warrior laid eager hand to the hilt of his long sword. There was menace in his stance; fire in his eyes. Lady Clixia's embarrassed gaze was riveted to the marbled floor.
"Forgive me!" Takar quickly pleaded, backing hurriedly away from the towering Martian. "We did not know it was forbidden to observe!"
Clixia laid a slim, calming hand on the tense shoulder of her warrior. "Kantos Kan," she softly pleaded, "they are innocents. Let it pass..." Her perfect oval face was upturned to the unbending figure of Helium's Naval Overlord. As he returned her imploring gaze, the anger in his heart dissipated. Kantos Kan released a frustrated sigh before he faced Takar.
"You are forgiven," Kantos Kan said with a quiet warning to the anxious ape, "but don't place us under such surveillance again."
"Most assuredly!" Takar cried with relief.
Tony was reluctant to break the following heavy silence because of the intense emotions he observed between the two Martians; however, he hoped he could smooth the tenseness by bringing the attention of the others back to the Earthlings specific problem. "Kantos Kan, your understanding acceptance of Takar's apology is indicative of your magnanimous generosity. I'm sure no insult was intended toward your wife and we..." Connie's sudden, wide-eyed warning and shake of head told Tony to chose another tack "...uh, that is, Connie and I are hoping you can tell us what we should do. We're both agreed that Helium should be our destination but we require your help and knowledge about which course we must take to insure our safe arrival. We are totally ignorant about food, water, or any mode of transportation which could move us from here to there. Are you planning a return to Helium soon? Perhaps we could travel together."
The Overlord maintained his terse silence, still glaring at the ape chieftain. The little ape lord shivered and turned away from the Martian to talk to Tony. "We will help where we can, Warrior Martin, but we cannot give you directions to Helium. We never venture more than a few karads from our city. There are banths and other dangerous beasts that wander the dead sea bottom. We can give you provisions.
"I would, however, hope you would stay with us for a while," the ape continued. "There is much we might learn from you; but you are, of course, free beings. You must choose for yourselves."
Tony acknowledged the ape's generous offer with a smile of gratitude. "Thank you, Takar, but no. Connie and I have never been to Helium. We would like to meet the Warlord of Mars and his consort, Dejah Thoris. I hope you understand."
The leader of the apes rose. "Certainly, one is more comfortable among one's own kind. If you will excuse us, we have other matters to attend. When you are ready to leave, let me know, we will furnish you with as many provisions as you wish." Takar and his apes paused at the great entrance to the hall. He looked back and offered a salute. "Perhaps Kantos Kan will be gracious enough to answer any other questions you may have." The small aped then hastily left.
Connie joined Tony at the center of the great room; the silence of the hall unnerving. Martin placed his arm about the brunette's shoulders, holding her reassuringly as they watched Kantos Kan. The flint-hard anger in the jedwar's eyes gradually relaxed under the gentle pressure of Clixia's trembling fingers on his shoulder.
"Kantos Kan?" Clixia's husky whisper was clearly audible in the silent hall. "The apes didn't knowhow could they? Nor could the Jasoomians have known; though I think Connie guessed." The tragic unhappiness in the woman's tone engendered a sympathetic embarrassment in both Earthlings. They overheard an intimate confidence never intended for the public. Kantos Kan did not answer. As the uncomfortable tension increased, Connie and Tony turned to leave.
Clixia's pretty voice stopped them. "Come," the Martian lady gestured to the place next to her on the wide ersite bench. "Sit with us. We have an apology to makeand tell you something you should know..."
The Earthlings hesitated under the unrelenting gaze of the Overlord of Helium's Navy. When they did not immediately respond, Clixia shook her head. "Kantos Kan will not be angry. I promise."
Perplexed, but intrigued, Martin and Wescott joined the Martians, waiting patiently waited as Clixia gathered her thoughts and courage. After a time Clixia quietly admitted: "Kantos Kan and I are not married."
"But I thought" Tony began, and stopped the instant Connie's foot stomped his toe. Angered by her action, Tony glared at his young companion and was surprised to observe a pleading concern which marked Connie's sun-reddened features. With a sigh Tony curbed his tongue and temper.
Clixia silently observed the by-play between the Jasoomians. "Thank you, Connie," Clixia said, "I see you understand." The Martian woman raised stunningly beautiful eyes to Tony and continued. "What Kantos Kan and I have shared is not socially acceptable within our highly structured Barsoomian culture. You see," Clixia explained, gazing at lovely hands twisting nervously above her lap, "long before his wife died in the flier accident Kan and I had great affection for each other. His happy marriage and my deep respect for his wife made it impossible for our relationship to have ever been more than friendship."
Clixia's voice lowered a decibel. "Since her death we've been unable to openly express our affection due to the strict traditions of our society and for whatever reason, Djor Kantos, Kantos Kan's son who is married to Olvia Marthis, is adamantly against his father's relationship with me. To complicate matters my family is of marginal noble blood and is very reluctant to have me tied with the house of Kan. My father, who owns a great tract of forest land, prefers an alliance with Kulan Tith, Jeddak of Kaol.
"When Kulan Tith released his claim to Thuvia of Ptarth, allowing her to marry Carthoris, the son of John Carter the Warlord of Mars, every major house of Barsoom submitted their eligible daughters to the Jeddak of Kaol. It would be a coup to cement an alliance with that most powerful house but I do not want Kulan Tith! I love Kantos Kan! Alas, we have too much against us so we are forced to meet discreetly, which has ultimately led to indiscretion. Our clandestine trysts are unsatisfying at best but I will never have any other except Kantos Kan..."
Kantos Kan spoke for the first time since the apes left the great hall. "Nor do I want other than you, Clixia." The Overlord's voice was filled with tender affection. Kantos Kan gazed lovingly at Clixia for long moments before turning his eyes to Tony Martin.
"I apologize for my earlier behavior. It was based on fear of revealing to the world that Clixia and I are lovers. In my frank opinion, we have done no wrong, but in the eyes of our peoples, we have sinned the greatest sin. Now you know our terrible secret." Kantos Kan sighed then leaned against the intricately filigreed wall behind the ersite bench. The Overlord patted the woman's slim hand and looked into her marvelous eyes. "I'm glad it's out, Clixia," he said. "I'm so tired of pretending to be someone I am not."
"It shouldn't have to be that way!" Clixia's voice held a hint of repressed, though tender, scorn. "If your friend John Carter would help things could be different!" From the woman's weary tone the Earthlings inferred this to be an old and familiar argument between the red Martian couple.
Kantos Kan sighed forlornly. "Please do not start that again, dear. The Virginian is as honorable as they come."
"I realize that Kanty, and I admire what he has done for Helium, but if you would talk to him perhaps things might change. It would be wonderful to forget about stealing fliers and telling lies just to have a few days together; no more 'inspections' at distant outposts or 'hunting trips' to the country."
Clixia hugged the naval officer's hard-muscled arm to her breast and laid her head against the man's shoulder. Tilting her headthe mass of copper-bronze hair moving like a cascade of silk against the red man's breastthe woman offered a gently disparaging smile
"That note you left saying you were on the trail of the kidnappers of my own sweet self was rather ill-considered. John Carter will probably rouse the entire fleet to search for us. To make matters worse," Clixia almost chuckled were in not for her depression, "he will think we're headed for Gathol!"
"I can't help it if a damn windstorm actually damaged the flier and brought us as far south of Helium as Gathol is to the north!" Kantos Kan's mild irritation quickly evaporated. "You know I needed an excuse to get away for a few days! It was the first thing I could think of..."
"Do you really think Djor Kantos or my father will believe that silly note?" Clixia tried to keep from being more than mildly caustic. Her gorgeous breasts rose in a heartfelt sigh. "I suppose it makes no difference now as what's done is done, but what are we going to do now, darling?"
Connie leaned around Tony's burly shoulder to softly suggest a possible answer. "Get back to Helium with all due speed?" She rose to kneel on the ersite bench until she viewed both Martians clearly. "Tony and I will help and, of course when we enter Helium our presence will take the heat off you. How many Earthlings on Barsoom can there be? As for the other, we won't say a thing about you-know-what. We're kind of in the same situation, you see."
Tony jerked his head toward the tiny, beautiful abundance next to him. "We are?" His mouth opened; closed, opened again and closed only when Connie stamped his foot a second time.
"We will be" Connie whispered with an impish grin, "you big idiot!" Tony kept his mouth shut, though his lips happily responded with the same facial expression.
The football tackle turned toward the Martians. "What the little lady says goes for me, Kantos Kan." Tony's sincerity was received with thankful smiles. Kantos Kan sprang to his feet to offer Tony the Barsoomian version of the handshake: the clapping of hands on shoulders.
"Done!" the Martian cried. "I shall tell Takar we will leave in the morning!" As he turned away, Kantos Kan paused and looked at the Earthlings. "I think we are going to become very good friends. We'll see you at the evening meal. Coming, Clixia?" The officer extended his hand and lifted the red woman to her feet. "I'm sure Connie and Tony would appreciate some privacy."
Clixia tearfully embraced both Jasoomians before she walked out hand in hand with her lover. Tony put his arm about Connie's shoulders and watched the Martians leave. For a moment he enjoyed the pressure of Connie's warmth against his side before she abruptly pulled away. In sudden dismay he looked down at her face framed with curly brown hair.
"Did I do something?" he asked.
"I don't knowyet," she replied. Connie bit her pretty lips in thought before she continued. "Are we going to have a Burroughs love affair? You know, the kind where you fight for me, want me, come panting at my doorand remain a perfect gentleman? If we are, forget it. I won't prolong the inevitable, Tony. I want gut-thumping sex, passion, sweat..."
"Thank you!" Tony cried, sweeping her into his arms. He did not release the girl until their lungs cried for air. "One thing, darling, we aren't going to imply the good stuff, are we? We're really going to do something about it?"
"Right now!" Connie grinned as she unbuckled her harness.
After a rugged hour of "Wait a minute, let me get this out of the way!""Ouch! Not so hard! There's a rock in the middle of my back!""I'm sorry, I don't think I can bend in that direction!", the weary lovers reclined in the cooling overflow of the plaza fountain that was the source of the waterfall splashing down the side of the mountain. The clear, cool water, forced upwards from a subterranean river passing beneath the isolated mountain, was refreshing. The mineral rich water cooled fevered skins and relaxed the tired, but ecstatically happy, young couple.
"If you asked for one more orgasm, lady, I'd be an eunuch right now!" Tony's playful moan was accompanied by a pleased smile. He leaned over to kiss Connie's full, trembling lips.
Connie Wescott grinned impishly. With one hand she massaged cramps from the inside of her thighs. "You weren't too bad either!"
Tony chuckled, splashing water in her direction. Connie responded by leaping on his chest with hands about his throat; then arms; then lips on his. A breathless moment later, she collapsed against his broad chest, quivering with laughter.
"It was nice!" she proclaimed, a shiver in her voice.
"I suppose so," Tony teased. "I won't know for sure until I've tried a few of those red-skinned ladies. A point of comparison, you know..."
"Oh, pooh," Connie bit the end of his nose. "If you're thinking like that, you better learn how to handle a sword before some jealous warrior cuts your heart out. And" she added with a soft voice " if you're thinking about Clixia, just remember John Carter and ERB both said Kantos Kan was an expert with the old blades..."
Tony was indignant. "I was putting you on, kid." Tony massaged his injured nares. "Why get so serious? Hell, woman, youse is more than I know what to do with!" He snickered and added: "For a few days at least"
Connie shoved the tackle's head under water. When she let Tony surface, he planted a kiss on her lips that rocked them both. Connie locked arms and legs about his torso with happy enthusiasm. "Whew!" Connie exclaimed. "Why didn't you kiss me like that back on Earth?"
"I don't know." Tony's brow furrowed. "Maybe I"
Connie's full lips against his tenderly silenced his explanation. "Whatever the reason," she sighed, "I'm glad it finally happened!" Her lips pressed against his a second time to make sure the one just experienced was no accident. Halfway through the experiment a tiny voice from the thick brush surrounding the pool caused both Jasoomians to quickly reach for their weapons.
"Don't cut me, Mistress Connie!" an ape voice begged. The foliage parted to reveal the face of the ape which had sat in Connie's lap at the foot of the falls.
Connie put her sword down on the marble edge of the pool. "Cheta!" she cried. "What are you doing sneaking around like that?"
"I just arrived," the ape pleaded in self-defense.
"Well," Connie chuckled, "come on out. We won't hurt you..."
"What about the warrior?" the ape asked. He spread the branches of the underbrush. Stepping out and coming to the edge of the fountain, Cheta kept his eye on Tony. "Will he cut me with his sword?"
Connie looked at Tony still holding his weapon at the ready. "Put that away, Tony!" she cried. "Cheta's an old friend."
"I'll bet," Tony groused, placing his sword on the paving. He put his arms about Connie and drew her delicious nakedness next to his. "Speak up, pal." Tony narrowed his eyes at the ape. "You better have a good reason for butting in..."
"I have not been spying on you!" the ape declared.
"See?" Connie said. "Harmlessa nice little fellow. We got to be good friends down at the pool."
"Did it hurt?" the puzzled ape asked the woman. He sat erect on his lower limbs, the other four making strangely familiar gestures.
Connie's brow furrowed as she tried to understand the question. "Did what hurt?"
"His erection," the ape replied. "He's so enormous that"
"You shit!" Tony roared and came half out of the pool. Connie threw her insignificant body mass over his shoulders.
"Jesus, Tony! Back off! So the little guy saw us getting it on! So what?"
"So I'll twist his head off!"
Cheta had already disappeared into the trees at the Earthman's first hostile movement. His chattering cries of distress could be heard all over the plaza.
Connie finally settled Tony down when she said: "If you ever want more of me, keep your flippin' shirt on! Understand?" Her tiny fist pounded the massive shoulder, her eyes blazed.
Tony caught on in a hurry. "Okay, but can't I just break an arm or a leg?"
Connie chuckled and kissed him soundly. "No. Just sit back. Let me see what he wants. Promise me?"
"What do you want me to promise? That I kill him fast or slow?"
"That you won't make a fuss, you lovable ass!"
"I suppose I can promise that "
"Good," Connie kissed him a second time, her loins beginning to ache for another encounter with her luscious football player. Connie resolutely denied herself. "Come on out, Cheta. Tony won't hurt you."
"Can I be sure of that, Mistress Connie?" the ape peered from the concealment of the bushes.
"Yes. Now what did you want?"
The little ape cautiously came forth. He shivered because of Tony's frown, almost bolting, but Connie's beckoning finger reassured him. The ape hesitantly spoke. "Takar wants one of us to go with you to Helium to learn more about the Red Martians and the rest of Barsoom. I volunteered. Is it okay? Kantos Kan said you were leaving in the morning..."
Tony leaned forward, elbows braced on the stone edging the fountain. "How the hell did you get the name 'Cheta'?" The tackle glared at the small ape. "Burroughs hated the name of the chimp in the Tarzan movies..."
"Leave him alone," Connie said, her hand rubbed against his thigh beneath the water. It moved upwards to the center of her attention (and his!) which diverted Tony Martin from questioning the ape. The petite woman continued, "Cheta's been instructed by his chief to make an expedition of discovery. We should allow him to come along."
"Well," Tony's breath was ragged, "I suppose so."
"You can come along," Connie told the expectant ape.
Cheta rushed out of the foliage to embrace Connie. She rose slightly out of the water to accept the hug. At that point two of the ape's paws went around her neck. His feet were flat on the edge of the pool but the middle set of hands grasped Connie's heavy breasts in such a manner that Tony roared, surging out of the water. Cheta squealed, frantically racing for the protection of the brush.
"The little fart!" Tony yelled. "He better not try that again!"
Connie giggled. "Let it go, Tony. You know what they saya little beast in any relationship keeps it healthy and vigorous."
It took several moments before Tony returned to Wescott's opulent charms. "I suppose so," he told her, still angry. He pulled her willing form to his breast. "As long as I'm the only beast in your relationship. That little fart has more gonads than brains. I've got both..."
"Convince me," Connie laughed.
"Grrr!" Tony grinned as he pulled Connie beneath the cool water.
VIII. HEADING FOR CIVILIZATION
When the sun hit his eyes Tony gingerly rolled over. His head felt mushy, his tongue too thick in a sand-dry mouth. He had consumed far too much of the low octane gasoline the apes called wine after dinner. There was something, however, that pleasantly eased his discomfort: Connie's softly snoring form was pressed against his side.
His thoughts pondered the previous evening: Connie had been gay, happy and delirious to have another woman to talk to and Tony had enjoyed his conversations with Kantos Kan...
Though Kantos Kan had to be at least one hundred or more (Burroughs first wrote of Kantos Kan in 1911), he appeared no more than thirty years of age. His physical appearance and attitude were those of a young man. However, Kantos Kan's outlook on life was grim and straight-laced. Tony found some of the Martian officer's comments to be depressing, even when Kantos Kan attempted to be light and cheerful.
The two men spent a portion of the evening discussing how they might reach Helium on foot since other transportation was unavailable. Tony was fairly certain that once free of the control of its human masters the great thoat would have wandered off. Tony suggested he might carry the majority of the supplies, confiding his inexperience with the swords that hung at his side.
"Get my ass killed, I will," Tony had finished a glass of wine. "You be the military escort. I'll be the beast of burden."
"Not so, my young friend," Kantos Kan replied. The red man was feeling the effects of the potent beverage and it showed in the slight slurring of his speech and the less picturesque words he chose. "Connie told Clixia and Clixia told me how you killed the banths and ape with your bow." A hand, made clumsy by too much wine, clapped the brawny Earthling's shoulders. "A most unusual weapon, the bow. Only Kar Komak of Lothar carries such.."
"Yeah," Tony chuckled, "I remember that from Thuvia, Maid of Mars. Burroughs made a big deal of it."
Kantos Kan's eyebrows raised in astonishment. "What do you know of the god Burroughs?"
Tony frowned into the bottom of his glass. "God? I wouldn't call him thatI've read his books since I was a kid of ten. How the hell you think Connie and I know as much about Barsoom as we do?"
Kantos Kan shrugged his shoulders. "I was not aware of the extent your knowledge of the religions of Mars." The Martian graciously refilled Tony's empty glass.
"Religion? What are you talking about?" Tony sipped the wine, noticing that Kantos Kan's own glass was on the shy side. Picking up the crystal decanter in one massive fist, Tony sloshed a good portion of the smoky liquid into the red man's cup. "Tell me, Kantyyou don't mind if I call you Kanty, do you?"
"Not at all," the Overlord of Helium's Navy replied with a chuckle. "Clixia calls me that all the time." The man drained half of his drink before continuing. "To answer your question, I suppose I should tell you about the various and nefarious religious farces John Carter and I have exposed over the years.
"First, there was Issus, a nasty old hag. John, Tars Tarkas and Carthoris put an end to her with the aid of Phaidor and Thuvia. Titanic battle that was..."
"I read about that in Gods of Mars and the Warlord of Mars. There was a hell of a scandal when people discovered Valley Dor was not the heaven they thought."
"Tell me about it," Kantos Kan snickered. The red man stared at his empty glass. Tony quickly remedied the situation by filling the container with an unsteady hand.
"Then Vad Varo exposed the Phundahlian's Tur as a colossal fraud. Made quite a splash in the headlines a few years back."
"Really," Tony chuckled. "That was written in the Mastermind of Mars back in 19-whatever. So what is all this talk about the god Burroughs?"
"Some believe that the world, our world, sprang into being from the inspiration of a god named Burroughs. Me? I believe in nothing but myself and the people around me. I accept one day at a time."
"What would you say if I told you they might be right?"
Kantos Kan shrugged his shoulders. "I suppose I'd say, 'so what'? I still live from day to day."
Tony and the jedwar, which is the highest rank possible in Barsoomian military organizations, sat in companionable silence sipping wine throughout the evening. Little was said between these kindred spirits, which made the time spent both pleasant and heartening. Toward evening's end they again discussed the mechanics of crossing thousands of miles of desert and rough terrain to reach Helium. Kantos Kan expressed his concerns about making the difficult journey.
"I would hate for something terrible to happen," the jedwar confided. The slur in his speech was more pronounced. "After all, I am responsible for Clixia's safety."
"No more than I am responsible for Connie's," Tony replied. He, too, felt the accumulated effects of the wine. He swayed on the bench, reaching out to steady himself by grasping the older man's shoulder. "But I can't think of any ladies more wonderful, Kanty. They want to be here with us. At least," Tony politely covered a belch from too much food and wine, "I think they do..."
Tony rose from the fur-lined bed and donned his harness. He took extra care that the metal of his swords did not awaken his lady, who lay bundled in luxurious Martian sleeping furs. He tiptoed out of the well-appointed apartment, looking for a place to relieve the pressure in his bladder. The morning sun caused him to squeeze eyes tightly against the glare, but did not totally prevent him from seeing Cheta snoozing in the branches of a sorapus tree. With an effortless, almost negligent, movement of his heavily-muscled left arm, Tony rudely swept the ape out the tree and continued toward the outer edges of the plaza.
"Uh" the terror-stricken ape sputtered as a massive bronze arm pinned him to the Earthman's chest "is there something I can do for you, sir?"
"Yeah, whimp," Tony said. "Where can I take a piss?"
Cheta gulped and gave directions. The ape found it difficult to breath while Tony took care of his needs; the arm which held the diminutive ape captive was none too gentle. After Tony's immediate problem was solved he carried the ape back to the pool where the right tackle sat down and had a quiet heart-to-heart with the little white ape. The conversation was mostly one-sided because Tony kept one massive hand uncomfortably tight around Cheta's throat.
"You don't mess around with Jim," Tony informed the terrified ape, "and you don't spit into the wind. I know you don't know what that means so I will spell it out in plain language. Lay hands on my woman again and I will have you for breakfast! Do we understand each other?"
Cheta nodded as vigorously as possible and croaked: "Anything you say, boss!"
Tony released the ape, who disappeared at the speed of light. The Earthling wandered about the plaza for an hour before Connie and Clixia, arm in arm, came out of the building. The women took a vigorous plunge in the pool while Martin watched from the edge. The girls, feeling playful, occasionally splashed water in his direction.
Kantos Kan eventually staggered out of the imposing time-worn Martian edifice. The Overlord held his throbbing head in both hands. Tony, barely restored himself, almost chuckled as greeted the red man myopically squinting in the bright sunlight.
"Too much of the old grape?" Tony inquired with an amused smile. Kantos Kan's reply was more rueful growl than intelligent speech. The big Jasoomian grinned. "I know how you feel, old man. My head's not in too good a shape either. What'd ya say we get some eats?"
Kantos Kan gingerly nodded. He slowly turned in the direction of the apes' community dining hall and staggered away. Tony waited as Clixia donned silks and Connie swiftly adjusted her harness. When they followed the weaving officer Martin brought up the rear.
Kantos Kan adamantly refused to become human until he silently consumed a gallon of water and about fourteen ounces of edibles.
"I see Takar's a bit anxious for us to leave..." Kantos Kan gestured to the side of the hall where a dozen bags of food and water and an assortment of sleeping furs were waiting for the expedition's departure. "Are you ready to get started?"
"No time like the present, right?" Tony grinned. He'd had an hour and a half to come to terms with his hangover which allowed him the privilege of showing amusement at the red warrior's discomfort. "How about it, Connie?"
"Any time," she hitched her harness tightly about her narrow waist; the flare of her hips caused the tip of the long sword to hang at a delicious angle. Connie turned to the red woman still seated at the table. "Ready, dear?"
The Martian lady replaced her elegantly slim dagger in the jeweled sheath which was part of her brief costume. Clixia smoothed the shimmering fabric of her silk attire into order as she stood. "I'm ready."
Kantos Kan did not quite moan as he rose with grim determination. "I can see we've got little or no escort from the inhabitants of Mokur," he said, gazing at Cheta and the other lone ape who entered the dining hall as the humans began their breakfast. Cheta's face almost blushed at the Martian's wry statement. It was Cheta's companion who answered the Overlord's observation.
"Takar thought it might be best if there was little fanfare during your departure..."
"The lazy ass did not want to get out of bed!" Cheta declared. "The only reason you came was to make sure the humans did not take more than what was laid out for them!"
An argument ensued between the apes which caused Kantos Kan to clap hands over his ears in distress. "Enough!" he shouted. Without waiting for the others to follow, Kantos Kan picked up two bags and left the building.
The party of five descended the mountain. To Tony's pleasant surprise Throxeus, the great Martian thoat, waited impatiently at the base of the mountain. The huge beast's "gentle" nudges against the Earthman's deeply-muscled chest made it obvious to all that the immense creature had claimed Tony as its master.
Connie chuckled. "You must have made one hell of an impression," she said as her heavy-set lover was negligently pushed about by the ugly snout of the giant creature. "Throxeus really loves you." With a mischievous wink she added, "Looks like we have two animals in the family."
"Family?" Tony turned on the gorgeous brunette with a startled double take. "Family?"
Connie giggled as she affectionately slapped the thoat's neck with the flat of her palm. "Just a figure of speech, honey."
Cheta was in Connie's arms, with all hands discreetly other than where Tony would have reason to murder him. The curvaceous woman nuzzled the stiff, white bristles at small ape's nape before exchanging an amused glance with the narrow-eyed visage of her man. "I got one and you got one," she declared. "Fair's fair."
Tony took Cheta from Connie and tossed the ape upon Throxeus' back, where Clixia was getting settled. In an instant Cheta turned and sought shelter in Clixia's arms. His all too familiar grip caused the Martian lady to frown, but before Kantos Kan could become angry, Cheta became a demure, respectful little darling in her arms. Kantos Kan, respecting his diminished condition, elected to hold his peace.
Tony, still unsatisfied with Connie's teasing statement, lifted her to the back of Throxeus and said: "If you have one and I have one, I want a female. How the hell do you tell the sex of a thoat? More importantly, where the hell am I going to find a stump that high?" Tony looked to the rear of the gray and yellow-tinted creature; approximately eight feet off the ground. Connie started to blush, started to reach for her sword, started to laugh. She leaned down to speak to Tony.
"Honey, if you think Cheta is a rival get it out of your head. Besides, Burroughs never wrote any bestiality!"
Tony slapped the side of the thoat's affectionate head which Throxeus kept trying to put under his arm. "Like hell!" he countered gruffly. "Read Tarzan of the Apes! In a dozen or more stories the apes were always after the women! Tarzan had to rescue them over and over!"
"Well," Connie leaned over further and pulled his face up for a lascivious kiss, "you've got the best of both worlds, darling. You can rescue me from beasts or villains as often as you want." Connie sat up, straddling Throxeus' thick neck. "Are you guys ready? Throxeus is"
Three days out from the ape city everyone was reconsidering the wisdom of leaving Mokur and heading north. The travellers were running out of food, water and, worst of all, privacy.
Kantos Kan and Tony Martin walked in advance of the thoat which carried the light burden of two lovely ladies and the 'cute' (Connie's word) Cheta. Kantos Kan kicked at the ocher-tinged sward with the tip of his boot.
"Damn it, Tony, I tell you I couldn't keep up the pretense any longer. My son, Djor Kantos, is the epitome of dutiful son and proper husband. He gets along with Olvia Marthisthey have a nice little familybut when his mother died in that flier accident" Kantos Kan frowned, searching for words "well, let's put it this way: I am not made of stone. Like any man, I need female companionship. I want to you know I treasured every moment with Djor's mothershe was a wonderful womanbut it's been more than a year since she passed down the River of Death. I cannot stay in mourning forever, no matter how my son feels.
"Djor is so thick headed on the subject that I am forced to play silly charades just to be with Clixia. Consequently, we are finally caught because the thrice-damned sand storm carried us to this godforsaken part of Barsoom!"
"You don't have to tell me about sons and fathers, Kan." Tony looked back over his shoulder at the great beast plodding along in their wake. "I know what you're talking about, but from the other side of the coin. My dad planned on college to keep me occupied. The old man did all he could for me, but, after Mom died of cancer he, like you said, had certain needs. I was usually in the way. So I can understand what you're saying about your son. If nothing else, my unexpected jaunt to Barsoom will save Pop a ton of bucks which he can spend on what he enjoys bestwomen!" Tony's voice was laughing, though there was a wistful sadness in his tone.
The red man nodded thoughtfully. "I like you, Tony Martin. It's too bad my son is not more like you instead of being a hide-bound padwar in the service of Helium's navy."
"Well," Tony lifted a quizzical eyebrow, "you're the Jedwar of the Navy, why don't you do something about it?"
"I would if I could, but there are so many things to consider. Any hint of impropriety on my part would most likely become public knowledge in a matter of hours. If I want to maintain my position I've got to be careful of offending John Carter. If anything, he's worse than my son!"
"I had the impression Carter was a man of Honor and Valor."
"Honor and Valor be damned!" Kantos Kan cried with impassioned heat. "I just want some privacy, a chance to enjoy life!"
The Martian leaned over and whispered in conspiratorial tones. "I'm getting damn hungry. Do you suppose your princess would notice a missing Cheta? I have a recipe for grilled ape that will set your mouth watering!"
"Let's give it a day or two longer," Tony replied, looking back over his shoulder at the two girls, ape and thoat following their lead across the desert sea bottom. "I'm just getting to know Connie, Kantos Kan. I'd hate to mess anything up" Tony frowned. "I think she likes the little shit"
"Just like a Jasoomian!" the red man snickered good-naturedly. "Always thinking of the ladies. Must be a racial trait among Earthmen. John Carter and Ulysses Paxton put us red men to shame with the devoted attention they bestow on the fairer sex."
Before Tony could make a reply a startled grunt from the thoat brought him to full alert. "Something spooked Throxeus!" he told the man at his side. Tony started to unlimber his bow. Kantos Kan stopped talking at Tony's harsh warning and listened.
The great thoat's tiny ears worked with great agitation; his nostrils were distended and several whooshing snorts cleared fleshy nares to bring in more scent. Tony sent a calming thought to the great creature before turning his attention toward the faint sounds coming from beyond the low rise to the northwest. The noises on the other side of the vast wrinkle in Barsoom's dry skin were ominous in texture. Tony flexed his knees and leapt, in a single bound, to the side of the thoat. He anxiously stared at the hilltop as Connie slipped down to land softly beside him. Her sword sang from its sheath.
"Trouble!" Connie whispered. Her mental contact with the thoat's acute desert-bred senses had already alerted her to danger.
Tony felt the stab of telepathic warning from the huge beast, but the message was ill-defined. "But what kind?" Tony asked. Connie shrugged though her sword was ready in firm hand.
"Trouble is common to this part of Mars," Kantos Kan declared, the late afternoon sunlight gleaming along the length of his bare sword. The Heliumite warrior scowled belligerently. "Sounds like a troop of mounted men."
Tony's fingers tightened reflexively about the Orovarian bowstring, a deadly shaft set against the shining wire. "Who could they be? Hostiles?"
Kantos Kan answered grimly. "I'm inclined to say they're probably Warhoons, Tony Martin. We're in the right place at the wrong time!"
Connie's jaw dropped, then snapped shut firmly. "Hideous green Martians?" she asked.
Kantos Kan growled impatiently at the wide-eyed young woman. "Isn't that what I said, girl?"
Tony bristled at the officer's unexpectedly condescending tone and brusque manner. "Knock it off, Kantos Kan. Nobody talks to my princess that way."
Connie snorted with disgust while her green eyes intently scanned the horizon. "Thanks very much, Tony, but sit on it, will you? I can take care of myself!"
Tony was unmollified. "I'll cut his heart out, Connie! No one talks to you that"
Kantos Kan's voice was coldly deliberate, the strain of recent events clouding the Overlord's normally impeccable judgement. "I'm ready! Any time, Jasoomian!"
Clixia's voice cut over the argument like ice water over a summer sunburn. "Behave yourselves! It's the thrice-damned Warhoons!"
The three on the ground suddenly looked to the woman on thoat back. Cheta's shrill jabber set teeth on edge as the tiny ape huddled against the red woman's slim body. Clixia's shapely arm gestured to the horizon and the trio on the ground before the restive thoat turned to see a pair of outriders topping the rise. Tony unashamedly trembled in his Orovarian boots; the riders were fierce hideous green Martians.
Tony, Connie, and Kantos Kan, legs braced and weapons ready, stared at the strangest of Mother Barsoom's children the dreaded green man. In general shape, the green man bears astonishing anatomical similarities to the Barsoomian white ape, exhibiting four upper limbs and a pair of lower limbs designed for walking. However, the similarity ends there for the green Martian's pop-eyed frog face is equipped with a pair of large tusks protruding upwards from the lower jaw, rising between wide-spaced eyes of intense ivory white which operate independently, allowing the monstrous creature to visually scan either forward or backward simultaneously. Instead of reaching the maximum fifteen foot height of white apes, the green Martian rarely tops fourteen; yet are physically quite imposing nonetheless, especially when armed with swords, shields and spears of varying lengths up to forty feet. The green Martian is dangerously intelligent; an extremely viable barbaric phenomenon as brutal as the day is long.
"Holy Issus!" Kantos Kan cursed as the rest of the Warhoon troop came into view.
"Holy shit!" Martin breathed as he estimated the number of arrows to be spent on so numerous a foe. "There must be several hundred!"
"We are lost!" Cheta cried, jumping up and down on Throxeus' back.
The thoat looked back over his shoulder to fix a vicious, glaring eye on the terrified anthropoid. The entire party of travelersnot just Chetacaught the dire threat in the thoat's mental message to the creature from the mountain in the Barsoomian desert: Sit still, or I'll have you for dinner! The little white ape immediately froze, an unvoiced wail on its lips.
Kantos Kan turned his attention back to the advancing Warhoons. "It's a sure bet they aren't friendly," he proclaimed to no one in particular. The martian's blade of Heliumatic steel gleamed in the afternoon sun.
"How the hell do you know?" Connie demanded. "Every time red meets green it's always with sword in hand. Why not give it a chance?"
Clixia's comment was low-voiced and unsure. "I don't know, Connie, the only thing green Martians are afraid of are banths, white apes, and John Carter of Mars!"
Kantos Kan grabbed Tony by the shoulder and exclaimed: "That's right, Clixia! The last time the Warhoons ran into J. C. he murdered them! Tony, can you leap twenty feet into the air?"
Tony stared at the Overlord, suddenly concerned for the man's sanity. Connie, however, instantly grasped the Heliumite's meaning. She stepped forward. "If he can't," she brazenly stated, "I sure as hell can!"
"Good for you, girl!" The red man grinned. "All we have to do is make the Warhoons believe you Jasoomians can kill the lot of them!"
"All?" Tony was shocked. "Even with an M-16 it would take hours!"
"What else do you propose to do, Tony Martin?" Kantos Kan asked.
Tony shook his black-maned head. "I don't know," the right tackle replied, "but we'll give it a try!"
Tony crouched, gathering his strength as the green horde approached. Offering a silent prayer of hope, the young man sprang upwards into the thin air of Mars.
IX. IN THE GRASP OF THE GREEN HORDE
"Connie!" Tony pleaded for the second time, his anxiety divided between the eager swordswoman and the ominous green warriors topping the rise. "Please stay behind me!"
The girl shook her head negative and shouldered her way forward to stand at the side of the big Earthman. "No way," she snarled. "I want a piece of the action. I'm not letting you play hero all by yourself, Tony Martin! Remember, darling, this ain't standard BurroughsHey! Look!" Connie pointed with the tip of her sword.
Due north of their position, the green Martian outriders and a large group of warriors immediately halted after witnessing Tony's thirty foot leap. The green men conversed excitedly amongst themselves. Though more than two hundred yards separated the two parties, the fierce-looking green men seemed reluctant to approach.
"Come on you cowards!" Kantos Kan cried, brandishing his weapon in the afternoon sun. "Come meet your death!"
"Would you cut that out?!" Tony urgently pleaded with a dry throat. "Damn it, man! They don't look too anxious to fight! Maybe we can talk our way out of this! Can't we at least have a pow-wow before we resort to dangerous physical activity?"
Connie almost pouted, but she reluctantly agreed with Tony, sheathing her sword. Kantos Kan grimly retained his white-knuckled grip on the hilt of his service weapon. The football player nearly went to his knees as he implored the naval officer to cool his natural red Martian aggressiveness. Kantos Kan glared at the hulking figure of the Earthman then sighed with confusion and fatalistic frustration.
"I'll never understand how you Jasoomians think!" Kantos Kan muttered as he put his sword away. "Sometimes you jump into the fray without a thought and other times you wait for the fray to jump on you!"
When the outriders of the green horde first encountered the weary travelers they had voiced a bedlam of horrible shouts. The warriors' challenges had since been silenced by Tony's incredible leap, which took him to the base of the ridge. The stunned silence continued after the big man's second jump which carried him back to the thoat. However, during the frantic moments while the football tackle counseled restraint from the Martian warrior and Connie, the green scourge of Barsoomian split their force into two swiftly moving groups and, long before Kantos Kan's grudging agreement to wait and see, the Warhoons had surrounded the four humans, ape and thoat. As the minutes passed the green horde regained its courage, shouting taunts as they completed the encirclement; yet these barbaric demons of the deserts maintained a respectable distance from the human strangers.
The unusual sight of an armed white woman caused a minor sensation among the green warriors, evoking much comment among the riders. When their intended prey failed to exhibit abject terror, the howling mounted Martians subsided into an uneasy hush.
The barbaric leader of the green horde finally shouted across the ocher-tinted sward. "Come on, you guys! You're supposed to be scared of us!"
"Oh, yeah?" Tony yelled back. "Who wants to know?"
"Bar Novacs, Jed of Warhoon! By the way, what the hell are you red and white Martians doing in our part of the country? I thought your kind evacuated the ocean basins eons ago!"
Kantos Kan stepped forward, jaw muscles clenched, fingers twitching over the hilt of his sword. "Let me at him!" he whispered harshly. "Come on, Tony, we can take them!"
"Hold it, Kan," Tony admonished. "Let's hear what the man has to say. We can always fight for our lives if we have to." Martin looked from Connie then to Clixia, who'd dismounted from Throxeus to join them on the ocher sward. He grimly reminded the red man, "We have to think about them."
Unhappily, Kantos Kan nodded. "You're right. Let's hear what this Bar Novacs has to say."
Tony gripped the Martian's arm in gratitude before raising his eyes and voice to speak to the awesome Jed of the Warhoons. "We're just passing through, Bar Novacs, and we're not looking for trouble, but if you're determined to shed blood we're ready."
Bar Novacs nervously shifted his 400 pound weight on the back of his thoat. The green man thoughtfully peered at Tony Martin through one of his red irised eyes. "What brings you here in the first place?"
Kantos Kan offered explanations before Tony could answer. "My lady and I were traveling in our two-seat flier when it became badly damaged in a sudden Barsoomian sandstorm. Our sturdy little ship was buffeted with bruising force within the grip of the inexorable thermals sweeping across the noxious desert. Our original destination had been that of far Gathol in the northern hemisphere, but suddenly we found ourselves being helplessly carried far south of the equator by the terrible winds. The forward buoyancy tanks were unable to stand the stresses of the violent maelstrom and ruptured; forcing us to seek a landfall approximately four days south of our present trail, where we took shelter in a deserted dead city. For many days and nights we..."
Bar Novacs held up three of his four hands (two of them covering the cup-shaped antennae of his ears) and cried out in pain. "Please spare me! I'm so tired of that kind of talk! By the Valley Dor, can't you red men ever answer a question in twenty-five words or less?"
Connie tugged at Kantos Kan's arm. Her voice was quietly urgent. "Perhaps you ought to let Tony tell it, please?" She batted her lovely eyelashes and pursed her pretty lips in a pleading moue. Enthralled by the pretty Jasoomian, Kantos Kan shrugged his shoulders and nodded.
"All right," the red man consented, "but do not let it be left unsaid that I, Kantos Kan, have not made every effort to warn you of the well-known treachery of the vile green...mmmph!" His words were abruptly cut off by the grip of Tony's ham-sized hand over the red man's mouth.
"Quiet!" Tony reminded the Martian before removing his hand from Kantos Kan's face. A crimson flush of humiliated anger suffused the Martian's features but the Jedwar of Helium's mighty navy remained silent while the Earthman turned to the Jed of the Warhoons with an apologetic tone in his voice.
"My friend is of the old school, Bar Novacs, please forgive him. My name is Tony Martin and," he slipped his arm (the one not holding the bow) about Connie's shoulders, "this is Connie Wescott. We're from EarthJasoom. You've already met Kantos Kan of Helium. This is Lady Clixiaalso of Helium. The little feller is Cheta, one of the talking apes of Mukor. He's a fine little guy, no doubt about that." Tony mentally crossed his fingers, his legs and his balls as he spoke that untruth. "By the way," he added, "this is my thoat, Throxeus; a wonderful beast. You keepa you mitts offa 'im. Savvy? No steak burgers from this animal. Okay?"
"Certainly," Bar Novacs shouted in reply, his lower arms patting the sides of his own mount, "I've got more thoats than I know what to do with." His voice dropped a few decibels. "By the waycould I interest you in a couple of thoats? It's hard to find adequate forage and; well you know, you can only eat so many of them."
Tony nodded in heartfelt agreement. "If you have Steak and Potatoes every night, Chicken begins to sound pretty good..."
Bar Novacs frowned at the words but nodded in apparent understanding of the Earthman's cliche. After a time he said: "You're Jasoomian?"
"I made the jump, right?"
"True. You sakked excellently."
"Sak jump, yeah, I remember the word. Yes, I'm Jasoomian and so's Ms. Wescott," Tony indicated the petite girl with pride; his arm still about Connie's shoulder.
"I thought so!" Bar Novacs clapped three of his free hands together, the fourth being used to hold his heavy, forty-foot, metal-shod spear. "When I saw you sak three ads in the air, I just knew you had to be one of those fabulous Jasoomians we've heard so much about. Would you sak some more?"
"I don't know," Tony scratched his chin, the near week-old stubble of beard making a rasping sound as the fingernail passed. "Jumping sakking takes a lot of energy and well, we haven't had a square meal in a few days."
"How about dinner all the way around?" Bar Novacs asked. "You and your companions as my guests. Would that be sufficient exchange for a demonstration of your sakking prowess?"
Tony considered the jed's offer for all of a half second (he did not consult the others of his party) and replied: "That'd be wonderful! We'd be delighted."
"Oh Wonder of Wonders!" the Warhoon Jed exclaimed with scarce repressed excitement. He dismounted, walking towards the humans. There were no weapons at hand; his manner was cordial and exuberant. "We've been so intrigued with the stories of John Carter's time in Warhoon. His astounding feats in the great games were missed by our tribe since we were out raping and pillaging at the time the great Jasoomian made his appearance in Warhoon. Now we will have the chance of seeing this marvelous feat without having to lose thirty or forty warriors to your weapons."
Bar Novacs enthusiastically executed a gracious bow to the dumb-founded travelers. The Warhoon Jed turned and shouted to the silent horde. "Make camp!" he thundered. "After the evening meal we will see a Jasoomian sak!"
The warriors of Warhoon cheered with delight, wheeling vicious tempered thoats toward the mammoth zitidars straining the traces of the tremendous three-wheeled chariots favored by the green tribes of Mars. Riders raced along the winding hill's summit to each of their respective wagons and heartily began the process of encamping the mighty throng.
Kantos Kan, numb with shock, silently followed the Jed of Warhoons, who politely led the travelers toward the first of many tents to be erected. Clixia's copper-bronze arm kept the stunned Overlord from tripping over his feet. The red woman was secretly delighted her companion's blood would not immediately be soaked up by the arid soil of Mars.
The party marched with Bar Novacs through a crowd of more than five hundred green warriors, excluding an even larger number of dusky olive-hued women and a few children yet to achieve the density of their adult coloration. The Jed regaled his guests with animated speech and gestures regarding the unexpected social event. Before the humans had crossed the bottom of the hollow to the edge of the rise, a huge tent had been swiftly erected by more than a dozen Warhoon women who were easily as tall and dangerous appearing as their male counterparts.
Bar Novacs showed the weary travelers into the giant cloth enclosure. "Please wait here in comfort and rest while I arrange the exhibition. Feel free to ask for any requirements you may havemilk from the mantalia plant, wine, food, clothinganything you desire. I'll return as soon as I have changed into the usual formal jeweled harness, fine silks, furs, et cetera which these sort of get togethers require. Enjoy!" Bar Novacs and his lieutenants departed, leaving only two women to attend to the requests of the humans. Connie and Clixia, the more practical of the four humans, asked for food, water to drink, and water with which to bathe. These items were brought, along with a fine selection of potent green Martian wines. The Warhoon maidens then tactfully withdrew, leaving the human travelers alone.
"I'm not exactly sure what we've gotten into," Tony breathed in the silence after the vocal jed and his retainers left, "but it sure as hell beats slogging it over the desert on an empty stomach! We didn't even have to fight!"
Kantos Kan was less positive. "We may not have had to stain the moss with the red-blood of our sworn enemiesbut I still do not trust these green bastards!"
"Keep it down, Kanty!" Clixia whispered, grabbing his arm in warning. "They might hear you!" Her eyes looked to the outer edge of the tent. "Then where would we be? Please, dearestBar Novacs has been very kind and considerate..."
"I know," the red man's teeth ground together before he replied. "That's what worries me!"
Connie, refreshed from food and a standup bath, was concerned about other matters. "Where's Cheta? Has anybody seen him?"
"The little fart can take care of himself," Tony ignored the implied request to go searching for the miniature ape. "When he's hungry he'll show uphe always knows when it's dinner time."
The men leaned back on thick cushions which pleasantly supported tired bodies in sumptuous surroundings. Despite Connie's frequently voiced concern for the missing Cheta, a sense of well-being pervaded the little group who, just a few hours before, had believed themselves facing a lingering death from starvation, or a more swift and brutal demise beneath the barbaric swords and battle lances of the horrific Warhoons.
Connie finally settled next to Tony and sipped the delicious wine served in goblets of hand-beaten gold. She resigned herself to refrain from badgering Tony in regards to Cheta (Clixia had quietly told her that white apes and green Martians were deadly enemies), and was determined to discover what Bar Novacs actually expected from the Jasoomians in return for the aid just provided. The right tackle's answer was so simple it amazed the woman. It showed in her question to Tony.
"You mean all we have to do in return for a full stomach and a place to sleep is jump? Uh, sak?"
"Right!" Tony looked at the tasty fruit in his hand. He reluctantly decided there was no more room in his stuffed tummy. He returned it to the silver serving tray inlaid with a border of emeralds. "You remember A Princess of Mars, kitten? John Carter amused his green captors with his sakking abilities. They thought it the most wonderful and astonishing thing they had ever seen. That's all Bar Novacs wants from us."
Though Connie's expression was still puzzled, she nodded. "I suppose it's a small price to pay. When do we amaze the local yokels? I hope it's not too soon, I'm a bit on the bloated side..."
"You and me both!" Tony laughed as he remembered the endless trays of food. But, in answer to her question, he replied: "I guess we'll start when Bar Novacs lets us know."
The flap of the tent was thrown back just as Tony finished speaking. The Jed of Warhoon entered, wearing his regalia of office; a feathered headdress, red cloak, bejeweled harness, and highly polished steel weapons. Tony rose and greeted the impressive Warhoon with a respectful salute.
"Kaor, Bar Novacs. Is everything ready?"
"Kaor, friend Tony Martin. Yes. All is prepared. Have you rested sufficiently?"
Tony nodded. The green man smiled, a horrible sight to behold; one which should have warned Tony. Lulled by the food, wine and the presence of other beings the burly athlete failed to fully comprehend the dire implication inherent in a green Martian's terrible smile. If Tony Martin was less fatigued and more alert he perhaps may have recalled ERB's further descriptions of the treacherous green men of Mars, for it was well-documented that these barbaric people did not smile for the same reasons as humans: laughing only at the contemplation of great pain or death someone else's! No, Martin did not recall and so, unknowingly, led his companions into the grasp of the Warhoons.
Immediately outside the great tent was an area more than three hundred feet in diameter, bounded by colorful hide tents and the strange three-wheeled wagons which transported the nomadic Warhoons. The exhibition field was starkly illuminated by the intriguing everlasting radium bulbs removed from unnamed Barsoomian dead cities by the roving horde. A number of torches and open braziers were in evidence as well as the curious green Martian gas lamp that produced an exceptionally bright white light from a wick that burns a fuel derived from a substance mined from the dead sea bottoms. In addition to the artificial illumination, Thuria the nearer moon entered the first of three nightly orbits, floating majestically amidst the vast heavenly panorama blazing with countless millions of stars rarely visible through the moisture-laden atmosphere of the third planet.
Connie chuckled girlishly, feeling the effects of the strong Martian wine after so many days of partial dehydration. "It got dark while we were inside." Then, in awed wonder, she added, "Isn't the sky beautiful?"
Tony agreed, slipping his arm about the lovely woman as they parted from Clixia and Kantos Kan and walked to the center of the clearing. Connie drew close to the black-haired youth, shivering from the chill. Tony felt goose-bumps rising on her satin-smooth skin.
With a wry grin the right tackle offered an observation. "Like Burroughs said: hot days and colder'n a well-digger's ass in Alaska at night."
Connie pressed against him for warmth. "I've got to get me another set of clothes, sweetheart, or one of those cloaks like Kantos Kan and Bar Novacs have. I don't see how Clixia can stand it!" Her teeth chattered violently as she glanced toward the subject of conversation; the half-naked Martian woman anxiously clinging to Kantos Kan's arm.
"We'll see about that later," Tony assured his stout hearted companion. "We'll get warm enough when we start sakking."
"Instead of sakking our bones," Connie giggled, hugging him briefly, "I'd rather you were jumping my bones in the sack!" Tony started to grab for her but Connie easily eluded him, jumping thirty feet away. "Ya missed me!"
Tony pursued her with a dazzling leap of his own. Connie side-stepped, bent, then thrust against the surface of Mother Barsoom with all the strength of her legs. She sailed up and out towards the astonished, cheering horde of green Martians.
The savage Warhoons excitedly stamped their feet and applauded each mighty leap of the playful Earthlings. For these barbaric denizens of Mar's most desolate areas, this sakking exhibition was the most incredible event ever witnessed. The louder the crowd cheered, the more the Warhoons' excitement suffused the laughing couple. The adulation of the green Martians inspired Tony and Connie to extemporaneously devise intricate leaps, loops, somersaults and tandem air-borne twists. As a grand finale the Earthlings sprang straight up, hands-clasped, to spin about that axis for three revolutions before they lightly landed on the resilient moss. They waved to the grateful, shining faces of Barsoom's most terrible inhabitants as they exited the makeshift arena amid howling acclamation. Bar Novacs was the first to greet the exhausted couple; his upper pair of hands clapped with delight.
"Marvelous, simply marvelous!" Bar Novacs cried. His middle pair of hands began to applaud and in an instant Bar Novacs was transformed into the biological equivalent of a Hollywood audience machine. "I've never seen anything like that in my entire 500 years of existence! Come! Let us have wine and celebrate this most auspicious occasion!" The Warhoon jed led the way back to his tent. It took a great deal of control on his part of keep from talking until all were seated on the cushions with a glass of wine in each hand.
"You hatchlings were wonderful!" Bar Novacs waxed enthusiastic. "Ever since I saw you sak this afternoon, Tony, I've been thinking about an idea which could be quite profitable for us all..."
Tony only heard a part of Bar Novacs' words. He suspiciously eyed the empty interior of the tent. Kantos Kan and Clixia were nowhere to be seen. Martin suddenly realized he had not seen the red Martian couple since after the beginning of the exhibition. He narrowed his eyes, facing the smiling Jed of Warhoon.
"Where's Kantos Kan and Clixia?" Tony coldly demanded.
Bar Novacs drew back, aghast, sputtering in surprise. "Why, I really have no idea! The last I recall is they came out to watch with the rest of us." Tony's eyes remained distrusting in spite of the jed's explanation. Bar Novacs huffed in reproach. "You surely don't think I"
Bar Novacs was saved from further comment when the missing couple entered the tent. Bar Novacs frowned mightily, justifiably distressed by the Jasoomian's insinuation. "Therearen't you ashamed for thinking bad thoughts about me?"
Clixia and Kantos Kan took seats on a vacant cushion and greeted the giant green man and the Earthlings with silent nods; Clixia appeared breathless and the red man's smile obvious. Tony idly wondered where the Martian couple found a place isolated enough to engage in amorous adventures. Moreover he was forced to admire the red man's powers of concentration: Tony wasn't sure he could have maintained the proper physiological stiffness required for such activities in the midst of the wild howling which accompanied the sakking demonstration. Perhaps Connie was having similar thoughts because she giggled, clutching Tony's thigh and winking impishly.
She leaned close and whispered to Tony, "Kantos Kan and Clixia don't have sakking experience, but they obviously have plenty of experience in the sack!"
"You're incorrigible, darling," Tony smiled and silenced her with a kiss. "I want to hear what Bar Novacs is saying."
Bar Novacs himself poured goblets of wine for the Martian couple. Clixia gratefully accepted the aromatic beverage their gracious barbarian host extended to her. "Why thank you, Bar Novacs!"
"Comfortable?" Bar Novacs asked. Kantos Kan's satisfied, tired smile was answer enough for the great, green chieftain who grinned grotesquely. "Good. I hope you don't mind if I continue my conversation with Tony and Connie?"
"Not at all," Kantos Kan replied, leaning back into the cushions, his arm about Clixia's delicate shoulders. "We'll just listen and be very, very quiet..."
"Kanty!" Clixia giggled as she snuggled into the crook of the warrior's arm. She sipped the wine then turned glittering eyes to Bar Novacs. "Don't let us interrupt!"
"You are most gracious, Lady Clixia," Bar Novacs inclined his ugly frog-face diplomatically. "As I was saying, Tony may I call you Tony? I'm excited about a wonderful and most lucrative enterprise for you and your lovely lady. How would you hatchlings like to work for me? I'll explain it this way, we put together a traveling show featuring you and Connie as the star performers, beings from an alien world with extraordinary powers, and we'll make a financial killing in the dead cities inhabited by the green Martians of the southern hemispherethe Warhoons, of course! We could do this 'killing' without having to dip one sword tip in red or any other color of blood. What do you say?"
Connie pursed her lips, paused in thought, then sipped wine before she answered. "A generous offer, Bar Novacs, but we have a previous commitment. We are going to Helium with Kantos Kan and Clixia."
"Why," the Jed said with uninterrupted energy, "they would be welcome to join the troop. Just imagine! Red Martians displaying their fighting prowess and all their high culture for all those uneducated soraks just waiting to spend their tanpi for a night of wondrous entertainment!"
"Still," Tony said, "we've promised. Perhaps later?"
Crestfallen, Bar Novacs was forced to accede to the Jasoomian's polite refusal with gentlemanly grace. "I suppose we'll just have to wait. If you must goyou must go."
For an instant Tony imagined a crude, calculating look in the eyes of the Jed, however, the expression was so fleeting he thought it merely a trick of the torch light. The Warhoon's manner was extremely cordial and the jed smiled jovially. "If it's impossible, then it isbut I do thank you for the amazing exhibition! My people were astounded!" Bar Novacs declared.
Connie yawned and Bar Novacs suddenly apologized. He quickly rose, saying, "I see you're very tired and I, too, am ready for the sleeping furs. This tent is for your use and since I perceive no changing your mind, Tony Martin, we'll say goodbye in the morning." The Jed paused at the tent flap, towering over his guests, "Rememberyou promised to take a couple of pesky thoats off my hands! Goodnight, all." Laughing, the Warhoon bid his guests pleasant dreams and left the huge tent.
The four humans remained on the thick cushions and finished their wine. As the minutes passed, they became more aware of their fatigue. Kantos Kan and Clixia were the first to retire. They followed a green Martian lady to one of the compartments of the tent. A short time later Connie and Tony were settling down into warm furs provided for their use against the bitter chill of the Barsoomian night.
Just as Tony was about to fall asleep (he was suddenly so sleepy it almost felt unnatural) Connie's voice caused him to turn his head in her direction. Her speech was slurred with sleep, but it did not disguise her concern.
"I still wish I knew where Cheta was..."
"Don't worry about the little fart." Part of him didn't give a Tinker's Damn about the lascivious little white ape, but that other part of himthe part which loved Conniemade him try to reassure her. "Just the same," he started to rise, "I'll go see if I can find him."
"Thanks, Tony," Connie's voice was a mere whisper as she quickly slipped into sleep.
Tony's mind worked more sluggishly than his body. He'd no more than risen to one elbow when he was attacked with sudden lethargy.
What's happening? Martin struggled with his thoughts. "Damn wine drugged?" Tony passed out.
If the wine had been laced with a sleeping potion, it was not as effective as it should have been: Tony awoke in the middle of the night when Connie screamed. Almost simultaneous with the young woman's outcry a large number of hands roughly gripped the Earthling's arms and legs.
"What the hell?" Tony shouted, shaking his brawny frame. He nearly succeeded in freeing himself; his left hand gripped the hilt of his short sword. Suddenly the weapon, and all his other weapons, were jerked from Tony's grasp. With a super-human surge of strength, the desperate Earthling managed to untangle his right arm. Tony lashed out, felling two unseen assailants in the darkened tent with the power of his back-streets educated hand. Struggle as he might, however, the football player was finally subdued by the sheer mass of his attackers.
This desperate action took place in complete darkness, but now a radium bulb was unhooded, causing Tony to blink in the harsh light. Six grinning Warhoon warriors pinned his writhing body to the floor of the tent. To his right, held high above the floor, Connie fought with two of the treacherous Jed's warriors. They had difficultly in controlling her. The sight so infuriated Tony Martin that he nearly broke free. Though he was not successful, one more Warhoon had felt the bruising weight of the Jasoomian's mighty fist. Another green Martian quickly took the place of the moaning warrior clutching his throat where Tony's blow all but crushed his windpipe.
A roar of rage from one of the warriors holding Connie jerked Martin's eyes towards that battle. The warrior limped with a bruised shin from the boot-heeled kick the girl had delivered. The Warhoon's companion gripped the frantically twisting girl from the right while he held Connie's left side, and a third warrior was eventually required to capture her legs. Between the three of them, they finally held Connie immobile.
Behind Connie, Tony saw the red Martian couple similarly secured; however, only one green warrior was needed to hold the frightened Clixia, two restrained the furious naval officer. At that moment Bar Novacs appeared at the edge of the curtain. He laughed hideously.
"What's the meaning of this?" Tony shouted over the groans of the three injured Warhoons. "Is this the extent of your hospitality? If you mean to kill us, I assure you, none here will beg for mercy!"
"I see you know something of our ways, Jasoomian," Bar Novacs grinned, displaying his gaping slash of a mouth; his tusks gleaming white in the glaring light of the unhooded radium bulb. "however, I have no intention of killing you! On the contrary! I have great plans for you. You, Tony Martin, are much too valuable for the mere pleasure of pitting you against banths in the arena. No, that is not to be your fate. I offered you a chance to work for me of your own free will. You foolishly declined. Instead of a mutually profitable partnership, you will work for free and I will pocket the profits!"
Tony yelled with rage and tried to get free, yearning to smash the look of triumph from the Warhoon's face. Two more warriors were required to restrain him. Bar Novacs stepped closer, his horrible countenance close to the Earthman's.
"You will not resist me, Tony Martin." The Warhoon Jed's eyes narrowed as he softly hissed his promise. "I hold the lives of your companions. If you do not do my bidding, they will dieslowlyone at a timestarting with this lovely lady" Bar Novacs' battle-scarred hand rose to caress Clixia's delicate cheek. She screamed and cringed beneath the Warhoon's touch. Kantos Kan roared impotently. Connie shouted obscenities.
The Jed's laughter was grating, harsh. "Sak for me, when ever I demand, and these people will be unharmed. If you refuse, then this lovely young lady will entertain me for an hour or two before I turn her over to my head chiefs for their amusement." The green man's laughter rang through Tony's numbed consciousness.
"If she should survive that entertainment she will then be given to the warriors of the horde" Clixia's eyes were so round with revulsion they appeared ready to leap from the sockets.
"And when they are through with her," Bar Novacs was laughing so uproariously he was forced to lean on the tent pole, holding his sides with the lower set of arms, "the Lady Clixia of Helium will only be fit for banth fodder!" Bar Novacs suddenly stopped laughing. He bent over Martin, his white frog-eyes seemingly filled with irises on fire. "Do I make myself clear, Tony Martin?"
"You bastard!" Tony cried, then belatedly realized all green Martians are bastards: none knew their parents since all were raised in community incubators. He searched for a satisfying epithet. "Turd head!"
Bar Novacs merely chuckled as he turned to his warriors. "Take them away!"
The Warhoons roughly carried their prisoners outside the tent. As the cold night air hit the sweat-soaked bodies of the travelers, Kantos Kan, to no one in particular, said: "I told you you can't trust a green Martian!"
X. CHETA FINDS A WAY
After the four travelers were locked in the cages, Tony Martin berated himself for being so easily deceived by the cunning Bar Novacs. His mounting frustration, however, was bad enough without having to endure the irritating snipes from the narrow cage next to him and Connie.
"Shut up, Kantos, Kan!" Tony roared. "If you open your mouth one more time to say 'I told you so', I'll break off your fingers and feed them to you one at a time! I've had it up to here!" The gesture used by the Earthling to indicate his present annoyance capacity was several inches above the top of his thick, curly, black hair.
Connie was silent. She sat hunched in the corner of their cage, knees drawn to her chin with both arms wrapped at ankle level. Tony continued to pace the narrow, three-by-eight flooring of the stout Warhoon prison wagon. He mouthed various obscenities under his breath each time he completed a circuit of the cell. The cage was designed to physically torment an adult green Martian, but for humans it was merely a cramped inconvenience.
The preceding night was difficult and uncomfortable from the rough treachery of their host and the fact there was barely enough room for two to stretch out side by side on the floor of the cage. Kantos Kan and Clixia were less discomforted in the adjoining cage since neither were anywhere near the physical dimensions of the ex-football player. Fortunately Connie was petite and dainty; though the eye could be deceived by the well-rounded pulchitrude of her voluptuous body. At present, however, Connie Wescott sulked, staring at the big man. Fatigued, sun-burned and uncomfortable, Connie fought the effects of the drug. Earlier she, had succumbed to tearful despair and cried for hours. Just before dawn the young woman had wanted to make desperate love. Tony had refused, which angered his cell mate. Their situation remained tense even after the Warhoon wagons began rolling across the dead sea bottom.
Seeing the frown on Connie Wescott's face Tony realized how harsh and uncaring he appeared. "I'm sorry I yelled at you, princess. I'm discouragedpissed off is the proper wordbut like ERB said: 'I still live'. Truce? Okay?"
Tony knelt down and touched the woman's bent knee with a gentle hand, pleading with his eyes. For a moment Connie seemed ready to refuse, but her heart softened and she gave him a faint nod and a thin smile touched her pretty lips.
"That's my girl!" Tony grinned. "We've got to make some plans for getting out of here." Tony's renewed determination was greeted with a warm embrace as Connie unfolded to come into his arms.
Sniffing back an embarrassed tear, the girl said, "That's my Tony! You won't let any money-grubbing Warhoon put us on show like a pair of trained seals. What do you have in mind?"
"I don't know at the moment. The best place to start is getting out of these cages..."
"Bravo!" Kantos Kan cheered. A conversation in one cage was easily overheard in the next since they were only separated by four inches. "Just let me out of here with a sword in hand and I'll teach those green devils a thing or two, by Issus!"
"Let's put off the blood letting until after we're free," Tony cautioned. "Our cage is bolted to the floor all the way around. How about yours, Kanty? Have you tried all the bars? Are there any loose ones?"
"I'll look," the warrior replied, "but I doubt it. These cages were built to hold green men. You're the only one of the four of us with that kind of strength." Kantos Kan began his investigation, but it was as he predicted: there was no egress possible from the cage holding the two Martians.
Tony sat, his back against the steel cage, deep in thought. He lifted his eyes and looked towards the pensive Overlord. "We'll have to wait until they come to feed us. I could over power the jailer."
"What if they do not feed us?" Clixia asked. The red woman did not sound as frightened as she looked, though she was exhausted and shaken.
"They'll feed us," Connie declared. "Bar Novacs wants a healthy Jasoomian to sak for him, ergo Tony gets fed and we do too or Tony goes on a hunger strike. Right, darling?" She looked toward Martin who chuckled, adding a nod of his dark-maned head.
Connie patted his arm with a grin then became sober as another thought came to her. "What if the jailer isn't by himself? Can you do it then, Tony?" Her eyes sparkled in the wagon's dim interior as she voiced her confidence. "I know you can take two of them."
Tony smiled tenderly. "We'd be in no worse shape for trying, Connie," he told her.
"True," she leaned forward and hugged him from behind while Martin tried the strength of the bars a hundredth time. "Just be careful when you try, Tony Martin."
"I will," he said, turning to pull Connie to his breast. "I wonder how long we'll have to wait?"
"If I know the green men," Kantos Kan dryly observed, "they'll travel without stopping until just before dark. If they feed us, it will be some time after they have made camp and eaten."
"I wonder what direction they are heading," Tony mused as he untangled himself from Connie's embrace. He gripped the bars to steady himself against the sway of the wagon.
Clixia provided the only information, and that was delivered with a doubtful tone. "I thought I overheard two guards this morningsomething about a short detour to the north for water before the tribe turned south for Warhoon. But how far north, I do not know."
"Let's hope they don't turn south before nightfall," Tony said grimly. "As long as they are headed north we're at least headed in the right direction..."
Conversation declined as the day lengthened. The four prisoners sat in the jostling cages, occasionally yelping with pain when an especially deep rut threw them against the bars. The hours passed slowly, but eventually the wagon came to a halt. Another lagging hour passed before the tail-gate of the rolling prison opened and three Warhoons entered. Ready to leap into action the instant the cage opened, Tony tensed his muscles. The Warhoons never allowed him the opportunity.
"Back against the barsall of you!" the gruff voice of the tallest jailer commanded. "Do it speedily, or we'll assist you at sword point."
There was nothing for it but to obey. The other green men, under the watchful eye of their leader, efficiently immobilized the captives with the simple device of a thick cord binding the necks of the prisoners to the nearest bar of the cage. Once secured, the doors were opened and food trays, along with an empty pan, were placed on the rough-hewn sorapus wood floor. The cages were re-secured before the humiliated prisoners were released.
"Now you can eat," the Warhoon jailer laughed. "You may eliminate your body wastes into the pan provided, or you can sleep in it if you want. Who cares?" He was still chuckling at the sharpness of his wit as the Warhoons exited the wagon.
"Bastards!" Tony cried to the mute wall of the wagon.
Connie placed a calming hand on his forearm. She offered the enraged youth a bowl of thin gruel provided for their sustenance. The innate kindness of her gesture roused Tony from a pool of dark frustration. He ate silently, hardly tasting the food and when the meal was over, with the consequence of unnecessary continued physical discomfort as the only possible alternative, each of the captives used the secondary containers in the manner for which they had been provided. An hour later the guards returned for the containers, repeating their prior precautionary measures before opening the cages.
Bar Novacs made an appearance later in the evening, taking great delight in detailing his projected enterprise with an aura of enthusiasm unshared by the Jasoomians. "By the way, Tony," Bar Novacs added when he rose to leave, "you and Connie will never work together. I think you know what will happen to her if you decide to escape during your act. I only hope she knows your ass will be as worthless as a thoat turd if she should attempt the same."
The Jed of Warhoons chuckled at the tight-fisted Earthman's murderous expression. "If you doubt my sincerity, Tony Martin, ask Kantos Kan what we did with the captives we took during the war with the Tharks thirty years ago. Sleep tight"
In the ensuing silence following the departure of the laughing green Martian, Tony finally questioned the warrior of Helium. "Wellwhat did happen?"
"You do not want to know," the shuddering red man replied from the dim shadows. Kantos Kan's voice was husky with repressed emotion. "Let us just say it was not very pretty..."
No further words were exchanged by the prisoners after the Overlord's depressing comment. Tony's tension mounted in the near total darkness as he fought brooding fears crowding his mind. The extent of his mental and physical discipline was displayed when he continued to remain motionless after a sibilant hiss outside the cage demanded his attention.
"What?" Tony responded peevishly after the sound was repeated for the third time. "If you've got something to say, Kantos Kan, say it. I'm in no mood for games."
The Overlord roused from a deep sleep, snorted with disgust. "I did not say anything."
"Well," Tony drawled, "if you didn't, who did?"
"It is I," a voice declared in the darkness, "Cheta!"
Tony's head turned. He just made out the pale shadow of the tiny white ape clinging to the bars of the cage. "Cheta! Where the hell have you been? Connie's been worried sick about you. I thought maybe they had killed you!"
"You would like that, wouldn't you?" Cheta did not wait for an answer, perhaps he did not want to hear it. He looked to Connie, his little eyes shining in the meager light penetrating the massive wagon from the torches outside.
"I'm less trusting of the green men than your Tony, Connie Wescott. I hid beneath the wagons and the Warhoons never saw me. Are you all right? Have they hurt you?" Cheta jerked two thumbs in Tony's direction. "I know he would shed no tears if the green barbarians killed me. I am sorry you are stuck in this cage."
Tony started to move forward, but when Cheta shied away, the athlete withdrew. Deliberately keeping his voice reasonable Tony urged the little ape to trust him.
"Don't be ridiculous, you little asshole! I would be very hurt to learn you were killed. Connie likes you very much. As for me, you've just got a bad case of wandering hands, I don't hate you."
"Could have fooled me," the ape interjected. "You look pretty grim, most of the time."
"Sorry," Tony said. "I'll try to mend my ways. Can you get us out of here?"
The little ape held up a key ring. "I even know where they put your weapons and Throxeus."
"That's great!" Connie's voice sounded hopeful for the first time since they had been captured. "When can we leave?"
"As soon as the Warhoons are asleep." The ape replied. "I'll get all the weapons out to Throxeus, if the grotesque behemoth will let me tie them to his back!"
"Why can't you bring them here?" Kantos Kan asked.
"Is there a place to hide them if the Warhoons come to check on you?" Cheta growled disparagingly.
Kantos Kan and Tony had to admit that impossibility, there was nothing in the wagon but the cages and themselves. The ape continued: "That great eight-legged, flat-tailed, desert-bastard Throxeus only thinks of me as a meal. You guys better do something to calm him down. Besides, I think he's worried about becoming the next main course for Bar Novacs' table, he's the biggest thoat they've ever seen..."
"How far away is he?" Connie asked. "I don't know if we can reach him with telepathy, but we'll try..."
"Just the other side of the camp. Do what you can, I'll be back."
"Leave the keys!" Tony hissed, but the ape had already departed. "Shit! He could have freed uswe could have helped!"
"Okay," Cheta gasped with fatigue. "The damn swords were heavy and climbing up that ill-tempered walking mountain a dozen times is a pain in the ass. Everything is all set."
"Then get us out of here!" Tony demanded.
"I will," the ape grinned in the faint light from the lamp flickering beyond the curtains of the tailgate, "but first, there is something I want from you."
"What?" With freedom so near, Tony was exasperated with the tiny ape's mysterious manner. "If it's about my attitude, I'll change."
"It's something else," Cheta jiggled the keys so that they made a soft, clinking sound. His voice was mischievous. "You know us apes have six hands, right?"
"And you know that this white ape has had two of those six on Connie's luscious orbs, right?"
Tony sprang to the side of the cage, intent on wringing the life from the lecherous anthropoid. Cheta backed away beyond the Earthman's reach. He squatted down on four legs and clasped the upper two. He giggled.
"Tony Martin, there are four of my paws which have not had the pleasure. That's the price of your freedom."
Kantos Kan's quiet anger was filled with terrible promise. "It will be with great joy that I roast your" Clixia's hand suddenly covered the Overlord's mouth.
Tony's response to Cheta was more direct. "You salacious beast!" The athlete's mouth worked furiously, he spat on the floor of the cage. "You've forgotten one thing, Cheta the lady herself. Maybe she"
Connie put everything into immediate perspective. "You might like staying in this cage, Tony Martin, but I'm ready to split!"
"Princess, you heard what dork-face, shit-for-brains anthropoid wants to do to you!"
Connie shrugged her shoulders, exhibiting a practical and true knowledge of the facts of life. "Tits, like pussies, are one of nature's renewable resources," she whispered, grabbing the short hairs of Tony's new beard, dragging his face close to hers. "So what if he cops a feel? It can't hurt me and it will get us out of this friggin' cage. I'll even consider screwing the little shit just to escape Bar Novacs so shut your mouth, dear, and remember this ain't no Burroughs scenario!"
"But, Connie!" Tony softly protested.
"Shut up!" Connie painfully tightened her grip on his beard until her irate lover fell silent. She faced Cheta and smiled. "Tony'll behave, Cheta. Let us out and you can feel me up all you like."
The ape slyly grinned, shaking his head. "I'll take my payment first, then I'll let you out. Otherwise, the big guy might kill me before I squeezed your bitchin' breasts."
"The 'might' is a probability diminishing upon certainty," Tony muttered under his breath as Connie resolutely pressed her spectacular breasts between the bars for the greedy little ape's pleasure. Tony turned his back so he wouldn't have to watch, but he heard Cheta's hoarse, ragged breathing as the lecherous ape fondled Connie's naked bosom.
A short time later Connie massaged tender breasts as the newly freed prisoners furtively passed through the camp of sleeping Warhoons. Cheta remained fifty yards in front of the humans, one eye nervously fixed on the giant Earthman. The white ape was accustomed to having six limbs attached to his body and Cheta strongly desired that his present physical condition remain unchanged.
Cheta led the escapees to Throxeus and, as promised, all of the stolen gear and weapons were present. Connie gladly strapped on sword, short sword and dagger as the great thoat eagerly greeted his Jasoomian master. Within moments all were armed and ready to escape into the darkness of the Barsoomian night.
Tony remembered to keep his promise to Bar Novacs: They took two thoats from the huge Warhoon herd. From the attention Throxeus gave the smaller, ugly beasts, they might have been females, or, Throxeus was a female in the presence of two males. Whatever the case, Kantos Kan and Clixia (Cheta with her despite the red man's objections) rode one thoat apiece. Tony and Connie shared the broad back of mighty Throxeus.
The swiftly changing light of Thuria, that fickle lover of Cluros, provided sufficient illumination for the keen-eyed thoats which rapidly carried the escapees northward. By dawn the huge animals were seventy miles from the camp of the Warhoons.
Kantos Kan expressed doubt if Bar Novacs would attempt to recapture them, even if there were a trail the double-dealing jed could follow. The huge thoats' nailess pads left no tracks on the resilient moss and the naval officer's confidence stemmed from the lack of any viable spoor, and green Martian superstitions. The barbaric Warhoons would be wary of beings who apparently passed through solid metal. Kantos Kan had applauded when Tony had relocked the cages and ordered Cheta to return the stolen keys to the sleeping jailer before they left.
The horrors of the imprisonment evaporated in the clear light of day. As the miles increased between the travelers and their recent captors, the conversation between the humans grew more light-hearted as they relished the taste of glorious freedom. Even Tony was able to exchange worlds with the shame-faced Cheta without sounding like he was going to kill the misguided ape at the first opportunity.
Cheta, of course, apologized profusely for his salacious liberties with Connie's person, especially when the Earth woman flatly refused to speak to him during the long night's ride. The white ape abased himself so eloquently and his pleas for mercy were so sincere that the hulking Earthman had all but forgiven him. Connie, however, with that perverse patience only women have, was determined the dejected beast should suffer a while longer, though she fully intended to allow him back into her good graces after a suitable time.
The petite brunette rode behind Tony, her arms about the tackle's thick waist, and leaned into his hard-muscled back. Wearing a thin blanket draped like a cloak gave her sensitive skin a rest from the brilliant sun, though the redness was gradually changing to a warm nut-brown tan. They had lunched earlier on some travel provisions left from their stay at Mukor and Connie, relaxed for the first time since the ordeal with the Warhoons began, realized she was happy.
The young woman raised her lips to Tony's ear, her voice a warm whisper. "Nobody can feel me up like my chieftain," she said, squeezing her thighs against him, wiggling with joy. "Just remember that and don't be too rough on Cheta. He feels bad enough. He now knows that what he wanted and what he got were two different things. Okay?"
"Well," Tony's chest rumbled as he growled a soft reply, "I don't like him grabbin' tit..."
"You're the best tit-grabber, honey. The best."
Tony burst out laughing. He reached down with his left hand to pat Connie's rounded thigh. He admired the smooth skin and that softened his anger. "Okay, I don't kill him, but surely you won't mind if I make Cheta suffer a little?"
"What kind of suffering?"
"Cold shoulder. Nasty words. May I kick some sand in his face?"
"Just keep it bloodless," Connie giggled. "As tacky as he is, I like the little shit."
"That's what makes it so tough, I think I do, too. It took guts to get us out of that camp." Though Tony made Cheta suffer anxiously for several hours, by mid-afternoon the big Jasoomian was again speaking with the miniature white ape.
The seemingly tireless thoats easily maintained their ground-eating trot. Known world-wide as the swiftest animals of Barsoom, the thoats effortlessly increased the miles between the fugitives and the Warhoon camp, reducing the possibility of recapture by Bar Novacs and his hideous warriors. By late afternoon the riders began to tire; though the thoats moved as strongly as ever.
"You know," Connie's lips gently caressed the sun-bronzed skin of her lover's back, "I think I finally understand why girls like to ride horses."
"How's that?" Tony asked. He looked back over his shoulder and saw the his friend's parted lips and faint smile. He felt the rapid rise and fall of her generous breasts against his back.
"Throxeus' muscles moving between my thighs and rubbing against my you-know-what are making me horny as hell!"
"Yeah? Tony offered the swordswoman a lecherous grin. "Think we should do something about that?"
Connie's smile, and her hard, quick hug, were part answer. She was about to add a comment when the Jasoomians were startled by Clixia's frightened scream. Tony quickly looked to the red woman on the thoat about ten yards to the left and two yards in front of Throxeus. He fully expected to see Cheta pulling a stunt with Kantos Kan's woman that would cause the Overlord to carve the ape's wicked heart out, but a randy ape with wandering hands was not the cause behind the Heliumite's outcry.
Clixia's arm pointed to a low depression a hundred yards to the left of their trail. The others turned astonished eyes in that direction and beheld a most incredible sight. A superbly built body ran towards them, its smooth-muscled arm clutching something against its ribs which looked similar to a football. The naked runner passed in front of the skittish thoats with all the grace of a star sprinter.
Finding another being on the desert was not extraordinary in itself; the horrified attention of the travelers was riveted on the amazing appearance of the naked creature. It looked just like a red man of Mars, but headless, and the round object under its arm was frantically shouting for help!
XI. THE RECALCITRANT RYKOR
"Damn it! Somebody grab my rykor! Please!" The head beneath the rykor's arm could only be a kaldane, a spiderman of Bantoomthe most unusual of the strange creatures among Burroughs' Barsoomian populations. At the moment the hideous flesh-eating kaldane seemed terrified and plaintively cried for help.
The runaway rykor passed in front of Throxeus, causing the creature to shy nervously. Tony soothed the great thoat with a firm mental command, then leapt in pursuit of the mindless (and brainless) bipedal creature. Tony neared the kaldane, who was being carried in such a manner that only one of his protruding eyes was visible. The disembodied intelligence saw the approaching Earthman and called out.
"Be careful! This is my only rykor. Don't injure the dumb beast if you can avoid it!"
"No problem," Tony grinned as he effortlessly over took the headless creature. "What seems to be the matter with him?" Tony asked when he matched pace with the rykor.
"I don't know," the all brain (and no body) kaldane replied with a frustrated snapping of its two chela, similar to a lobster's big claws though both were the same size in lieu of the disproportionate structure of the Earthly crustacean. "For some reason the damn thing became recalcitrant. It wouldn't let me mount and I've had one hell of a time trying to get loose without hurting it."
"Well, what if I free you and set you on top? Would that be sufficient, or should I tackle the creature? You might get squashedI'm a right tackle, you know."
"I don't know what a 'right tackle' is, friend, but if it means you'll fall on me, forget it. Just pry this arm loose and I'll take care of the rest."
Tony complied with the kaldane's request. Without any strain on his part, the Earthman freed the repulsive creature. The spiderman swiftly scaled the rykor's back and, with an audible sigh of relief, deftly inserted its six spider-like legs and claws into the open orifice at the top of the rykor's neck. Within seconds, the rykor slowed, though the curious beast pitched and jumped a few times like a bronc before it steadied down.
"That's a boy," the kaldane softly crooned. "Egad! What a fresh animal! I haven't had this much fun since we rounded up a herd of these mustangs when I was a hatchling at Bantoom! Yahoo!" The kaldane/rykor stopped, turned, and extend a very human appearing hand in the Barsoomian gesture of friendship. "My name is Ghek, and I want to thank you."
"Tony Martin," the grinning athlete supplied, "I'm from Jasoom. Hi, Ghek, you are the kaldane who's buddy-buddy with John Carter and Gahan of Gathol, aren't you?" Tony chuckled when the surprised kaldane was suddenly distracted by a fresh bout of bucking from the rykor stallion. The spiderman eventually settled his beast, but not without a chorus of blasphemies and colorful phrases. The kaldane seemed exhausted from the effort of taming the wild rykor.
"You okay?" Tony asked.
"Just barely," Ghek replied. "I guess I'm getting too old to break mustangs..."
Tony looked at the consolidation of disembodied head connected to headless body. The effect wasn't as bad as his imagination painted when he read The Chessmen of Mars. The combination had the appearance of a handsome, well-built youth who apparently got his head caught in a blender filled with blue, grey and white paint. Ghek's eyes were over-sized and lidless, banded by rings of blue and white, reminding Tony of tasteless sunglasses worn by tourists at the beach. The spiderman's nose was a pair of thin slashes above a sphincter-like mouth puckered as tight as a truck-driver's ass ringed with hemorrhoids. Once the kaldane was mounted and the six jointed legs and huge claws inserted into the rykor's "neck", the two physiological components became a single being. Ghek used his legs and claws to assume control of the headless animal by manipulating the creature's exposed spinal cord.
Tony waited until the rykor steadied then said, "I thought you were living in Helium with John Carter."
"I was," the hideous super brain responded with wry exasperation. "Happy as an ulsio in a sewer, too, until that dumb stallion of mine decided to up and die on me. Had to have another one, so I borrowed a flier and came in search of wild rykors. Oh! Hello!"
The rest of Tony Martin's party gathered to meet the kaldane and his rambunctious rykor. Tony briefly introduced Connie and Cheta; Kantos Kan and Clixia were already acquainted with the Bantoomian. The pleasantries completed, Tony faced Ghek once again. "Now, Ghek, you were saying something about a flier?"
Kantos Kan's eyes grew round. He stepped forward. "You've got a flier?"
"Nope," the kaldane answered. "Damn thing tipped over during a freak sandstorm a week or so back. Busted it up good." The kaldane kept on, oblivious to the Overlord's disappointment.
"I'd been trailing this herd of wild rykorsthey're getting rare, you knowand had picked out a superb mare. I landed, managed to catch her and tamed her to the saddle. I put her on the flier and went back to the herd to get a stallion so I could breed rykors in Helium and not have to make this trip a second time.
"The stallion that caught my eye was in rut, so I decided to wait until I could catch a bitch mare in heat to get close to him. That took a couple of days, of course, and in the meantime the storm smashed my General Floaters four-seater and killed the mare I had already tamed. Right before the storm I managed to capture a rutting mare, but the herd moved north during the storm and, with no alternatives, was forced to follow on the sex-eager mare, hoping I would not lose the rest of the herd in the process.
"I'll tell you, son, I was not happy with the speed or endurance of the mare. I'd gotten used to the strength and agility of that old stallion I'd had for so many years in Helium; and this particular mare's condition did not make travelling easy. Had to satisfy the poor, dumb creature's lust with manual manipulations it was not capable of doing for itself just to keep the beast quiet enough for the trail.
"Two or three days after the storm, the herd settled down to a generalized grazing area. I finally caught up with them but was not able to get close enough to the stallion to entice him with the mare I was riding. It was not until just a few hours ago that I was able to get close enough to the mount I had selected. He caught the scent of the mare and I waited until he was mounting the mare to make my movebut the damn beast swept his arm over her back, across her shoulders, and had me under his arm!
"Rykors are so damn brainless I doubt if the stallion knew what it had done, especially since the mare decided she did not want his penetration and lashed out with her arms. The stallion stood on its legs and ran off and I could do nothing to stop it until Tony got me loose. I guess that brings us to the present. By the way, Kantos Kan, it is good to see you."
The red man muttered softly then scowled when Clixia's elbow buried itself into his ribs. "He's glad to see you, Ghek," Clixia said, trying to suppress the sting of the Overlord's greeting.
"Lady Clixia, what brings you out this far from Helium? I thought your Daddy was trying to hitch you with Kulan Tith"
Clixia flushed crimson and stammered, "I was kidnapped and Kantos Kan came to my rescue."
"Sure," Ghek's sphincter like mouth almost smiled, "just like I was catching stallions with amorous mares" but his voice was deliberately subdued so Kantos Kan would not hear the remark. Ghek's manner changed abruptly. "If it wouldn't be too much trouble can I tag along with you folks? I presume you're headed for Helium."
Connie answered, her eyes narrowed to slits because she had heard Ghek's comment concerning Kantos Kan and Clixia. "It's up to and Kantos Kan and Clixia."
Ghek never flinched under Connie's cold stare. "I know how tough it is for you humans to be around us flesh-eating kaldanes."
"No bother, Ghek." Kantos Kan said, to Connie and Tony's surprise. "You're welcome just as long as you behave yourself. I know Gahan of Gathol and John Carter would like to see you safely returned to Helium."
Connie took her cue from the genuine invitation from the red man. She linked her arm through the arm of Ghek's rykor and led the incredible combination of Bantoomian and rykor to the waiting thoats. "As long as Tony and Clixia agree then it's okay with me. We're just one big happy family and one more odd-ball won't make a lick of difference."
"Why thank you, lovely lady!" Ghek commanded his rykor's right hand to affectionately pat the Jasoomian's shapely arm. "I promise not to take a bite out of anybody. At least," he chuckled, "until I get too hungry. Deal?"
"Deal!" Connie giggled despite her earlier judgement regarding Ghek's sensitivity toward the Heliumites' social predicament. "Come on, Tony. Let's get moving. By the way, Ghek," the Earth girl asked the kaldane as they mounted the thoats, "do you know where we can find water? We're getting mighty thirsty and I'm sure you need it as much as the rest of us."
"Why sure, darling! There's a deserted dead city about fifty haads north of here. Wasn't much of one, as dead cities go, but I thought I saw some trees with fruit and nuts, and a fountain with water, though I'm not overly fond of fruits and nuts."
"Tony'll get you some meat, Ghek, if there's any around. Best hunter I ever saw!" Connie declared.
The travellers resumed their interrupted journey. Ghek and his rykor stallion rode double with Clixia while Cheta rode with Kantos Kan. Connie and Tony rode Throxeusthe only thoat large enough to carry the bulk of the Earthman, his lady and all the provisions they managed to steal from the Warhoon camp.
Tony occasionally looked back over his shoulder toward Kantos Kan. The Jasoomian noticed a frown on the Martian's face every time Clixia giggled girlishly over something the kaldane/rykor said. It was no small wonder: there were no 'little girls' on Barsoom. The so-called 'infants' of Mars were near half-grown when they burst the shell. Even the Martians were sometimes amazed about child-bearing on Barsoom. How could an egg that was about the size of a terrestrial goose-egg (what all Martian ladies of any rainbow hue delivered), grow to two-and-a-half feet in diameter by sun light alone before the 'child' hatched? Apparently the great god Burroughs neglected to make this clear to anyone.
Tony caught Connie looking back at the rykor/kaldane. "Hey" he complained with a whisper "I thought you loved me."
"You know I do!" Connie teased impishly. "It isn't Ghek making my juices run, it's that damn rykor of his! My goodness, have you ever seen such a fine specimen?"
"I'll have to get either a breech clout or a refrigerator for him as soon as I can. Probably a refrigeratorI'd hate to see all that meat spoil in the hot sun."
"Pooh on you, Tony Martin! Can't a girl have a bit of harmless fun and fantasize what it would be like to have a mindless body as a lover? Just think of itno hassles, no sweet talkjust the down and dirty! Ohhh! It makes me shiver just thinking about it!" and she shuddered deliciously in his grasp.
"What's the matter, babe?" Connie leaned her head back and giggled. "Worried? Don't be. Besides, you're the one in need of a refrigerator!" She patted his crossed arms with one of her small, delicate hands.
"You know," Tony joined in the teasing woman's spirit, "Burroughs was rather graphic about the beauty of female rykors. You might be rightno nag, no giggles. I wonder if they scream and moan?"
"Tony!" this time she slapped the arms about her waist.
"Princess," Martin continued without stopping, "you've forgotten one important thing. Rykors are missing a very important piece of anatomy for making love."
"How can you say that, Tony? I've seen the evidence."
"A tongue, sweetheart. Think about it."
"I don't want to!" Connie wantonly ground her buttocks into the athlete's groin in case Tony had difficulty interpreting her desire. With a trembling laugh she added, "You're making me horny!" Connie kissed the young man so soundly that both sets of toes curled in their boots.
Throxeus, catching the full output of their lust, began to snort and paw the ground. Connie was breathless when she pushed Tony away.
"We better stop this," she reluctantly cautioned. "I have no idea what a horny thoat is like, but as big as Throxeus is, I think we'd better be at least a half-mile away"
"My sentiments exactly!" Tony chuckled as they calmed both themselves and the frisky thoat.
Ghek's directions to the dead city and water proved to be precisely accurate. The travelers caught sight of the dead city before sundown. It was not as expansive as Zanathia, nor as unique as Mukor's mountain site, but it was as equally ancient and crumbling. Ghek quietly reminded the Earthman he'd only flown over the city without landing and, therefore, could not know who, what, or if anything at all might be lurking in the great mass of ruins.
With that warning in mind, the travellers entered the city with a modicum of caution. Tony led the way on foot, his bow at the ready. Connie came next, mounted on Throxeus. The swordswoman was followed by Ghek and Clixia. Kantos Kan and Cheta brought up the rear. Cheta, no longer desperately afraid of the great, hulking Earthman, jumped down from Kantos Kan's mount and raced past the others until he walked beside Tony.
"I smell apes, Tony," the white-maned creature breathlessly announced. "The big, nasty kind. Want me to go on ahead to see how many and where they are? I speak fluent aboriginal ape. I might be able to convince them to leave us alone."
"Can you do that?" Tony asked. His desire to have a repeat encounter with a ferocious white ape such as those faced in Zanathia ranked right up there with having a red hot poker shoved where the sun don't shine.
"Absolutely!" Cheta eagerly replied. "Want to hear?" Cheta's voice changed into a series of grunts which made no sense to Tony. Abruptly the little ape switched back to humanese. "See? I tell them we're a mighty party, much too strong for them to be interested in."
"Well," Tony narrowed his eyes indecisively. Darkness was moments away and he did not relish the thought of stumbling through the imposing buildings to be sure they were free of danger. Clapping a hand on the ape's back he said, "If you can do that it'd be a great help! Good luck, Cheta. Be careful!"
"I will!" Cheta raced ahead into the dead city. The ape moved so rapidly Tony never saw the malicious glee on the creature's face. Within moments Cheta disappeared between sagging buildings lining the sand-choked avenue.
Tony cautiously led his party into the city, crowded now with dark shadows as the sun closed with the horizon. Kantos Kan collected flammable materials along the way, "Torches and a fire," he explained. They chanced upon a great plaza, presumably the center of the city, and as Ghek reported, it was graced with a water-filled fountain. The marble-lined pool was completely unlike the free flowing fall which sustained Cheta's mountain home in Mukor. This body of water was dark and murky, scummed over by some type of vile-smelling Barsoomian algae. The rancid water, however, was greeted with glad cries by Throxeus and the other thoats. The animals dipped ugly snouts into the waterdeclaring it safe if nasty tasting. The humans unloaded the thoats after the creatures drank their fill then set about straining the water for human consumption. Clixia donated one of her fine silks toward this purpose.
"Many of the dead cities of Mars have fountains like this, Connie," the red woman explained. "All were tapped to underground springs at one time. When the fountain begins to fail, which you know when you find forest growth such as this surrounding the plaza, then the vent has choked somewhere and the water is escaping into the soil."
Connie sat on the edge of the fountain, rubbing thighs stretched from straddling Throxeus' thick neck. She looked up to the Martian woman holding the silk over the mouth of an empty water container. Clixia gracefully dipped a metal cup into the thick water and poured it through the cloth.
"That's more explanation than I needed, dear," Connie sighed. "I was just hoping to take a bath!"
Tony unpacked several bundles, furs and the last of their provisions, while Kantos Kan examined the trees growing around the square. The Overlord moved into the forest and soon reappeared with an armload of succulent fruits and vegetables.
"This will tide us over for dinner," Kantos Kan announced. "How about you, Ghek? Any of this stuff okay with you?"
"Let me have one of the red things and two of the small yellow ones. I'll let the rykor graze on the moss near the fountain. By the way, Kantos Kan, you do have anything I can use as a hobble?"
Kantos Kan handed over Ghek's selection of food and offered a sturdy leather strap from his harness. "This do?"
"Certainly," the kaldane took the supple hide strip and directed the rykor to bind itself about the knees before dismounting. The mindless stallion immediately tried to run and fell full-length on the moss whereupon it began grazing. The kaldane watched for a few moments then, reassured the beast was secure against escape, turned his attention to the fruits in his chelae.
Kantos Kan grinned at his lady and presented his collection of food with a gallant bow. "Dear Lady Clixia, what will you have? Red? Yellow? or Red and Yellow?"
"Do I have a choice?" the woman bravely smiled.
"I just gave it to you," the Heliumite chuckled. Kantos Kan tossed one fruit each to his lady and returned to the trees to gather more while Tony struggled to build a fire.
The brawny Jasoomian eventually achieved his goal, quietly tending the growing blaze. He kept an eye on Kantos Kan, who moved deeper into the brush. Moments later the red man's voice rang out, calling Ghek for assistance. With a weary sigh, the kaldane mounted his rykor and entered the trees.
Tony sat on the fountain's weathered marble and watched the girls straining water into canteens. When they finished filling the containers the women tiredly chewed the bitter-tasting Barsoomian fruit.
"Where's Cheta?" Connie asked with a trace of mild concern. She looked around the square and daintily spat out a number of small, dark seeds. "We haven't seen the little guy since we entered the city."
Clixia added in a worried tone, "Kantos Kan and Ghek have been gone for a long time. You don't suppose," her hand rose to her lips and a look of horror crossed her pretty features, "the Bantoomian monstrosity is having my Kanty for dinner, do you?"
"I doubt that," Tony replied, though he did not sound convincing. "Ghek isn't like other kaldanes, Burroughs made him sensitive to the real world."
Connie was undecided: to laugh or cry at the football player's observation. "You call this real, Tony? If Ghek has been out here as long as he says, he must be starved!"
"I refuse to believe that of the little fellow," Tony defended the kaldane. "Ghek has been up front with us all the way. But," he added, looking to the trees, "they have been gone a long time. I think I'll take a look. Throxeus can stand sentry."
With those words, Tony Martin rose. He elected to carry his long sword because of the denseness of the undergrowth. He hated to leave his beloved bow behind, but the tangle of underbrush beneath the trees would make it ineffective.
He trailed the footprints of his friends through orchards once cultivated and now returning to the wild. Ten minutes later the track abruptly disappeared from scuffed soil, as if the makers suddenly vanished in thin air. Tony loudly called their names several times. When he received no answer the Jasoomian frantically searched for other sign of the missing pair until the light completely disappeared as the sun set. He hurried back to the square.
Before he broke out of the dense brush, Tony knew something was dreadfully wrong. Throxeus, a fearsome beast in his own right, mewled with terror. The lack of other sounds near the fountain froze the blood in Tony's veins. He rushed forward in the darkness then stopped at the edge of the camp fire's light. The tableau he discovered made his fear-chilled blood run hotter than the interior of a nuclear power plant.
Ghek's rykor was held helpless by the middle pair of hands attached to a huge white ape. Ghek, himself, was held in a vise-like grip by one of the ape's other appendages. Kantos Kan appeared to be unconscious; he lay unmoving on the sand-covered paving by the fountain. Poor Clixia was roughly handled by another of the great apes. A half-dozen of the large, unlovely creatures surrounded the trio of thoats, but the sight which infuriated the Earthman was that of the great ape holding Connie captive.
The ape's four hands wrapped about the young woman's body, one beneath the other from curved shoulders to tiny-booted feet, just like choosers on the handle of a baseball bat. She hung suspended like a totem pole in a horrible nightmare and she knew it was no dream.
"Tony! Get away while you can! You can't do anything for us! Please save yourself!"
Just like my girl, Tony thought with pride that pierced his white-hot anger, her life's in danger and she thinks of me in spite what that little bastard has done to her.
Cheta perched on Connie's shoulder, fondled her breasts purposefully left exposed by the huge ape's grasp. Cheta's high pitched voice cackled. It rebounded hideously from the time eroded facades ringing the plaza. "I told you I'd get what I wanted! With the help of my big brothers, I'll have my way!" The miniature ape issued a guttural command to one of the ape monsters. He laughed as the fifteen foot specimen menaced the Earthman with wide spread arms.
"Don't be a hero, Tony," Cheta warned the Earthman, "or I'll rip one of her breasts off! Do you hear me?" The demented beast screamed horribly. "Do you hear me, you self-righteous snob?"
Tony Martin did not know what to do as the huge ape came closer.
XII "IF ANYONE CAN, KANTOS KAN...
"Fine," Tony shrugged his shoulders. He calmly returned sword to scabbard and casually walked forward until he retrieved the bow. In a blazing flash of motion, he set arrow to string, a dozen other shafts gripped in his massive left hand for rapid firing.
"Do as you like, Cheta," Tony said, watching the huge white ape at his left. The giant beast started toward the young man. "You better call your buddy off, or I'll blast his brains out! It's been nice knowing ya. Ya'll take care" Tony raised the bow and slowly backed away from the astonished captives who expected more from the right tackle than a curt dismissal.
"Tony!" Connie screamed with indignation. "You low-down, double-crossing bastard!" Helpless tears of rage blazed in her eyes. "Are you leaving?"
Tony kept moving away from the camp fire. "Sure," he told the diminutive brunette. "You said you were infatuated with the little prick."
Connie gasped, startled by the big man's statement. "Did you really think I was serious?"
"Why not? You like the little turd brain. I can tell when I'm not wanted. A ton of bricks doesn't have to fall on me! I hope you and Cheta are very happy together. Bye."
"You shit!" Connie spat in Martin's direction.
Tony paused at the edge of the firelight. He offered an expressive shrug in reply. "You know the score, babe, three's a crowd."
Cheta's rapid aboriginal ape chatter stopped the white ape advancing on Tony Martin. The little ape seemed confused by the sudden turn of events. He stopped pawing Connie's breasts as his gloating evaporated into consternation. He shouted at the retreating Earthling: "There's always a bad guy in a Burroughs tale, Tony Martin!"
Tony grinned. "I just elected myself."
"Hey!" Cheta jumped from Connie's shoulder and advanced on the Earthman. "Foul! No Fair! I wanted to be the bad guy! I wanted to do the double-crossing and lying and raping and killing! You can't do this to me!" The tiny ape stopped just beyond Tony's long reach and bent his head back to glare at the Earthling.
Tony snickered maliciously. "I've already been there before you, wise ass! Lying, raping and killingwhat a hoot! Too bad, would-be Bad Guy. You can't win 'em all. Ta ta!"
"Hold it, man-mountain!" Cheta reached out and placatingly tugged on the tackle's boot tops. "I go to all this trouble and you're going to let me get away with it?"
Tony looked down at the tiny face and grinned. "Bingo!"
"You've got to put up a fight!" Cheta pleaded. "It's in the damn rules! How can we have an adventure if you don't fight fair?"
"You're the one who wants to fight." Tony chuckled. "I'm a devout coward, little buddy. If you thought we were having an adventure, you're sadly mistaken. Even if we were do you think rounding up all your big guys to help you is the sign of a true adventurer? Not in the least." Tony deliberately chuckled as the ape sputtered uncertainly. "All you've got is muscle on your side. Where's the clever manipulation of the inexorable tides of fate and fickle changes of chance? Where's the excitement? As an adventurer, you'd make a fair floor mop. I'm through. Finis. Gone. Bye!"
"Aw, Tony! Can't you take a joke?" Cheta clung to the Jasoomian's boot and was effortlessly dragged through the dust. "Give me a second chance. You've been having all the fun!" There was a genuine pout on the tiny ape's mobile features. Tears threatened to pour from the deep set eyes. "I just wanted to do something else in the adventure besides freeing you from the wicked Warhoons!"
"Well.." Tony momentarily wavered. The ape took that as a hopeful sign.
"Hey, I'll free everybody! I'll send the apes away. They won't bother us, I guarantee it! If I do that, will you give me another chance? Please?" Cheta turned his head and shouted some squeaks and squawks to the giant apes. To a 'man' the huge creatures shrugged multiple shoulders and released the terrified captives. Without a backward glance the giant figures silently faded into the darkness between the buildings ringing the great plaza.
Cheta's eyes glistened with repressed tears. "See? I sent them away. Can we start all over now?"
"Only," Tony said with a mental sigh of relief, "if you keep your paws to yourself! What you need is a female ape your own size, you horny, little imp!"
Cheta hung his head. "I guess you're right, but back home all the girl apes used to laugh at me because I'm so short. Gosh," he added with fervent feeling, "it's enough to make you mentally unbalanced!"
Tony reached down and lifted Cheta by the scruff of the neck and set him on his feet. "Let's just say 'frustrated' and let it go at that. I will say this; you sure have a fixation for big girls with big tits. Are you trying to prove what a 'big' ape you are? I don't care if you find some lovely human gal somewhere that goes for you in a big way, but you come between me and Connie one more time and I'll peel your head off your shoulders!"
Cheta's down-turned lips and sad eyes gave the Earthman his answer. "I'll be good. I promise. But could I have a bigger part in the adventure?"
"Haven't you already?" Tony could not help laughing. He tousled the thick bristle of stiff white hairs on the ape's head and shoulders. "Damn near two and a half chapters the way Burroughs would have written it! Now cool it for a while, okay?"
"Whatever you say, Tony." Cheta's timid smile of relief was sincere.
Connie approached man and ape, her eyes afire with anger. She furiously rubbed her bruised upper arms to restore circulation, then gingerly massaged breasts that glowed reddishly from Cheta's inept abuse. The ape saw her compressed lips and quickly hid behind the Earthman's legs. Cheta warily poked his head around the thick bulge of the tackle's right thigh.
The irate woman shrieked at Tony. "Are you going to let him off that easily?" She bent to wag a no nonsense finger in Cheta's face. "Youyou beast! Look at this!" she pointed to her breast. "I've got paw marks!"
"Connie," Tony slipped his hand under her chin, raising her face to his. "He feels bad enough as it is. You'll heal..."
"Sure," she leaned forward and bit his right pectoral. Tony yelped as she danced away. "So will you!"
Tony jerked his free hand up to massage skin which displayed the perfection of Connie's uppers and lowers.
Cheta forlornly cried out, running after Connie. "It was my fault, not his! I'm sorry! I'm really, really, really sorry! I lost my head. I wasn't thinking. Can you forgive me, Connie?"
The tiny aped was so woe-begone Wescott was unable to remain angry. She reached down and picked him up, scolding the ape like a mother might admonish a two year old.
"You bad, bad boy..." Connie began. She walked toward the fire where Clixia knelt beside her lover.
The Overlord regained consciousness as Ghek joined the group, having swiftly mounted the rykor before the brainless beast escaped. The Earthman assisted Clixia by lifting Kantos Kan to his feet and leading the red man to the fountain. Kan sat on the fountain's moss-covered edge and carefully rubbed his head.
"What happened?" Kantos Kan moaned.
"You hit your head on a tree branch when the apes picked us up in the forest," Ghek explained.
"What apes?" Kantos Kan exclaimed, jumping to his feet and reaching for his sword. "Lead me to the bastards!" the Martian cried. "I'll cut their hearts out!" Clixia laid a restraining hand over his, preventing the excited naval officer from flashing lethal ironmongery in the air.
"They've already gone," Clixia said soothingly. "Tony cleverly defused the situation. Please dear, let me take a look at that nasty bump..."
Kantos Kan shook her hand from his sword hilt. "I've been in a hundred battles with old J.C. and held my own! Show me where the beasties are and I'll have our dinner in a flash!"
"You'll do no such thing!" Clixia declared with determination. She unhooked the harness holding the man's weapons and let them fall to the ground. "Get yourself over here and let me look at that wound!"
Tony shook his head. An amused smile crossed his rugged features as he watched the two Martians. Clixia turned the softly swearing red man's head toward the fire and peered at the swelling on the back of Kantos Kan's skull.
Satisfied the Barsoomian warrior's injuries were minor, Ghek and Tony checked the thoats. Throxeus was so pleased to see Tony that the great beast's ugly head thumped his chest with enough force to knock the breath from Tony's lungs.
"Whoa! Throxeus, you old 'fraidy cat!" The football tackle chuckled, affectionately slapping the creature's fanged snout. Soothing thoughts quieted the thoat, with made the other mounts relax. Soon all three animals resumed their interrupted grazing upon the soft moss covering the plaza's ersite paving stones. Certain their desert-bred mounts would be fine for the evening, Earthling and kaldane silently walked back to the fountain where Kantos Kan unsuccessfully argued with the woman trying to bandage his head.
Tony casually remarked to the kaldane: "Kantos Kan's facing more trouble with Clixia than all the green Martians and white apes on Barsoom. She's not taking 'no' for an answer, is she?"
"I'll never understand why you silly one-piece persons create so much trouble for yourselves. We kaldanes have the best of all worlds. When we want to screw, we mount a male, when we need to get screwed, we mount a female. Simpleno complications..."
"You've got a point, Ghek," Tony laughed. "But it always takes two to tango, and in your particular case, counting the rykors, that would make it four! As I recall, you kaldanes have a hell of a time getting any of your brethren to do anything with each other except sticking a sword through youin the head. To make matters worse, you made a lot of enemies in Bantoom. Tough luck, old son."
"Yeah, but if I could manage to pick up a rykor female, and still keep this one, I might, with a bit of cosmetics, make myself enticing enough for red men and still be able to get it on with red women." The kaldane made his rykor heave a huge sigh. Kaldanes have little or no need for oxygen, the effect, however, was convincingly realistic for the young man's benefit.
Ghek kicked at the sand with a unbooted foot. "I guess that's a bit more than I can handle alone. Rykors are notoriously brainless. I'd have one hell of a time capturing another wild female and bringing both critters to Helium by myself."
"This I can see," Tony remarked, understanding the kaldane's unusual problem. "You can always come back better prepared. There'll still be herds of rykors running the range. I might even help, once Connie and Clixia are safe."
Ghek turned his lidless eyes towards the tall Jasoomian and managed to convey to impression of astonishment. "Tony Martin, you're the first person I've been able to confide with in this fashionthanks. If I'd said that in the presence of a red man, he'd have let me have it in the head."
"Don't get too down in the mouth, Ghek. I'll make you a promise: as soon as this adventure is over I will come back and help you round up some brood mares and a stallion or two. If those rykor mares are as beautiful as that stallion you're riding is handsome, I'd bet you could work a half-dozen mares and open a house of ill-repute. You'd make a killing!"
"Hey!" Ghek nodded so enthusiastically he nearly lost his grip on the rykor's spinal cord. "My young Jasoomian friend, that wouldn't be work, that would be fun! Let's get this adventure moving so we can talk about that house in greater detail!" Ghek chattered excitedly as Tony chuckled. The two travelers, the young man from Earth and the centuries old kaldane from Bantoom, joined their little band by the fountain.
Kantos Kan's head rested in Clixia's lap, his dark eyes closed and apparently asleep. Cheta sat near the fountain wall, close to Connie, but not so close to create another incident between himself and the big football player. Tony knelt beside the fire and toyed with the embers momentarily before adding another piece of wood.
Glancing toward the red man in repose, Tony offered a quiet comment. "I guess this means we camp here instead of adding more miles tonight."
Kantos Kan surprised everyone by sitting up. "At another time," the red man began, gingerly rubbing the substantial lump on his skull, "I'd be for hitting the leather; however, I'm a bit peaked at the moment. I'll go if everyone decides to push on"
Martin glanced toward the miniature white ape sucking the moist center meat from a red fruit with loud, lip-smacking accompaniment. "What about the apes, Cheta? Will they bother us?"
"Naw, most of them aren't really interested in playing with guys with swordstoo easy to get hurt. They'll leave us alone."
"Great!" Connie Wescott rose, dusting off her bottom with a motion that was as seductive as it was practical. "Let's check out that building over there, Tony. You and me..."
The Martian lady warmly mimicked the young woman's actions. "Connie," Clixia giggled, "I think you and I have the same thing in mind. Come on, Kantos Kan" she tugged at the hand of her semi-horny lover until they disappeared from view. Her voice was husky as it faded in the dusk. "Let's find a quiet spot under the pimalia bushes..."
Cheta jumped up and four-legged it over to the kaldane, who was still dreaming about a "one" person bordello. "How about some Jetan? We can improvise a board from the paving blocks and pieces from the trees and leaves. What do you say?"
"Are you any good?" the kaldane inquired, a trace of doubt in his voice.
"The best!" Cheta replied with conviction that made the kaldane nod agreeably. Cheta started to walk off with Ghek, but stopped long enough to shout back to Tony: "You and Connie don't have to go inside if you don't want to, we'll give you all the privacy you want."
The Jasoomian blushed, then blushed again as Connie Wescott chuckled, slipping her arm around his waist and presenting her lips. Tony whispered into her mouth, his hands already active, his desire rising. "That's very decent of the little prick. I almost take back every harsh thought I've entertained" A moment later Cheta was the farthest thing from Tony's mind.
Tony woke, feeling pleasantly languorous and instantly conscious of the tiny form nestled warmly against his side. He turned his head, to find Connie's adoring eyes watching him, her mass of dark brown hair beautifully rumpled across his arm and shoulder. She kissed his beard-rough cheek, a trembling sigh of happiness warming his ear.
"Good morning, sir," Connie smiled. "Are you the enormously huge terrible demon who ravaged me so savagely last night?"
Tony puckered his brow playfully. "You're not Mona Witherspoon! Who are you?"
Her delightfully curved lower lip thrust forward and Connie punched the athlete's ribs beneath the sleeping fur they shared. "What do you expect for ten bucks? I'm doing you a favor, not the other way around. You get acting for a C-note, Mr. Smith."
"I'll gladly pay you Tuesday for a romp in the furs today"
Connie's reply was a giggle and a jerk on the fur, which she wrapped about herself after rising. Her heart beat a little faster as she looked down at the naked man grinning up at her. She licked her lips with fond memory, but other matters, more pressing, were foremost in her thoughts. "Hand me my short sword, Mr. Big. I've got to take a pee."
Tony reached over his head and retrieved the desired item from their tangled harnesses. "Need any help?" he asked.
Connie grasped the jeweled hilt and hugged the weapon to her breast, knees weak and trembling. "I'll take a rain check on that, honey. But please," she laughed affectionately, "hold that thought!"
Tony chuckled as the young woman quick marched into the brush choking the northern avenue at the plaza's edge. As he climbed into his harness Tony Martin realized this Barsoomian adventure with Connie Wescott was the best thing that ever happened in his life. Their adventures beneath cozy sleeping furs throughout the starry night weren't too shabby either.
Connie was gone for only a moment, but when she returned, face glowing with happiness, she had somehow managed to comb her hair and become more radiantly beautiful. "Where are the others?" she asked as she dressed.
They were alone in the plaza. The fire showed signs of having been rebuilt and a meal had been eaten some time earlier. The furs where Kantos Kan and Clixia slept were neatly folded and beyond the fountain the thoats foraged quietly. Of Ghek and Cheta there was no sign, yet Tony found nothing to indicate anything out of the ordinary.
He offered an explanation. "I suppose they're exploring. Let's find them."
The young couple walked west, stopping to pat Throxeus who greeted the big Earthman with all the energy of an over-large puppy. Tony's reddened palm stung for several minutes from thumping the thick skinned beast that thrived on blows capable of knocking a two hundred pound fullback flat.
The variegated Martian vegetation thinned rapidly as the couple pushed through, following a path apparently cut by keen-edged steel. The wide avenue they entered led directly to the dead city's heart and, after a brisk five minute walk, they found Clixia, Cheta and Ghek standing at the base of the tallest single structure in the centuries old metropolis. All three had their heads tilted back and were tensely watching Kantos Kan scaling the outside of the tower!
"What does he think he's doing? Tony demanded of Clixia in the glare of the early morning light. "Is that crazy fool trying to kill himself?" Tony's neck ached from the angle required to watch the tiny figure clinging to the outside of the ornately carved tower west of the plaza fountain. Kantos Kan was already nearing the tower's crenelated apex. "Why didn't he use the interior ramp?"
Clixia smiled thinly, worry in her eyes. "The ramps inside the tower were collapsed and since this was the tallest building You know my Kantos Kan, Tony. 'If any one can, Kantos Kan'"
Her brave voice faltered. With painful effort the distraught woman turned her eyes away from the red man straining up the ancient stone facade. She clutched at the anxious Earthman. "He's having a look ahead to see what we might face when we leave the city. I begged him not so do something so dangerous but, after last night he said he felt like a new man." Clixia flushed demurely, her eyes slightly unfocused with pleasant memory. "He was halfway up the wall before I was out of bed."
Clixia's embarrassed blush was so attractive Tony put his arm about her shoulders. He tenderly comforted the worried woman. "The big dope!" he said. "I'll bet the bump on his head addled his brains!" Tony grinned but refrained from more comments; he was truly concerned for Kantos Kan's safety.
Ghek and Cheta sat at the tower's base placing bets and giving odds on Kantos Kan's venture.
"8 to 5 says he doesn't make the top..."
"I'll give you 6 to 1 he makes it but falls off on the way down."
"I'll take a piece of that, but I'll make that even money it's the 33rd floor before he does."
"Well, I don't know..."
"What's the matter? Afraid to put your tanpi where your mouth is?"
Connie screamed in anxious frustration. "Will you guys cut that out? You're talking about Kantos Kan!"
Ghek and Cheta stared at the aggravated brunette. Ghek rolled his lidless eyes and replied with a shrug of his rykor's shoulders. "Okay, Connie Wescott, if you feel that way about it! Come on, Cheta..."
The two creatures walked off, heads together and fingers flashing numbers as they continued to bet in whispers. Connie stamped her tiny foot against the paving.
"Bastards!" she hissed.
Tony put his free arm about her, holding both ladies to either side. He bent his head backward, intent on Kantos Kan's progress. He squeezed Connie reassuringly then asked, "What's the harm in their betting? They're just as worried about Kantos Kan as we are; they just show it differently."
"I don't like it!" Connie pouted.
Tony sighed, giving her a light kiss on the forehead and disengaging himself from the women. "I'll have a talk with them, okay?"
Connie nodded. Tony gave the angry woman a final hug and joined Ghek and Cheta. "Keep it down, you guysyou're making the ladies unhappy. But," he added with a quiet grin, "I take even money that says Kanty makes it all the way down without a mishap. Any takers?"
"I hate to take your tanpi!" the little ape giggled. "The red man is not endowed with all the functional beauties of the white ape body. How much?"
Tony furrowed his brow, trying to remember the medium of Martian exchange. A tanpi was roughly one dollar, US circa 1920. "How about 10 tanpi?"
"Done!" they cried.
Tony shook hands and went back to sit with the girls. Shortly after mid-morning Kantos Kan's booted heel hit the paving of the square. His face was drawn, but he was not tired, still there was a concerned look on his handsome features.
"What is it?" Clixia asked, efficiently kneading the cramps from the Overlord's tense muscles. She wiped the fine sheen of perspiration from his brow with the hem of her wispy silks. "From the way you look, one could believe you've just seen Issus and were scheduled to die in a year."
"Won't take that long, dear," the red man replied without a trace of amusement the woman's comment hoped to elicit. That defunct religion usually selected sacrificial victims from those who served the ancient crone Issus for the period of a single year before appearing again as a culinary delight for the old hag. John Carter and Tars Tarkas had, of course, deposed the depraved witch and exposed the Issus cult as a horrible religious farce perpetrated for centuries.
Clixia's slim fingers stopped massaging the naval officer's tense muscles. Her voice trembled uncertainly as she cupped his face between her hands. "Is there something wrong, Kanty?"
Kantos Kan closed his eyes, unable to face her nervous gaze. His shoulders slumped dejectedly and, when he spoke, his strong baritone echoed ominously from the ancient towers.
"There's another sandstorm approaching"
"Holy Issus!" Ghek cried at Kantos Kan's announcement. "That's the last thing we need! I'm damn glad you folks decided to hang around and have a good time last night or we'd have been caught on the desert with no shelter! Speaking of which, let's head for cover!"
Clixia remained calm despite the frantic squeals of Ghek and Cheta. She made the first practical suggestion. "Connie, will you give me a hand with the thoats? We need to get them inside a building until the storm passes over."
Connie agreed. The two girls silently herded the massive animals inside a building just east of the fountain, selected primarily because the doorway was large enough to accept the monstrous bulk of the great desert creatures.
Kantos Kan resolutely shook off his weariness and faced the Jasoomians, his lovely red lady, the white ape, and the hideous kaldane. "We better see about getting some water inside. We may be here a few days."
Ghek recovered from his initial fright by the time the red Martian outlined his plans. "How much time do we have before the storm hits, Kantos Kan?" he asked.
"About six xats," Kantos Kan replied as he began to search through the supplies unloaded from the thoats the night before.
Tony did a little mental arithmetic converting xats to minutes and discovered they had just slightly more than eighteen minutes. "Shit! We don't have much time!"
The four beings struggled with containers of water, Cheta dropping one with a scream of remorse when he stumbled over the threshold of the building.
Tony decided to lay some fodder for the thoats. To this purpose he hurriedly whacked at nearby moss patches with his great sword, piling heaps of the spongy ocher plant into the cloak Kantos Kan provided. When Martin went back to the building with his third armload, Kantos Kan attempted to shove the Earthling inside. "What do you think you are doing?" Tony asked.
"Protecting my troops," the man replied, half amazed he was unable to budge the brawny athlete at all.
"Screw that, Kantywe've got to get the thoats settled if we're ever going to make the trip to Helium. Get out of my wayI'm going back out!" The burly Earthman easily broke the Martian's grip. "I won't be long," Tony said as he listened to the increasing roar of the incoming storm. He paused at the door. "Are the girls okay?" Tony narrowed his eyes as he stared at the Overlord.
"As far as I know," Kantos Kan replied.
"I guess that's the best we can expect." Tony Martin disappeared into the shadowy twilight of the approaching storm before Kantos Kan could detain him further.
The naval officer, filled with admiration for the brave young man, shouted an unnecessary warning after the Earthling. "Be careful, Tony Martin!" Kantos Kan sprinted across the plaza to collect the few items the travelers had left beside the fountain.
Tony was surprised by the sudden appearance of unexpected help; Clixia calmly gathered fodder cut by the football player and carried it into the building. On one such trip Tony's eyes followed the shapely woman's figure and a movement at the second floor window drew his attention upward. Connie Wescott, inside the tower, struggled to wedge a massive skeel table over the open window.
Muttering to himself he said, "Damn it! She'll get a hernia!"
Tony felt it imperative to reach the building before Connie inadvertently injured herself, yet, he also felt responsible for Clixia. The wind was beginning to whip coarse-grained sand across the plaza's ersite paving and he dared not trust that Clixia could make her way to the entrance of the building on her own. When he raced to Connie's assistance, the right tackle solved his dilemma by simply tucking the gorgeous Martian woman and her burden under one arm like a sack of potatoes. The big man covered the distance from fountain to building at a gallop and did not deposit the Heliumite on her feet until he reached the level where Connie fought the heavy table.
Connie had already covered the windows facing east with a heavy chest, several smaller tables and a desk, and now strained against a table suitable for a Fortune 500 conference room. Tony was intellectually aware that Connie's strength was proportionately greater in the lesser gravity of Mars, yet he was flabbergasted at the evidence of that strength. Martin was not the first man bewildered by the hidden potentials of the female form, nor would he be the last.
Instead of chiding the swordswoman for her efforts, the right tackle lent a hand. Together, they moved other pieces of furniture which survived untold ages since the city was abandoned; chairs, chests, shelves, armories, bed frames anything they could find until the windows of the second and third floors were effectively sealed against the coming storm.
While the Jasoomians pilfered the tower to close the windows Clixia made a dozen trips up and down the ramp where the thoats were stabled on the first floor and the second where the humans prepared to ride out the storm. The great creatures were restive, yet fully aware this was better shelter than any possible on the desert. The red woman divided five of the water containers for the animals and kept three for the travelers. She brought up the sleeping furs and what food that Tony and Kantos Kan managed to strip from the stunted trees. Seeing how little they had in the way of provisions, the brave woman quickly added what she could readily procure from the vegetation just outside the ancient tower. On her last trip into the rising winds of the on coming storm, Kantos Kan returned, forcing her back into the building.
"You can't go out there!" he cried, his features pinched with concern.
"Have Ghek and Cheta made it back?" the lady shouted over the wail of the wind.
The scream of the tortured air was such that Kantos Kan used a negative head gesture instead of replying; but Tony Martin's basso roar from the upper ramp was heard without difficulty. "Ghek and Cheta with you?"
Kantos Kan's repeat gesture of denial caused the young man to curse violently in a variety of Jasoomian blasphemies. "I guess we better get our asses in gear and see if we can find them!" Martin shouted.
"I'll head west!" Kantos Kan cupped hand to mouth to make the words carry. Martin nodded and descended the ramp.
What had been a bright, normal Martian dawn rapidly become a howling nightmare. Under other any circumstances, neither men, or thoats, would have braved the storm for any reason, but a bond of friendship had formed between the humans and the kaldane and ape and the two men had to make the effort to find their missing companions.
Fifty feet from the tower's entrance, fighting blinding, wind-driven sand, Kantos Kan struggled towards the west and stumbled over the body of a man. Tony Martin heard the red man cry out and joined him, to also sprawl full-length over a human form.
"Rykors!" Martin shouted, spitting sand while his hands delightfully controlled a vigorous mare. A moment later several rykors ran over him, some stamping on his prostrate body. Eventually eleven in all passed him, instinctively seeking the building's lee for shelter. Ghek and Cheta followed close behind, driving the wild creatures before them.
"Get them under cover, Tony Martin!" Ghek cried. "Cheta and I will bring up the rear!"
Tony and Kantos Kan turned around, finding movement easier since they traveled with the wind instead of against it. Reaching the entrance of the building, Tony hauled the red man and the captive rykor mare he still held inside the shuddering Martian tower. He watched as the rest of the herd followed. The headless animals huddled in a corner farthest from the nervous thoats. Ghek's rykor, under the direction of the kaldane's brain, pulled Cheta out of the storm's grip by grasping two of the ape's arms.
"Whew!" Ghek leaned against the wall. "My rykor's about worn out!"
"Damn you, Ghek!" Kantos Kan rounded on the kaldane in fury. "Here we are, worried to death about you and you're rounding up rykors! You could have told us what you were up to before you left!" Kantos Kan glared at the kaldane mounted on the winded rykor. He then looked towards the small herd of headless beasts with a look of incomprehension. "Why bring back eleven, twelve, if you count the one you're riding, when you only need one of each to breed? Oh!" Kantos Kan clapped a hand over his mouth with embarrassment. "Sorry, I forgotyou eat the critters as well"
"Won't be eating any of these," Ghek almost smiled. "Been sometime since I had a stable. No sense in reducing good stock for a passing feast!"
While Kantos Kan talked to the kaldane, Cheta cut out a fine-looking rykor mare. He fondled the mare's large, well-spaced mammary glands with a lecherous grin. The brainless animal, kneeling on beautifully formed hands and knees, shivered at the ape's lecherous touch. The lusty ape, in full view of all gathered, eagerly mounted the willing rykor from behind. Clixia, who had come down the ramp, stared at the panting ape for a few seconds. She flushed crimson, and ran back to the upper level. Kantos Kan gazed at the vigorous motions of the ape, shook his head in disgust, and followed Clixia.
Cheta squealed in delight. "Ooooh! This feels so damn good!"
Kantos Kan's disparaging grumble regarding boastful beasts with breasts on their minds and brainless breasts with beasts on their behinds gradually diminished as he ascended the spiral ramp. Cheta tossed a very acceptable Bronx Cheer at the red man's disapprovingly rigid back. The ape giggled and continued his frenzied motions on the quivering rykor's sleekly-rounded, glistening buttocks.
"Tony," Ghek clapped the hand of his rykor on the Earthman's shoulder as he watched Cheta with thoughtful eyes. "Remember that little notion you came up with the one about a house of entertainment? Are you interested in forming a partnership? I've got all the breeding stock I need to develop a really fine set of entertainers, but I'll need a human to get things started."
"I don't know, Ghek." The Earthman sighed, rubbing his thick beard. "It's a long way to Helium and we'd probably lose half the stock before we got there. We better wait. We'll come back for them when we've got some way to transport them."
Ghek's lidless eyes gave the impression of narrowing thoughtfully as he contemplated the Jasoomian. "If we go slow, they won't suffer. It might take us six months of riding range to come up with a herd of this size and quality. So what if it takes us a few months or so to get to Helium? The rewards would be worth the effort."
"Kantos Kan and Clixia can't wait that long and rykors can't keep up with thoats. How would we feed them? We've barely enough to keep the rest of us alivemuch less a herd of brainless bodies!" Despite Tony's impassioned reply, Ghek had to touch the youth's arm to divert Martin's eyes from observing of the frantic ape's amorous techniques.
"Be reasonable, Tony," Ghek implored with a soft whisper. "This is the opportunity of a lifetime."
"Possibly," Tony admitted as he moved away, stepping wide of the grunting beasts lost in their flaming sensations, "but we'll talk about it later. I've got to see how things are going upstairs." Tony gripped the kaldane's rykor's arm and made his voice stern. "For gods' sake, don't get the damn thoats horny!" he warned before he ducked under the overhead and moved up the ramp.
The storm hit the dead city in earnest near noon, turning the sky black. Ears became numb as the raging wind howled through the ancient spires. The unnatural "night" seemed to last for days though Tony and Kantos Kan were never sure how many hours elapsed while the group endured the primordial fury of Mother Barsoom.
During those hoursthey could not see sunrise or sunset to give an indication of the passage of timeGhek approached Tony a half-dozen times with suggestions, pleas, and eventually demands regarding the transportation of the rykors to Helium. Each time Ghek broached the subject, Tony declined to answer until the persistent kaldane pressed once too often.
"No way, Jose!" Tony roared. "Don't bug me with this again!"
Ghek whistled air angrily through the pinched sphincter muscles forming his lips. The Bantoomian's six spidery legs scuttled down the ramp and Ghek mounted the rykor male to abuse several mares to ease his anger. The squeals of the confined rykors drifted up the ramp to distress the humans over their mistreatment by the hideous kaldane, while making them incredibly horny at the same time. Kantos Kan and Clixia retired to the dense shadows on the west side of the second floor as Tony and Connie thrashed about in the shadows to the east.
Tony's eyes felt gritty when he woke up. The first thing he noticed was utter silence. He slapped at his ears, relieved to discover he was not deaf. An uneasy feeling possessed the young athlete until he realized the emotion derived entirely from the absence of the howling bedlam which had been their constant companion for an unknown number of days.
Tony blissfully gazed upon the unadorned state of the sleeping girl beside him. While the storm raged outside, they had done quite a bit of raging themselves. There was a tired smile on the lips of his lady that prevented the young man from instantly waking Connie with news of the storm's passing.
Tony grinned, his eyes lovingly focused on Connie's peaceful face; admiring the silver strand of drool dangling off her chin. He looked toward the tiny shafts of sunlight streaming through cracks between the makeshift window coverings. He turned his head and saw Kantos Kan and Clixia entwined in a close embrace. The red martian couple was still asleep. Kan quietly snored. Clixia looked fantastically exotic in her naked innocence. It was then that Tony noticed something out of the ordinary.
Kantos Kan's weapons were not beside the sleeping warrior. A slight frown crossed his forehead. A Heliumite warrior was never be far from his weapons!
Tony jerked his head about, suddenly disturbed. His swords lay where he left them and Connie's were nearby, but something else missing: ropes and cloaks; the water containers; the extra sleeping furs, all were gone!
"Oh, crap! Tony breathed with anger. "Oh, shit!" The Jasoomian immediately recalled his last conversation with Ghek.
"We could tie the rykors to the thoats," Ghek had pleaded.
"Absolutely not!" Tony replied. "We can't guarantee our safety, or yours, or the ape's if we nurse-maid a bunch of rykors. They'll still be around when we come back, Ghek!"
Cheta came up and added his reedy wheedle to Ghek's plea. "But Tony! I just found the light of my life! We can't leave her here! Would you leave Connie behind?"
"Not the same thing, Cheta, and you know it! Don't fight me on this, fellows. Let it be, or I'll run the rykors off and put an end to the question!"
Ghek and Cheta vehemently protested then grew silent once they realized the Earthling's inflexibility. Departing amid hisses and growls the angry pair went downstairs, leaving the humans alone.
Connie had alternately laughed and sighed for the strange, unhappy creatures. "Ghek finally finds a way to make a living on Barsoom. Cheta's found what he's always wanted, and you're an old stick in the mud! It would be absolutely hilarious if it weren't so serious..."
The girl was quietly discouraged when Tony failed to show any sympathy for the kaldane or the ape. After a time she said, "In a way I'm sorry we must abandon the rykors. I'm sure Ghek and Cheta know you're right. We can't take the rykors with us but it must be a bitter pill to swallow."
Tony leapt to his feet. His sword zinged from its sheath as the big man ran down the ramp. The noise brought Connie to her feet, similarly armed. Kantos Kan voiced a cry of rage upon discovering his weapons missing. Connie tossed Tony's short sword to the red man before she sprinted to the lower level.
The makeshift barrier covering the entrance during the Barsoomian sandstorm had been removed. It lay to one side of the opening. Powdery sand had drifted inside the lower level which was bare of thoats, rykors, kaldane or ape. Heading north, straight across the sand-covered plaza, were the tracks of three thoats. A pair of ape prints paralleled to left of the thoat tracks and the spoor of an upright, barefoot rykor matched pace on the other side.
Stuck in the skeel wood frame of the doorway was Kantos Kan's knife. It secured a piece of cloth fluttering in the gentle breeze. There was a message inscribed on the fabric. Connie reached up to pull the banner from the gleaming blade while Tony scowled at the only visible sign of the thieves: tracks leading out of the city.
"You cold-blooded bastards!" Tony hissed with rage as he buried the edge of his great sword into the hard skeel wood. "You goddamn cold-blooded bastards!"
XIV. A FORTUITOUS CIRCUMSTANCE
For two days Tony Martin followed the tracks of the stolen thoats. At that time the trail across the basin of the wind-scoured sand vanished, lost in the featureless and concealing ocher-tinged moss of the dead sea bottom. Even Tony's excellent trail craft, learned from years of hunting with his dad, could not track the thoats over terrain which left no sign of passing. The football player sadly returned to the dead city of Kanator where his friends waited. The big man moved with a sense of urgency, half-fearful that shifting sands might obliterate his back trail or cover his stone cairns built to mark the way south.
It was late afternoon of his fourth day out when the dejected athlete reentered the city inhabited by white apes. Tony cautiously passed several of the great beasts on his way to the central plaza but none showed more interest than to take his scent. Without exception the white apes gave the Earthling a wide berth; apparently Cheta's last orders to the fearsome beasts remained effective. Tony hoped this was so for the young man knew his little band was outnumbered and woefully under-armed should the apes attack. The constant threat of such potential danger from the fearsome white apes made it imperative that he, Kantos Kan, Clixia and Connie get out of the city as soon as they could gather provisions.
Before Tony left Kanator to track Ghek and Cheta he had given Kantos Kan his swords so that doughty warrior was properly armed in case of trouble. Ghek's theft of the Overlord's weapons had included Kantos Kan's harness.
The red man's initial chagrin at going naked had been a minor amusement until Tony realized how angry he would have been in the same predicament. Thus, when Tony met the red man on the outskirts of the city he made no comment regarding the fragile wisp of silk, taken from Clixia's sore-used dress, twisted about the Martian's loins.
Kantos Kan expressed earnest gladness to see the Jasoomian. The hearty greeting was tempered with disappointment by Tony's negative report. The two men chatted for several minutes before the Martian told Tony the women were gathering provisions near the center of the city. As Tony turned to enter the crumbling city, the naval officer offered to return the Earthman's weapons.
Tony declined, gesturing to his bow. "You keep them for now, Kan. I'm more comfortable with the bow than I am with all that fancy steel. How are the girls?"
"Bearing up well," the red man replied, touched by the Jasoomian's practical generosity. "They are trying to find ways to transport provisions for the journey to Helium." Kantos Kan walked in silence for a few paces before he added: "They quite remarkable in the face of our adversity, Clixia in particular. Have you noticed how quickly she takes every set back in stride?"
Tony grinned, clapping a sun-browned hand on the older man's shoulder. "I once told you we were both pretty damn lucky to have such wonderful women at our sides."
Kantos Kan's intended reply was suddenly overwhelmed by Connie Wescott's strident shout of welcome. The joyous cry echoed from Kanator's ancient towers as she threw arms about Martin's thick neck.
"Tony! You big lug! I was starting to worry! Did you find Ghek and Cheta?" Connie drew back from kissing him. She turned expectant eyes upwards and read the answer in his grim expression. "I see"
Tony forcibly pried the relieved girl's arms loosehe was on the verge of suffering from lack of oxygen. He was thrilled by her concern though he did not say so, fearing she would be embarrassed. Martin did not chide Connie for being a mother-hen, he was quite content to endure as long as he could hold the brown-haired girl close. The reunited couple walked to the plaza with Kantos Kan at their side.
"I guess they left earlier than we guessed, kitten. Ghek and Cheta were mucho vamoosed before I lost the trail at the edge of the moss. Any trouble while I was gone?" Tony asked.
"None," Kantos Kan answered for Connie because the young woman's emotional state was as obvious as the black-bearded Earthling's, who had wrapped a heavily muscled arm about the earth woman's naked body.
If Connie's reception had rocked the big Jasoomian, it was equaled by Clixia's welcome. The red woman's demonstration was not as physical but her lips were as warm and her eyes sparkled happily. "I'm glad you're back safe and sound! Connie has been beside herself with worry," she said, then breathlessly added, "and so was I! Did you remember all the plants and food Kanty and I told you about? You look a little thin are you hungry? I've got dinner just about ready"
"I'm starved!" Tony exclaimed. "I found a mantalia plant yesterday and you were right, Kan," Tony offered with a wry shrug of broad sun-browned shoulders. "The damn thing's virtually tasteless, but filling."
Tony let Clixia take his arm and lead him into the tower's lower level where a small fire kept flat paving stones hot for roasting fruits and nuts. The single water container, overlooked or deliberately left by the deserters, was offered to Tony who sucked at it greedily.
Clixia looked over the items cooking by the fire with a practiced eye. "Be ready in a few minutes, Tony. Tell us about your journey."
"Nope," Tony grinned impishly after seeing the frugal provisions on the makeshift hearth. "First I get us some meat. Football players need a lot of protein and I've been on short rations lately." He patted his hard, lean waist and chuckled. "I'm getting too thin to handle the offensive line. Kanty, give me a hand with the hunting?"
Kantos Kan nodded agreeably and the two men exited the building. Tony stealthily led the way into the brush surrounding the plaza with his bow at the ready. The young man noticed how different the Barsoomian forest compared to those on Earth. There was little or no sound, especially the hum of insects which he used to curse on Earth. The trees were not of the same size or denseness as at the basin oasis of Mukor beside the ape city, but the growth was sufficient to drastically cut the low rays of the setting sun.
With a hoarse whisper Tony asked the red man to "Point out what's good to eat and I'll bag the sucker."
A half hour later Tony Martin and Kantos Kan returned to the tower with a pair of lizards, one small multi-legged rodent-like creature and a few handfuls of wizened fruits. They skinned the beasts outside the building and were amused by the drooling expressions the ladies displayed. Clixia immediately drew the slim dagger which she somehow kept concealed under her scant silks. She deftly cut fillets to suspend over the tiny, almost smokeless fire.
Conversation was held to a minimum while the aroma of searing meat filled the chamber. Tony sat to one side, eyes drooping with weariness. Connie curled beside the big man, her hand resting on his arm, a happy smile on her lips.
Clixia expertly braised the lizard filets and Tony was surprised when the first pieces were offered to him. "No," he handed his to Connie, "you first."
The beautiful woman declined. "If I know you, Tony Martin, you've been running on will-power for the last four days! You need it more than we do. We've been eating like pigs, haven't we, Kanty?"
Tony smiled graciously. "You're a wonderful little liar, darling," he said. He lowered his eyes, the food momentarily forgotten as a troubled expression crossed his rugged features. "I did the best I could, people," the tackle painfully confessed. Tony could not hide the bitterness he felt. "I was the only one who had a chance of catching them but I wasn't good enough!"
Kantos Kan instantly denied the Jasoomian's recriminations. "Thoats are fast, Tony. It's not your fault."
Martin refused to be patronized. "I let you guys down!"
Connie chided the remorseful youth. "I won't hear another word, Tony! Even I can't keep up with you on the run. Don't be ashamed, please don't"
"I'm not ashamed," Tony said without conviction though his anger was genuine. "I'm pissed at me for forcing Ghek and Cheta make their choice. Maybe I could have handled it better. I"
"I would have said the same to them." Kantos Kan laid a sympathetic hand on Tony's shoulder. "We could not take the rykors with us."
Clixia broke the tense mood. "It's not that bad, is it? At least we're still together! Connie and I aren't facing a Fate Worse Than Death at the hands Bar Novacs and the Warhoons and Kanty and I are not languishing in a dead city inhabited by tiny white apes. You and Connie have a second chance at life and" Clixia was suddenly unable to continue. The woman wept silently, to the embarrassment of the men. Connie took the older woman in her care and led Clixia to the tower's upper level.
Kantos Kan nibbled his portion of charred lizard without appetite. "I suppose we could just sit it out," he said. "Ghek and Cheta promised to come back for us as soon as the rykor herd was safe..."
"Do you want to wait?" Tony asked.
"I don't know. What do you think?"
"Kanty, you're asking me? Burroughs always portrayed you as the decisive, positive-minded individual. This is your world. Connie and I are the new kids on the block. If you tell us to wait, we'll wait. If you say we go I'll applaud and agree just as readily. I will say that in my mind it's always better to do instead of sit, so, if the ladies are willing I think we ought to try."
"You're right, Tony," Kantos Kan swiftly decided. He stared at the succulent darseen flesh held between index and thumb. "What if Ghek and Cheta meet the Warhoons or some other equally devastating denizens of Barsoom? We could be waiting forever." Kantos Kan stoically shrugged, his vision on a more distant vista. "It's not an easy journey, Tony Martin."
"My great-grandpappy was fond of saying you could fall and break your neck picking strawberries or drown in a tea cup. The question is: can we depend on Ghek to come back and pick us up in a flier like he promised? Hell's bells, my friend, he's got to get to Helium first!"
"Ghek's not a bad fellow. He'll keep his word," Kantos Kan's voice faded into silence.
The abrupt Barsoomian night darkened the chamber and the men carried the food upstairs for the women. Tony and the red man stumbled across the floor toward the huddled figures of their ladies.
"You've got to eat something," Tony placed his offering near the girls. He touched Connie's soft hair with a tender hand and went to look out the window. Kantos Kan squatted beside Clixia, who continued to sob piteously. Feeling helpless to comfort the emotional woman the distressed red man eventually joined Martin at the window.
The interior of the room was veiled in ebony darkness. The incredible profusion of stars in the heavens did little to illuminate the room. Instead, the lights in the sky barely defined the silhouette of the Jasoomian standing before the open east window of the second level.
A sudden mysterious scraping sound on the tower's exterior startled the chamber's occupants. Tony quickly armed his bow. The whisper of steel on leather filled the room as Kantos Kan and Connie Wescott drew their blades in response.
"What is that?" Tony asked when the ominous sound was repeated.
"I do not know," Kantos Kan hissed in the darkness. "Can you see anything?" His shoulder nudged the Jasoomian's at the sill.
Connie's boots scraped on the ancient flooring. "I'll cover the ramp!"
The foreboding sound worked upon raw nerves. Clixia squeaked and Kantos Kan sent the woman to the room's most distant corner. "And stay there!" he commanded. "Tony! Can you tell where it's coming from?"
"Not really, except it seems to be on the outside wall near the window!"
"Let me take a look." The naval officer forced his way past the Earthling's bulk and leaned out the window. "Give me have some room, Tony! I think I see somethingOUCH!"
Kantos Kan fell into the darkness as the mysterious rasping increased in volume. Tony desperately reached for the falling Martian as the stars beyond Kanator's crumbling towers were occulted by an unknown object. A sharp thudKan's body hitting something when he fell?jarred the tower structure. Tony's hands frantically searched the vacant window frame and beyond for the body of the red man.
"Kantos Kan! Where are you?" Tony shouted.
Clixia's wail of anguish tore at the young man's soul. "Father Burroughs! Do not take him from me!"
Connie's trembling form pressed against her lover's side. "What happened?" she demanded, struggling with a rising terror.
"You got me!" Tony hissed. "Kantos Kan is gone."
"Gone?" Connie shrieked.
"Pipe down!" Tony clapped a hand over her mouth. "You'll wake the neighborhood!" He gave Wescott a gentle shove in the direction of the weeping red woman. "Take care of Clixia!"
Before Connie could move, Kantos Kan's voice floated through the thin air. "You'll never believe what I found with the back of my skull."
Clixia ran forward. "Kanty? Where are you? Are you all right?"
Only Tony Martin's arm about the woman's slim waist kept Clixia from plunging out the window to the pavement below.
Before the naval officer could answer them the nearer moon, Thuria, zoomed over the horizon on one of her three-and-a-half hour orbits across the Barsoomian heavens. The rapidly intensifying illumination revealed Kantos Kan's find: the deck of a large airship, possibly fifty to fifty-five feet in length, floating about a yard away from the side of the tower. Shifting wind brought the ponderous bulk close and the rasping noise was repeated as the railing scraped the building's facade.
Kantos Kan's left hand ruefully explored the back of his head with a silly grin and a hint of minor discomfort etched on his handsome features. "Damn thing was just starting to settle when the railing caught me. Fortunately, the flier was right against the building when I fell. Hey!" Suddenly Kantos Kan was galvanized into action. He struggled with a tangled mass of rope partially buried by a large drift of sand on the ship's main deck.
"Catch this, Tony," Kan shouted. "Make fast while I check below!"
Two eons passed before the red man reappeared. Kantos Kan leaned Tony's sword against the flier's cabin and re-checked the rope tied to a cleat on the gunwale.
"Twenty-man cruiser," the Overlord stated with clipped tones. "Five dead bodies below. Raiders or pirates, I think. Must have been caught in the storm. Steerage controls are wrecked." Kantos Kan gasped for breath, his next words explaining why. "By Issus, the air below is rank! Are we secured?"
Tony tested his end of the rope anchored to the ornate carvings of the window. "Secure. Can we use this flier to get to Helium?"
Kantos Kan shrugged as he sorted through the tangled deck lines. "I'll have to inspect the damage in the morning. Given time, I can repair anything..." The wind brought the ship closer to the building and Kantos Kan clapped a hand on Tony's shoulder. "Stay with the women. I'll clean up this mess."
Tony had no real desire, but he offered just the same. "Need any help?"
"They're a bit ripe, Tonyno sense in both of us being unfit company."
Connie urged Clixia away from the window now that the woman was assured her lover was not injured or in danger; thus both women were spared the sight of five unsavory burdens the Overlord carried from the ship's cabin. Even in the pale, uncertain light of Thuria, it was quite evident these men had been dead for some time; bodies blackened, their skin split with internal putrescence. Kantos Kan dumped each body over the rail where they landed with a sickening splat on the sand covered pavement.
An hour later Kantos Kan allowed the anxious trio to board the unidentified ship; no name or nation was emblazoned on the hull, further evidence of Kantos Kan's belief it was a pirate ship. The cruiser apparently had power and the naval officer turned on running and cabin lights. Inside the cabin, which was drifted high with sand, moss and other debris, Kantos Kan's companions stared at the pile of harnesses and weapons the red man had salvaged from the dead.
Several portholes had broken glazing and the stiff night breeze whistled through the seals, but the foul air remained quite dense. Kantos Kan politely stayed down wind because of the slimy muck covering him from fingers to elbows. In the clear white light of the radium bulbs, Connie turned green and rushed to the rail to eject the last of her recent meal over the side. The stench shrouding the cruiser was intense and Kantos Kan desired nothing so great as a cleansing bath.
"Is there any motive power?" Tony asked, feeling a bit queasy himself.
"I'm almost afraid to kick her over," the Overlord replied. "There's no rudder control; we might crack her up."
"Can we set her on the ground?" Tony inquired.
"I'll check," the Martian stepped to the control on the upper deck and twisted a dial. The ship dropped a few feet. When Kantos Kan turned the dial in the opposite direction, the ship returned to its former height.
"The altitude dial is set for full lift," Kantos Kan explained. "She should have drifted all the way to the upper edge of the atmosphere, but there's just too much sand in her hull. I suppose we should be thankful, Tony. If not for the sand on her decks and the city towers, the ship might have drifted right past us. Yes," he added with a rueful apology, "to answer your question, we can put her on the ground."
"Good," Tony smiled. He went to the rail and let himself over on a trailing line. "Cut loose from the building and I'll tow the ship over to the fountain. That way we can rinse the stink from her bones."
"And me, too!" Kantos Kan waved with hearty agreement. "Me, too!"
XV. A CLOSE ENCOUNTER WITH DEATH!
The next morning Kantos Kan sweated, cursed, and pleaded with the airship's damaged steerage controls. He had christened the cruiser Sith upon the discovery of a lone gun mounted forward; a single deadly sting. Siths were monstrous hornet-like insects infesting the forests of Kaol with a rapier sting that injected a highly toxic venom.
Tony offered to help with the proposed repairs whenever brute strength was required, but for the most part all the necessary work lay in the dark and confined spaces below decks. The engineering space was an area where neither Earthman or red man could physically enter without ripping away the ship's sorapus decking. The women gamely began the 'tween decks repairs following Kantos Kan's patiently shouted instructions from a head-stand position at the aft deck's access hatch.
As the day lengthened solar radiation heated the Sith's inner spaces. One xat every zode (fifteen minutes every two hours) Kantos Kan made the girls rest in the cabin, which was only marginally cooler than the engineering space. Tony forced the women to share a tepid quart of water each break to replenish body fluids so quickly lost in the searing hold. Kan checked both women before they again descended into the bowels of the cruiser and invariably received a cheerful reply. "We're fine, Kanty!" said the weary women as they descended beneath the sorapus and alumina-steel deck.
The football player felt helpless. Despite his great size and strength there was little he could do on board the ship. Kantos Kan had the engineering knowledge. Clixia and Connie had the physical attributes (Connie's Earthly strength being a plus), and that left the athlete a frustrated on-looker until Tony launched a self-imposed task of provisioning the Sith for the journey to Helium.
Tony ranged the dead sea bottom surrounding the city. The time previously spent hunting with Kantos Kan had given the black-haired Earthman a rudimentary knowledge of usual prey, but on this hunt any beast that moved fell victim to his swift and accurate bow. He brought down everything from tiny soraks to one belligerent banth. He occasionally stopped by the Sith to see how the work progressed or to get Kantos Kan's approval for each kill. If the catch was acceptable Tony dressed the meat near a slow burning fire he built between the fountain and grounded cruiser. Most of the kills proved not only appropriate but highly desirable and delicious; several were considered rare delicacies by the red Martians. At the lunch hour Tony's first efforts at Barsoomian barbecue were gratefully consumed by two tired and dirt-smudged ladies.
Kantos Kan called a halt a few xats before sundown. At the Earthman's evening meal the women were so fatigued they were ready to sleep instead of eat. Tony quickly revived them through the simple expedient of dumping buckets of water over each until the women begged him to stop. He quietly warned them: "Eat, and don't give me any lip."
Tony offered enormous strips of roasted meat and freshly stewed vegetables Kantos Kan had described. This abundance was complimented with a zesty broth made from ground red-fruit rinds and water. There was little conversation at the fire while Connie and Clixia attempted to eat the mountain of food Tony gently forced on them.
The first sharp pangs of hunger blunted, the cool night breeze tempered their fevered exhaustion and the women speculated over the origin of the Sith. "Isn't it a bit odd that a cruiser this size should have only one gun?" Clixia asked Kantos Kan.
The naval officer's strong teeth tore at his tasty darseen filet before answering. "I've thought about that, darling. There are two other deck mounts but they haven't been used in a long time. The Sith was probably used as a raider, for without the weight of extra guns and ammunition it would be faster and more maneuverable than a similar size vessel. The Sith could swoop in fast, hit a freighter or unarmed passenger ship, then swiftly out-distance any serious pursuit. Larger, well-armed cruisers and battleships could never catch her."
"The Sith doesn't look all that old" Connie said. She sucked meat juices from her fingers and reached for a barbecued lizard drumstick.
"Hard to tell," Kantos Kan looked over his shoulder toward the cruiser resting at a slight list on the soft sand. "I haven't quite made up my mind as to where she was manufactured. The Sith's construction follows lines similar to the newest Heliumetic warships, but subtly different. It could have come from anywhere."
Clixia hesitantly broke into the conversation. "Can the Sith get us back to Helium?"
The flickering firelight showed the fatigue and strain on the woman's face. Connie, almost as tired as the red woman, showed her concern by taking Clixia's hand in hers.
"We'll get back," she promised Clixia. "There's not that much more to do tomorrow to repair the steerage controls."
"Connie's right," the naval officer confidently added. "Even though the Sith apparently never had directional compass or altitude gear such as young Carthoris devised, the return journey should only take a few days by manual navigation. If we're where I think we are..."
Clixia withdrew into herself, displaying no joy following Kantos Kan's statement. She nervously chewed the inside of her mouth, eyes filled with private misery.
Kantos Kan noted his lover's odd mood and quickly leaned forward. He touched her trembling hand and made a promise. "We'll be home soon. You'll see. Once the ship is fit, I'll have you there in no time."
"Oh, Kanty!" Clixia cried despairingly, quivering her lip. She angrily pulled free of the man's hold and ran from the fire to the sorapus railing of the cruiser.
"What the hell did I say?" Kantos Kan exclaimed as his woman disappeared inside the Sith's large cabin. He started to follow, but Connie's harsh grip pushed the Heliumite back to the paving.
"You stupid assholes!" she glared at Kantos Kan then Tony Martin, daring them to differ with her. When she got no response other than bewildered stares, the swordswoman snorted with disgust. Connie spun on her heel and ran to the cruiser.
Kantos Kan wanted to pursue the women, but Tony suggested otherwise. "Better not, old friend. Whatever was said, or not said, will come out later. Push it now, and we're liable to come out on the short end. I know Connie. She's hot right now, more so since we appear obtuse and uncaring."
"I'll never understand the female mind," Kantos Kan stared into the dwindling fire.
"Too right!" Tony growled emphatically. "Women are an alien race we men can't live without."
Kantos Kan grunted a hearty acknowledgement. The men sat by the fire until it was a bed of glowing embers. Tony's voice broke the long silence. He jerked a thumb towards the cruiser that showed a single, dim light in the main cabin.
"Where do you suppose she came from?"
Kantos Kan looked toward the Sith and, for a moment, did not understand the question because he saw Clixia's profile through a dusty porthole. "Clixia? Her family owns a large tract of land some seventy haads from Helium. I told you that."
"I was talking about the Sith, Kantos Kan! Are you still worried about Clixia? I wouldn't make too much of it. They were both dead tired from dragging that old cable out of the hull. Nerves. Fatigue. That's all it was."
"Think so? Then why did Connie near remove our heads?"
"That's a good question, sir. I don't have an answer."
"Your princess is not one to make a fuss without reason, Tony Martin. Something's upset her and Clixia and I have the horrible impression it has to do with me."
"Want me to ask?" Tony inquired reluctantly.
"No," Kantos Kan shook his head. He pulled out the sword he appropriated from the Sith's salvage and examined the condition of the edge. "Relationships are like the edge of good steeltoo much honing can ruin it; not enough and it's of little value. This blade does not require any honing at the moment." He looked toward the cruiser, his voice quietly pensive. "Later, it might. I shall ask questions if the answer does not make itself known."
Kantos Kan returned the sword to its sheath and leaned against the marble edge of the fountain. His dark eyes focused on the multitude of stars above the bed of coals. He watched as Tony rebuilt the fire to a higher pitch. When Kantos Kan asked why, the Earthling told the red man he was going to cook the rest of the meat.
"Kanty," Martin's voice was speculative as he broke branches between his strong hands, "could you have overlooked something on the bodies before you dumped them overboard?"
"Possibly, but I'm sure I didn't."
"Would you mind if we take a another look at them in the morning? We might find out where they came from. Help might be closer than Helium."
"Tony," the Martian's eyes became narrow, hard, "take my word for this: any friends of those dead men will not be friends of ours."
The right tackle returned the level gaze and sighed unhappily. "I guess that means I start bailing sand out of the Sith. I just thought you might have missed something in the darkness."
"We can look, Tony, but we won't find anything." Kantos Kan rose to his feet. "The girls wore me out today. I'm putting the Sith up the length of her anchor rope for safety. Coming?"
"I'll be along later. I still have meat to smoke."
"As you wish. You can climb the tether, of course, but be damn sure you let me know it's youhate to slice your head from your shoulders while I'm standing guard."
"I'll stand guard from here, Kantos Kan, you get some sleep first."
"I just might do that, Tony Martin. Thanks."
Martin watched the cruiser silently rise forty feet, the keel tilted eight degrees because of the trapped sand. Despite the many miles he covered during the day, the gutting and smoking of meat, the football tackle was unable to sleep. He worked most of the night preparing the provisions for the journey and, in the silence of the dead city of Kanator, the Earthman had time to think.
As Tony sorted through the events following his and Connie's appearance on Barsoom the young man shook his head with wry amusement. "Just like a gol-durn Burroughs book!"
Tony knew it didn't matter whether Barsoom and Kantos Kan and Clixia were real because the alternative was too horrible to consider. They would have died horribly following the car wreck and Tony Martin had no doubt regarding that event; the wreck had happened. If what next followed was a dying dream, it was better than no existence at all. How could he doubt the reality of the here and now? He remembered Connie's warm kisses, the suppleness of her body next to hishe could not have imagined that!
"If this is a dream," he breathed to the Barsoomian sky, suddenly happier than ever, "then let it never end!"
A few hours before dawn Kantos Kan slid down the anchor rope to join the Jasoomian. The Heliumite's voice was cheerful and the red man's spirit seemed restored with rest. "You let me sleep too long, Tony. Why don't you get some sleep?"
"I'm all right," the Jasoomian replied.
"As you wish, but I think I shall keep you company."
The Overlord questioned Tony about how the fire should be tended and, gradually assumed those duties. As they talked Tony stretched out beside the fire and, though he did not think he could sleep, the Earthman was surprised when the abrupt light of dawn woke him.
"Get enough rest, Tony?" Kantos Kan chuckled.
Tony Martin nodded as he checked the smoked meat the Jedwar of the Navy had finished. They both looked up when they noted the sudden slack in the anchor rope. Clixia waved over the railing, carefully reducing the lift from the Barsoomian Eighth Ray which gave the Sith her buoyancy. Tony and Kantos Kan hauled the rope, keeping the ship under control until the keel settled on the thick layer of sand covering the ersite paving.
"That smells delicious!" Clixia commented as Tony lifted her over the rail.
She walked directly to the fire pit and delicately popped a small portion of flame-broiled meat between smiling lips. She was extremely lighthearted, exhibiting none of the petulance from the prior evening.
Connie came out of the cabin with a pail in her hand. She displayed her find triumphantly. "Look what I found on board buried under some ratty sleeping furs. We can use it to bail the sand out." To illustrate her point Connie bent over, filled the bucket with a sweeping motion, and emptied it over the rail.
"I'll be doing that, darling," Tony told her. "Come on down," he offered his hands to her, effortlessly lifting the petite brunette. "You must have a good breakfast before going into that hell hole below decks. Sleep well?"
"More or lesscabin still stinks, you know. I opened all the ports I could. Some of them are jammed. Hey!" She looked down at the pile of smoked meat in wonder. "You got it all done! You stayed up all night, didn't you!" Her voice was accusing.
"I got some sleep. Kanty finished the last of it."
Clixia knelt beside the fire. She boiled water, dropping bits of tubers and mantalia in the pot. She looked through the rest of the foodstuffs as if she were searching for something.
"There's no nuts to spice with, Kanty. Can you find some?"
"I suppose so. Come with me, Tony. We'll get those nuts for Clixia and see about that other thing we talked about last night."
The nuts were not difficult to find. Kantos Kan berated himself for not telling Tony about them the day before when the Earthman was hunting. "You forget all the little things," he chuckled. "Now, let's have a look at the mysterious warriors of the Sith but don't be surprised if we find nothing."
Tony was not only surprised, he was bewildered. The bodies had vanished. Yesterday the bodies had been in plain view. Where the corpses had lain were some curious, feathery appearing scrapes in the sand on either side of clean swept trails leading out of the city. The starting point for each track was where the body of a dead pirate had lain. Kantos Kan squatted beside one of the strange markings and examined it carefully.
"Just as I suspected," his soft-voiced remark suggested the Martian expected this mysterious disappearance. "The burial-beetles have taken them."
"Burial-beetles?" Tony frowned. "What are they?"
"Very large insects which scavenge any kind of animal protein they can find. The beetles are large and powerfully built, but slow moving and normally harmless to living things. However, there have been reports of attacks on creaturesmen includedwhen it is imperative for the female to deposit her eggs."
Kantos Kan rose and turned back towards the Sith, which was hidden from view an age-toppled tower. The Heliumite continued his description of the Martian insect's unusual habits.
"The beetle is a scavenger feeding on the remains of kills by banths or white apes and occasionally finding forage on the battle grounds between red and green Martians. When it is time to procreate the male or female beetle will place fifty to sixty pounds of flesh in a hole it has dug in the soft sands of the desert to a depth of three sofads. When the meat is in place, the insects embrace and the female is inseminated. A few moments later the female, with the aid of a powerful ovipositor, penetrates the tissue and deposits three to five eggs. The hole is then covered. This is the end of the parent beetle's responsibility.
"The young hatch as voracious larva in one to four days. They consume the decomposing flesh and one another, until, ultimately, only one transformed larva emerges from the sands three weeks later. Most of the infant beetles fall prey to any number of predators. The survivors eventually achieve adult size in eight years and renew the life cycle."
"Yecch!" Tony grimaced with distaste. "Shouldn't we find those men and give them a proper burial?"
"I wouldn't suggest it," Kantos Kan's grin was lopsided. "As you well know our lovely ladies produce fluids during the conjugal embrace. So does the female beetle. However the result is not as delightful or as delicious. The female burial-beetle's secretion is highly acidic. It will eat the flesh right off your arm. As for the men from the Sith" Kantos Kan scowled unsympathetically "they've probably received a better resting than they deserve."
The remainder of the morning was spent repairing the Sith. While Kantos Kan, Connie, and Clixia struggled to remove the shattered steerage cable, Tony cleaned the food locker of the ship with boiled water then stored the smoked meat, fruits and vegetables, making sure there was an ample supply of the zesty nuts Clixia used to prepare the morning meal. Once his project was completed he began filling the seventy gallon water tank with water tediously strained through one of Clixia's tattered silks. The entire process took time because the water was strained then boiled for twenty minutes, allowed to cool slightly before pouring through the top access of the tank, which was originally designed to accept a hose instead of the broad lip of a pail. Tony kept their single canteen full of water, which he hung in the shade of the cabin near an open port. Dousing the outside with water, the slight breeze and evaporation kept the contents cool.
The girls maintained the same schedule of rest periods Kantos Kan specified the day before. During two of those rest periods Tony was in the cabin and was shocked by the haggard looks on the women's faces. At noon the big Jasoomian prepared a meal of sorts for the short-tempered and foul-mouthed repair crew. The breezy shade of the cabin plus the filling of complaining bellies, soon calmed heat-frayed nerves.
"It's hotter'n hell down there, Tony." Connie gratefully downed her second pint of water. "Better'n a sauna for losing those extra pounds I've been fighting the last few months."
"What extra pounds?" Tony teased her, concerned with the visible strain in his lady's expression. "I love every one of them. Don't lose them for me." The brunette attempted a half-hearted smile which, to Tony's instant distress, appeared more grimace than amusement.
If Connie looked bad, Clixia was worse. She lacked the advantages of Connie's high-gravity Jasoomian body. At times the red Martian woman seemed in a daze; eating what was placed in front of her without comment. Her hand shook worse than Connie's as they passed the canteen between themselves. Tony pulled at Kantos Kan's elbow and stepped out on the sun-drenched deck of the cruiser.
"How long, Kanty? I don't think they can take much more of that sweat-box."
"The old cable is out. That was the hard part. Stringing the new cable will take less time. I, too, am concerned, especially since I know what comes next..."
"What are you talking about, Kanty?" The anxious tone in the Martian's voice created instant apprehension.
Glancing toward the cabin the naval officer lowered his voice. Speaking confidentially he said, "We have to replace the cable. Without it we have no way to control the Sith. Fortunately we found two spares in the equipment locker, but they are heavy and must be dragged through the crawl space and threaded about the aft rudder pulley then around the forward steerage pulley. At that time, I will cut the cable to the correct length, stretch it taut and then secure it with clamps."
"I don't see the problem unless the cable is just too damn heavy." I looked over the side at the tangled mass which had been the old cable. "That doesn't look so bad, Kantos Kan. For a minute I thought you were talking about all day. Connie's strong with lots of stamina. I'm sure it shouldn't take more than an hour to do since you'll be working with fresh, unkinked cable."
"I know that, Tony!" Kantos Kan drew the Earthling to the transom of the cruiser. His eyes were on the cabin as he leaned against the rail. "Putting the cable in place is not the hard part, my friend, and it will take all day."
Tony looked doubtful. "They can't stay down there that long."
"I am of the same mind, Tony Martin. We may have to wait a few more days before proceeding. You see, the cable has to be exact, or as close to exact as we can do under field conditions. Since the Sith does not have directional compass or automatic altitude controls we don't have to be that precise since we won't be flying by robotic instruments. If the cable is off more than five degrees we cannot maneuver properly; so, if the alignment is off, it will have to be repeated until it is correct. But I haven't told you what causes me the greatest concern."
Kantos Kan scanned the buildings surrounding the grounded cruiser before looking toward the shadowed cabin where the women dozed on filthy couches. "They are beautifuland courageous. I think Clixia knows what worries me, but Connie does not. II think we should stop." The red man gripped the railing, indecision clearly etched on his handsome features.
"What are you trying to tell me, Kanty?"
"There is danger in tightening the cable. The rudder and tiller shafts must be held in place while I put tension on the cable. This means Connie and Clixia must be stationed below decks to maintain the centering. In Helium this sort of repair is done with special tools so there is no danger to the workers."
Kantos Kan sighed and turned a memory-distant gaze toward Martin. "When I was youngera newly-commissioned padwarI commanded a five man scout. On a mission to Gathol our primary steerage was shorn by a chance hit from a green Martian radium rifle. We escaped but the ship required extensive repairs before we could return to Helium. Being a scout, the deck access was easier than the Sith's but that is beside the point. What I'm trying to say is I have no idea of the quality of the replacement cable, or how long it has lain in the repair locker. I was faced with the same problem repairing that scout."
Tony Martin noted a look of horror Kantos Kan did not try to conceal. Kantos Kan continued:
"Tony, that cable parted under strain and the man who had to maintain position of the tiller shaft was cut completely in half by the cable's backlash. I can't ask Clixia or Connie to..."
"You don't have to, Kantos Kan." Connie and Clixia stood arm in arm just behind the red man. Connie's voice rang with assurance. "We'll have the cable in place in no time. Come on, Clixia."
Connie took the end of the new cable and dropped into the cramped crawl space. Clixia fed the uncoiling cable after her. Realizing the choice had been denied them, the men, filled with pride and admiration, sprang forward to help. Before Clixia went below Kantos Kan held her sweaty body close, his lips brushing hers.
"You be careful down there. As soon as the cable is threaded, come back up and rest. The alignment will take time. I don't want either of you so tired we chance mistakes."
"We'll come up anytime you say, darling," Clixia promised. "Don't worry about us. Connie and I are not as fragile as you think. We'll be fine." The woman stood on tiptoe and kissed her lover on the cheek before she hurried below to help the Earthwoman with the new cable.
Kantos Kan knelt on the deck, wrestling with the cable. "Aren't they the most wonderful creatures you've ever seen?"
Tony quickly concurred, though whether he should be proud, or scared to death, haunted him throughout the afternoon. Unable to stand idle, with heart in mouth, the right tackle fought his anxiety by staying busy. Preparing the cruiser for departure kept the worried youth from chewing his fingernails down to the elbows.
Tony finished filling the water locker and started clearing sand from the main deck. He periodically went to the controls to reduce the intensity of the Sith's Eighth Ray as the vessel's lift increased in direct proportion to the sand sent over the side.
Kantos Kan, his body prone on the deck with head bent through the narrow access hatch, constantly shouted encouragement to the girls. The cable threading took longer than expected. The Heliumite was very concerned when he sat up and took hold of Connie's hands when the women came up for their scheduled rest period. Kantos Kan lifted the Jasoomian from the dark interior and quickly assisted Clixia, who waited below.
Both women reeled with fatigue. Their faces, hands and bodies were smudged with dirt and grease. Both were caked with sand sifted into the 'tween deck. They immediately staggered into the cabin and sucked greedily at the canteen.
"We're fine," Clixia responded with a brave, trembling smile in the face of the men's concern. "What must we do next?"
"Rest!" Kantos Kan cried. "We've got time. Rest."
"No!" the woman of Helium shook her head. "I want to do it now." Clixia leaned forward, elbows supported by knees showing tiny cuts covered with coagulated blood.
Connie's extremities displayed similar injuries, but her voice was a firm as the red woman's. "We're so close!"
Kantos Kan looked upon their obstinate faces, marveling at their strength and bravery, the quality of which would have shamed many a man. His voice was choked with pride as he asked "Are you sure?"
"We are, aren't we, Connie?" Clixia replied, lifting a trembling hand to Connie's sun-browned shoulder.
Connie's hand, equally slick with grease from handling the replacement cable, patted the slim, copper-red hand with assurance. "We're ready, Kanty."
Kantos Kan was tempted to argue with them, but a warning gesture from Tony Martin stilled the officer's remonstrations. Instead of forcing his will upon the women, Kantos Kan used his recently acquired dagger to began sketching in the smooth sand covering the cabin deck. As he explained the next steps to the intently listening women Tony did not watch the officer's handsMartin's eyes were riveted on Clixia.
Tony noted the unusually high color of the woman's cheeks, the limb tremors. If Clixia had been on the varsity football field he might have diagnosed incipient heat exhaustion. What did he know about alien physiology? Clixia's appearance could well be natural, but he made Clixia have a few more swallows of water while Kantos Kan talked.
"...and then the cable must be set in the pulley groove. Are you absolutely positive the lines aren't crossed over? If the cable binds it will snap for sure."
"We were very careful, Kanty," Connie peevishly growled.
"I'm not doubting you, pretty one," the Martian spoke soothingly. The man's conciliatory tone filled Connie with regret for her short temper. Kantos Kan was concerned only with personal safety, not adversely commenting on her intelligence.
Connie offered a contrite apology. "I didn't mean that the way it sounded, Kanty. I'm fagged out and if I'm beat Clixia must be absolutely frazzled." Connie hugged the Martian woman. "You really should rest, dear. I can pull the cable."
"No!" Clixia protested. She pulled away and rose from the bunk/couch. "I'm part of this company! I will do my fair share! I"
Try as she might, Clixia was unable to control the sharp spasms which suddenly shook her body. Her eyes bulged with uncomprehending fear just instants before she fainted.
Tony caught Clixia in his arms and shouted for water. "Get out of the way, Kanty!" He shoved the frantic Martian to one side as he placed Clixia's twitching form on the stained cushions of the Sith. "We've got to cool her off as fast as we can!"
"What's the matter with her, Tony?" Kantos Kan's voice was broken with anxiety.
"Heat exhaustion" As he spoke, Tony stripped the last of Clixia's tattered silks from her abruptly limp form. He took the canteen and poured the entire contents over the unconscious woman. He held it out to be refilled.
"I'll do it," Kantos Kan pushed Connie down to the opposite bunk when she reached for the canteen.
Tony fanned Clixia with one of the torn cushions from another berth. The woman's body suddenly jerked spasmodically. "Pour it on her," he told Kantos Kan when the man brought the water. "Head to toe, man! Head to toe!"
Tony managed to get water down the delirious woman several times over the next few hours. He stayed at her side until the woman's fever returned to more normal levels shortly before sundown. When he was sure Clixia was sleeping naturally, Tony rose from his cramped position at the edge of her bunk.
"She'll be all right," he informed Kantos Kan, who had remained at the woman's side throughout the ordeal. The jedwar had allowed the Earthman to tend his beloved during this, to him, mysterious malady, and the gratitude in the Martian's eyes overwhelmed the Jasoomian.
Tony felt compelled to offer an explanation to ease the man's distress. "Clixia lost body fluids faster than she could replace it. She'll be fine in the morning."
"How can I ever repay you?" Kantos Kan cried.
"I don't want to hear any talk like that, Kan! You'd have done the same for Connie or me. Forget it. I'm going out to stretch."
On his way out Tony bent over Connie, who slept on a neighboring bunk. He gently pressed his lips to her throat and felt her pulse, strong and regular. Wescott's skin tasted salty and Tony smiled, remembering Connie's intention to bathe once she was assured Clixia was out of danger. She had said: "Just let me rest a moment..." The young woman fell asleep as soon as her eyes closed.
Tony stepped into the cool Barsoomian night. He looked to the stars and wondered if Jasoomians, beings from a water planet, withstood sudden water loss better than desert-bred Martians who could go for days without water. He said as much to Kantos Kan when the naval officer followed him on deck.
"You saved her life." Kantos Kan sighed, voice husky with intense gratitude. "For all my titles, land, and deeds, I could not have helped Clixia. You have my eternal thanks, Tony Martin!" The red man swiftly removed his sword and laid it at the Earthling's feet.
Tony was startled by the man's action. He'd read of this act in Burroughs' Martian Series, but never expected that he, Tony Martin, athlete of Earth, would ever be honored thusthe highest regard one warrior can give another. In effect, this gesture is an oath of service to the one so honored. The giver proclaims by his action that he accepts the thoughts, ideals and commands of the warrior who receives this esteem. Tony's slightest word was Kantos Kan's law depending on Tony Martin's three choices of response: Returning the sword hilt first for acceptance; blade first for refusal and the third option, to ignore the gesture, which would be refusal and insult combined. Tony bent down and returned Kantos Kan's sword, hilt first.
The Earthman openly wept, his deep voice choked with emotion. "You honor me greatly, Kantos Kan!"
"You saved the life of one I love very deeply. I can never repay my debt to you. I can do no less and remain a noble of Helium."
Tony gripped the red man's shoulder. "Get to bed, man! You're asleep on your feet. Who wouldn't beworking with those two!" Tony laughed with relief. The crisis was past and the honor accorded him filled the football player with joy.
Tony's black mane inclined towards the cabin, the exhausted women, and the bunks within. Kantos Kan silently agreed with a brief nod as the Jasoomian gave the man a gentle shove towards the cabin entrance.
"Get some sleep, Kantos Kan. I'll set the anchor rope and lift the Sith. I'll wake you for your watch..."
XVI "OFF WE GO INTO THE WILD, BLUE YONDER..."
Tony Martin's sleep-clouded brain tried to determine what had roused him. The teasing sensation against cheek and eyelid was repeated and his eyes snapped open. Clixia's exquisitely formed figure was bent near, her lips pursed to blow a second time. When the smiling woman saw his eyes, she leaned closer and soundly kissed him.
"Good morning, Tony." Her face was scrubbed clean, her slim hand brushed the Jasoomian's thick mane of sleep-mussed hair from his forehead.
Tony inched upwards in the bunk until his back was supported by the bulkhead. "You look like you feel better?"
"Much! And you?" There was a twinkle in her eyes. Clixia did not seem interested in rising from the edge of the bunk. She was delightfully nude.
Tony remembered the torn silksand regretted that action. Of course the regret was tempered with his appreciation of her form. Look, but don't touch, and don't look that much!
"No after effects?" Tony manfully kept his eyes on her face and not the luxurious copper-red curls at the junction of her thighs. "No dizziness?"
Clixia's smile was his answer. "Kantos Kan and Connie told me what happened. I remember so littleI was hot, then I was falling. I am a bit weak but I feel fine. I asked Connie how I could thank you. She told meand warned me I might have to make you hold still. So"
Clixia leaned forward and kissed the Jasoomian again, but this was a oscillatory production, complete with warm fuzzies, curled toes and gasping for breath afterwards. Tony Martin gulped several times, sure the thunder of his pounding heart echoed from the bulk heads.
Clixia drew away, her hands gripped Martin's brawny shoulders. "You saved my life," she said softly, unable to say more.
Tony blushed. "Look, Clixia, pleaseI got the hero treatment from Kantos Kan last night. Let's not put me through it again, okay?"
Clixia smiled at the Earthling's embarrassment but she did not torture him with her gratitude. "Come," she gave him a hug then tugged insistently until Tony rose from the bunk. She put her arm about him and led the way to the main deck.
"Connie said you'd be shy. I see why she loves you so much." Clixia suddenly giggled, looking like a copper-colored elf-maid.
"Love? That's a pretty strong statement, Clixia." Tony momentarily shaded his eyes against the brilliant sunlight. With a twinkle in his eyes the football player added, "Adore, worship the ground I stand on, can't live withoutthose terms would be more accurate."
Clixia smile widened. She stroked his beard with an affectionate hand. "I hope you don't change for the worse when you finally gain your confidence..."
"Funny lady" Tony scowled with mock menace. He swept the woman into his arms and lightly jumped over the rail. He continued to carry the unresisting woman, moving toward the amused pair seated at the re-built fire. Kantos Kan burst out with laughter when Tony casually dumped his delectable burden into the jedwar's lap.
"Yours, I believe, Kantos Kan. Ummm, smells good!" The big athlete made a show of wafting aromatic smoke to his nostrils.
"It's not quite ready," Connie said.
"That's not what Clixia said!" Tony wailed piteously. "I'm hungry!" He screwed his face into an expression of dejection, clutching his hollow stomach. His excessive emoting elicited gales of laughter from the others.
The morning seemed full of promise in the wake of the desperation endured the prior afternoon. Clixia was nearly back to her old self; Connie cracked terrible jokes and Kantos Kan even unbent his usual rigid discipline and smiled frequently. Everything was right, the Earthman thought, with the one exception of his itchy, half-grown beard. Tony scratched furiously for several moments while Clixia watched with curious amusement.
Tony grinned. "I must look a sight. Big and hairy like a white ape!"
"I think it's becoming," Clixia said with critical eye. "Our men, my man," she amended with a quick peck on Kan's cheek, "cannot grow beards. The only bearded race on Mars is the Okarians, the yellow men of the north pole. Connie said it tickled, she was right. May I?"
"May you what?" Tony asked just before the woman leaned over and rubbed her cheek against his facial growth that was just long enough to be softer than sand-paper but much stiffer than a long term beard. The black growth was a raspy bristle that made Clixia giggle as she rubbed her tingling face.
"Yes, I see why she's always kissing you."
Kantos Kan chuckled as Tony lifted Clixia into his lap and nuzzled her throat and shoulders with his beard. "What do you girls talk about down there in the hold?"
Tony repeated the question, but Clixia, dressed in nothing but an impish smile, did not bother to reply. She threw her arms about his neck instead. Tony was aware of her delicious curves pressed against him, even more pleased that she was laughing with contentment. Connie gave him an approving smile as she took a thick slab of darseen from the fire. She showed no jealousy, envy, angera sign of the deep friendship between the two women. However, the young man knew he would never look at another woman again, except for visual appreciation, of course.
"For the first time I find myself envious of your chieftain, Connie Wescott," Kantos Kan grinned, nodding at the entwined, laughing couple. "It seems beards have a purpose which never occurred to me before."
"I wouldn't be sure about that," Connie replied. She put down the cooking utensils and slipped into the Martian's lap and kissed him with enthusiasm, her eyes twinkled, her breathing a rapid flutter when she finally drew back.
Connie ran the back of her hand over the red man's smooth jaw, giggling at the startled look on the Overlord's face. "I just had to find out if Clixia was telling the truth, Kanty. Even when Tony shaves that beard, he still scratches. I like the beard, and I like smooth skin, but unfortunately I can't have them on the same man, so, when I get tired of the beard, I'll come kiss you."
"Only," Clixia giggled, "if I have the same privileges..."
Tony lifted Clixia from his lap and unceremoniously deposited her curvaceous bottom on the sand. He dusted his hands and glared at Kantos Kan. "I think we're in trouble, old man. Can you think of any way we can say 'no' to such libertine assumptions?"
Kantos Kan gently pushed Connie away and leaned forward. He chuckled, jabbing a stiffened forefinger toward Tony. "Before I answer your question, let me ask you one: Do we want to?"
"I will refrain from answering that at this time as there are other, more important matters to attendsuch as breakfast! Chop, chop, Connie! Your man is starving!"
"Yes, my lord and sometimes master." Connie used the tip of her knife to flip a hot sliver of meat in Tony's direction. He was forced to juggle it several times before it disappeared down his throat.
Unlike most of the meals the travelers shared in the past, this one was completely unmarked by any brooding or unhappiness. From time to time one, or any combination of the four, broke out with laughter. Even Kantos Kan, that usually tacit individual, was not immune. He regaled the Earthlings with stories of his youth as he rose through the ranks of Helium's aerial navy. Some of the things of which he spoke were familiar tales Clixia knew, but more than a few kept her eyes wide and her pretty mouth shaped into an 'o'.
After one particularly outrageous tale, Clixia shook her head. "That cannot possibly be true!"
"But it is! Sorry I am not at liberty to divulge their namesone is a spinster princess of an allied nation and the young padwar is the son of a high born noble."
"You've known all these amusing things and never shared them with me?" Clixia pouted, her lip quivering. "You're a mean old thing."
Clixia started to giggle, then realized his question was serious. "I was only teasing you, darling."
Kantos Kan sighed. "Perhaps, perhaps not. You're not the first to have made that observation about me. Djor Kantos and Olvia Marthis keep reminding me I'm a dour old fool."
"What does he know about the pressures of your office? Outside of John Carter, is there anyone who really understands what you endure? I think it's unfair that he take such advantage of your innate sense of responsibility. Oh, you seem to bear it well, but I am elated to learn you aren't completely deprived of a sense of humor. You must show it more often."
Connie butted in with an offer of more food. "Don't get so serious, dear. Eat this, Clixia and even if you don't want it, you better start drinking water now. It's hot in the hold and we'll need plenty of fluids to finish the job."
"You're not going back down there!" Kantos Kan cried. "I will not go through that anguish again!"
"Sit on it, Kanty," Connie stuck out her tongue. "Clixia and I are going down there and we will repair that little old cable. Got it?"
"You" Kantos Kan refrained from completing the statement, he was grinning too hugely. "We'll give it a try, but if I tell you to come up, don't argue with me. Agreed?"
"Agreed," the women said, kissing him in stereo.
Kantos Kan resketched the rigging diagram on the paving. He carefully explained what had to be done, repeating his warning that they would only have the morning to get it accomplished. If they were not through with the cable by then, it could wait another day.
"Yes, Kanty," the girls demurely agreed.
Tony examined the drawing with interest. "Last night, while I was on watch, I tried the wheel. Seems to me the tiller on the Sith runs completely free. If that's true then the only place you need exact alignment is the rudder. I was thinking we could drive wedges here," he quickly drew a sketch of the cruiser's transom, including the rudder post, "on both sides of the rudder. Once it's centered and secure, we can set the cable, tighten it slightly and let the girls come up before putting the strain on the line. What do you think, Kanty? Am I wrong or..."
"By Issus, Tony! If the tiller is free and not equipped with an alignment pin then it will work! By Issus! I wish I could get below to see."
"I'll take a look and tell you," Connie offered. "Clixia, you start drinking water now. Come on, Kanty, tell me what to look for" Connie rose while she was talking. She and Kantos Kan walked to the cruiser. Tony knew she could have easily jumped to the deck, so he was pleased when she allowed the gallant Martian to lift her to the rail. The youth tore at his remaining breakfast with one hand and patted Clixia's bare knee with the other.
"She's right. You need to pour water down right now. And please don't be so damn brave. If you're tired, stop! Okay?"
"I will, Tony. Thanks."
"For what? Don't start on that life-saving crap again!"
"I won't. I wasn't talking about that." She dutifully lifted the community canteen and took several swallows. There was something in her tone which perplexed the young Jasoomian.
"Then what are you talking about?"
"Just letting us be who we areKanty and me. Are you going to hunt today?"
Tony could recognize a change in subject without having the roof fall on his head. "I doubt it. Kantos Kan says we have more than enough. I over did it yesterday since I couldn't help with the repairs. I'll be around the cruiser all day. Can you stand it?" He leaned forward and gave his best leer. Clixia giggled so hard she almost dropped the canteen.
Tony wiped greasy hands on his thighs. "You finish the rest of that water. I've got other things to do." He half-rose and kissed her forehead. "Don't do too much. Remember what I said. We'd miss you terribly if something happened to you." He left so quickly Clixia could do nothing more than stare after him as Tony attained the Sith's deck with a single bound.
Tony Martin entered the cabin, moving directly to one of the eight bunks. The young man's Orovarian knife was in hand, which he used on a cloth covered cushion showing the worst wear. Tony carefully slit the cushion's threadbare and stained fabric until he had almost two yards about a foot wide. He cut two lengths from the remainder of the cloth which measured six by forty inches. When he came out of the cabin with the three strips of cloth over his left arm, Clixia was already on deck talking with Kantos and Connie.
Martin called Clixia over. "Turn around," he gently commanded. Clixia did as she was told and Tony tied the smaller piece about her breasts. "Spread'em," his toe touched her foot. Tony quickly twisted the longer piece about her hips, using a technique a school chum from the orient had shown him. He stepped back, surveyed his handiwork and nodded.
He took the other piece of fabric and bound Connie's breasts. "No sense in getting too scratched up."
Connie leaned closer and said: "Thanks, or are you just covering temptation?" She giggled when Tony grabbed a goodly portion of her shapely buttocks and pinched.
Determining the tiller's freedom of movement only took minutes of examination by Connie then the women went below decks to begin positioning the cable. Kantos Kan and Tony Martin spent most of the morning securing the rudder with blocks the Jasoomian carved from sorapus taken from the scrub forest at the plaza's edge.
The women finished the cable arrangement in less than fifteen minutes and for a time they watched the men working, and cursing, at the Sith's transom. They soon tired of this pastime and cleaned out the cruiser's main cabin. Connie made sure Clixia rested every possible moment until the Martian woman finally complained at her treatment. "Damn it, Connie, I'm fit and ready to work!"
"Yes, dear. Now will you sit down?" Clixia did as the younger woman asked, then rose as soon as the Earthling's back was turned.
The women finished clearing the cabin an hour before mid-day and went aft to check the progress on positioning the rudder. Tony's skin glistened with sweat as he pounded the wedges and Kantos Kan struggled to maintain the center positioning he declared they must have to assure proper control of the cruiser. The girls sat on the transom and offered suggestions; most in jest, though a few proved worthwhile. Kantos Kan did not mind the laughter, he was happy that Clixia was so quickly recovered. He'd been more distressed by her collapse than he admitted to anyone except Tony. Tony on the other hand cheerfully argued with the women as he pounded the wedges in place under the jedwar's direction.
Kantos Kan inspected the morning's work and pronounced it satisfactory. The men ate the midday meal Connie prepared under Clixia's direction. Wescott pulled the martian woman to one side and spoke sotto voce: "I've simply got to learn how to cook. Teach me sometime, will ya?"
The travelers ate in the sparse shadow of the Sith's hull. Kantos Kan argued with the women who wanted to set the cable after the meal.
"Why not?" Clixia asked. "Everything's in place. All Connie and I have to do is line the cable on the pulleys. How long will that take?"
"We can take another day. Do it in the morning..."
"That would be fine," Clixia said enigmatically, "if you had other reasons besides our health. I say we do it now. Right, Connie?"
"Sure! Won't take us an hour. Cable's already around the shafts. You and Tony finally secured the rudder. Won't take a minute!" But as she said that, she looked at the red woman with a frownas if she were reluctant. Tony read that and asked: "Are you too tired? We can wait until morning."
"I'm not tired, Tony. Clixia's fine and it wouldn't take long. We could be back on the road in a matter of hours once the cable is in place. Right, Kantos Kan?"
The Overlord of the Navy nodded. "The sooner the better."
Clixia's smile faded. She tossed the rest of her lunch into the fire and climbed over the rail of the cruiser before anyone could rise to help her.
Connie's face flushed as she put the plate down. She paused at the cruiser's side before climbing to the deck. "Men!"
"What the hell?" Kantos whispered to Tony. "Are we going to have this all over again? What's the matter with that woman?"
"Have you thought that 'sooner' might not be better?"
"What are you talking about, Tony?" Kantos Kan was genuinely puzzled.
"You think about it." Tony finished the last of his lunch and looked towards the morning's work. "Are you sure the rudder is properly placed before they go below?"
"Can't be more than two degrees off. Yes. Nowjust what are you implying?"
"Really not for me to say, Kanty."
"Well, man, what?"
"You think about it. I'm not getting caught in the middle between you and Clixia." There was a clang which rang through the hull of the ship. Tony put his plate on the paving blocks and rose. "They're inside. We better get ready."
Kantos Kan grunted disgust over the tackle's enigmatic answer, yet was the first one over the side. Ten minutes later the women were back on deck. Kantos Kan attached a special tool to the cable's ends which showed the amount of pressure applied on the steel strand. He continued to add tension and, just shy of the correct amount, the steel strand snapped with tremendous force. The cable thrashed about the 'tween decks like a live thing. Connie screamed in terror as she hugged Clixia.
"My god! We'd have been killed down there!"
All the color drained from Kantos Kan's face. Part was due to the painful wrench his shoulder received when the tensioning instrument was jerked from his grasp, the rest was imagining two injured women below decks with no easy way to bring them out. Clixia hurried to his side to examine the extent of his injury.
"I'm fine, Clixia!" he pushed her away, then drew her close as the thought of her below decks again horrified him. Trembling with after shock he stroked her hair, then abruptly entered the cruiser's cabin.
The others found him at the water locker. They watched Kan drain a cup of water in silence and draw a second to pour over his head. The officer visibly struggled with his emotions.
Connie broke the awkward silence. "We'll just have to try the other cable. Do you want me to get the spare out of the repair locker? Clixia and I can have the damaged cable out by sundown..."
"What? You would go back down there?" Kantos was astonished at Connie's matter-of-fact practicality.
"Is there any alternative, Kanty?" Connie did not wait for an answer. She and Clixia went back on deck and opened the repair locker. The Earthman and the Martian heard the scrape of cable being pulled out of the recess.
Kantos Kan looked at Tony Martin and grinned. "You have a wonderful woman."
"She's not mine," Tony countered. "Connie's her own person, but I'll heartily agree with the wonderful! What do you say? Shall we get this mess cleared up and try again?"
By nightfall the repair was completed. The replacement cable was easier to install since Connie and Clixia were familiar with their work and the new cable Kantos Kan snapped had not twisted as badly as the first, all adding up to an 'easy' afternoon's work. Kantos Kan took the Sith on a trial run which circled the environs of Kanator and declared the operation of tiller and rudder as serviceable.
Clixia and her Jasoomian sister gratefully bathed under buckets of tepid water the men poured over their heads until the last of the grease, grime and sweat was washed from their aching bodies.
After the evening meal Kantos Kan excitedly commented on the cruiser's trial run. The ship had performed well in the aviator's opinion and, now that he had a ship under him, there was a subtle change in the man's manner. When Kantos Kan again told stories of his time in the navy they lacked the spontaneous humor of those told at breakfast. The overlord showered praise on Connie, Clixia and Tony ("Few commanders have such resourceful and dedicated thans in their crews"). He spoke of the glories of Helium and his admiration of John Carter, and Helium's vision of Barsoom's future. The officer spoke so long and loud that Tony wondered if the man had a touch of heat stroke or a secret desire to be a politician.
Tony eventually became bored by the red man's verbosity because it seemed out of character, as though Kantos Kan sought to avoid personal contact though glowing praises. The more Kantos Kan carried on about Helium, the less desirable it seemed to the young Jasoomians. Kantos Kan made the Martian metropolis sound like some heavenly pilgrimage; and Tony did not feel that religious.
"What happens when we get there?" Tony butted into Kantos Kan's monologue without feeling guilty. He'd heard all the travelogue he could stand. "Connie and I know it's a great place, Kanty, but where will we fit in?"
"Why," Kantos Kan sputtered, caught off guard, "you'll go see John Carter. He will know what to do. Let me ask you thiswhat do you want to do?"
Tony answered without hesitation. "I'd like to play football but that's impossible. So, what can I do instead?"
"I don't know what this 'football' is, but you could be a padwar in the navy. You're a born leader. You know how to command."
Tony shook his black mane. "Got no use for war. Only war I like is the scrimmage field." Martin scratched his chin. He silently wished for a razor then remembered Connie's remark regarding beards as related via Clixia. He decided against shaving, at least for a while. Tony lowered his hand and added an explanation for the Heliumatic naval officer. "The navy's not for me, Kanty. I'm the peaceful type."
"There are other things possible, Tony. Helium's a marvelous city filled with opportunity for a smart young man like yourself. Clixia knows. She'll tell you..."
"That's right!" Clixia cried, sounding exasperated. Both Earthlings had noted the red woman's increasingly pensive manner, yet the sudden outburst shocked them all. "That's what you always do, Kantos Kan. You put it on me!"
"Clixia!" Kantos Kan, shaken by the woman's vehemence, leaned forward, his brow furrowed with bewilderment. "What's the matter, dear? Did you work too long 'tween decks? Are you feeling well?" When she did not answer, the officer frowned for a few seconds then laughed.
"I think I understand, Clixia. You're anxious to get back to the city and the comforts of home. This didn't turn out too well did it, darling? Well, we'll have you home in a few days. Your slaves will fill your bath with scented oils and"
Clixia burst into tears and ran for the Sith. Kantos Kan stared after her, his jaw hanging with confusion.
Connie made an inarticulate sound then shook her fist in Kan's face. "You blind idiot! You couldn't see it the other night and you still can't see it! I feel sorry for you, Kan!"
The brunette rose from the paving, her eyes flashing with anger. Kantos Kan stopped her with a cruel grip on her leg. "What are you talking about?" he demanded, face set as hard as the concrete of the great towers.
Connie easily jerked free but did not withdraw. She bent over and hissed at the red man. "Isn't it obvious, Kanty? Clixia doesn't want to go back!"
"But we must!" Kantos Kan's anger evaporated.
"She knows that!" Connie struggled to control her rancor. "But that doesn't make it any easier!" The girl avoided further comment by springing beyond the firelight, a startling leap made possible by her Jasoomian endowed musculature. The men at the fire saw the fiery brunette quickly join Clixia in the cabin. The dim glow of the Sith's interior lights were immediately extinguished.
Kantos Kan was glum company for the Earthman as they sat by the dying fire competing with the pale light of the twin moons. "I have to go back," Kan fought to control the harshness of his voice, "and I don't want to! I have obligations to Helium. Tony," his voice dropped a notch. "The Sith is repaired and we are provisioned. Let's leave tonight. I can't sleep. When I'm tired we'll anchor and I'll rest then."
"Sure you want to do this? She's a great ladyI'd be tempted to go AWOL for someone like Clixia."
"Tony," the Martian kicked sand over the fire, "you don't understand." With a gesture which bespoke futility, Kantos Kan headed for the Sith. "I'm not even sure I understand! Still, I must go back. Are you coming?"
"Do I have a choice?" Tony muttered dismally as he boarded the cruiser.
The anchor rope was detached and the Sith silently rose between the ruined towers of Kanator to 100 ads (975 feet) before the naval officer applied power to the propulsion units. The triple motors responded with an increasing whisper as the airspeed multiplied. Tony stuck his head inside the cabin to check on the ladies and saw Connie sharing a bunk with Clixia. The two women clung to each other, the Martian woman still sobbing, and Tony did not disturb them, withdrawing to a position beside the grim visage of Kantos Kan.
The Martian swiftly increased the cruiser's forward momentum once the Sith was clear of the dead city. A whistling keen rose about the railings of the ship and the naval officer listened intently to the ship's operation before he glanced towards Tony.
Kantos Kan shouted over the wind ripping past the Sith's hull. "She could probably double her speed with new motors and the special gearings we are using in the navy. Excellent stability, no mushiness in the controls..."
Kantos Kan returned his attention to the flight path of the cruiser. Tony offered no comment, accepting the Overlord's statement for what it was, an apology for prior rudeness. Tony watched the moonlit landscape beneath the hurtling cruiser's hull. He estimated the airspeed at one hundred and sixty miles per hour, based on somewhat limited experience with Boeing passenger jets. Tony was sure he couldn't be off by more than ten miles per hour either side of the mean. He was so intent on his observations he was startled when Kantos clapped a hand on his shoulder.
"All in all," The Martian said over the scream of the wind, "it's been a good adventure. We've been places, struggled against nature, and didn't have to kill any humans. We'll be back in Helium in a day or so. I've enjoyed it, Tony. How about you?"
Martin stared at the night-shrouded dead sea bottom silently passing beneath the keel. He eventually answered the Heliumite's question.
"Burroughs would probably end the story at this point. We have the illusion of a happy ending...going home..."
Tony stopped looking over the rail and fixed his gaze on Kantos Kan, who stood at the Sith's tiller. "But in the next installment," Martin continued, "we'd have trouble of some kind, like hitting a mountain or having the engines conk out. That would be the beginning of another adventure."
Kantos Kan shook his head. "I told you Clixia and I know of the great god Burroughs. Only a few worship him now. Burroughs himself proved all the major religions to be false. Can we believe in Burroughs, the Father of Barsoom? I don't have the answer to that."
"Okay," Tony said, "I'll buy that. But what about Clixia? Can't you see what she wants?"
"Clixia and I have a chance to return home, Tony." Kantos Kan fell silent and maintained his position at the helm. An hour or more passed before the red man spoke again. "You spoke of happy endings, Tony. Well, it shall not come to pass this time. You must think me incapable of sensing Clixia's pain, or understanding her unhappiness when, in truth, I feel the same way." The Heliumite shook his noble head, his eyes unwaveringly focused on the northerly course he held under the hurtling moons of Mars.
Tony cried with exasperation. "Then why don't you do something about it, man? Can it be so important to return to a life which makes you both so miserable? Is honor so great a thing you'd risk losing the woman you love?"
Kantos Kan turned his head and stared at the Earthman. "I gave my oath to John Carter many years ago, Tony Martin; the same oath I gave to you. I am a man of honor, sir, and Lady Clixia knows this. As much as I hate what must be, I am forced to make the attempt to return or lose my self-esteem and Clixia's love, for she could not love me were I to turn my back on honor."
Tony's face crimsoned as he leaned against the ship's console. He gripped the upper edge of the windshield and felt the wind whipping his long hair from neck and shoulders. An apology was due the red man, but the Jasoomian was unsure how to speak what was in his heart. He was spared the difficulty; however, because Kantos Kan defused the tension with his wry comment:
"Perhaps our concern is for nothing, Tony. As you said, we are not yet in Helium. Who knows, dear friend, we could be attacked by pirates of the First Born before we cross the equator!"
XVII FAIR HELIUM
Kantos Kan's grim prediction failed to materialize. The flight to Helium was accomplished without further mishap. When the Earthlings saw the titanic twin towers of Helium for the first time they were in awe of the immense constructions. The city itself was huge, giving Tony the impression of Houston, Texas: a vast, sprawling urban area dotted with great high-rise buildings which was only fully appreciable from the air.
After Helium was sighted, Clixia moved a little away from the others, to stand broken-hearted at the railing, staring at the city. Kantos Kan was too busy handling the ship in the high traffic area to speak to the woman, even if he were so foolish to dare this now that they were in the public eye once again.
Connie, despite the thrill of seeing Helium, was sympathetic to the Martian couple's unhappiness. It showed in the way she quietly joined Clixia at the rail, her arm about the older woman's shoulders. Tony glanced towards the two and found Connie's eyes on his. He shrugged, feeling as helpless as the tiny brunette to relieve the inner pain the red Martians mutely endured.
As the Sith approached the city a pair of highly maneuverable twoman airships met the unknown ship. Tony thought of them as patrol "cars" when the "policemen" demanded identification. The padwars were overjoyed to recognize Kantos Kan, and even more ecstatic to learn Lady Clixia was alive and well. One ship turned and raced through the city to announce the Overlord's return while the other remained to clear passage for the Sith all the way to Hanger Tower, South, an immense aerodrome a few miles from the center of Helium. Kantos Kan expertly guided the sturdy airship toward the huge docking facility and landed on a roof the size of three football fields laid end to end.
Kantos Kan issued orders to a well-trained hanger crew which immediately took charge of the docking procedure. The red man sent his companions over the side at the earliest opportunity, enjoining them to await him at the electro-magnetic elevator shaft of the thousand foot tall building. Kantos Kan soon concluded his business with the efficient Hanger Tower personnel and caught up with his fellow adventurers. The jedwar personally operated the open cage elevator during their descent.
The Earthlings were astonished at the size and variety of Martian aircraft housed in the hanger tower. As impressive were the hundreds of industrious personnel working in the building; machinists and ship-fitters, all too engrossed with their work to pay much attention to the trio of civilians in the Overlord's company. To Tony's mind, however, considering the trials and vicissitudes the party had endured, their entrance to Helium was anti-climatic.
Kantos Kan seemed nervous and harried from the moment the Sith entered Helium's air space. The man seemed driven to a destination as yet unspecified to the Jasoomians, though Clixia's pensive mood indicated she had her suspicions. Toward this end Kantos Kan allowed time for the party to take advantage of the hanger staff's shower. Kantos Kan borrowed a uniform breech cloth and Clixia gratefully accepted a mechanic's service tunic while Connie and Tony made do with their Orovarian harnesses. As soon as all were presentable, Kantos Kan guided his party back to the roof where a late model town flier awaited. With terse words the pre-occupied Overlord revealed their next destination, the Warlord's palace in Greater Helium.
The Warlord and his consortJohn Carter and Dejah Thoriswere the most prominent citizens of Barsoom. The royal couple greeted Kantos Kan warmly. Tony Martin was impressed with the incredible beauty of Carter's wife and would never again doubt Edgar Rice Burroughs' sweeping statements that Dejah Thoris was the most beautiful woman on two planets.
Dejah Thoris ordered succulent sweetmeats, wine and fruits for their welcome guests. She took Clixia and Connie in charge, leading them to divans on one side of the huge audience hall while the men gathered at an ornate table of polished skeel in the northern end of the hall. Dejah Thoris filled Clixia in on the latest court gossip, earnestly making sure to include Connie Wescott in the conversation. Connie appreciated the lovely creature's consideration though she was at a complete loss to understand half the events which Clixia found so intriguing. The Earth woman did not feel slighted in any way primarily due to First Lady of Barsoom's patient courtesy. Dejah Thoris answered questions the Jasoomian simply seemed on the verge of asking.
At one point the Warlord's wife patted Clixia's hand and said, "I thought you would be anxious to see your family. I took the liberty of sending a messenger to them as soon as we knew you were on the way to the palace. They should arrive any moment."
"Thank you, Dejah Thoris," Clixia softly replied. The self-conscious woman looked out the huge windows overlooking the fabulous inner gardens of the royal palace. "I hope they weren't too worried."
"I think they were less upset than Djor Kantoswhy that young man has been here nearly every day demanding John send out the fleet."
"I hope," Clixia added with a tremulous smile, "Djor didn't bother you too much."
The astonishingly beautiful woman decorously laughed, casting a conspiratorial glance toward the three men at the table. The princess of Mars sipped wine her husband had poured earlier. "Clixia, from the way Djor Kantos acted, you'd have thought he was more concerned for the fate of his father than for you. By the way, did I tell you about"
Clixia was secretly thankful the wife of the Warlord took no notice of her involuntary start. She immediately regained control of herself and listened with apparent interest to the intimate tales Dejah Thoris related about court notables. She listened, but wondered how things were going with Kantos Kan and the Warlord.
John Carter was quite brusk with the naval Overlord. He'd not been too happy with Kantos Kan's meager message explaining Kan's absence from Helium. "My god, man!" Carter cried. "I would have turned out the entire fleet if I only knew where to look for you!"
"I was pressed for time, sir," Kantos Kan's face was a mask of indecision. He did not want to lie to his friend. "I wish I could have left more, but I was afraid they were going to get clean away."
"Then at least tell me all that happened!" Carter demanded.
Kantos Kan's story to the stern Warlord was similar to that which he'd first told the Jasoomians in the ape city. Kan then told of meeting Tony and Connie and their attempt to cross the desert on thoat back; the encounter with Bar Novacs and the Warhoons; finding Ghek; the herd of Rykors (minus the smutty interlude of randy ape and rykor mare); the sandstorm and the treachery of Ghek and Cheta; the finding of the Sith and the hours it took to repair the ship for the trip to Helium. All through the man's narrative the great Warlord remained silent, occasionally pouring a glass of wine, until Kantos Kan finished.
Carter asked questions about the talking apes, where their city might lie. He was also curious about how the Jasoomians had adapted to life on Mars. Kantos Kan answered all questions without hesitation. After this, Carter talked at length with Tony Martin. Tony, in awe of this world figure, sometimes stumbled in his replies and once, while answering another question, blurted information he would not have willingly revealed.
"Yeah, I remember how dark it was that morning I woke up and found Ghek and Cheta gone. Connie and I were near the ramp. I couldn't figure how Ghek could have taken Kantos Kan's weapons. He and Clixia usually slept so close together I'd have thought it impos"
Too late, Tony Martin stopped his words. There was a sudden chill in the room as the Warlord of Mars narrowed his eyes with condemnation. John Carter did not actually voice disapproval for Kantos Kan and Clixia's indiscretions, though according to the strict morals of Barsoomian society the Martian couple had sinned mightily. Tony felt horrible, wanting to beg Kantos Kan's forgiveness, but realized that would only make it worse. He waited in miserable silence while Carter coolly avoided eye contact with Kantos Kan.
Stone-faced in response to Carter's chill, Kantos Kan did not require having a full-grown thoat fall on him to feel the Warlord's poorly concealed rancor. Conversation became immediately strained. A bare xat had passed after Tony's accidental remark when Kantos Kan stiffly rose and begged fatigue.
"A moment please, Kantos Kan?" Carter asked. The Warlord set his wine on the lustrous table and left the room. Kantos Kan used that moment to cross the hall and politely take Clixia to one side. Dejah Thoris and Connie watched Kantos Kan stand close to Clixia and whisper some urgent communication. Both women were surprised when the Clixia's pleasant smile faded into instant remorse. How could they have known of Tony Martin's terrible blunder?
Connie was confused by her friend's distress though she remained silent while the Martian couple had quiet words. She did hear the end of the conversation when Clixia's trembling voice fervently declared, "I want to go with you, Kanty!"
Kantos Kan shook his head. "Your family is expected. What small service I could do for you is now done. I am glad you are safely home, Lady Clixia." The noble red man abruptly bowed then turned away, unable to face the tears in the woman's eyes.
Kantos Kan approached Connie Wescott and Dejah Thoris, his bearing marked by deep inner tragedy. Without explaining, he begged Dejah Thoris' understanding, saying, "I really must leave after John Carter returns. I shall say goodbye now."
Kantos Kan returned to the mortified football tackle. The red man offered a smile of reassurance to the stricken Jasoomian. "Have no uneasiness, my friend. I do not fault you in any way. It was only a matter of time before" Kantos Kan closed his mouth, extending his hand. He gripped Tony's with genuine feeling. "Let us say goodbye with glad hearts and happy friendship." The Jedwar of the Navy then finished the wine in his glass and silently waited for the Warlord of Mars to return.
Five minutes elapsed before John Carter reappeared. "Thank you for waiting, sir." Carter spoke without preamble or warmth. Kantos Kan mutely listened to the rest of the man's speech. "I had a matter of urgency to attend. I'm sure you understand. I wish you speedy recovery from your adventure. Good day, Kantos Kan."
Carter curtly turned his back to the naval officer. He proceeded to the other side of the room and joined the women where he began to regale Connie with descriptions of his own adventures on Mars.
Kantos Kan rigidly about-faced; for him the audience was terminated. Clixia, sensing the inner turmoil of the man, came to him. The red man was expressionless, but she understood the remorse etched on Tony's face. Kantos Kan bowed to her and walked toward the sumptuously polished skeel doors. Clixia, undecided for only a single heartbeat, ignored her social danger and hurried to his side. She clung to Kan's arm and walked out with the grim officer; urging caution and restraint to her lover. They exited the chambers of the mightiest man of Mars.
Tony was torn between running after them and speaking with John Carter about the Warlord's icy dismissal of Kantos Kan. Before he could decide his course of action, Clixia returned, tears streaming from her eyes. The Jasoomian went to her, mutely offering comfort, though he did not take her in his arms as he longed to do. Clixia sensed his sympathy and patted Martin's arm.
"I'm all right, Tony. You're much too sweet. Let's rejoin the others. I would like you to meet my family when they arrive, for no matter what I may have said, they are wonderful people."
"You haven't said anything that any other child wouldn't say about their parents. Sure you're okay? Want me to go after Kanty?"
She quickly shook her head. "Best not. Give him and the Warlord some time. I'm sure everything will turn out fine. Be a dear, Tony, and don't worry so much."
"If you say so, Clixia." Tony sighed, feeling responsible for the coldness between Kantos Kan and the Warlord. He hoped he had not irreparably damaged a friendship which had lasted longer than his and Connie's combined ages.
Tony seated Clixia and stood by the rear of the divan. He smiled at Dejah Thoris, then glanced to Connie who was trying to maintain a smile as the Warlord continued to expound on his experiences on Mars.
Carter ignored the athlete, more interested in Martin's lovely companion at this point. Tony could only take so much of that irritating snobbery and decided he would find Kantos Kan despite Clixia's plea. The Warlord didn't even look up as the big man left the audience hall.
Martin caught up with Kantos Kan before the officer had left the building. "Don't let him get you down, old man!" Tony cried, his hand tight on the martian's shoulder. "Be cool! By the way, where can Connie and I get in touch with you? We don't even know where you live."
The red man stared at the young man with disbelief. "You would still be friends with me after this?" His arm rose in a gesture which included past events as well as the current physical surroundings. "You saw how J.C. reacted. I'm afraid you'd only bring his disfavor on yourself if you persist in our friendship."
"You let me worry about that, Kanty. ShitI'm the one who let the friggin' cat out of the bag! Connie and I are as guilty of being in love as you and Clixia. Do you suppose it would be any different for us if that pompous ass knew Connie and I have been rolling in the hay?" Tony shook his black-maned head negatively. "We'd be on the same shit list, Kanty, so where can we find you?"
Kantos Kan grinned hugely and his grip displayed his gratitude for Martin's understanding. He happily divulged the information Tony requested. "Come see me when you can, Tony Martin!"
"You can bet on it, Kanty!"
Tony Martin retraced his path to the Warlord's inner chambers, where the great man was pouring a glass of potent Kaolian wine to wet his throat. After a time Tony noted the time between sips grew extremely short as Carter continued to narrate his first adventures on Mars. The Warlord avowed his great, chaste love for Dejah Thoris, who seemed quite bored by the whole monologue. The awe Tony Martin first felt in the presence of a world class hero was fading.
Connie began nodding off as John Carter poured yet another glass of wine. The tiny brunette adroitly concealed a yawn behind a sun-browned hand; she'd read this particular Carter adventure in Warlord of Mars. It was all Connie Wescott could do to remain attentive when she'd rather soak in a hot bath then jump into the nearest bed for at least fifty hours of sleep.
Sometime during a graphic description of one of the Warlord's famous sword battles, Clixia's family arrived. This did not cause the Virginian to stop his narrative; thus the Earthlings received only the briefest introduction before Clixia's curiously unfriendly family quickly took their daughter away.
Tony sensed Connie's need for sleep and tried to find a point where he could interrupt John Carter without causing insult. The time did not arrive quickly enough: Connie fell asleep. Martin rose, walked to Connie's side and shook her by the shoulder. He lifted the drowsy girl to her feet, supporting her with his brawny arm.
"You must forgive us, sir," Tony inclined his head in Carter's direction. "We have been on an arduous road for the last three weeks. We are tired and in need of rest. Since most of this day is gone and night is nigh, we would like to retire."
"Forgive me, fellow Jasoomian!" Carter cried. "I have been thoughtless of your comfort!" he said, bowing over Connie's hand, raising it to his lips and lingering far longer than Martin thought necessary. "You must take apartments here in the palace, my dear." Carter quickly looked up to Tony and added, "You, too, of course!"
Lecherous Faker! Tony thought with carefully controlled anger. Give Kanty the cold shoulder and then make time with my lady in front of your wife! How does she stand it?
Martin's voice, though, was quite normal when he replied. "Thank you, no. Kantos Kan has offered us shelter for the evening. Since we have traveled so far together it would be the poorest of manners if we did not to accept his generous offer."
Carter nodded, as he must, considering the explanation, but his next words contained a hint of steel. "I hope we see more of you in the future, when it might be possible to have a friendly discussion without references to certain unsavory events."
"I imagine we'll meet often," Connie replied with sweetness in her voice, though her eyes shot daggers. "After all, we're good friends with Kantos Kan." Connie smoothly disengaged her hand from Carter's grasp, slipping her arm through Tony's, "Shall we go?"
"Indeed" Carter nodded, his voice less jovial, his eyes hard. He escorted them to the door of the hall, bowing slightly as they passed into the corridor beyond.
Tony gulped. It seemed quite possible their names just went to the top of the shit list he'd mentioned to Kantos Kan. Just after the door of the Warlord's apartment closed behind them, Connie's little foot stamped the paving with fury.
"The nerve of that two-faced bastard!" Connie hissed as they hurried out of the building. "What a snob!" Connie violently shook Tony's arm in a display of anger. "Just because we didn't kill hundreds of Martians and we didn't observe the straight-laced ethicsdoes that give him any right to look down his nose at us or Kanty and Clixia?"
"Come on, honey." Tony might have privately agreed with her sentiments, but he counseled against jumping to conclusions. "I don't think he meant it that way. Remember, J.C. is a Gentleman of Virginia. They broke his mold way before the Civil War." Tony put his arm about Wescott's waist, attempting to cool her vituperative condemnation of the Warlord.
Connie was unwilling to be mollified. She frowned, pushing at the limp mass of brunette curls she lacked time to shampoo at the hanger tower. Her voice was filled with doubt. "I still think he was perfectly horrid to Kantos Kan and Clixia!"
The Avenue of Jeddaks was filled with hundreds of pedestrians and a large number of huge thoats. The center of the street was reserved for mechanized transports, swiftly moving traffic which bore little resemblance to Earthly vehicles. The Jasoomian's exit from the Warlord's residence was not the one they had used as entrance: the flier had landed them on the palace's rooftop, therefore Tony looked in both directions from the shadow of the massive doorway to gain his bearings before proceeding north on the Avenue of Jeddaks. Connie kept pace with the young man.
"If we hadn't been along," Connie grumbled, "Clixia and Kanty could have had a nice vacation. When they got back, they might have pulled off that story about Clixia being abducted. I think we upset the old apple cart..."
"We?" Tony frowned. "Try me. I spoke out of turn. Who knows what might have happened, babe? I just know what did happen. I'm the one who said too flippin' much!" Tony confessed; hurt and angry with himself.
"He knows?" For a moment Connie Wescott found it difficult to find words, but when she did, she spoke soothingly. "I'm sure Kanty and Clixia will understand. It just isn't fair, darling! You should have heard what Dejah was saying about Djor Kantos! Didn't sound much like the loving son to me" Connie knew her words would not help much, but she had to say them. She refused to allow Tony to shoulder the burden of guilt he seemed so anxious to assume.
"The damage has been done," Tony said. "However, in spite of what I said, I got the feeling Carter was already looking for an excuse to get on Kanty's case."
"What?" Connie's interest was piqued. Tony's words reminded her of the Warlord's reception accorded Kantos Kan when they arrived at the palace. There was nothing positive to back her feelings, but she thought Tony was right.
The young woman found herself nodding through Tony's next statement. "I think Kantos Kan was prepared for this, Connie. Of course he's pissed as a wet cat with his tail in a light socket but I believe our friend was actually relieved to have it happen!"
"I hope you're right," Connie brushed wind-blown hair out of her eyes. She hugged Martin's hand at her waist. "I've grown so terribly fond of Kanty and Clixia..."
Connie suddenly became aware of the street traffic, the immensity of the city. "Where are we going?"
"Thought we'd pop by Kanty's and see if he can put us up for the night, or at least loan us the bucks to get a room somewhere. I'd rather stay with a friend or in a hotel instead of accepting the generosity of a bigot!"
"So you told a lie to the great John Carter?" Connie giggled. "You mean Kantos Kan didn't invite us?"
"Not in so many words, but I'm in no mood for the hospitality of a drooling, insufferable asshole who's convinced his way is the only way!"
Connie laughed in agreement as Tony studied the street signs carved into the corners of the buildings. Martin gave an soft-voiced exclamation of discovery and steered Wescott to the right. This side street was not as crowded as the Avenue of Jeddaks, though there were still a number of people hurrying to unknown destinations.
At the next intersection the brawny athlete, eyes turned upwards to locate a street sign, absent-mindedly forced his way through the crowd. Connie was not truly surprised when an irate red man complained at being shoved. The man, in a deliberately insulting manner, challenged Tony to a duel.
Tony's immediate apology to the Heliumite was unaccepted; the demand for satisfaction was made a second time. Martin, tired from the journey, upset with the meeting with John Carter and in a generally foul mood, responded with a roar that echoed between the stone buildings lining the street.
"I'm a Jasoomian, you little red freak! Want a piece of me, midget?" Tony drew himself to his full height and glared at the challenging party. The red man backed down one pace, his hand trembling on the hilt of his sword.
Martin snorted. "I'm the challenged party, whimp. I have the choice of weapons!" He quietly fingered the bow looped over his shoulder with steely eyes. "Or" he loudly smacked one huge fist into the palm of his hand "your choice, little one!"
The Martian's eyes grew round as he profusely apologized. The Heliumite allowed that the incident was entirely his own fault and could we please avoid a duel that might spill my guts all over the clean streets of Helium? The man quickly faded into the crowd without waiting to hear Martin's answer. The eager crowd which had gathered in anticipation of a fight shrugged their collective shoulders and went about their business.
Tony shook himself free of anger and turned away. He chose his path with more care as they proceeded, determined to avoid another such incident. Connie grinned hugely and whistled with admiration as they crossed an intersection where ground fliers moved east to west. "That's nothing like the Tony I knew when we first got to Mars! Yummy!"
"You approve?" Tony felt self-conscious. He lowered his embarrassed gaze to the pavement as they walked side by side. He chided himself for being huge, gross, and so stupid for having come that close to a duel, but on the other hand, he liked the sparkle in Connie's eyes. "Do you think it's an improvement?"
"If that aggressiveness extends to lovemakingwow!I'm all for it!"
"You naughty little nympho!" Tony chuckled as he leaned over to kiss the top of her unwashed brown curls. Connie grinned mischievously, her hand reaching up to tug playfully at his beard.
At the next crossing Tony asked Connie to wait. "No sense in walking out of the way if I got the directions mixed up, kitten. I'll be right back."
"Fine with me," Connie said, her eyes attracted by a nearby display. "I'll do a little lookie-but-no-touchie window shopping."
Martin was gone for only a few moments before the brunette became aware of a trio of men laughing coarsely and pointing in her direction. They made Connie sufficiently nervous she decided to join Tony instead of waiting. Her path, however, led past the rude-mannered men.
One of them made an obscene gesture Connie had no trouble recognizing: it was the same on Mars as on Earth. She stopped, glaring at the man in the uniform of the Jeddak's Guard, and demanded: "Got a problem, sleezeball?"
"We were wondering," the man chuckled. He did not finish his statement.
This angered Connie. "You were wondering what?"
The man rolled his eyes with mock fear, which made his companions roar with delight. Connie's hand wrapped about the hilt of her long sword, her temper rising.
"Rather strange attire for a woman," the man explained, barely able to control his mirth. "It has been said that women who dress as men have difficulty attracting the attentions of that sex and therefore seduce women. We were wondering how a woman makes love to another woman"
He did not have a chance to finish his words: Connie's sword zinged from her sheath. "I'm not a Lezbo!"
The man grinned, shaking his head with amusement. "Run along. Don't waste my time."
"Time?" Connie sneered, the blood pounding in her veins. "You haven't much time left, shit-for-brains! Defend yourself, or I'll run you through where you stand!"
When he did not respond, the girl calmly delivered a series of insults, any one of which would have been sufficient to obtain the response she desired. "Ulsio! Silian! Hormad!" Rat! Lizard! Android!
Three hands descended to swords, but only one length of Martian steel ran free in the air. Cries of outrage and pain from his companions made the armed guardsman look back over his shoulder.
His companions were bent double, grimacing with pain, as Tony Martin effortlessly twisted arms against the grain of the elbow. The big man's face was a blank mask which made the Martian pause in indecision.
"The lady's called you out," Tony's voice was cold and as hard as the concrete forming the building at his back. "While I don't necessarily approve of dueling, you'll have to go it alone, my brave, stupid friend!"
If Tony Martin's calmly delivered statement was intended to unnerve the swordsman, it served exactly the opposite. With a shout, the guardsman leapt toward Connie Wescott, his deadly blade slashing down in a vicious over hand.
Connie adroitly parried and pressed her own attack. Tony's heart pounded in his chest as he watched the inter-play of steel between his lover and the irate guardsman. He was prepared to do the dastardly thing and bash the red man if things got out of hand but, to his amazement and that of Connie's opponent, the Martian soon realized he was not facing a mere female, but a master of the sword!
The warrior redoubled his efforts, determined to end the match as swiftly as possible. His eyes gleamed with fury as he directed the point of his weapon towards Connie's tender bosom. He lunged with an exuberant shout. "Die! Jasoomian bitch!"
XVIII JOURNEY'S END
"At least you didn't kill the poor bastard," Tony sighed as they walked away from the stunned and bleeding Martian being cared for by his equally amazed companions. "What got into you, dear? I've never seen you so angry!"
"I've had all the pseudo-moralistic bullshit of Barsoom I can take! Even John Carter's pass at me made it clear he thought I was a whore! I can handle a guy like Carter, no sweat, but when these bozos said I was a Lez, I just blew my cork! The next time that idiot speaks to another woman, he'll show some respect!"
Connie finished cleaning her blade of blood collected by giving a dozen or so scratches to her vanquished opponent. Connie settled the duel with the flat of her blade across the top of the guard's skull. She looked back over her shoulder where the dazed guard's companions were quickly escorting him off in the opposite direction.
Connie slipped her steel into the sheath with a swift gesture. She looked up to the towering youth with a sharp expression on her face. "You didn't have to butt in, Tony, I could have handled all three of them by myself."
"Did you think I'd let you hang your ass out on a limb? Did you even stop to think those guys aren't used to seeing a woman dressed like you? Women are supposed to be soft and cuddly..."
"Are you implying I'm not?" Connie stopped dead in her tracks and glared at the black-bearded man. Tony quickly back-pedaled; his hands spread wide in a gesture of no contest.
"I'm not trying to pick a fight with you, darling!"
"You better not," Connie replied, slightly placated. Then she chuckled. "I'll make a soprano out of you if you give me any shit!"
"Sure you will," Tony grinned cheerfully. "Tell me, just where will you find the same kind of loving I can give you?"
Connie bit her lower lip for a second before she ruefully shrugged. She laughed. "You're right. I wouldn't go that far. Besides," she added, smiling as she hugged his arm to her sweaty breast, "I have other ways of making your life miserable."
"I'm sure you do, darling." Tony chuckled, unoffended by her words. He knew the petite woman still felt the embarrassment and excitement of the duel. He had also become accustomed to Connie's sometimes off-beat sense of humor. At least he hoped she was joking.
With a radiant smile transforming her, Connie rested her forehead on Tony's thick biceps. "I love you, you big, stupid jock! You're just the sweetest thing on two planets!"
Connie Wescott sighed happily and let the grinning young man lead her through the streets of Helium, content to be with him, glad the hard journey was over, no matter how unhappy the ending.
The sun set and the radium street lights of the city revealed how much of her vanquished foe's blood was spattered on her sun-bronzed skin. "Last time I got like this," Connie recalled with an expression of disgust, "is when I killed that damn ape. I sure hope Kantos Kan has a shower!"
"We'll soon find out!" Martin chuckled, squeezing her gently, "Shouldn't be much farther."
"I can't wait! This old cut-and-slash business is too grubby for me!"
Tony paused at the next intersection and verified the street name. There were few people on the darkened avenue; the hooded radium lights only illuminated the streets themselves without shining upwards to the buildings or the heavens above. Tony chuckled to himself: How many little things had Burroughs put in his stories to make them seem plausible to his audience of 1911 to 1950? Street lights that couldn't be seen from space, for example. Connie felt his laughter instead of hearing it. When she asked, he told her his thought and she came up with a few more as they walked through the deserted district.
Connie made an observation that the area bore a startling resemblance to the condo and apartment complexes near their old neighborhood back on Earth. Few of the buildings were taller than five stories and there was an abundance of parks and open areas, far more frequent than the more densely populated downtown area of Greater Helium.
Connie observed the streets were nearly deserted and said, "At least we aren't likely to run into any yo-yos like that bastard"
Tony suddenly pulled Connie into a darkened doorway and held her arms in his great hands. "Would you have really killed that man back there? Damn it, I know you were mad and you had every right to do what you did, but I would have stopped you from killing him. All this talk about the 'old cut and slash', I'm not sure I know you any more."
Wescott knit her brows together and gazed at Tony with bewilderment. She sputtered several times in shock. "Are you out of your mind?" Connie kept her voice low, her astonishment plain to read. She reached up and twisted her fingers in his beard and painfully pulled his face nearer. "I couldn't kill a sapient being if I wanted to! If I ever did there'd have to be some damn good reason! I'm even sorry I killed that white ape back at Zanthia. But don't try to tell me you wouldn't if you had no other choice!"
Tony smothered her other retorts with his own cry of relief and pressed his lips to hers. He lifted the girl's slight weight into his arms and kept kissing her as he moved down the street. The occasional passerby prudently minded their own business as the pair of Jasoomians made public spectacles of themselves. Tony carried the sweaty, grimy and glowing girl until they reached an ascending ramp for an apartment building. He bent low, setting Connie on her feet.
With a huge grin on his face, Martin patted Wescott's head."You're a big girl. You can walk the rest of the way."
"Are we here?" Connie leaned against Tony's apparently tireless strength, still weak-kneed and trembling from their passionately unrestrained kisses.
"Should be on the second floor and to the left," Tony responded.
They mounted the spiral ramp, turning left at Tony's silent gesture. They found themselves into a narrow corridor with a dozen or more doors opening onto it at regular intervals. Martin carefully examined each apartment number revealed by the dim overhead lighting until he found the proper door. He curled his knuckles and rapped softly. A few moments later he knocked again, louder. The door finally opened after a long interim.
Kantos Kan's dark scowl vanished, replaced with an instant grin. "I thought you kids were staying with J.C. this evening!" he said with pleasant surprise. "Come in! Please come in!"
The Martian held the front of his robe together with one hand as he ushered his guests into the apartment. The fine sheen of perspiration on his brow seemed to indicate unfortunate timing on the part of the Jasoomians, but that seemed unlikely to the Earthlings since Clixia left with her folks before they departed John Carter and Dejah Thoris. Unless Kantos Kan had someone else on the side they could not have interrupted amorous activity. And even if it were so, one could not tell it from Kantos Kan's genuinely warm reception.
The red man suddenly explained all with the shout he directed to the rear of the apartment. "Clixia, you'll never guess who's here!" He walked towards the half-open door on the opposite wall of the spacious living room.
"I don't have to," the beaming woman giggled as she stepped into the room, still catching her breath as she clutched a bed sheet about her voluptuous body. She offered a hug to Tony and then gave one of equal intensity to Connie. "I'm so glad to see you!"
"Uh" Tony blushed. "We've come at a bad time." He started for the door with Connie demurely following. Clixia put a stop to that by trying to push Tony down on the couch and though she wasn't successful in man-handling Martin's bulk, but she did prevent the Jasoomians from leaving.
Clixia smiled, sitting on the couch beside the young couple. "We want you to stay! Isn't that right, Kanty?"
"Exactly!" the Martian heartily responded. Kantos Kan reached out and opened the hood of the over head radium bulb to dispel the dimness of the room.
As the light strengthened, Clixia cried out in alarm when she discovered blood on Connie's fair skin and costume. "Darling! What happened? Are you all right?" The woman was so concerned with examining the younger woman that her sheet slipped to the floor, forgotten.
"I'm fine," Connie gently pushed the hands away. She reached down to raise the crumpled fabric about the older woman's body. "You'll catch a death of cold," she chided with a giggle.
"What happened?" Clixia asked, pulling the sheet over her breasts and tucking the ends together. "You must tell me!"
"Yes," Kantos Kan added his plea, "you must!"
"I just had a little misunderstanding with a dumb ass. Nothing to worry about, but, I'd sure love a bath..."
"You come with me!" Clixia put her arm about the girl's waist and led Connie through the door leading to the sleeping chamber and bath.
Kantos Kan said, "Look through the closets, dear. Use whatever you like."
Clixia smiled, "Thank you, Kanty, we'll do just that." Clixia shut the door, leaving Kantos Kan and Tony Martin alone in the front room.
"Have any trouble finding the place?" Kantos Kan asked.
"Not really. The directions were excellent. I hope you don't mind us barging in like this."
"Not at all. I'm glad you came, Tony."
"Sure you are," Martin could not repress his smile, or the apologetic nod towards the closed door. "I didn't expect Clixia to be here. As soon as Connie gets her bath, we'll go find us a place. Can you lend me a few tanpi for a room at the inn?"
"I won't hear of that. You can stay here with us. As for the other, don't let it worry you, my friend. We weren't doing anything that we weren't going to be doing a lot more of in the future." Tony started to protest, but the red man hushed him with a gesture. "There's another reason why I'm glad you came. I want you to take a look at this..."
Kantos Kan went to the borrowed uniform and pulled a wad of paper from the belt pouch. "Remember when John Carter stepped out for a few moments this afternoon? Well this is why. He had a man give this to me before I left the palace. Read it."
Martin did, then looked up to the man he had come to call friend. Tony's disbelief was obvious from the hanging jaw and wide eyes. "You've got to be kidding, Kanty! Discharged? Booted out? He canned your ass? For what?"
Before Kantos Kan could reply, the men were surprised by a pair of startled gasps. Heads turned to find Connie and Clixia standing in the doorway. Clixia's features were etched with mortified shock, Connie was stunned.
"I knew this would happen!" Clixia cried in despair, fighting tears. "I knew it! I knew it! I knew it!"
Connie, with tears a positive threat in her own eyes, tried to comfort the older woman. She forced Clixia towards the divan and made her sit; Kantos Kan on one side, herself on the other. She stoked Clixia's copper-bronze hair sympathetically.
Anguished hands covered the red woman's lovely face and distorted words that were already strained by unhappy emotions. "I knew something like this would happen, Kanty! Now you know why I didn't want to come back! We'd have been better off if we'd died back there in the dead cityor at the hands of the Warhoons!"
"I had to come back, dearest," the red man responded with tortured sympathy. The cashiered warrior watched the Jasoomian woman console his lover with a slow, rocking motion. Kantos Kan expelled his breath in an explosive sigh. "It's just as well, Clixia. We knew what we were doing. We knew the consequences..."
Connie wasn't buying any of that. "It's a perfectly shitty way," she declared, "for John Carter to treat a friend he's known for years!"
Clixia put her arms about Connie's neck and buried her face against the Jasoomian's shoulder. She shook her head and wailed: "It's the code, Connie. There is nothing anyone can do to change it."
"Well, I sure as hell would try!" Connie's lips touched the woman's cheek. Her own eyes were moist, her despair evident. "It's not the end of the world, Clixia!"
"But it is!" Clixia drew away, her right hand rubbing at the wetness beneath her red-rimmed eyes. "There's more," she choked, looking at Kantos Kan until she could not hold that gaze.
"I lied to you tonight, dearest," she explained. "I suppose the same man who gave you that," she pointed at the note Tony held, "was the one who talked to my father." Clixia rose, went through the silks Dejah Thoris had given her and, with obvious reluctance, laid a parcel in Kantos Kan's lap. When he opened it, Clixia would have run from the room if Connie had not stopped her. The sun-browned swordswoman pulled the Martian lady to the divan and held her tightly, sensing a terrible disaster had overtaken the fine woman who'd become her best friend.
There was heavy silence in the room as the red man slowly read the top sheet before glancing through the rest of the thick parcel. In the end, he let it fall to his lap without comment. The tragic look on the red man's face prompted Tony Martin to take the package and discover its contents.
Tony Martin concluded his examination of the documents. He turned to Clixia, his sympathy quite plain. "I'm sorry, darling. This is really crazy! It doesn't make any sense!"
"No?" she cried. "No? Why not, Tony Martin? Remember where you are! This is Barsoom! Father Burroughs set the toneset the examplesmade us follow customs that are so idealistic, soso impossible! Because of what I feel for Kantos Kan my family has disowned me! Cast out for my indiscretions! No one will champion me now!"
"I will!" Kantos Kan's vehement response was echoed by Tony Martin.
Connie Wescott had difficulty finding her voice, she was so filled with indignation. "If that doesn't beat all! It's okay to fuck around as long as you don't fuck? It seems to me that getting married in this society is as easy as saying 'my chieftain' and 'my princess', but apparently I'm wrong. What's all the anxiety over two consenting adults enjoying themselves? There's a damn sight worse going on all over Barsoom right now! Wars, slavery, rape and pillaging, paid assassins, thieves, piratesis there any true so-called Fate Worse Than Death? Humankind operates on the basic principal that bad is to be expected and good is to be cherished. As far as I'm concerned a little of the in-and-out with someone I can love and respect is the best I'll ever hope for in this life!" Connie was so outraged she could not continue.
Clixia heard the impassioned words and took strength from them. "You're so right!" Clixia exclaimed, hugging the outraged swordswoman. Connie gladly accepted the affectionate embrace; the high flush on the Jasoomian's well-formed cheeks indicating the depth of her emotion.
Connie took a deep breath, holding Clixia close. Her eyes flashed with anger. "It strikes me that our old friend John Carter is so narrow-minded that two molecules passing between his Victorian thoughts'd be accused of public fornication!"
Dismayed, Clixia's head snapped erect at Connie's comment.
Connie met the distressed look with a challenge. "It's true, Clixia! That buggering fart spouts high ideals out one side of the mouth and then tries to get in my drawers the next. Wishy washy son-of-a-bitch! He's a lecherous prude! Jumps on you and Kanty for loving each other, and at the same time he wants to diddle my pussy! But you know what? He's such a 'gentleman' he probably makes appointments to lay that fine lady of his."
Clixia involuntarily snorted with amusement. Her hand rose to her lips and she began laughing with such animation she collapsed across the laps of the Jasoomians. The others found themselves joining her lively mirth.
Clixia gasped for air as she took hold of herself. "What the hell is so funny?"
Connie slapped her thigh, belatedly realizing it was Clixia's and not her own. "Nothing, dear. We're all crazy tired. Get off me, you big cow, and show me the bath!" Her voiced dropped a notch as she added with a desperate plea: "And if you don't hurry, I'm gonna pee all over myself!"
Clixia staggered to her feet. "All right, but you better be fast. I'm in the same shape!" The girls threw arms about each other and left the room, giggling and talking in secretive whispers.
Tony Martin set Clixia's parcel on the table and leaned back with a sigh. He made a small gesture towards the rear of the apartment. "I'm glad we can still laugh," he said. "Especially Clixia. That was a rotten thing to happen."
The red man nodded his agreement and rose to cross the room. Kantos Kan lifted a bottle of pale, yellowish liquid and a pair of beautifully wrought glasses from the top of a intricately carved chest. Kantos Kan returned to the divan. He poured a generous portion into one of the glasses and offered it to Tony.
Tony accepted the wine with a smile. "Thanks."
Kantos Kan filled his glass and for long moments they sat, listening to the muted voices of the women and the splashing spray of the shower. A second glass of wine was imbibed in the same quiet manner; the effects of the strong beverage easing the tenseness which previously filled the room. The wine, the pleasant atmosphere of Kantos Kan's apartment, the quiet domestic sounds of women bathingall created a sense of peace. Tony chaffed under this feeling, his guilt plaguing him.
"I guess I really botched things up for you and Clixia. I'm sorry, Kanty, I just didn't think when Carter started asking questions. Because of me you've been cashiered from the navy and Clixia's been labeled a loose woman! My only excuse is stupidity, and my best friends are suffering because of that!"
"Ridiculous!" Kantos Kan denounced the apology with exasperation. "You and Connie had nothing to do with this!" He tossed off the last of his wine before re-filling the glass with slow deliberation.
"It was bound to happen sooner or later, my friend, the discharge I mean." Kantos Kan sipped his wine thoughtfully. "There are those who've been after my post for years. Frankly, I've had enough! I believe J.C. was about to replace me anyway. I'm only sorry Clixia got caught in the middle. You know, Tony," Kantos Kan stared at the rim of his glass, lost in thought, "I had the feeling that Clixia lied to me this evening. We've never met, alone, in the city before. I knew there was trouble when she wanted to make love. What surprises me the most is that she doesn't hate me for what happened."
"Why should she hate you?" Tony leaned forward and clapped a firm hand on the Martian's knee. "She loves you to pieces. You just saw that. Gods, what I'd give for that much love from a woman."
"Don't try to fool me, son. You've already got that. Yes," the ex-officer said with sudden determination, "perhaps, it's for the best. I'll have a talk with Clixia, tell her what's been going on with the High Command. I will not have her thinking she was the reason I was discharged. Like I said, it was inevitable. As for Djor Kantos, I can finally tell my son to suck green Martian eggs and stay out of my life!" Kantos Kan's wide smile anticipating that event made the Jasoomian chuckle.
Tony Martin finished his drink and accepted the re-fill Kantos Kan offered. The Martian was already well into his third. The beverage seemed to relieve some of the older man's bad humor. Slapping his knee, Kantos Kan grabbed Martin's brawny shoulder.
"One good thing has come of this, Tony Martin!" Kantos Kan saluted the Jasoomian with his glass before draining it. "We've had an adventure no one will believe!" The ex-naval officer spilled some of the wine on the low table when he poured. He wiped it from the smooth skeel wood surface with the hem of his robe before he continued.
"I haven't had this much fun in ages, dear fellow! Most adventures are blood and guts involving high motivations and chaste love. In a wordboring! And also," Kantos Kan waved a finger in the air as if he were fencing with an invisible opponent, "dangerous!" He paused to empty his glass.
Kantos Kan grinned. "We had a good time, Tony! It's absurd for you or you lovely lady to assume any guilt over the end results. Clixia and I won't allow that! I've grown very fond of you both, you are like a son and daughter, but much more, true friends! Kaor!"
Tony did not hide the tears which came in response to the older man's sincere words. He returned the toast with heartfelt emotion and poured the next round. He raised his glass on high. "Give'em hell, Kanty! We're behind you all the way!"
The Martian laughed and took a hearty pull at his wine. He sat the glass on the table and leaned back. "I'll never forget the first time I saw you, Tony," the red man chuckled, the beverage relaxing his usually tacit composure. "You and my Clixia were just about as close together as Connie's delightful statement about molecules and John Carter!"
Tony blushed. "UhIuh"
Kantos Kan roared with amusement. "Not to worryI approve..."
"But don't try it again?" Tony's lips upturned slightly.
Kantos Kan's smile was contagious. "You just remember that when Connie wants to kiss this smooth face of mine. We'll just have to be gentlemen about the whole thing. Agreed?"
Tony laughed, nodding his head. He leaned forward, elbows on knees and played with the glass on the low table. "Did I tell you I fell out of a tree the first time I saw you?"
"You did?" Kantos Kan raised an eyebrow and chuckled heartily. "I wish I could have seen that."
"I wonder what happened to Cheta and Ghek?" Tony asked. "Do you suppose the little shit buggered those poor female rykors to death?"
The red man shrugged his shoulders with a grin as he noted the depleted condition of the decanter. Kantos Kan produced another bottle and pulled the stopper from the crystal container.
"There were many times I thought you were actually going to carry out your old threat through more than once, my friend. It would have been quite amusing to see the rambunctious chap munching his own appendages for breakfast!"
"Still," Tony remembered with a touch of respect, "you've got to hand it to the little guy. He did bail us out with the Warhoons and kept the apes in the dead city of Kanator from bothering us."
"Speaking of Warhoonsthat Bar Novacs was as despicable a character as I've ever met," Kantos Kan declared, "Yet so unlike the usual Warhoon! He didn't kill us out of hand! You must admire the way he tricked you into performing the sakking demonstration."
Now that he was in civilization free from the worry of wondering where his next meal was coming from, Tony could afford to sit back and laugh at past events. "And good old Ghek! Poor bastard always had his head up his ass, or his ass up his head since he hasn't got a body of his own and his rectum is so close to his brain!" Tony contentedly sank back into the cushions. He laced fingers behind his head and felt the sand and grit in his hair. The tackle was suddenly determined to have a shower as soon as it was vacated by the women.
"I sure miss that old Throxeus," Tony's voice wistfully dropped a pitch. "Ghek and Cheta better have taken care of him." The Jasoomian's tone became thoughtful. "Everything on this 'adventure' worked out just fine except for the end. You get the boot; Clixia's labeled a whore; J.C. puts the make on Connie, and I'm a dumb ass. Know something else?" Tony added, showing the Martian he'd not lost his spirit, "There's no more wine left! Did we drink both of them?"
"There wasn't much to start off, Tony, me boy, but we can always get more!" Kantos Kan jumped to his feet and banged on the door leading to the rear of the apartment. "You girls decent? Tony and I have to take a shower!"
The portal opened and Clixia stood in the doorway, dressed fit to kill. Tony was blatantly appreciative of the revealing costume of soft pastel silks, a few odd pieces of jewelry, and a winning smile.
"You look fabulous!" Kantos Kan announced. "As soon as Tony and I are ready, we're going out for dinner and entertainment!"
"Do you think that's wise" Clixia abruptly stopped herself with a wry laugh. "Who cares anymore? Sounds wonderful, Kanty! Don't you think so, Connie?"
Connie Wescott, blushing with self-conscious embarrassment, slowly came into view. The girl was wearing one of the 'gowns' she and Clixia had found in Kantos Kan's closet. Her abundant curves glowed from a vigorous scrub and the warmth of the bath. The body oils Clixia rubbed into the tiny brunette's healthy sun-browned skin had a pleasant fragrance. Connie's dark brown nipples were barely concealed beneath the silk scarf draped about her soft shoulders. The tiny brunette was so stunning both Kantos Kan and Tony Martin dropped their jaws.
"What?" Connie demanded. "Ridiculous?"
Tony grinned. "Not at all! You look terrific!"
"You're not just saying that, Tony?"
"If you think that, just take a look at Kantos Kan!" Tony told her. She did. She blushed under the ex-Overlord's smiling appreciation. Tony was openly pleased with Connie's delightful metamorphosis.
"Why thank you, Kind Sir. Now, will you do me a favor?" Connie fluttered her eyelashes, pleading with the grinning football tackle.
"Will Sir Stinky do something about his awful, nasty, self?"
"Right away!" Tony pushed past her, heading for the rear of the apartment.
"Across the room and to the left!" Connie shouted to his departing back. "Use plenty of soap!"
Connie turned to Kantos Kan with a mute thank you in her eyes. She had not felt properly feminine since she and Tony mysteriously appeared on Mars. "Were these your wife's?" she asked.
Kantos Kan smiled, "She was about your size. I didn't know what to do with her clothes until now. You must have them, Connie. I would be so happy for you to have them."
Connie was about to protest when Kantos Kan abruptly entered the bedroom. She turned to Clixia to ask if the red man was upset but Kantos Kan returned before she could speak. He carried something in his hand and asked Connie to turn around. She did and was startled when a thin gold chain with a single, perfectly-cut scintillating emerald was slipped over fresh-washed hair and about the young Jasoomian's throat.
"I want you to have this," Kantos Kan said when the flabbergasted girl spun about. "It matches your eyes."
"I can't accept this!" Connie cried, looking at the exquisite gem lying in the palm of her hand. She raised her eyes to the red man's. "You must take it back!"
"I will be offended if you insist, Connie. It's a lovely piece, but it's part of my past, not my future." Before Connie could say more, Kantos Kan turned to enter the bedroom to dress. Kantos Kan paused at the doorway. "I know this little club a few blocks from Hanger Tower, South. They have the best roast thoat and you'll never taste better honeyed wine. I hope you girls are hungry." The tall man did not wait for an answer as he shut the door.
Still in shock over Kantos Kan's extraordinary gift, Connie turned to Clixia. "I can't take this," she said, starting to lift the chain over her head.
Clixia stopped her with a gentle touch and tearful smile of joy on her face. "That is the nearest Kanty will ever come to saying he loves me."
When Connie looked confused, the Martian woman explained with a vibrant tenderness in her voice. "That was his wife's, Connie. He loved her immensely and Kantos Kan has never been a man to love lightly. I know he loves me or we wouldn't have been out on the desert, but I don't think he could ever admit he loved me without first realizing she was no longer a part of his lifehis memories, yesbut not his life. When Kanty gave that necklace to you, he gave something to me. He gave me his love. You must keep it. It really does become you." A momentary sadness touched her, one which lingered in the memory; yet no longer filled Clixia with uneasiness. "She was my friend and she had lovely green eyes like yours."
Connie chewed the inside of her cheek. She saw the hopefulness Kan's gift brought to Clixia and her eyes filled with tears of happiness for the red woman. She embraced Clixia. "I will keep it! Would you mind if I thank him?"
"I didn't hear you make a fuss when I thanked Tony," Clixia smiled, pushing the tiny woman towards the door.
When Tony Martin stepped out of the bath he was not surprised to find the petite swordswoman wrapped closer to Kantos Kan than bacon around filet mignon, especially after he saw the emerald. "Beautiful piece, Kanty," he said with genuine appreciation. He started to reach for his harness (the only thing in the apartment that would even come close to fitting him) and Wescott quickly took it away from him.
"Not until Clixia and I have a chance to clean it up! Ugh!"
Kantos Kan loaned Martin a cloak that served in lieu of a proper robe. They watched as the two women cleaned the ancient Orovarian harness as best they could. Connie handed it to Tony demanding a brief kiss as payment. When Martin reappeared from the bath fully dressed, his beard glistened with drops of water from the shower and his long hair lay slicked against his skull. Without further delay the two couples walked down the ramp, arm in arm. Kantos Kan hailed a passing ground flyer and gave the driver directions to the dining club.
In the darkness of the aft compartment, Tony fingered the sparkling gem suspended about Connie's neck. "I like this very much," he told her. "One day I'll give you all the jewels and clothes you can wear."
"Promises, promises," Connie teased.
Tony saw the shining light in the tiny woman's green eyes. He knew Connie didn't care if she were naked or dressed to the hilt, as long as they were together. The knowledge warmed his heart.
"You sure feel different!" he said, hugging her tightly.
Connie glanced to the front of the taxi, saw Kantos Kan and Clixia head to head, and eagerly returned Tony's embrace. "What do you mean?" she whispered after a long kiss. "Have I lost that much weight?"
"Not talking about weight, dearest," Tony's amused laugh evoked a smile from the swordswoman without knowing the reason for his impish humor. When he explained, running knowing hands over her narrow waist and the swell of her full hips, Connie giggled.
"I think I miss the swords," he began. Whatever else Tony Martin intended to say was left unsaid; Connie's full lips pressed against his.
XIX. UNEXPECTED DEVELOPMENTS
"The Rolling Stones they're not" Tony commented on the quiet musical group entertaining the patrons of Kantos Kan's selected night spot "but they do have a certain unique appeal. Dinner was great!" Tony's admiration was based on the residual remains of the main coursethoat roast. "So that's what old Throxeus would have tasted like!"
"Very delicious," Connie admitted, "but we couldn't have eaten dear, sweet Throxeus! He was too much a friend, Tony. I hope he's doing well, where ever he is."
Clixia delicately wiped her mouth before she joined the conversation. "Not only Throxeus," she sighed, "but Ghek and Cheta, too. I wonder how they're doing on the desert with the rykors?" The Martian lady lifted her goblet and proposed a toast. "Here's to the villains of our adventure! May they reach their destinations in safety and health!"
"Hear, hear!" Kantos Kan clinked his glass against Clixia's, gulping down the dregs before re-filling his cup. "I miss little Chetapoor brute had such an amusing fixation for human women."
Connie laughed gaily, her hand resting on Martin's, "He needed to feel as big and mean and virile as my lovable lummox!"
Tony grinned, taking the good-natured jib in stride. "Cheta had to be a great lady-killer. He couldn't stand being the cute little ape. There ain't a mean bone in his body, excepting with female rykors."
Clixia denied the statement; though the wine she'd had with the dinner made her giggle. "Even then he wasn't vicious, Tony! Cheta was almost pathetic. I suppose," she added with a knowing wink, "Ghek was, too. Still, they were pretty nice, considering one's an ape and the other's a hideous flesh-eating kaldane. Things might have turned out differently if Ghek hadn't decided to leave because of you, Tony."
"Me?" Tony shook his head. "I never threatened the little guy!"
"I didn't say you did," Clixia quickly responded, "but you had him believing you weren't serious about this 'house' you talked about. He probably panicked when you said we couldn't take the rykors with us."
"True," Tony reluctantly agreed, "but Ghek's fear, or greed, left us stranded in Kanator. I suppose we ought to thank him for that: we found the Sith and got back to Helium in days instead of months. Maybe I will thank him, should we ever see him again, if I don't kill him out of hand for stealing Throxeus!"
Connie stared at the big youth, her eyes wide with shock. "You don't mean that, do you, Tony?"
"Of course not, kitten!" Martin shook his head, a resigned and weary smile on his craggy features. "I'm just a little pissed off about being ripped off in the middle of the night in the middle of nowhere."
"This 'rip'," Kantos Kan interjected, "is that 'avaricious'? If so, Ghek was not the only one determined to profit from our misfortunes! Bar Novacs was just as interested; however, he hoped to do so without resorting to long campaigns of war and bloodshed. The Warhoon Jed merely," Kantos Kan chuckled, "wished to place you and Connie in slavery. That's my kind of green man!"
When the perplexed Jasoomian frowned, Kantos Kan explained. "Don't get me wrong, Tony. "Bar Novacs' plan was extremely inconsiderate of your desires, yet you have to admire his willingness to ignore the war-like nature of his society for the advancement of his tribe.
"I appreciate everything Tars Tarkas and his Tharks have done for Helium, please understand that. However, you must admit that the green men of Mars are taciturn and sullen at the best of times. I wonder why Bar Novacs is so radically different from the rest of the green barbarians?"
Tony didn't answer the Martian. He was intently examining the unusual trio just entering the club. With an ominous chill powering his deep basso, Tony quietly whispered to Kantos Kan. "Do you really want an answer to that question, Kanty? Why don't you ask the treacherous bastard yourself!"
Three heads immediately swiveled to see what held Tony's attention. The athlete's companions beheld a green warrior, imposing in a plain leather harness devoid of metal or insignia, who carefully negotiated his way between crowded tables. The great figure was concerned with moving his fourteen foot height beneath the thirteen foot ceiling without injury to himself. Bar Novacs had not, as yet, seen Tony Martin or his friends seated at the table.
Perched on the huge green warrior's shoulder was a diminutive white ape. The tiny creature drew comments and stares from the curious crowd, which made Bar Novacs very nervous. Tony struggled with the sudden nightmarish parody of Bar Novacs as Robert Lewis Stevenson's Long John Silver with a macabre white "parrot" on his shoulder.
Closely following Bar Novacs and Cheta was a breath-taking woman, her face concealed behind a whisper-soft veil. Martian women normally went unveiled, but the shimmer of cloth did little to obscure her more obvious assets, the sheer incredible perfection of the female's lithe form. Most of the low-voiced comments generated by the appearance of the unusual trio were on the woman's behalf, the rest were for the great barbarian green warrior with the astonishing miniature white ape perched on his shoulder.
Bar Novacs was unaware of Tony Martin's presence until the Earthman clamped strong fingers about the green man's harness strap. "Of all the gin joints in all the world, you had to come into mine!" Martin growled, his hand on the hilt of his sword. "What brings you to fair Helium, Bar Novacs?"
The Warhoon's instant reaction caught the Jasoomian off guard. "Shhh! Keep it down, Tony! Want to cause a fight? There's some Tharks sitting in the corner and they hate Warhoons. Okay?"
Martin stared at the ugly frog face and the four open palms devoid of weapons. The young man kept his voice low, yet the steel of his anger showed not only in his words, it was echoed by the white-knuckled grip on his sword hilt. "What do you want?" Tony's deep-pitched rumble caused Cheta to fearfully cling to the green Martian's harness.
"I came to find you, Tony." Bar Novacs slowly eased his immense form closer. "I had to apologize for my abominable behavior. I wanted to make sure you were well and you had arrived in Helium as planned."
The Jasoomians, the Overlord of Helium's navy, and his lovely companion was notable enough to draw the attention of patrons; add the appearance of an impressive green warrior, a unique miniature white ape and a stunning woman of incredible beauty and it was no wonder that Bar Novacs spoke swiftly in hushed tones. "Can we please sit down and talk?" the desert Jed begged.
Kantos Kan's silent gesture to one of the ever-present servants caused another bench to be brought to the table. Bar Novacs gratefully settled his huge bulk on the sorapus wood with a sigh. Cheta jumped from the Warhoon's shoulder to the table and scuttled across the surface to sit close to the mysterious red woman who demurely sat next to the nervous green Martian. Bar Novacs turned his great head, glancing over the night spot's clients, who rapidly lost interest; Barsoom, after all, abounded in the strange and unusual.
Bar Novacs quickly noted the green Tharks, deadly enemies of all Warhoons, had not expressed undue attention, but even so, this made his speech quite rapid and direct. "I did you a terrible wrong, Jasoomians, and I could not rest until I brought you safe to Helium, to beg your forgiveness..."
"Horse-pucky, Bar Novacs," Tony growled. "Play that tune somewhere else. What's the real reason, and how did you find us in this place?"
"It was a fortunate accident," the Martian replied. He would have said more but the little ape interrupted.
"Ghek and I were bad, Tony. We shouldn't have run off. We were really going to turn around and come back for you, but we ran into Bar Novacs. Bar Novacs convinced us of his sincerity in helping you to Helium so we returned to Kanator, but by then you'd gone. My big brothers said you'd found a sky thing and flown north. Bar Novacs suggested we ride for Tjanath. We caught the first public air transport and came directly to Helium." Cheta worried a scrap of flesh from the cold roast and crammed it in his mouth. "It was a long flight and we're hungry!"
"That doesn't answer my question," Tony narrowed his eyes, glaring at the hulking green Martian. "You'd better talk faster, Bar Novacs, or I'll shout 'Warhoon'!"
"By the First Born, Tony!" Bar Novacs trembled, his swords clanking together. "Did I anger you that much? Do you want to get me killed? Damn it, man! This is the first eatery we passed after getting off the transport at Hanger Tower, South! Pure, dumb, blind, stupid luck we found you the first time! Nowwill you hear me out?"
"Just keep it funny, asshole!" Tony snarled.
"Like Cheta said, I found them on the way north. We took the rykors to Kanator where I left a few men to guard them for Ghek. Cheta told me everything that had happened, like how you got away from me and other things. Cheta was quite helpfulI guess he thought I was going to eat him..."
"You would have, too!" Cheta cracked a thoat bone with his sharp teeth. "Tonyhe said something about skinning Jasoomians and I spilled my guts. He would have eaten me!" Cheta dropped his bone and scuttled over the surface of the table. He came to a stop before Connie. He jerked three of six possible thumbs in Tony's unyielding direction. "Make him believe me"
"Come here, you silly!" Connie opened her arms and comforted the little ape. She raised her lovely green eyes and pleaded with the stern-faced Earthman. "Let's hear what Bar Novacs has to say."
"Why not?" Tony was grim, though willing to comply simply because Connie had asked. "He's dead meat if I don't get the straight stuff!"
"Tony!" the green man's voice held a note of injury. "I admitted I was wrong! I'm sorry!"
"Why'd you take a chance on coming to Helium?" Tony asked.
Kantos Kan started to rise on legs made unsteady by too much wine. He gave up and leaned forward (his elbow missing the edge of the table twice before he got it right) and pointed a finger at the desert barbarian. "I's like the ans-ther to that queshun, als-tho!" Clixia's ready strength supported the wavering ex-officer who'd consumed more of the potent Martian grape than was prudent.
Clixia stoked a pretty hand on the red man's cheek. "Let Tony handle this, darling." Kantos Kan offered a token argument then smiled with happiness as he gazed upon the woman he adored.
Tony waited until Kantos Kan had settled in his seat before repeating his question to Bar Novacs. The Jed of Warhoons shrugged all four shoulders. "I had no choice, Tony."
"What's that supposed to mean?"
Bar Novacs dropped his voice to a whisper, "I've got a war on my hands!"
While Tony digested that startling statement, the veiled woman spoke for the first time. "Your pardon, sir," the lovely creature interrupted, "our journey has been long and we require nourishment, may we break our fast?"
Tony, mesmerized by the melodic voice, slowly relaxed the tense grip on the hilt of his sword. He stared at the great, protruding eyes of the Warhoon, then gazed at the tear-filled eyes of Cheta huddled within Connie's sheltering arms. Lastly, he looked in the direction of the beautiful woman. He was puzzled, confused, and a bit angry; though that had worn thin since their arrival in Helium. He found his desire to punch the Warhoon in his non-existent nose abruptly vanished.
A serving wench passed by the table and Tony stopped her with a small gesture. "More wine, another thoat roastno, bring another full dinner since we have welcome guests joining us." When the girl acknowledged the order and left, Tony amicably spread his hands in a peaceful gesture. "We'll call a truce over dinner. Agreed?"
Bar Novacs smile' made Tony Martin reach for his sword. The green Martian was hurt. "I can't change the way my race has been depicted, Tony Martin! It's true our greatest humor is found in the suffering of the unfortunate, but please accept my word that whenever I smile in your presence it's from happiness and not the great, final comedy!"
"You better get your shit together, old son, or I'll be as paranoid as John Carter about green Martians and you know what he did to your tribe!"
Bar Novacs shuddered, knowing all too well the consequences of arousing a Jasoomian's ire. While the Warhoon was phrasing his possible reply, the serving girl delivered the dinner to the quiet table. Conversation ebbed to a standstill while the green man, ape, and veiled Martian lady consumed their meal.
Kantos Kan was obviously enchanted with the mysterious ladyhe kept leaning in her direction. Conversational attempts on his part were politely declined, but he was so persistent, falsely emboldened by the wine, that Clixia was on the verge of braining him. Even Tony succumbed to the veiled lady's irresistible charms. The woman seemed to sense this morally deplorable state of manhood and took it upon herself to remedy the matter.
A slim, delicately turned hand, rose to lift the veil. Kantos Kan took one look and passed out. Tony Martin threw back his head and laughed with such gusto the patrons of the night club scowled in his direction. Martin, with a great deal of effort, lowered his voice. "Ghek! I'll go to hell in a hand-basket! Had me so hot and horny I almost forgot my own lady!"
"Good!" the kaldane crooned, its voice modulated in such a manner to rouse Kantos Kan from his swoon. "Not half bad, eh?"
"Half bad?" Connie giggled. "It's absolutely amazing! How do you like being a woman?"
"Been so many years, little one," Ghek's silky voice replied, "I can't tell for sure. After riding a stallion for so long I just feel utterly glorious!"
"You even look differentyour headI mean. Not so, so" Connie blushed, unable to continue.
"Ugly?" Ghek inquired. "That's all right, dear. I know what I am. Do you realize how ridiculous you one-piece creatures seem to me? Absolutely disgusting!" Ghek's comment was delivered in such gentle and tender tones that no insult was possible.
Connie giggled, Clixia joining her. Clixia, who sat between Kantos Kan and the kaldane/rykor, put her arms about the splendid desert-bred mare. "There's something about you" she blushed, quickly drawing back.
Connie leaned across the table. "Same here, Clixia!" She hugged herself and moaned: "Ohhh! I get shivers!"
Tony's attempt to bring some sort of rationality back to the conversation was almost lost as the women talked about Ghek. "Girls! Please! Bar Novacs and I have things to discuss!" Tony glared with unsuccessful intimidation toward the kaldane/rykor, "I've got things to discuss with you, Ghek! Where's Throxeus, you old thoat rustler?"
Bar Novacs swiftly interjected, "Like Cheta said, your thoat's with the others you stoleI mean, I gave to you. They're all back at Kanator, safe and sound in the care of a half dozen of my best warriors."
"That's good," Tony grit his teeth, the muscles beneath his beard jumping on his jaw-line. "Okay, now that you've hit the feed bag, give! I want to know why you're here!"
Tony Martin was denied an immediate reply because the made-over kaldane wriggled deliciously between the two human women, commanding its mare to place shapely arms about both. Ghek bent his/her/its head towards Connie Wescott with a light twitter of envy in his/her/its voice.
"You look absolutely stunning, darling! You simply must tell me where you got your clothes! I desperately need something chic for myself if I want to be successful in my new trade."
Ghek turned affectionately nuzzled the breathless red woman's cheek. "What do you know about wigs, Clixia? I've heard that Holy Thern wigs are simply marvelous! How would I look as a blonde? Do you know where I can get a Thern wig? Oh! I also want brown, black, brunette, and your own lovely, copper-bronze! I'll need about a dozen..."
Ghek abruptly stopped the excited rush of words, commanding the rykor to press a trembling, tapered hand to the mare's delectably alluring, delightfully heaving breast, imitating a very human gesture, "Do you really think I can get away with it, darlings?"
Clixia watched the delicate graceful movement of the rykor's hand lifting a tiny sliver of roast thoat to the kaldane's sphincter-like mouth. For an instant the woman visualized the hideous kaldane as it was unmounted but that horror quickly passed in the presence of this wonderful vision of femininity. Clixia was totally enthralled by this vivacious creature.
"Who cares if you're bald?" Clixia suddenly cried. "Tell me this: Why weren't you this attractive on the stallion? Why am I so attracted to you? Don't you dare repeat that to Kanty when he wakes upI'd hate you forever! I" Clixia stopped talking, a hot flush on her cheeks. "Why am I asking this question?" Clixia crammed three knuckles against her lips, eyes wide with bewilderment.
Ghek's gentle laughter soothed the woman. "I suppose," he/she/it confided, "it's because I've been the same old thing for so long, dearest. In Bantoom we had our pick of ranch-bred rykors everyday, both male and female. Maybe having the same mount for so many years took the spark out of role-playing. Us kaldanes are supposed to the be theoretical apex of intelligent thought, devoid of the baser physical emotions, but that's a lot of hype. Right now I feel gloriously female and I love it!"
Connie burst into the conversation. "I like you so much better as a woman, Ghek, but you stay away from my Tony!" The warning was accompanied with a gentle smile. "I still can't get over the incredible changeyou're so delectable!"
Ghek commanded the rykor to lift a hand and tenderly caressed Connie's sun-browned cheek. "I was so worried about you, darling. I hated leaving you, and Tony, and Clixia, and Kantos Kan in Kanator! I was so afraid something horrible might happen to you after we left, even though Cheta assured me those great, hairy things would leave you alone. I'm so glad the whole terrible experience is over." Ghek gracefully shifted the veil over the rykor's soft, delightful shoulder and continued without pause.
"We ran into Bar Novacs while I was riding one of the mares. He's such a masterful brute! I enjoyed myself immensely with his immensenessif you know what I meanand later he told us why he needed to find you. Cheta and I decided to help. Except for that first, lovely, glorious night when he raped me a dozen times, Bar Novacs has been the perfect gentleman. He provided us with fresh thoats and made sure my rykors were well cared for in Kanator before he personally escorted us to Tjanath. That's why he's incognito," Ghek gestured to the titanic Warhoon's plain harness. "We had to pass through Thark territory and you know how incommodious Tharks and Warhoons areconstantly brawling! Despite this danger, Bar Novacs insisted on coming to Helium to find you and Tony. He begs your forgiveness and hopes you'll come back and do sakking exhibitions for the rest of the Warhoon tribes..."
"You can't serious!" Tony stared at the great green warrior with disbelief. He sputtered with outrage. "Is that what this is all about. Bar Novacs? You're playing with half-a-deck if you think Connie and I will go back to Warhoon after that stunt you pulled. You really got a lot of nerve!"
Bar Novacs cringed under the black-haired Jasoomian's verbal assault. He hastily swallowed his portion of thoat roast and pleaded with the Earthman. "Okay, I admit it! I was a thoat's ass! I was despicable! But it is also true I need your help, Tony." Bar Novacs paused, lowering his voice to a desperate plea. "I'm in a hell of a fix! Some of my warriorsstupid, dull-witted louts without the brains Issus gave soraksshot off their mouths about the sakking exhibition you and Connie put on in our camp. Somehow it got around to the rest of the Warhoons that you would be doing this on a regular basis. That was before you got away. Now, I've got prospective clients beating at the door to see this wonderful thing and I've got nothing to show them. I'm on the verge of war with the rest of the Warhoon tribes since they think I've either lied to them, or I'm keeping you for myself. I'm caught in the middle. That's why I had to find you. I thought maybe we could start all over again, on your terms. War is so terribly expensive. Will you come back? For a little while?"
Tony felt no sympathy for the Jed of Warhoons. He crossed his arms and refused to answer. The mighty Jed all but grovelled on the hard marble floor.
"Can't you forgive me? We could negotiate a limited run contract. I'll give you and Connie 100% of the proceeds. It's a damn sight cheaper than the cost of a damnable war!"
Connie giggled, linking her arm beneath Tony's rigid elbow. She tugged at his beard with her free hand. "He's really serious, Tony. I have a feeling that when our greedy friend is so candidly willing to part with profits, he's in serious trouble!"
"Indeed he is," Ghek supplied. His/her/its shoulders rose in an unhappy shrug. "On our way back to Bar Novacs' camp we ran into a scouting party from another Warhoon tribe. They were quite boorish when Bar Novacs admitted he had no Jasoomians to exhibit at the time. We barely avoided a confrontation with them."
Ghek turned his/her/its attention on Martin. Tony received the strong impression of fluttering eyelids though kaldanes specifically lacked that anatomical feature. "You really should forgive him, dear," Ghek continued. "Let bygones be bygones, Tony. Poor Bar Novacs has suffered terribly these last few weeks."
"What about you and Cheta, Ghek? Can you offer an excuse for abandoning us to die in the desert?" Tony attempted to fuel his sense of outrage by verbally assaulting the attractive kaldane/rykor. "You and Cheta skipped out on us without any consideration of what might be our fate. You did all this because of some damn rykors and a silly notion of opening a house of ill-repute which, by the way, wasn't even your own idea!"
Ghek faced the Earthman and simpered, using all the stunning vital equipment and innate grace of the fantastically proportioned rykor mare. Guided by the intelligence of a Bantoom super-mind, Tony didn't stand a chance; the football player's love muscle tap-danced in his trousers.
"After seeing me, don't you think it was worth it?" Ghek sweetly challenged.
Tony Martin's breath caught in his throat. Convulsively the Jasoomian tore his eyes away from the kaldane emanating sex like nuclear reactors emitted radiation, with nearly identically devastating results. Tony fought to control his sudden arousal as the kaldane continued his/her/its astonishing telepathic exudation directed primarily at the baser instincts of the human species.
Connie and Clixia found themselves enthralled by the nearly hypnotic combination of kaldane and rykor. The greatest response from any at the table, however, was from Kantos Kan. The drunken officer rose to his feet, intending to put his arms about Ghek when Cheta, with a gentle shove of his finger against the unsteady Heliumite's chest, curtly warned the panting officer.
"Uh huh," the ape admonished sternly. "She's mine!"
Tony cleared his throat, embarrassed by the physical reaction stirring his breech cloth. Connie looked down and giggled licentiously. One of her hands rested on Tony's thigh beneath the table and she, too, had noticed the exigency of Tony's manhood as a result of Ghek's powerful allure. Tony's complexion crimsoned as darkly as a red Martian's normal pigmentation.
Connie leaned her lips close to Tony's ear and whispered. "It's incredible! I don't blame you, darling. I felt the same thing! Sure surprised the hell out of me!"
"Rightdamn, that Ghek really has something! All right," he kept his voice for her ears only, "what if Bar Novacs is telling the truth? I wouldn't want a war fought because of us. I might even be tempted to help him out, but how," he avoided looking directly at Ghek while he wrestled with his questions, "can we trust them? Bar Novacs put us in cages. He intended to make slaves out of us. Ghek and Cheta gave no thought to stranding us in Kanator."
Tony spoke the last few sentences in a louder voice than intended and Bar Novacs was injured by the Earthman's words. "Tony!" he pleaded. "Why do you keep bringing up that unfortunate occurrence over and over again? What do you want from me? Blood?"
"That would do nicely!" Tony replied.
Connie Wescott slapped at the tackle's bare shoulder and scowled. "That's enough of that, Tony! Bar Novacs is truly sorry for what he did. If you don't leave this poor man alone, I'll never speak to you again!"
Connie rose and went to stand by Bar Novacs. She leaned against his side, her arm stretched across his olive green chest. "You are forgiven, Bar Novacs," she said, daring Martin to object her statement. "Tony forgives you, too. Don't you, darling?"
"Well," the young Jasoomian sighed, beaten, "as long as you put it that way, I guess so." He extended his hand and the Jed eagerly clasped it with gratitude.
"Thank you, Tony. You'll never regret this!"
"I already do," Martin chuckled as Connie kissed his cheek and resumed her seat beside him.
Wescott offered a final word of advice to the relieved Jed of Warhoon. "Don't push Tony too hard, Bar Novacs. You don't want to cross him. But, let's wait until later to hash this out, okay?"
"Fine with me," the green Martian smiled. He hastily realized the gesture might be misinterpreted, then smiled again when the Jasoomian laughed.
"If you ever," Martin's voice held a hint of cold promise that made the Jed's smile vanish, "try to put us in cages again I'll..."
"...tear your arms off," Cheta supplied, doing a wonderful mimic of Tony's favorite threat, "and feed them to you one by one!"
This unexpected statement by the little white ape restored the humor of the party. For the next five xats light conversation was enjoyed by all while the new arrivals finished their belated meal.
The humans, of course, were made to tell their adventures after the separation at Kanator. Most of the chatter, however, was between Ghek and the two womenmostly about clothes and other feminine frivolities.
When it came time to pay the bill prior to departing, Bar Novacs offered to settle accounts. However, the Jed of Warhoons, after looking into his belt pouch, exhibited acute embarrassment of being short of funds. Kantos Kan chuckled as he dipped into his own funds; neither he or Tony had been deceived by the green man's huckster ways. The red man paid the 'difference' and left a generous tip as well.
"I've got a great idea," Kantos Kan announced as he swayed unsteadily between Bar Novacs and Tony Martin. "Let's grab a few bottles of wine and go up to see the Sith. She's just around the corner and I want to see how much work the mechanics have done on her. What do you say?"
"Work?" Tony asked. "Why are you having work done on the old thing?"
"Because she's ours, Tony! Finders-keepers! It's the law of the land. The Sith is basically sound. With a few repairs and refinements she'll be outstanding. Should last us a few hundred years at the very least. Good investment. Beats the hell out of that little two-seater I lost on the desert. Plenty of room and comfortwe can go anywhere we want. By the way, Tony," Kantos Kan added with a serious tone, "the Sith is as much yours and Connie's as mine and Clixia's. Anytime you want to take her out, you just come and get her," he laughed, hugging Clixia, "the Sith that is!"
Ghek's mare timidly touched Tony on the arm. "I'd like to see the cruiser, too. Cheta and I haven't seen it yet. Please?" Tony quickly agreed in self-preservation of his libido (and dignity!) before the kaldane turned on any more charm.
"Right! To the Sith!"
Kantos Kan grinned. "You guys go on ahead. I'll bring the wine. Level Eight, Slip 31A." He turned and reentered the club. Bar Novacs gazed after the reeling figure. He bent his massive torso toward Clixia, who was standing beside him.
"I better stay with him," he generously offered.
"Thank you, Bar Novacs. He's not normally like this, you know..." Clixia didn't try to hide her distress. "It's all John Carter's fault!" The weeping woman ran into the thinning street crowd with Ghek and Connie in close pursuit.
The green martin watched the women for a perplexed moment before turning to Martin. "What did she mean? What happened?"
"I'll tell you later, Bar Novacs. You better stick with Kantos Kan while I catch up with the girls. We'll meet you at the hanger. Come on, Cheta," the Earthman extended a leg and offered an arm to allow the ape easy access to his shoulder. Tony Martin had to trot to catch up with the trio moving down the street; one of which was half-bent, tears running down her high, fine-boned cheeks.
XX ON BOARD THE Sith
The three women accompanied by the bearded man and tiny white ape entered the brightly lit lobby of Hanger Tower, South. The electro-magnetic elevator noiselessly whisked them to the cavernous maintenance bay on Level Eight, where a grease-smeared mechanic politely gave directions to the repair bay which held the Sith.
"My goodness!" Connie exclaimed when they rounded the stern of a hundred foot private freighter and saw their ship. Tony's jaw gaped as wide as his lady's. The Sith's appearance had changed dramatically just hours since their arrival at the great Martian metropolis.
All of the old flaking paint was gone and the Sith's sturdy aluminum-steel hull plating gleamed like burnished silver under the radium lights glare. Being the tallest, Tony could look over the cruiser's rail without climbing aboard. "Clean swept and recently washed down." The richly-grained sorapus wood planks fairly glowed, still damp, displaying a luster which astonished him. "Doesn't look a thing like when we found her," he said.
"She's beautiful!" Clixia breathed with amazement. The woman made a determined effort to ignore her personal unhappiness, having no desire to allow her gloomy mood to interfere with the remainder of the evening. She strolled along the hull, trailing a hand over the smooth, glistening surface. "I wonder if they've had a chance to balance number two and three engines? Kantos Kan thought the shafts might be bent."
"How much work is he planning to do?" Tony asked.
Clixia pursed her lips in thought, a lovely finger tapping the point of her chin as she enumerated the proposed renovations. "A directional compass, altitude apparatus, high-speed gearing for the drive shafts..."
The woman paused, a warm light igniting in her eyes. Clixia's voice took on a brighter note. "Kantos Kan's right. We can go anywhere we want in the Sith! Can we go aboard, Tony?"
"That's what we're here for, Clixia. Up you go!" The Jasoomian put his hands on her waist and effortlessly lifted the red-haired woman to the railing.
Tony watched with appreciative eye as Clixia's slim copper-bronze ankles swung over the railing. Clixia boarded the dry-docked flier without mishap and Tony lifted Connie upwards, pleased she allowed him to act the gallant gentleman when she could so easily board under her own power. Tony silently turned to Ghek, who'd already lifted Cheta to the rail. The white ape hung by left foot and left lower arm, head down, a stern look pinching his bestial features.
"Watch where you put your hands, Jasoomian!" the shrill ape voice warned.
Tony and Ghek laughed at Cheta's exhibition of jealousy. The Earthman courteously bowed to the miniature ape and complied with the request. The rykor's waist was thin, muscular, and quite delicious to Tony's touch. With a single motion, the athlete set the rykor's curvaceous posterior on the railing. After Ghek was aboard, the Earthling leapt to the deck.
"Okay, Cheta?" Tony inquired.
"Just fine," the ape replied as Ghek picked the ape up. Cheta reached out and patted the tackle's shoulder. "Now I know how you felt when I did this to your lady" as an illustration, one of the creature's paws crudely palpated the rykor's generous breasts. Ghek shivered with a girlish giggle.
"Stop that! You'll have me all hot and bothered, you little imp!" Ghek demurely covered his/her/its face with the veil as he/she/it chided the tiny beast.
The three humans laughed at the scene; Cheta profusely apologizing while trying to grab more tit at the same time. Tony chuckled and put arms about Connie and Clixia. He nodded towards the prow of the cruiser. "Shall we see what's been done to the cabin?"
"Let's!" the girls cried in unison.
As the group entered the darkened cabin Clixia's shapely hand reached out to turn on the interior lights. When the newly replaced overhead radium bulb emitted its clear light, the women applauded the cruiser cabin's transmutation from the moribund to the magnificent.
All trace of sand was vacuumed away, the decks and woodwork waxed and gleaming; the metal-works burnished bright, free of tarnish everywhere; the broken porthole cover replaced with new glass and everything looked immaculate with the single exception of the shabby, torn cushions on bunks and divan. The sad state of the stained fabric coverings brought cries of distress from the women.
"It's horrible, Connie!" Clixia picked up one of the cushions and frowned. "We'll have to re-do the whole thing!"
Connie Wescott took the decrepit cushion from the older woman and instantly agreed. "I'm with you there, Clixia. What color do you think? Red? Green?"
Ghek stepped into the cabin. "How about a powder blue, dears? I mean," the hesitant kaldane paused, "that is if you want my opinion as a woman..."
"Just what are you, Ghek?" Connie asked, breathless with curiosity.
Tony supplied a quick answer: "Probably a triple schizophrenic!" He grinned and put his arm about the rykor's shoulder. In a whisper meant to be overheard, Martin asked the kaldane "If you'd help, I'd appreciate it. Dingy broads like those two need all the advice they can get..."
"I heard that!" Connie giggled. She hurled the ragged cushion at her lover. Tony deftly caught it, then placed it on the spotless decking. He sat down with a smile and listened to Connie regaling Clixia and Ghek with impossible prevarications regarding a jock's total lack of sensitivity.
The sounds of footsteps on the main deck forestalled Connie's additional comments. Kantos Kan, well-lubricated, entered the cabin. Behind the grinning, staggering Martian was the great bulk of Bar Novacs.
"Fighting again, children?" Kantos Kan chuckled. The red man slipped on the damp deck, nearly falling. He swiftly recovered his footing without any assistance. The ex-officer took a seat on the lower bunk beside the provisions locker. With a sigh of anticipation Kantos Kan produced a pair of bottles from under his cloak. He set one on the floor between his feet and opened the other.
"What do you think of the Sith now, Tony?" Kantos Kan asked. "Turned out even better than I expectedand I had high expectations. I knew she was a good ship!"
"She's a beaut for sure, Kanty."
Bar Novacs entered on all fours, his upper limbs cradled two more bottles of wine and a cloth sack. "More room than I would have thought. I can almost stand up in here..." The green Martian took a seat at the rear of the cabin where the roof was slightly higher. He handed the cloth sack to Clixia.
"What's this?" she asked.
"Can't be too barbaric can we?" Kantos Kan explained. "I bought some glasses so we could toast the Sith in a civilized manner!"
The glasses were produced and the red Martian began filling them. Cheta, on his own initiative, scurried about the cabin, delivering filled glasses to the humans, the kaldane, and the great, green warrior. Bar Novacs grinned as he produced a huge wedge of mantalia cheese from the bottom of the sack.
"Can't have wine without cheese," he chuckled. "It's uncivilized!"
Clixia expertly carved the cheese with Kantos Kan's belt knife. The sight of the woman using the knife reminded Kantos Kan of Ghek's theft in Kanator. His face clouded with anger as the red man turned on Ghek with a growl.
"Where are the weapons you stole from me?"
"Borrowed, my dear!" Ghek turned on the feminine charm which had a startling effect on Kantos Kan's angerit evaporated. Ghek demurely added, "I brought them with me, dear. Your nasty swords are in our luggage locker at the top of this very hanger. Now don't get snippy with me, darling. Besides," his/her/its voice crooned soothingly, "you look very well armed to me right now."
"And so I am, damn your beautiful presence!" Kantos Kan roared with laughter.
Ghek twittered angelically. "I'll gladly pay for the swords, Kanty. I need some for my male rykors. I'm sure we can work something out," The kaldane's pause left nothing to the imagination regarding a possible alternative to exchanging cold, hard tanpi as payment for the weapons.
Ghek's super-mind directed the rykor's movements in such a way that Kantos Kan trembled with desperately repressed eagerness. He drained his glass in a single gulp. Kan hoarsely exclaimed, "You can have them if only you stop whatever it is you're doing!" The red man wiped his fevered brow, a huge grin on his handsome face.
Bar Novacs expressed sympathetic amusement at the over-heated red man's predicament. "Ghek practiced seduction on the passenger liner from Tjanath. I thought every man on the flight would end up fighting for heror is it his?hand!"
The Jed of Warhoons nibbled at his cheese then contemplated it with one of his independently movable eyes. "You know," he commented in a puzzled tone, "we get manatila cheese free on the dead sea bottoms. Here we had to pay 60 teepi! What is this world coming to?"
Until this moment of conversation Clixia had been silently cutting cheese and pouring wine. Suddenly, she tossed the knife aside and buried her face in her hands. "Who cares?" she wailed. "When your own family disowns you for doing something so natural, so beautifulit isn't fair!"
"Darling!" Kantos Kan rapidly began to sober. He took the sobbing woman into his arms and comforted her with soft words, stroking her copper-bronze hair with a tenderness that seemed at odds to his usual grim manner.
"It's all over and done with, Clixia. There's nothing else we can do but go forward from here." His tone was filled with gentle pleading.
"She's right, Kanty," Connie butted in, feeling scandalized by the mores of Barsoom. "It isn't fair, to her, or you." The girl put a comforting arm about Clixia's shoulder. "There, there, dear. We love you and there's nothing will ever change that! No matter what happens, we love you and we'll stick by you."
Clixia raised her head, sniffing regretfully. "I'm sorry I've been so out of it. I thought I could laugh this off, but I can't. It hurts too much."
The woman stiffly sat up, brushing away tears with a shaking hand. Clixia's voice unexpectedly filled with contempt. "Thuvia was not disowned by her father Thuvan Dihn, Jeddak of Ptarth, because she was defiled by Sator Throg, the evil Holy Thern. No!" Clixia cried angrily. "This did not happen to Thuvia! It was okay because she was a slave at the time and she exacted her own revenge on the villain. And what about poor Phao, Nur An's mate? I've heard Tan Hadron of Hastor tell the tale many times: Phao was indecently visited by Yo-Seno in the East Tower of Tjanath, but she, like Thuvia, had been a slave at the time.
"Me? I am a free woman who instigated our assignation. I knowingly urged Kantos Kan into immorality and look at the result. Kanty's been discharged from the navy after so many years of loyal service!"
The longer she talked, the more sympathetic her companions became. Kantos Kan gently folded the woman's trembling body into his sheltering arms. Clixia discharged her anger and frustration for a few moments longer. When the tumultuous emotions began to subside, she became terribly embarrassed for the uncontrolled outburst. She begged Kantos Kan's forgiveness for being the cause of his disgrace.
"It's all because of me..." she began, then Kantos Kan tenderly kissed her recriminations away.
"Like Tony is fond of saying 'it takes two.'" Kantos Kan lovingly caressed the distraught woman. "If there is any guilt my love, then I gladly claim my share. After all, you now have no family and that would never have happened if I had not been so eager to be with you. I won't allow you carry the entire burden, dear Clixia, not when it causes you such pain, especially for something we both desire so fervently."
Kantos Kan knelt to the polished deck, holding Clixia's slim hands in his. "You have done no wrong, my dearest! I will never abandon you!"
"Nor I!" cried Connie and Tony in unison. Bar Novacs, Ghek and Cheta immediately echoed them.
Clixia openly displayed tears of gratitude as she gazed upon the circle of anxious faces. "My dear, considerate friends. You have made me the happiest woman alive!"
"Not yetmy Princess!" Kantos Kan declared with a huskiness that touched every listener. The red man ardently pressed the stunned woman's hands to his lips.
Clixia at first refused to accept the red man's declaration of love. "That's just the wine, Kanty. You're such a sweet dear."
"It is not!" Kantos Kan laid his heart at her feet. "What you see is what you get, but if you will have me, I am yours!" He waited expectantly.
"You're not proposing just to make an honest woman out of me? If that is what is on your mind you must know this: my father will never take me back. It makes no difference if we marry or stay just the way we are."
"It does to me!" Kantos Kan cried. "I don't give a damn what your father thinks. I want you. I don't want his approbationor his money. I love you. I always have since the day we met. Will you do me the very great honor? Will you be my Princess?"
Six pairs of eyes watched the trembling Martian woman. Six pairs of ears strained to hear her reply and six voices shouted with resounding approval when Clixia cried: "My Chieftain!"
Glasses were raised in salute as Clixia's full lips eagerly sealed her affirmation of Kantos Kan's plea. It was a long moment before the delirious twosome separated amidst the cheers of their fellows.
"Friends," Kantos Kan lifted his glass. "Will you toast the most beautiful woman on Barsoom, my wife to beClixia!"
Cheta immediately took charge of the wine bottle. He filled empty glasses and kept them full while toast after toast was made. Occasionallybetween each glass he servedthe little ape took a pull from the mouth of the bottle. By the time four rounds had been consumed, Cheta was staggering. He swayed in the center of the deck and called for attention in a slurred voice.
"Fellow beings, on this happy occasion I wish to say our past association has been one of great enjoyment for me. Our adventure was one of heroic proportions and astounding dimensionsand on top of thatno one will ever believe us! Kaor!" Cheta lifted the heavy bottle, raised it to his lips, and fell smack on his rump.
Ghek gently relieved the drunken ape of the wine bottle. "Better let me have that. I think you can handle this with more ease, little one." The rykor's slim hand offered a cup of wine. The ape shrugged all four shoulders, accepted the beverage and promptly drained the contents.
"Cheta's right," Tony responded to the ape's comments. "We did have fun. Who needs all the bigotry and narrow-mindedness?"
Bar Novacs' laughed filled the cabin. "To the adventure no one will believe!" He raised his glass. "Not one single sapient being died!" The Jed tossed back a draught of wine which would have choked an ordinary man.
Tony reclined on one elbow and thoughtfully watched the faces of the strange assortment of friends that he and Connie gathered since their advent to Mars. His mood alternated between happiness and regret.
Their adventure and homecoming had turned out badly for Kantos Kan's career; yet, in spite of this, Tony was elated when the red man avowed his love for Clixia. It seemed that the two Heliumites had found all they would ever need in each other and that was, in many ways, the perfect ending.
Tony turned his attention toward Bar Novacs, who might be facing great trouble in his homeland. As he gazed at the misty eyed frog face of the huge green warrior, Tony realized the barbaric chieftain was unknowingly and openly sensitive to care about Kantos Kan and Clixia. Tony smiled to himself; maybe he would reconsider and help the old fraud out of his unhappy predicament. Cheta had inescapably found his personal happiness embodied in Ghek and his/her/its interchangeable rykors. The kaldane super brain was genuinely regretful for stranding the four humans in Kanator. Tony chuckled to himself, magnanimously forgiving the spider-man of Bantoom without reservation. Ghek was about to embark on a unique, if not so honorable, approach to the world's oldest profession and Tony wished the Bantoomian luck in the venture. But what about Connie and himself? Where did they fit in Barsoom's Grand Design? Moreover, despite the physical closeness they had shared since that first afternoon in the ape city, how did things actually stand between them? Tony Martin knew he was head over heels in love with the spunky swordswoman, had been since their second date, but what were her feelings towards him? There was no doubt there was shared affection, even lust, but was it love?
The Earthman's mood remained just shy of morose and he found it difficult to join the jubilation. He realized the wine failed to have the intended effect, he was brooding instead of celebrating. Tony was so engrossed in his thoughts that Connie startled him by her sudden presence on the cushion and the quiet-voiced question: "Something wrong, sweetheart?"
"Should there be?" Tony forced a grin, pulling her supple form into his lap. He embraced the tiny woman, his lips caressing her soft throat. "We're with friends in Helium and all's well with the world."
Connie's lips brushed the man's bearded cheek. "You seem preoccupied, darling. What's bothering you?"
"Do you really want to know?" At her nod, Tony Martin proceeded to speak his thoughts, without revealing his personal apprehensions concerning the petite woman's feelings towards him. The rest of the people quieted, following his conversation with sober expressions. Tony concluded his statements in a harsher tone than he intended.
"It just burns my butt that the great John Carter could so easily turn his back on his oldest and most trusted friend. Perhaps Connie and I influenced you and Clixia," Tony turned sad eyes towards his friend. "Maybe you took the wrong cueswhere we come from consenting adults don't have to hide! We've brought you nothing but trouble!"
"I've had it up to here, you hard-headed, obstinate Earthman!" Kantos Kan cried. "If it hadn't been for you I would never have found the courage to ask Clixia to marry me! As for the rest, there have been few events in my long life that have been as enjoyable as the days we spent together with you and your lady. All of us in this room have wonderful memories which can never be diminished by short-sighted people like John Carter or Clixia's snobbish family. What can be more important than good friends and good times? That is what life is about. Besides," he added with a laugh, his temper easing, "think of all the fun we'll have re- telling the tale of an adventure no one will believe!"
Tony jolted upright. He had listened to Kantos Kan's words without comment primarily because the man was right, partly because he had no desire to argue with his friend, but the red man's last words sparked something in the athlete's nimble brain which, as the moments passed, filled him with a stunning prescience.
Connie watched with great curiosity as the black-haired man's lips turned upwards, revealing even, white teeth. Tony chuckled, an amusement that swiftly escalated to a roar. He laughed so hard that Connie became concerned. She grasped the big man by the shoulders and cried, "Tony?"
"I'm fine, kitten!" he gasped. "I'm better than fine. We're all going to be fine! I've got the answer to everything! We thought the adventure was over it's just beginning!"
Connie's worry evaporated under the infectious barrage of Tony's laughter. She found herself smiling, the others joining her. "What are you talking about, lover? Are you going to sit there and cackle, or are you going to share this great revelation with us?"
XXI. TO SHAKE A WORLD
Tony's reply was a rib-cracking hug. Several long seconds passed before he released Connie's gasping form. When he did, he found all eyes on him. His evident excitement lit every face with hope and expectation.
"Throughout the whole evening there has been one main thought concerning our adventure. I have heard several different people make the comment, and it was not until just now that I put it all together. Without exception, we all enjoyed the adventure itself. We saw strange sights, observed unusual customs, fought wild beasts; all of these were part of the excitement and sense of adventure. Every step of the way was fraught with danger, yet not a single one was seriously injured. Kantos Kan was right, no one would believe this if we told it as straight truth. Now," he paused, his face still smiling, "how many people in Helium would like to be able to say the same? Why stop at this city, why not include the whole planet? Would anyone be willing to pay for a bloodless fantasy journey such as we enjoyed?"
Kantos Kan shrugged his shoulders. His arm still about Clixia's magnificent form he chuckled: "Possibly, if they were able to experience the same type of companionship..."
Clixia giggled and patted her lover's arm. "It was the companionship which was the best part! But," she added "that's not normally done"
"Exactly!" Tony beamed with satisfaction. "So, let us suppose that desirable, willing women are not a problem. Would a red-blooded red Martian man turn down the opportunity to have a mutually satisfying adventure with a beautiful maiden? If so, how many clients do you think an adventure tour company offering such an arrangement would reasonably be able expect in a month? Ten? Twenty? A hundred?"
"Try a thousand!" Kantos Kan exclaimed, the effects of the wine dissipating under his enthusiasm. It did not take the one-time Overlord of Helium's navy long to grasp Tony Martin's inspired plan.
Tony grinned, sweeping his hand in a gesture that included all those gathered in the Sith. "We have everything we need right here in this cabin. For instance, the Warhoons are known world-wide as the most vicious, nasty, ugly, treacherous, and uncouth villains on the planet..."
"Why, thank you!" Bar Novacs smiled. "Such wonderful praises!"
"You deserve everyone of them," Tony chuckled. "But you let four, helpless, unarmed little humans get away from your clutches and evil plans without anyone getting killed." Tony Martin raised his hand to still the protest from the Warhoon leader. "Hear me out, Bar Novacs, this will appeal to your mercenary soul, I promise."
Bar Novacs wiggled his cup-shaped antennae in agitation, but did as the Jasoomian asked. Martin turned to Cheta, drowsing in the arms of the kaldane/rykor.
"We have the famous talking apes of Barsoom, and their dread brethren, the giant white man-eating apes of Kanator! But once again, the humans escaped without spilling a drop of blood." Tony and Connie exchanged a quick glance at the half-truth of that statement. They had been forced to kill two apes when they arrived on Mars.
Cheta took a bow, spilling his wine. Ghek quickly wiped the liquid from the gleaming floor of the cabin. Cheta apologized. "Sorry, dear, I was going to tell Tony the only reason he got away is because my poor dumb relations are so limited in intelligence they merely followed my last orders. If they had followed their natural instincts they would have been more feared than the sith of the Kaol Forest or the fierce arctic apt!"
"I'm quite sure they would have," Ghek's sphincter mouth gave the impression of a warm condescending smile. "Hold still! Let me daub the rest of the wine out of your fur..."
"Thank you, Ghek," the ape stuttered. "You're such a dear."
"Precisely!" Tony grinned, shaking a stiffened forefinger to emphasize his words. He stared at the incomparable kaldane/rykor. "Ghek is a dear when decked out on a prime rykor mare! More sex appeal than Bridget Bardot, Barbara Bach, Raquel Welch and Dejah Thoris combined! Incredible, huh?
"Now we get to the good part. To make the tour company intriguing, how many clients do you think we could line up if they knew they could depend on the favors of a grateful wench without jeopardizing the social status of a Martian maid? See what I'm driving at?"
"I do! I do!" Connie and Clixia clapped their hands in appreciation. "And I!" Bar Novacs roared.
"I simply love it!" Ghek giggled.
Kantos Kan said nothing, but his smile was from ear to ear. Only Cheta frowned. "Would someone tell me what's going on?"
Ghek chuckled and putting his/her/its arms about the hiccuping ape. The kaldane squeezed Cheta with tender affection. "Will you be quiet? Let Tony explain."
Tony could sense the intense interestthe knowing smiles of somewhile they waited for him to continue outlining his thoughts. "We've got it all right here, Kantos Kan: the Sith; green warriors and white apes courtesy of Bar Novacs and Cheta; two, maybe three deserted cities complete with picturesque barbaric splendor, all of which adds up to high adventure with long, languorous nights in the company of a grateful wench..." Tony raised his brows in askance. "What more would we need?"
"Banths would be nice!" Kantos Kan eagerly suggested. "Perhaps Carthoris isn't as thick-headed as his old man. His wife Thuvia might be talked into training a few banths for local color and thrills."
"Good idea!" Tony grinned. "Of course, we'll have to work out the specific details and the packaging, but I don't see how we can miss! First, we have to bail Bar Novacs out of trouble to get the ball rolling. We have to have the cooperation of the Warhoons to get this thing off the ground. I guess that means Connie and I will do sakking exhibitions for a while. In return Bar Novacs puts up all the thoat steaks we'll need to keep the apes of Kanator docile under Cheta's direction." Tony chuckled as he looked at the little ape sleeping soundly in Ghek's shapely arms.
"The little guy will finally be BMOC just like he's always wanted. We'll also have to talk with Takar about using the talking ape city. I don't anticipate any difficulties there, do you, Kantos Kan?"
"None," the man replied. "Takar is extremely interested in meeting the people of Barsoom. He'll cooperate."
"That brings us back to you, Ghek, honey," Tony chuckled. "Think you can handle it? The way you are right now you're so pleasantly lascivious, licentious, lecherous, lewd, lusty, liberal, bawdy, erotic and just plain sexy you'll get banged by gangs! Interested?"
"Oh, Tony, dear!" Ghek's voice trembled. The rykor's hand reached out, took the Jasoomian's, and drew it to the rykor's gorgeous breasts. Just before contact with that coppery, trembling flesh was made, Connie reached out and yanked Martin's hand free.
"Not so fast," Connie warned with a touch of she-cat and snake-venom, "You'll have plenty of your own. Hands off mine, okay?"
"Sorry, Connie," Ghek paused for a moment to control the quivering thighs and palpitating heart of the mare. "My fault for getting hot and bothered. You know how it is" The rykor trembled for an instant before the super-brain of the Bantoomian regained control. "Won't happen again, Connie. To answer Tony's question: an unequivocal YES! I haven't been a 'woman' in over forty years and the prospect just fills me with delight! By the way, Connie," Ghek's voice was sweetly imploring, "will you and Clixia help me with a wardrobe? In Bantoom we kaldanes did not care for the finer things, we just mounted a rykor and did what was to be done. If I'm going to deal with red men, I need to know what is most attractive and seductive. I need help with wigs, cosmetics, jewelry, clothes, oh! everything! We'll have such fun, I know we will!"
"Ghek!" Tony half-shouted to be heard over the kaldane's excited words. "At this moment I wish you were riding a stallion instead of that over-developed mare! Can we at least stay on the subject at hand?"
"Certainly, honey..." the soft voice replied.
"Gods!" Tony threw his hands up in defeat. Connie Wescott snickered over her lover's obvious frustration. Clixia, on the other hand, dealt with a more practical impediment.
"We may have a slight problem. If I know my red men, not all of the clients will be interested in going all the way with our damsel in distress and what happens when we have several adventures going on at the same time? Ghek can't be everywhere."
"You've got a point there," Kantos Kan mused.
"We'll just have to have some more girls," Connie declared. "But how?"
"It's a sure bet," Bar Novacs declared sadly, "that neither one of you would be willing to be damsels in distress."
"You got that, Bar Novacs!" Connie shook her head.
"I think," Clixia rose to pace the sorapus wood decking, her fine brow furrowed in thought, "I may have a solution. My father did not dare toss me out without providing for my financial well-being. He left me quite a sum of tanpi which I can use as I desire. We'll be needing some sort of office staff to operate the company so I'll buy a few slaves, pretty ones. Perhaps we could find girls interested in playing the part of a damsel, though I don't believe we should require sexual performance from them unless they are willing; primarily because a forced, or worse, faked response would hurt the business."
"We ought to have three levels of gratification," Kantos Kan broke into Clixia's speech. "We might consider the damsel's gratitude based as," he shrugged his shoulders, searching for words, "The Sacred Untouchable Virgin; The Affectionate Lady; and of course, The Insatiable Slut. Clixia's pretty ladies could play whatever part they feel comfortable withbut we give Ghek first choice in all tours of the latter category."
Ghek applauded Kantos Kan's suggestion. "Thank you, Kanty."
"Hey!" Clixia whirled about, suddenly beaming with joy. "I just thought of something else! We all know the Barsoomian courtship: the warrior fights for the lady and wins her hand, if she'll have him. How better to prove a warrior's prowess than on a bloodless adventure? How many warriors might want to marry the damsels they save? Of course, we can't have our own girls getting married, but what about my girlfriends who've been pining away for some warrior to champion them? They could take any level of gratification they should chose, though most of them will, obviously, play the Untouchable Virgin."
Kantos Kan and Tony Martin laughed. The Earthling spoke first. "Now we've got a marriage broker business on the side!"
"What better way to use the silly customs of Barsoom to our own advantage?" Kantos Kan grinned. "I like the idea. Most of our clients will probably be from the navy and the vast majority of sailors are stiff-necked and properly decorous in their relationships with women. Clixia's little slaves and her girlfriends will most likely bear the brunt of the tour company's obligations with their chaste or affectionate capabilities. However, I imagine Ghek will have plenty of the down and dirty to handle. The income would be nice, but I think Ghek will stay busy merely because I've never seen a sexier woman in all my life!"
"What about me?" Clixia offered a pretty pout. Kantos Kan pulled the woman to the cushions and kissed her. Then he looked at Ghek and grinned. Connie asked the same question of her burly lover.
"I've got to agree with Kanty," Tony said, ogling Ghek. "Prettiest thing I ever saw..." then suddenly squirmed as he tried to find a way to get himself out of hot water as gracefully as possible. His words failed. In an effort to explain himself to Wescott, the tackle gestured to the kaldane.
Ghek drew back as the human girls' eyes bored across the cabin. "I can't help it!" the kaldane cried.
"You better learn," Connie said gently, without malice. "You're making me horny and I just got through cutting a guy to ribbons for suggesting I was attracted to women!"
"It's just been so long," Ghek pleaded forgiveness. "You know us kaldanes have been notoriously backwards in dealing with red men..."
"Don't worry about dealing with red men," Clixia's breath shuddered, her hand trembled over her breast as she admired Ghek. "Just remember which ones belong to whom. By the great god Burroughs, I have to agree with Connie. You're absolutely stunning!"
"Goes double for me," Connie added with a flushed smile. "Both thoughts."
"I'll get it worked out," Ghek promised. "Better control and all thatsorry..."
"DON'T BE!" every voice shouted. Their open smiles and nods pleased the flushed kaldane/rykor. Ghek sighed with relief.
Tony Martin thought it was time to bring the meeting back to order. He put his next question to Kantos Kan. "What kind of fees could we charge? We'd have to make expenses and show a profit."
Kantos Kan deliberately turned his attention to the question and his eyes away from Ghek. "The average than, or seaman, makes about 400 tanpi a month. To create an illusion of value I suggest a no-frills adventure at 200 or 225 tanpi for a five day excursion. Thans get leaves of five to ten days about three times a year. With the new drive shafts and high-speed gearing being installed in the Sith we'll have no trouble getting our client to the ape city over night.
"The client spends a day there, rescues the lady and 'escapes' to the foot of the mountain where he finds a thoat. On the thoat the client escapes into the desert where Bar Novacs 'captures' them. One to two days later they escape, find my little two seater which we'll have to get repaired and keep the direction compass locked on Kanator. We'll know exactly where they are going and approximately the time they will arrive. That way we don't have to worry too much about the girl, or something going wrong. The ship lands at Kanator where they have one to two nights in the city of white apes and we rescue them and have them back in Helium about nightfall. There, they have a complimentary dinner with wine and entertainment before parting at our office. Sound about what you had in mind, Tony?
"Yes," Tony grinned. "I can see why you were the Overlord of the Navy. You plan very well. That's almost exactly what I envisioned. So, how much is this 'no-frills' tour going to cost us?"
"I don't know about all aspects," Kantos Kan frowned, "but ship costs should be in the neighborhood of 40 tanpi both trips."
"We'll have to make sure they get fed," Clixia took over. "Most of the food stuffs can be found at the ape city and in Kanator, but we'll have to increase production with a caretaker at each, unless the apes might be interested."
"How much would you pay them?" Tony asked.
"Straight wages?" Clixia, who'd handled the household expenses for her father's house silently ticked off points on her lovely fingers before she answered. "About 20 tanpi a month. Takar might consider books or educational trips to Helium and abroad."
"That's a thought," Tony glanced at Cheta who was snoring with a high-pitched sound. "We'll ask Cheta when he recovers. Now, about the Warhoons, Bar Novacs. We'll need something impressive, but not too dangerous. Can't kill the clients."
'How about a duel fought between Warhoon warriors over the damsel?" Bar Novacs replied. "My men can stage something like that." Getting into the spirit of the discussion, he added: "Then there's the camping of a tribepretty impressive, right? We could have thoat raceswith wagering of course. Later in the evening a sakking demonstration by a 'captive' Jasoomian, followed by dinner with a ferocious Jed of Warhoon." At this point the green man hesitated. "What about the cages? You have to admit that's a great touch..."
"Ugh!" Connie made a face which showed what she thought of the idea, but her next words belied the expression. "I didn't like itbut it ought to be in there at the very end of the Warhoon segment. Hey!" she became excited and clapped her hands together as she voiced her inspiration. "We should have a little ape chaperonone who can 'free' the prisoners from the Warhoons. We ought to have a chaperon for the Virgin and Affectionate levels. The last thing we need is trouble from a client who decides the Virgin ain't sacred and Affectionate means 'let's fuck!' Could get us shut down in a hurry."
"Connie's correct," Ghek surprised everyone. "If the no-frills is what it should be, only Virgins go. What do you expect for 225 tanpi?"
"That's settled," Tony agreed. "What kind of expenses are we looking at on your end, Bar Novacs?"
"If you will," Tony grinned.
"None, really. We live out there. We ought to put a few tanpi in the hands of those who stage the fights, etc. About the only thing I can think of which will be a real expense will be having enough wines at hand. We can't ferment a whole lot of the stuffwe're nomadic, you know."
"So we supply the wine," Clixia said. She turned to Kantos Kan. "You have a stylus and paper? We better start taking notes."
"I think so," the man dug into his belt pouch and produced a small book and a pen. Clixia took them and started writing.
"Wines are about 2 tanpi for an acceptable grade. What do you think? Three bottles for three evening meals be enough?" When Kantos Kan agreed, she marked it down.
"While she's catching up," Connie rose to retrieve her glass and a half-full bottle of wine, "anyone else want to join me?"
Kantos Kan shook his head, "I've had enough, thanks."
Bar Novacs held out his. Connie's silks flowed entrancingly about her form as she came to fill the Jed's glass. When Connie knelt to fill Ghek's, the rykor's hand covered the rim, the kaldane's head shook on the gorgeous shoulders. "I better not," Ghek giggled. "I have enough trouble keeping this beast in check as it is..."
Connie smiled and sat down beside Tony. At that moment Clixia looked up from her notes, her lovely face briskly business-like. "I've got it all down, now where were we?"
"We were talking about Bar Novacs and local Warhoon color." Tony slapped an affectionate hand on the lower left shoulder of the green man. "He was giving us an idea of what our client might find on the dead sea bottom in the grasp of a green horde."
"I told you what I thought, Tony." Bar Novacs stared at the bottom of his glass. "But you didn't totally agree, I could sense that. The sakking"
"I told you I'd sak, Bar Novacs, but just until we can get things straightened out between your tribe and the rest of the Warhoons. However, I have an alternative thought which just hit me. I think you'll like it."
"What? No sakking?" Bar Novacs was crestfallen. "I assure you we can make a bundle on that little piece of business! I was hoping to use the proceeds from that to supplement my income from the tour company."
"How'd you like to make even more?" Tony challenged.
"More than I could make with showing you and Connie to the tribes of Warhoon? I'd like to know what this might be!" Bar Novacs snorted in disbelief.
"What if I teach you a famous Jasoomian sport enjoyed by millions on my planet? Together, you and I, we could organize teams, set up franchises, institute a draft, develop coaching staffsyour team, of course, having the benefit of my personal expertisewe could make millions of tanpi! To top it off, the game is 99.99% non-fatal! We use the same players week after week!"
Bar Novacs twitched with interest as the Jasoomian waxed eloquent. Most impressive were the amounts of money under discussion. "And just what," Bar Novacs asked when Martin ceased, "is the name of this lucrative enterprise?"
Tony's simple statement set Connie off in a fit of convulsive laughter. She accidentally spilled her wine between her luscious breasts, some dribbling on Tony's crossed legs. The Jed of Warhoons noted her amused reaction and frowned as deeply as his pop-eyed frog-face would allow.
Bar Novacs had the impression he was being made a fool. His voice was gruff. "From Connie's reaction, you've been putting me on, right? I thought you were talking about a test of warriors!"
"Indeed I was," Tony's reply was amicable.
Connie rectified the green Martian's interpretation of her laughter. She explained as she wiped up the spilled wine. "It's a very exciting game, Bar Novacs. Tony is a football player and a damn good one. I've seen him play and I can guarantee you'll find this game is everything he has promised. I laughed because it took me completely by surprise. I don't know why I didn't think of it!"
Connie grabbed her man by the short hairs of his beard and turned his face towards hers. "Can you imagine how impressive it would be to see the mighty Warhoon Banths coming up from a three, four, or even five point stance and stopping a last minute goal attempt and winning the Super Bowl of Barsoom?" She shivered so delightfully that Tony roared with laughter. His embrace threatened to bulge the poor, straining girl's eyes out to the same dimensions as those of the confused Warhoon.
"You're beautiful!" Tony exclaimed.
"I know," Connie replied with a haughty mein and struggled with the loose hair the youth's exuberance shook from her coiffure. Connie settled back, her eyes luminous with excitement. "What about Baseball? Hockey in the north? And Polo and Cricket (Do you know the rules for Cricket? Never mind.) and we can't forget Soccer or Tennis or Racquetball or Ping Pong!" She grew more enthusiastic with every game mentioned. Eventually the rush of words choked her.
Tony experienced the same thrilling anticipation as the swordswoman. "We start with Baseball and Football before starting anything else. I'll also bet you there isn't a decent poker player on Mars. Think of the board games like Backgammon, Scrabble, Monopoly!" Tony shouted, "Black Jack, Bridge, Craps! Christ, we could make a fortune in game patents and franchises alone!"
Bar Novacs respectfully cleared his massive throat. When Tony and Connie stopped laughing and congratulating each other, the Warhoon spoke in a humble tone. "It seems I may have been a bit hasty in my assessment of this game of football, Tony Martin. But what I don't understand is how you can make any tanpi out of it."
"Well," Tony pulled Connie's head to his shoulder and looked over her sweet-smelling hair at the curious Warhoon and the others who were listening intently. "How many tribes are there in Warhoon? How many people?"
"There's fifteen tribes, roughly 100,000 in all."
"How many tribes with 10,000 or more?"
"How many with populations of 5,000 to 10,000?"
"Eleven, I think."
"We might have to pool a district to create a twelveth team. That would give us three divisions of four teams each. To get a full season of play we might go to three games each team by division, then on to divisional play for eliminations and thenthe big one! That makes 42 to 45 games per season. Let's suppose only 5,000 spectators show for each game at 3 tanpi each that's" Tony paused, trying to run the figures through his head. Clixia gave him the answer before he even got started with his multiplication.
"630,000 tanpi a season. Based on 5,000 per 42 gamesthat's some tanpi!"
Connie giggled and lifted her head. "On Earth," she told Bar Novacs, "we have great stadiums which hold fifty to sixty thousand per game! Imagine your entire population attending each game of the season!"
Clixia gasped as she announced: "12,600,000 tanpi! Tony! Could we?"
"I don't see why not!" the Jasoomian grinned. "Now, imagine this: The Tharks learn the game as well with the same number of teams. At the end of the season we have a true Super Bowl" he was unable to finish because of the astonished bedlam. Even Ghek seemed excited about this game which was still a mystery.
"How do you know it will catch on?" Ghek asked.
"Green Martians like to fight, right? They like war, correct? What's better than controlled war where no one gets killed and the loser always has another chance to beat the other guy? They'll go for it, I guarantee it!" A word of caution crept into the grinning tackle's promises.
"Bear in mind it will take some time to get started and we'll have to deal with expenses such as coach and player salaries, stadiums and upkeep, referees, concessions and so forth, but we should show a profit the first year even if we only field six teams. As for getting the Tharks interested, we'll let them do that for themselves. Invite them to a couple games and they'll beg to be a part of it. What do you say, Bar Novacs?"
The green man stuck out his lower right arm and gripped the Earthman's hand. "Sounds like: When the hell do we get started?"
"Great! Now about Baseball, Connie's our expert there. She played on the women's team at school. She's a great first base and strong hitter to boot. Connie gets the commissioner's job. Think of it, babe!" Tony reached over and pinched the laughing woman's upper arm. "There must be at least twenty teams available! Helium's Hellcats against the Gathol Giants fighting it out in the Barsoomian Whirled Serious! Beer, popcorn, peanuts and hot dogs here we come! Clixia, since you've got such a head for figures and food and what all, we'll put you in charge of the concessions for each of the stadiums! Both baseball and football spectators get the munchies watching their favorite teams battle it out. Out be a cool million a year in that alone."
Kantos Kan sounded dejected. "What about me? Am I just going to be the pilot of the Sith?"
"Don't get your undies in a bundle, old man!" Tony chuckled. "How far do you think we'll get without a good front man? How does Kantos Kan, President of Unbelievable Adventures and Chairman of the Board sound? You'd handle PR, Tour Planning, you'd be our guiding force. Let me assure you that's not just because you're the retired Overlord of the Navy, it's because you know how to handle people. Connie and I might excel in sports, and Clixia," (Tony offered an aside to Connie: "She's fast with the math!" and saluted the lady under discussion), "will handle the offices, booking, concessions and procurement of ladies. But let's be honest, she'd be no good at selling the companythat's not what she does best. Ghek will have enough worries taking care of the entertainment and Cheta will have his hands full with the white apes and the talking apesby the way, Clixia, make a note: Cheta should get the souvenir concession in Kanator.
"More than likely," Tony continued, "I'll be working the casinos and developing the games market, for which I'll have to have your help, Kantos Kan. Who the hell do I know? You know everybody."
"Not only have you satisfied my question," Kantos Kan sat back, a stunned expression on his face, "you have astounded me! I suppose Bar Novacs will end up with the Football League in Warhoon while you explore these other avenues?"
"Exactly. I'll coach his team during the playing season and the rest of the time I'll be involved with the tour company and the casinos."
"If this happens the way you predict," Clixia's eyes were wide with astonished disbelief, "perhaps I should turn my girls over to Ghek so she can teach them what they have to know. Of course," she added with a merry giggle, "I've got to get them first!"
Kantos Kan grinned. "You'll get them, darling. I know. You got me!"
"I may live to regret it," she teased. Kantos Kan kissed her soundly. When he let her go, Clixia covered a yawn with a delicate hand. "This is all so exciting, my friends," she pleaded, "but I'm very tired. Can we continue this talk tomorrow?"
"Yeah, Tony!" Connie admonished the excited youth. The brunette rose to carefully straighten the shimmering folds of her sheer silks. "It's time to call it a night."
"Right," Tony stretched cramped muscles and got to his feet.
The company stepped out on the main deck of the Sith. Tony snapped off the cabin lights and joined the people standing at the rail. Ghek perched her sensuously curved hips on the gunwale of the cruiser and stared thoughtfully into a far distant future which they could, as yet, only see in the depths of their hearts. She gracefully shifted Cheta's sleeping weight from one generous hip to the other. Ghek turned her gaze to the others. "This is going to fun," she announced.
"More than fun," Clixia sleepily agreed. "This will be an adventure none of us are going to forget." The Martian lady placed her head on Kantos Kan's shoulder and closed her weary eyes.
The newly elected president pulled his lady close with a satisfied sigh. "Let's get these girls home, Tony. I am not the great tower of strength you are. I have no intention of carrying this heavy old thing all the way back to the apartment."
Clixia opened her eyes, narrowed them, compressed her lips, and punched the officer in the biceps. Then she went limp, forcing Kantos Kan to quickly lift her into his arms. There was a happy sparkle in the man's eyes.
Tony chuckled. He offered to take Clixia ("Why stand on my own two feet when there were strong men around?") while Kantos Kan dropped over the side. Clixia giggled as she fought to remain in Kantos Kan's arms after Tony lowered her over the rail. The red man firmly set his lady on her feet and helped Connie then Ghek, who still clutched her tiny ape burden. Tony put one leg over the Sith's rail and was about to descend when Bar Novacs touched his shoulder.
"Is this football all you say it is?" the Warhoon asked.
"Of course!" Tony grinned, slipping the other leg over the gleaming gunwale. Just as the Jasoomian was about to drop to the ground Connie called up to the green man.
"You've known me long enough, Bar NovacsI'm hell on wheels and I'll cut the heart out of a banth with dagger. I only speak what I think and I'll tell you this: I'm damn choosey about my men and I'm going to marry a football player. I won't have anyone else! That ought to convince you, you old fuddy-duddy!"
Connie's impassioned avowal of love came at precisely the moment Tony released his grip on the rail. Her words raced through his brain, short-circuiting his physical control. The next thing he saw was the radium bulb on the ceiling of Level Eight, Slip 31A. For the life of him Tony could not figure out how he landed on his back!
Connie giggled sweetly as she knelt to assist the black-bearded man to his feet. "Are you okay?" she asked. "Did you get the breath knocked out of you, my chieftain? You look stunned."
"I am!" Tony growled. "Did I hear you right?"
"You bet your sweet ass you did! Now, try and get out of it!"
"Who? Me? Not a chance! Just try to get rid of me, you hot little baggage!" Tony's lips covered her warm, open and willing mouth. It was the sound of cheering which brought the Jasoomians to their senses.
Tony kept his arm about Connie's waist, but he extended the other to the half circle of friends standing beside the hull of the Sith. "On my world," he told them, "we seal a deal with a handshake. I offer my hand. All those who want to be a part of this companywell, put it there!"
Kantos Kan was the first to grab Tony's outstretched hand, closely followed by the lovely digits of the three women. On top of the clasped hands Bar Novacs added his huge fist with a hearty laugh. Little Cheta, half-awakened by the commotion, placed two of his paws on the mighty grip of friends.
Tony shook his head with a chuckle. "One is enough," he informed the blinking ape, "to complete a handshake that will shake a world!"
DANGER AND EXCITEMENT WITHOUT BLOODSHED
*Damsel's Gratitude limited by the Tour selected.
WHEN IN SEASON: Seats for Two at any Home Game of the Warhoon Banths, reigning Super Bowl Champions, compliments of Owner Bar Novacs and U.A. Tours, Inc., or Seats for Two at any Home Game of the Helium Hotshots, compliments of Owner Connie Wescott-Martin and U.A. Tours, Inc.
FOR THE EXTENDED TOUR: Dinner for Two with Carthoris, Prince of Helium and his lovely wife, Thuvia of Ptarth at Ghek's fabulous nightspot The Eatery, located downtown, Lesser Helium, or Dinner for Two and Gambling at Tony Martin's newest casino Are You Ready? located Avenue of Jeddaks, South, Greater Helium.
BOARD OF DIRECTORS & PRINCIPAL STOCKHOLDERS: Kantos Kan, President & Chairman of the Board; Clixia Kantos, Manager, Regional Concessions and Main Offices; Prince Carthoris, Commander, Airship Division; Thuvia, Maid of Mars, Wildlife Division; Tony Martin, Games Division, Jeddak, Barsoom Sports Association; Connie Wescott-Martin, Jeddara of Baseball; Bar Novacs, Jed of Warhoon, Warhoon Football Division; Tars Tarkas, Jed of Thark, Thark Football Division; Cheta, Jed of Apes, Kanator; Ghek, Recreational Diversions Division.