David Bruce Bozarth
Copyright © 2004
Copyright © 2003
A darkness so complete to strike terror in the heart of any man, even the most brilliant scientist of Barsoom. Ras Thavas choked back the cry of surprise that threatened to spring forth; however, too many years of exploring Barsoom had trained the master mind in caution. His hands, however, instinctively rose to his eyes to see if he was blind. But those powerful hands never reached his face because a cold surface lay only a hand's width above his reclining body.
Exploring that hard surface worked by the man of hand, Ras Thavas pushed upward. The surface did not move. Though the scientist was not claustrophobic he disliked the thought of being imprisoned. More strength was exerted until a seal suddenly broke and the panel slid to one side. Ras Thavas viewed a darkness marginally less complete. Sitting up, his eyes taking every advantage of the faint illumination that seemed to come from a circular opening in a ceiling high above and to the left, Ras Thavas felt a shiver pass down his spine. He had been sealed inside a coffin!
Vacating the funerary container as quickly as his stiff muscles allowed, Ras Thavas looked about. He was in an underground dungeon not dissimilar to thousands beneath nearly every ancient city of Barsoom. A dense pall of dust lay on all surfaces except six: the coffin he had escaped and five others laid in line next to his.
How had he come to be here?
The hand of the master mind reached for his sword; it was not there. His radium pistol with the worn grip was missing. But his knife was at his waist and there was comfort holding it in his hand.
The silence was as extraordinary as the darkness. He heard nothing except the pounding of his heart in his ears. Perhaps the increased blood flow helped his sight and hearing in some way because the master mind noted a slight movement and heard a faint sound from the coffin next to his!
The knife made short work of the wax seal that held the lid to the casket. It was a moment of effort to fling the cover aside and the resulting clatter seemed like an explosion that startled both Ras Thavas and the occupant of the coffin.
"Thasa Ras!" the scientist exclaimed, kneeling to embrace the hideous calot's body which contained the brain of his wife. "Are you injured?"
"What is this?" a slurred reply. The beast's ten legs moved uncertainly. The huge head, and jaws filled with triple rows of teeth, lifted with a wobble. "Help me, Ras Thavas!"
To hear his wife's telepathic voice filled with fright utterly concerned the scientist. "You appear all right," he said, assisting the calot out of the casket.
Thasa Ras shook her head. "I cannot think. I smell you, but my eyes...I can't see in the dark anymore. But I do see you!"
"Rest," the master mind caressed the calot's short mane. "There may be others here against their will."
Ras Thavas inspected the next coffin. Like his and Thasa Ras', it was free of dust and seemed of recent construction. The lid was soon removed and an elderly man looked up from the shadowed interior of the coffin. "Thank you, my son," the dry, cracked voice said. "My wife?"
The scientist paused only long enough to lift the near skeletal frame of the man to a nearby dust covered ledge before taking up a bar of metal leaning against the wall to remove the remaining casket lids. A withered old woman, more spry than her husband, needed no assistance. She went to her mate's side and put her arm around his shoulder.
The next was a gorgeous young woman, abundant in form and energy, laughing when her husband's face was revealed. "At last!" the girl cried with triumph. "I have done something before you!" Which comment sparked a rise and fall of argument between the couple that, for all its familiarity of the arguments he and Thasa Ras had over the years, were a confusion to the master mind. Why would an argument have more importance than finding out how and why they were in this arid old dungeon?
"Do any of you remember how we came to be here?" Ras Thavas asked. "We must find a way out."
The old man nodded. "That's a good idea. Why don't you look? My wife and I would only slow you down."
The young man scowled at the master mind. "Go ahead. As soon as I find my wife," he said, looking toward a tunnel into which the girl had entered, "we'll help you."
Thasa Ras rose on unsteady legs. She favored her left side, her hind two legs limp, dragging useless through the dust. Ras Thavas felt a flush of apprehension, the calot was heading blindly toward a wall and seemed unaware it was there. He went to her side and placed a guiding hand on her mane. "This way, darling."
The path Ras Thavas chose led beneath the opening in the ceiling. Though the opening was quite large, they were so deep underground that it was like looking down the bore of a radium rifle. There were stars above and, as he watched, one of Barsoom's two small moons crossed the edge. It was Thuria, but Thuria as he had never seen it before. The tiny moon was not brilliant. There was a smoky gray appearance that chilled the master mind. Yet for all that, the dull glow of that small amount of reflected light revealed a possible way out of the dungeon. Thasa Ras obediently followed her husband's lead and he, filled with fear for her, kept his pace slow to accommodate the calot's painful gait.
Through a door set in ancient walls was another room, quite different in appearance. There were dozens of gleaming machines. This room was also silent, but not still. The machines were performing automated tasks which made no sense to the master mind. Articulated steel rods equipped with caliper grips lifted glass vials from one small table to another, while a similar machine removed the just placed vials and returned them to the original table.
A bluish light of unknown origin reminded Ras Thavas of that short instant of glow between Barsoomian day and night. He gazed at the other machines. He knew he should understand their use and purpose but could not fathom neither.
"This place smells of decay," the calot said in a voice that brought gladness to the heart of Ras Thavas. This voice was that of his brilliant wife, the woman who had studied science, who had once dreamed of conquering a world, who had once betrayed their marriage vows, and had endured the punishment of having her brain transplanted into a hunting calot's body rather than executed for her adultery. This was the woman who eventually chose to remain a calot even when offered a chance to return to her own human form-–who had come to understand that as they were was the best they could ever be. And it had been so very good!
"Ras Thavas? Are you feeling well? Your hand is hot." The calot leaned against her husband's naked leg. "Your skin is fevered!"
"Yes. I have a fever, but I feel all right."
"I don't like this place. Let us leave."
"I should go back for the others."
"Leave them. I can hear the young ones arguing. Neither is listening to the other."
"What of the old couple?"
Into the master mind's thoughts came the impression of a smile. "In all but the physical act they are making love to each other."
Ras Thavas frowned. "How very strange. Well." Ras Thavas watched the machines changing vials from table to table. It was fascinating. What one machine did the other undid, yet all was done in harmony. "Well."
"We can't stay here," Thasa Ras said.
"We must go, husband!"
"Of course. Well."
Thasa Ras wished her eyes were not so watery. Gently, ever so tenderly, the calot's savage jaws took the hand of Ras Thavas. She tugged. She tugged again. "Come!" she begged. "I fear this place!" When he did not respond Thasa Ras bit hard, one of her fangs drawing blood from the man's hand. Ras Thavas roused, as if from a trance, and let the calot lead him to the door opposite the one they had entered.
There was a short tunnel with an upward slope. At the next level Thasa Ras thought she saw kaldanes skittering on their six spider legs into small openings around the room. She pulled on her husband's hand and was relieved that he followed at her best speed. Ignoring the pain in her hindquarters, Thasa Ras hurried up other ramps, through other rooms, fearing what, she did not know, but filled with an intense and utter dread that was only increased by the somber ancient walls. Then she wondered where they were going. And then wondered why she was holding a hand in her mouth.
Ras Thavas still pondered the machines. Such wonderful things. He remembered machines and using them. Machines were good. Suddenly his legs were tangled by a body crossing in front of him. As he fell his upper body twisted and he landed on his back. Then the base of his skull slammed into the stone flooring with a sharp crack.
He did not quite lose consciousness and because of that the pain searing the back of his head sharpened his mind. A trembling tactile inventory of his skull was inconclusive. When he tried, his head rotated on his neck without additional pain. Then there was other pain. A heavy padded foot came down on his stomach, a second, third...and though the forward legs churned, the rear legs of the calot could not be dragged across Ras Thavas' supine body.
Not a spark of intelligence could Ras Thavas find in the calot's brain. It was as if Thasa Ras had disappeared. "Steady!" the distraught man begged. His hands gripped the fang-filled jaws as he often had over the centuries--their way of intimate touching. The calot ceased its mindless effort to walk and lay down across its master's body.
"Who could have done this to us? What have they done to you? I swear that we shall survive, and after that someone will pay! Speak to me, Thasa Ras! I am lost without you!"
There was no response.
In pain-filled near darkness the scientist thought over every event in his life-–though the first thousand years did not have the same treasured meaning as the last seven hundred and fifty, for that was when he found the girl who became his student, his wife and lover, his greatest disappointment, his travel companion and protector, and finally, for all these years since, his best friend. "Would that you and I had never met, my love. If I had gone hunting a day earlier or a day later--no! If that had happened you would have died in the marsh of Tonool, therefore, if only I had been stronger, had not accepted your invitation to love, you would have found another and you would not be in danger now. Yes. I should not have fallen in love with you."
That thought brought pain to the master mind's heart. A pain that almost felt physical. "I have angered many in my life. I have angered many since you and I began exploring Barsoom. Bandits, religious hucksters, would be world conquerors, mad scientists, oh! There are too many who wish revenge on Ras Thavas and his calot. But you are not a calot. You are my wife! My dear wife who chose to wear a form not human. It is all my fault!"
The red glow that Ras Thavas saw was behind his eyes. He did not remember passing out. A cool tongue rasped on his cheek. He laughed. It was a kiss he knew well. "Let me sleep, Thasa Ras. The sun is not up. No more. I am too weary and you are too insatiable!"
Thasa Ras licked the feverish face again. "Wake up! Wake up! Time is running out. I don't know how I know but it is! We must climb! Get up!"
The nudges, the pleading, the rough little nips at his chest and shoulders roused the master mind. He babbled of things they would do, had done, but had done hundreds of years earlier. His mind was as fevered as his body. Thasa Ras attempted to penetrate the fevered hallucinations which clouded her husband's mind.
"You gave me life. You raised me. You even let me make you my husband. You didn't kill me when you should have, yet you never sent me away. You have always been with me and I can't bear the thought of being without you! Keep walking! Up! Only a little further! You'll have to watch for the way. I can't see anything now. Don't let go of me! But of course, you wouldn't, you never have. You never will."
Man and beast struggled up a series of twisting ramps. More often they had to rest. He by leaning against the wall for fear that if he sat he would never rise again and she by bracing eight legs while two hung limp and unresponsive. The pain in the master mind's neck increased with each step. The numbness the calot felt in her limbs was moving up her spine.
"We must hurry!" Ras Thavas said, suddenly lucid. "If we can get out of this place whatever is affecting our minds and bodies will cease."
"How do you know?" the blind calot asked.
"I-–" How did he know? He answered with the truth. "I feel it. I feel it like I was smitten by you as a child and later in love with you as a woman. As I am in love with you now. I know this."
"Where you go, I go, my chieftain. Lead the way."
Ras Thavas forgot how many steps they had come. He had been counting, but had lost that count. Only three things concerned him now. Moving one foot before the other, his hand on Thasa Ras' mane, and the increasingly unbearable pain which had moved up his neck to the base of his brain. His eyesight was affected, shot with tiny motes of brilliant red and white light, sometimes fading as if losing his sight. Whenever he thought of his wife his heart thundered in his chest, painfully so. At his side Thasa Ras struggled. Both pairs of rear legs dragged behind her. Her tail lay in the dust, no longer held high. But her heart and her thoughts were strong and from that both she and the man she loved drew their strength.
At first Ras Thavas thought it was more of the lights behind his eyes, but each step changed the vision ahead until he saw the outlines of a closed door leaking sunlight around the seams. His heart beat faster. The fever became hotter though he ignored it in his excitement.
"A door! Sunlight! We are almost free, my princess!"
Together they reached the door. "Open it!" Thasa Ras begged.
The master mind was eager to comply. His hands went over the surface of the skeel wood door, but there was no handle, no knob, no latch. Frantically, feeling an opportunity was slipping away, Ras Thavas checked the door again and again.
Thasa Ras hissed a dejected sigh. "It is locked. Isn't it."
"It can't be!" Ras Thavas cried. "We have come too far! We have suffered too much to be defeated now!" The master mind beat on the unyielding wood with all his strength, which was very little.
A blinding flash of light hit the left eye of Ras Thavas. His left leg collapsed. He fell across the calot's back and she went to the floor unable to support his weight.
"Husband? Ras Thavas!"
The reply, when it came, was mildly amused. "It seems I've had a stroke."
The calot almost laughed. "I had one before you did!"
There was silence between them for a time. Ras Thavas spoke with some difficulty, even as a telepath. "I am holding you in my arms, darling. I feel your body with half of mine, but my heart has always been yours."
"It has been long since I felt your body on mine. Remember those nights and days? Oh!"
Again there was silence.
"I am dying."
Thasa Ras replied, "I have been trying to go before you. I do not wish to suffer even one instant of grief if you die first!"
"And I have been hanging on, dear heart, hoping against hope that somehow, some way, I could save you!"
The calot who was not a calot sighed. "My chieftain!" Thasa Ras tried to turn her head, to lick kiss her husband. Her body would not respond. Shuddering a little, she said, "Though we saved each other many times...not this time. Rest."
"Yes," Ras Thavas struggled to breathe. His heart was in fibrillation. His chest burned with pain. He could feel his consciousness leaving. He did not regret dying, he who had lived two life times, but he dearly regretted that his wife, the only person he had loved completely, he regretted that her life spark would end.
The calot's body suddenly writhed with massive convulsions. There was no fear in Thasa Ras' fading voice. "I wish I could give my life for yours, for I love you that much!"
Breathing slowed. The shudders and spasms ceased.
Ras Thavas opened his eyes. The fever was gone. His headache vanished. There was no pain in his chest. Thasa Ras lay on the floor--asleep, not dead!
And the door was open! A brilliant white light beckoned.
"Thasa Ras! Awake, my love!"
The calot stood on ten strong legs, her tail held high. "How?"
Ras Thavas laughed. "Who cares?"
Together they ran into the light.
"Goodbye, my friends..."
The door to the chamber flew open. A beautiful woman ran forward. With horror in her eyes Valla Dia saw her husband remove two small vials from the bed and place them in his belt pouch. With great sadness he looked upon the man and calot in silent repose on the pallet of sleeping silks and furs.
"What have you done?" Valla Dia exclaimed. She knelt at the side of the handsome man lying so still. Her hand touched the face of Ras Thavas then jerked away. Her eyes went to the hideous hunting calot which no longer seemed such a terrible engine of destruction.
"Poor Thasa Ras!" the princess of Duhor stroked the mane of the great calot which lay next to its master.
Vad Varo lifted his wife to her feet. "Near nineteen hundred years did my friend live. His calot more than seven hundred and fifty. He feared in recent years the brain transplants which gave him this perfect body and his wife the powerful form she loved were beginning to fail."
"He was the most brilliant man on Barsoom," Valla Dia argued. "He gave you a perfect body and you have lived nearly as long as..." At which point the woman's eyes grew round with fear.
"Nay, my love!" the tall healer assured his royal wife, "I am fine. Ras Thavas believed that somewhere in his travels with Thasa Ras they encountered some strain of infection or bacteria which eluded the most exhaustive tests."
Vad Varo gazed upon the man he had once hated, then admired, then loved whole-heartedly. "Together Ras Thavas and Thasa Ras explored more of Barsoom than any in history. I suppose that rather than suffer debilitation, infirmity and insanity..." The prince of Duhor ceased speaking and placed a hand over his belt pouch. "I would have stopped him had I known, so much did I love him. I suppose that is why he and Thasa Ras did it this way. We do not speak of the poison. Some might say the great master mind of Barsoom chose a coward's way to avoid the inevitable."
"How do you see it, Vad Varo?"
The prince led his wife out of the chamber and closed the door. He walked with arm about Valla Dia's shoulder through the halls of Ras Thavas' home. "I believe Ras Thavas and Thasa Ras chose their time to make the greatest exploration of all. If there is an afterlife I'm sure he and the calot will explore that world as fully as they explored ours."
Vad Varo walked in silence for several steps, then laughed quietly. Valla Dia wiped tears from her face, looking up with a touch of confusion. "Why do you laugh?"
"I would not be surprised to one day find yet another thesis by Ras Thavas on my desk detailing the results of his latest adventure!"
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