James D. Bozarth
Copyright © 2010
Cover Illustration: Tangor
Copyright © 2010
The sight of the ten legged calot prowling the streets of the New City of Thavas would have been astonishing in any other city on Barsoom, but the constant companion of Ras Thavas, the founder of New City and oldest living man on Barsoom, was unusually intelligent and well mannered. Thasa Ras, for that was her name, stalked towards the restaurant into which her master and husband had just entered.
Her eyes flickered up to her old laboratory, in which she had practiced her brand of misguided science, and which had long been sealed against intrusion by her husband. She had left so much unfinished.
The building shimmered and twisted as the sun, high overhead, shone hot and muggy on the streets. A light wind and the nearness of the Toonolian Marsh filled the air with humidity that wilted even the strongest of men. This summer was the hottest in Barsoomian memory.
Thasa Ras nosed the restaurant's door open and stopped just inside the door. Once out of the sun, the air seemed cooler although the humidity remained.
Her husband strode to his customary seat with the lithe stride of a young warrior. Ras Thavaswell over a thousand years old nowwas a master surgeon and a superb scientist, but his fighter's body was that of a much younger man, a bodyonce stored in his charnel chamberswithout a brain, a brain that had been removed from the body and ruthlessly annihilated to prevent the former owner of the body from attempting to retrieve his purloined flesh and bone. Vad Varo had, under duress to save his beloved Valla Dia from that same fate, transferred the brain of Ras Thavas into that vacant shell.
Ras Thavas now regretted that murder, but had no way to reverse his crime of conceit. That once dreadful hubris was yet one more misdeed in a very long life of misdeeds, which he now had to endure and to regret.
Ras Thavas sat at the table and pressed a few oval tampi coins carried in his waist pouch into the console slot to order his dinner. As the coins disappeared into the console he watched as his wife lazily paced around the room. The calot stopped every once in a while to sniff at the platters of prepared foods which rose from the center of each table via a circular pillar. Plates and eating utensils were automatically served. The plates were filled with steaming foods, sometimes a thick stew with nearly uniform pieces of meats and vegetables in a creamy broth; sometimes a thoat steak and steamed vegetables. All meals were prepared in the depths of a Hastor-built automated kitchen which had been installed in the ground level public eatery in First Tower some years after New City of Thavas was organized.
The calotabout the size of a Shetland ponyhad a smooth skin with a rough shock of hair adorning the creature's thick neck. A fearsomely fanged mouth stretched from one side of her neck to the other.
Ras Thavas noticed the slight, intense, almost excited, frown on Thasa Ras' face, no other could have seen it as they did not share such empathy as did they, once husband and wife. Thasa Ras continued to make her way around the room. She seemed curious. She appeared interested in what each of the early afternoon diners had on their plates. He idly wondered what was so intriguing.
The customers reacted to the interest of the beast according to their several characters. Some shied away, others murmured greetings, and one even stroked the calot's mane and smiled at the beast.
"Hello, Thasa Ras," the gorgeous woman said. "How is your master today?" In a softer voice, leaning close as if to a friend, "I hope the First Citizen notices how I am treating you. He might look upon me with greater favor now that his grieving for your namesake has passed." The woman glanced over at the mastermind of Mars and waved.
Thasa Ras allowed the woman's caresses although she raged inside at the temerity of this vapid sorak who sought to take her place at Ras Thavas' side.
Yet, even as emotion surged through her, Thasa Ras realized that she had ultimately rejected her husband's affection because he had grown soft and effete, perhaps an accumulation of guilt since the surgery that had extended his lifetime was the cause. Hundreds of years before their marriage he had once sought, by aid of his great intellect, to master the planet. All the histories revealed that, but now he was a handsome man, First Citizen of New Thavas, and was filled with remorse. His guilt drove him to help others, and to deny both his scientific skill to dominate others and her cold ambition to rule the world. They could have met the doomed future of Barsoom head on and wrested a good life from what remained of Barsoom's dwindling resources…
Ras Thavas returned the woman's wave with a small one of his own. Thasa Ras clapped her jaws shut with a sharp snap which startled the woman beside her. The calot stalked over to her master and curled up beside his knee. She laid her head on her forepaws and snorted.
Using the mind connection that only they shared, Ras Thavas remarked, "Feeling a little miffed, are we?"
Thasa Ras lifted her head and looked at her master. "I am bored."
"Bored?" he responded in disbelief. "Or just grumpy because another woman dared to smile at me?"
"You once looked at me that way!" she snarled.
"So I didbefore you took my teachings and perverted them. You distanced yourself from me and locked me out of your laboratory. You made an artificial lover. You broke our vows..."
"And just for that you transferred my brain into this calot's body."
Ras Thavas scowled as the mechanics in the table began to operate. "Should I have slain you as was my right?" His solemn question disturbed her.
"Why didn't you?"
"I do not know."
"Perhaps it would have" The calot heard a laugh. The woman who had stroked her mane, greeted a man who had joined her at her table. Thasa Ras snorted angrily and retreated into sullen silence.
Thasa Ras stared at the woman. She frowned as much as her bestial face would permit, then jerked her head upright with interest as the woman dropped her spoon and sat upright, rubbing her stomach. The woman clutched her throat, sitting rigid, her eyes wide with terror. Thasa Ras shifted her eyes to the left and looked at the man who had recoiled when she had sniffed at his plate. He, too, was sitting rigid in his chair one hand on his stomach and the other at his throat.
The console in the table where Ras Thavas sat chimed as it presented the mastermind's meal. "We will discuss all this later," Ras Thavas said. "After I eat."
Thasa Ras' head jerked up as an aroma entered her nostrils. She leaped up to throw two sets of her forelegs onto the table. Her right forepaw landed on the edge of the plate, flipping it over and off the table.
"Always it is ‘later' with you. I am tired of later. Give back my body now before something happens to you!"
Ras Thavas leaned close to his wife's face. "Not until you learn! Meanwhile, I can trust you to keep me from harm until then."
Thasa Ras subsided onto the floor. "You have no idea, husband, of what I am capable of doing."
As the mastermind scraped away the food tossed by his wife's actions, the calot rose to her feet and padded over to the woman. She sniffed at the skin of the woman. She placed a paw on the heated thigh. Thasa Ras turned to her husband, "This woman is dead."
Ras Thavas leapt to his feet and rushed over to the table. He laid a hand on her shoulder and discovered the woman was absolutely rigid and her body was fevered. Her eyes were wide with terror. The mastermind looked up and scanned the room. He saw scores of others sitting rigid with their hands on their bellies and clutching their throats while other diners were screaming for help.
Ras Thavas shouted for medical personnel, who eventually arrived to take the bodies, for all were dead, rigid and fevered.
In the empty restaurant the automatic kitchen began to clear the tables of the remains of the meals.
In his laboratory Ras Thavas pored over the cadavers, examining each minutely with probes, glasses and penetrating rays. All of them, he discovered, had ingested a strange biological compound which had made the blood in their bodies boil from the inside.
The First Citizen quarantined the restaurant and isolated the food supply that had been delivered from the southern shore Tonoolian Marsh farms up to ten days earlier. He ordered all food stuffs to be examined for the compound that contaminated the food.
The reports began to trickle in. Nothing could be found in the food chain.
Jusaj, the major domo of New City of Thavas, correlated the reports from the survivors. The interrogations revealed that the survivors could tell little more than that those who died had eaten the stew or who had not yet ordered. But a few of those who had eaten the stew were not infected. The results were inconclusive.
Physical examinations of the survivors revealed no sign of infection or poison.
Daysthen weekspassed. Each batch tested came up clean. Random testing of food shipments revealed nothing.
Ras Thavas examined the kitchens. He crawled into the machines that prepared the food. He looked under them. He peered into corners and small places. He looked at the floors and ceilings. He examined the walls. He followed the chain of food processing. He began at the warehouse doors. Cases of raw meat and vegetables entered the warehouse for the kitchen, hermetically sealed and sterilized. He doubted that the contamination started there, but he ordered new cases from different vendors.
Automated conveyor systems shifted the cartons from their storage ports and into the kitchens. The cases were easy to load into the system, but were difficult to remove from the system without dismantling the conveyors. But Ras Thavas ordered each of these things done to insure the safety of the citizens of New City.
No human hands touched the food once it entered the kitchens until it reached the tables where the food was consumed. Each of the cases were opened by machines that slit the boxes along predetermined lines. The blades of these machines, examined minutely, revealed nothing unusual. The conveyor belts were then examined and sterilized.
Cooking vats, stirrers, covers, seals, dishes, all were minutely examined. All were found clean and uncontaminated. Even the elevators that sent the prepared food to the tables were examined carefully. The packing materials and cartons were minutely examined. Each report was devastatingly empty of information. No contaminants were found.
"All I can say, Sir," Du Tak, the chief scientist of the scientific research team, said, "is that I can find nothing to have caused these deathsexcept the presence of the compound in their bodies. None of us can find a delivery system for the compound." The other scientists in the research team nodded in agreement.
"Very well," sighed Ras Thavas. "We may as well open the restaurant again. Its lack has been a strain on the other food vendors in the city." The First Citizen turned to Jusaj. "Maintain a random testing program."
Ras Thavas retreated to his laboratory and studied the compound. He found it had an affinity for hemoglobin, attaching itself to the red blood cells quickly and, with an exothermic reaction, cooked those cells until they burst.
Discrete inquiries to other cities revealed no other cases of the blood destroying deaths. It was limited to New City.
Though a year went by and no other cases cropped up Ras Thavas continued to worry over the lack of information about the compound. The puzzle haunted him. He continued to study the compound whenever time and tasks allowed.
Five years had passed since Vad Varo, Prince of Duhor, had last visited New City of Thavas. Vad Varo entered Ras Thavas' laboratory in response to Ras Thavas' urgent plea for his old friend's help. He waited until the door swung shut before speaking. "Valla Dia is hiding from the heat in our guest apartments in the Second Tower, my friend. It appears my wife and I chose an exceptionally steaming hot day to visit!"
After quickly exchanged social graces, Vad Varo looked into his friend's haunted face. "What news have you about the poison compound?"
Ras Thavas looked up at the Jasoomian who was responsible for Ras Thavas' continued existence. Vad Varo had performed the brain transplant which placed the master mind's brain in the body of another.
"I have found nothing new," Ras Thavas said. "It is either very selective, or specific. I have found no common denominatorother than the deaths and that the victims had all eaten the stew. We may be looking in all the wrong places."
"Could it be a weapon of terror thrown against New City?"
"What do you mean, Vad Varo?"
"Jasoom has used biological weapons in the past, certainly chemical weapons"
"I do not know enough about the compound to answer. I cannot determine the infection vector as none of the victims show signs of wound or puncture. It cannot be airborne or we would have many more deaths, not just sixty-four. The compound does not affect any blood but that of the red men. It appears to be ingested, yet there is no possibility of thatall the equipment has been tested."
Vad Varo nodded. "Using the samples you sent to me, I tested it against the blood of Green, Black and Yellow men." The Prince of Duhor paused with a wry smile. "The Therns will not share their bloodfor some obscure religious reasonbut I have tested John Carter's blood and this poison does not react to his blood. I, too, am mystified by the selectivity of the infection."
"There is something, though," Ras Thavas muttered, "about this compound that seems familiar, but for the life of me I cannot imagine why."
"Perhaps, if we break it down into its component elements?" suggested Vad Varo.
"You may be onto something, old friend," the master mind replied. "Let us begin now."
Outside in the corridor came the noise of many frightened people. The door burst open and numerous people were carried in on stretchers. A glance at the bodies showed no sign of life remained in those rigid husks. Hands clutched at stomachs and throats. A look of surprise was on every face. The poison compound had struck again.
The frightened people clamored over each other in a cacophony of fear until Ras Thavas shouted for quiet.
"You, Tar Mak, what happened?"
"They died in the First Tower restaurant." He cried, "Just like the otherslike last year"
"Close down the restaurant," the master mind ordered.
"It is already done and the foods have been quarantined."
"Vad Varo, old friend. Will you look into the situation? Perhaps fresh eyes might see what I have not." The bitter words slipped from Ras Thavas' mouth. "I should have saved them."
"Do not blame yourself so, my friend. I am sure you have done all that is possible."
"But what I have learned in a thousand years is not enough!" the First Citizen of New City of Thavas cried. "I should know what is causing this!" Ras Thavas pounded his fist upon the table. "Please, go and find what I have missed."
Ras Thavas turned to the seventy-three dead and began his examinations. All was as before: no wounds, only the presence of the biologic compound which induced blood cells to fever and burst. That fever andthe rigidity of the body were the external physical evidence of the poison.
"What is wrong, husband?" Thasa Ras thrust her nose under his hand.
He absently caressed her head as he sighed. "I have no idea how they died. All of my accumulated knowledge is useless. I do not know how the poison was introduced into them. It must have been the food, but how? And why only a few? And why this day and not another? The victims are all different."
"No, husband, they all ate the stew."
"How do you know?"
"I can smell the…" Thasa Ras hesitated a moment, but only a moment. "…stew on them."
Ras Thavas leapt to his feet. He rushed out of the laboratory, shouting orders, praying that the cooked food had been preserved.
Thasa Ras' observation was later borne out by the study of the bodies. Each had eaten the stew.
Vad Varo, an earthman more familiar with disease than any inhabitant of Barsoom, where disease was practically unknown, had saved the meals from the ordinary clean up by the automated restaurant.
The resultant analysis confirmed that the stew was definitely the source of the poison. But, not all of the stew served was contaminated. How did the poison get into the stew and why had it happened only twice but always with such devastating results?
While the master mind studied the poison, breaking it down into its elemental parts, Vad Varo studied the restaurant and everything within it. He found the same things that Ras Thavas had found: nothing. All of the food was delivered sealed and the cooking machines were completely clean if not sterile.
Vad Varo thumped the desk in front of him. Blue prints and maps covered the top of the desk along with the numerous reports of the findings of both investigations. The technicians from Hastor had done their own investigations with no results. John Carter had also sent mechanics to look over the equipment. They, too, left without a solution.
"Well, Thasa Ras, can you find the clue we need to solve this problem?"
Laughing at his silly remark, Vad Varo turned away from the desk and poured himself a drink from the sideboard behind him.
Thasa Ras stood on hind paws and peered over the table, reading the words of many wise men. She sneered at their stupidity. Having listened quietly to the discussions, she had spotted the similarity in the two incidents. The reports confirmed it.
Vad Varo turned back to see the calot leaning on the table with two sets of forepaws, looking for all the world like someone studying the papers in front of her.
The beast glanced around the room and walked over to the thermometer, playfully pawing at it until it fell to the floor. She batted it around until Vad Varo rescued the thermometer before the playful calot could break the delicate instrument.
Rising, the Jasoomian noted the temperature displayed and an alarm went off in his mind. He raced to the table and looked at the reports. The temperature! Both incidents happened when the temperature was high. Heat apparently affected the compound, but why and how?
Vad Varo grinned. "Thasa Ras, you beautiful thing, I could kiss you," he exclaimed.
Thasa Ras shook her head from side to side and trotted off, her head in the air. Vad Varo laughed again. She looked so much like a matron aunt he had on Earth spurning an unwelcome advance by a young boy.
The Jasoomian sat at the table and thought about the temperature and its effects on the compound. Perhaps it was heat activated. Then the cooking machines were probably where the contamination entered the food chain.
He returned to the kitchen and re-examined the machinery. But the machines were clean and sealed against contamination. They were steam cleaned after each and every cooking cycle. But his efforts yielded no useable results. He could find no entry points for the contaminant.
Frustrated, Vad Varo reported his observations to his old friend. All he had to add was the incident of the high temperatures during both occurrences.
"I, too, am frustrated, Vad Varo," the master mind ground his teeth, showing that frustration. "I know almost everything about the poison compound except how it works within the body and where it comes from. The exothermic reaction is similar to one I used in the creation and growth of the hormads, but it would not have been strong enough or have caused a reaction hot enough to have burst the blood cells." A bitter laugh broke through his lips. "In my misspent youth I would have used as many people as I needed to find out the how the poison progressed, but I still could not have found out the where, and I possibly would not have found out the how either. My much vaunted science has been a failure."
"Perhaps both heat and water are required, husband." The calot barely moved, opening one eye only, before closing it again.
"Water and heat," murmured the master mind. "Water and heat."
"But where could the water have become contaminated?" Vad Varo asked. "Doesn't the entire city use the same source?"
Ras Thavas frowned.
"Remember, husband, First Tower is the oldest building in New City. It was built before the water recycling plant was builtand uses its own supply."
Ras Thavas quickly knelt and hugged his wife, crying, "That is it! The water supply! The First Tower restaurant is not connected to the city supplyit is unique in that regard!"
The two men raced out of the laboratory and flew down the circular ramps. They ran in the stifling heat until their lungs ached and finally entered the restaurant.
Examining the water source took surprisingly little time to find where the problem lay. Tracking the water back to the intake valve showed trace amounts of the poison. But how did it get there? Was it placed there by an enemy of New City? The Phundalians perhaps? Or one from further away? There was confusion as the water had been tested before
Vad Varo assisted his mentor as they removed the cover from the cistern that lay outside the First Tower. Inside the reservoir they discovered a metallic canister, about the size of a sorapas fruit, lying on the rung of a long disused ladder that gave access to the bottom of the cistern. A thin, dried trail of a red, caked powder led from the canister to the dried waterline a hand span above the water. As the searing sun struck the canister, it made a groaning sound and a drop of red liquid seeped from the canister.
Careful not to touch the red liquid, the two scientists retrieved the canister and the two men returned to the laboratory. There they found why the canister was not quite completely sealed. A dent in the metal rim near the plastic seal allowed a minute amount of the dangerous compound to seep out when the canister was exposed to heatjust like that which is experienced on a hot summer day in the Toonolian marshes.
Where that container came from, or what agency had created it, Vad Varo did not know. But they had found the source of the deaths. The First Tower water source was changed that day and the cistern was sterilized.
Vad Varo exchanged grips with his mentor. "That part is done," he said. "There will be no more deathsbut who? Why?"
"II cannot say," Ras Thavas replied. "But I will not rest until I know. Thank you for your help, Vad Varo. Sincerely!"
Later that day Vad Varo and his wife, Princess Valla Dia, departed for Duhor.
Ras Thavas felt that sadness-gladness of seeing the Jasoomian and that reminder of older days when he, the most brilliant mind on Barsoom had been so stupid.
Later, in his quarters, alone with Thasa Ras, the master mind was surprised when the calot dared to ask, "What enemy put this poison trap in the water supply?"
"I did," Ras Thavas said in a dead flat voice. "Although I did not intend to do so. Do you not remember that day? That day I slew your guards. I fought my way into the laboratory, past your panthans. You were in that Thing's arms. I hacked its head from its body and raised my sword to you. You just laughed and raged at me. I was so angry. I lost myself in rage and destroyed the laboratory. I smashed beakers and test tubes. I threw many things out of the window that many years ago when I found you in the abomination's arms."
The master mind held up the de-fanged canister and showed her the familiar sigil on the side. "This is the seal of your laboratory. I never knew what was in it when I threw it…" the master mind paused, "but you did, didn't you?"
"Yes, husband," she snarled. "I did."
"And you did not give a warning to save anyone. Even when you smelled it in the restaurant the first time."
"I had never tested the toxin. I wanted to see what the effects would be."
Ras Thavas carefully set the container on the table. He sat down, soul-weary. "When you jumped on the table and spilled my plate you did that on purpose. You saved meand not any of the others."
"They were nothing. Only you matter. Only you can return my body."
"No one is nothing! Each had friends and family who mourn their loss. Each, no matter how base or cruel they might have been, is worth more than you, dear heart!"
Ras Thavas rose tall in his outrage and despair. "Leave me. I would mourn alone for the lost ones."
Chastened, Thasa Ras silently slunk away as Ras Thavas shed bitter tears.
* * * * *
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