David Bruce Bozarth
Copyright © 2003
Revised and Updated 2020
"Must we go to Bantoom?" Thasa Ras asked her husband. "The six hundredth anniversary of the New City of Thavas is only days away. Surely you would like to be on hand for that event!"
Ras Thavas continued packing the travel bag which contained a number of curious and senstive instruments of his own design. He glanced toward the calot at his feet, a huge specimen of the decapod predator of Barsoom, and did not see the large head, widely spaced pop eyes, short mane, or tremendous mouth lined with triple rows of sharp teeth. He saw only the face of his wife, whose brain resided in the calot's body due to indiscretions relatively early in their marriage. Rather than kill her, the red man had transplanted her brain into his favorite calot. Her body, and the brain of the calot, where in a secret chamber somewhere in the vast underground section of the New City of Thavas.
"Missing one of the many we have already attended is acceptable," Ras Thavas smiled.
"You know I do not like Bantoom," Thasa Ras pouted. "There's no fun game in the hills and..."
"You can do as you did the last time we were there. You can eat all the fruits, nuts, usa and rykor you want."
"I don't like rykor."
"Then you'll be a vegetarian for a time." Ras Thavas scratched the sensitive skin between the calot's eyes. Aloud, he continued with a small smile: "Or you can stay here..."
"Pooh!" Thasa Ras snorted in thought and physical form. "There's no one to talk to. Only you can hear me."
"I could contact Gantun Gur, that worthy assassin of Amhor and see if he would like to visit New City, or you could go visit him. I hear the darseen are particularly succulent in that part of the world."
"I have nothing against the hormad," Thasa Ras referred to the brain Vad Varo had transplanted into the body of a red man many years ago, "but he is not very bright—though he is very loyal and kind. Conversation with Gantun Gur is less satisfying than the mumbles of a new born hatchling."
"I was unaware conversation is what you crave, my dear," the man continued packing, referring to a checklist which he marked as each item was stowed away. "For the last few months you have not shown any desire to chat."
"That's because the one thing I wish to talk about you continue to avoid. When may I have my body back? Surely these last few years shows how much my heart and understanding has evolved."
Ras Thavas turned and knelt on one knee. He embraced the hideous calot with tenderness then pulled away to stare directly into her eyes. "The fact that you ask indicates otherwise. So," he briskly rose to finish his packing, "Amhor, New City or Bantoom?"
Thasa Ras sulked. "Where you go, I go—my chieftain."
"Yes, of course. Ready?" Ras Thavas closed the bag, picked up a second, and arched a brow.
For reply the calot left their apartment with every appearance of a haughty woman who had not gotten her way.
* * * * * * * *
The exploration ship Atana, a seventy foot vessel of one hundred tons with a working crew of twelve, delivered Ras Thavas, the calot, and six other scientists from the New City to Bantoom. The flight had taken two days. The Atana was Ras Thavas' home away from home, complete with a small laboratory below deck that was nearly as complete as his in the Tower of Learning at Thavas.
The ship's commander barked orders to the landing crew, four able bodied men. The crewmen dropped mooring ropes fore and aft and descended the ropes hand over hand to make the floating vessel secure to large metal rings embedded in concrete. The mooring rings had been installed by the Heliumetic Navy some three hundred years previous at the time Ghek the kaldane had returned to his native city as an ambassador from John Carter and the thirty one jeddaks of Barsoom. The ship was leveled and secured.
The arrival of the Atana had not gone unobserved. Two score of men, and a lesser group pushing a gantry ladder which could be extended to sixty feet in height, adjusted the ladder to Atana's gunwale. They were handsome in body and ugly in face.
Thasa Ras kept her thoughts to herself. She did not like kaldanes, the all brain creatures with no bodies who ruled Bantoom. Kaldanes were about the size of a human head, but hairless with a sphinter mouth and large lidless eyes surrounded by contrasting skin hues and crawled about on spider-like legs when they were not mounted on the human-appearing but headless and nearly brainless, rykors. The contingent awaiting at the gantry exit wore the same metal on their harnesses. All were resplendent, but the one most gaudy stepped forward as Ras Thavas set foot on Bantoomian soil.
"My king extends all thanks for your speedy arrival, Ras Thavas!"
Ras Thavas withheld a smile in response to the overly animated officer's speech. "It is my pleasure to be in Bantoom by Mothri's invitation.. May I be assured my ship and crew will be made secure?"
"At once!" the amalgamation of kaldane and rykor shouted. "Perimeter! Moorings!" The orders caused more than half of the co-joined beings to take stations. They were armed. They also appeared proficient in the use of the weapons carried—which included swords and projectile weapons.
The officer scanned the landing field then turned to Ras Thavas. "Secured, sir. May I—?"
Ras Thavas waved a hand and at the same time clutched Thasa Ras' mane to pull her to his side. "I have come a long way to be of assistance. Let us proceed."
The officer looked upon the hideous countenance of the massive calot and would have frowned if his facial features allowed such expression; yet his telepathic distress was patently obvious to even the most lowest in those abilities. Before the officer could speak the master mind said: "Where I go, she goes—the calot, I mean."
Without instructions contradictory, the officer was forced to acquiesce. "Of course, sir. Transport is this way..."
The kaldanes had embraced some of the technology of the outer world such as the bulbous-tired Eighth Ray enchanced vehicle that made good time down the river valley dotted with the hive-like towers the Kaldanes preferred. Each tower was surrounded by fertile fields in full bloom and production. A few of the towers were crumbled ruins and appeared to be recently so.
Ras Thavas sat forward in the vehicle next to the officer in Mothri's retinue. "Your name, sir?"
"Deeb, second rank in Mothri's line. Mothri is my *****."
Ras Thavas pondered the thought symbol the kaldanes used to describe their relationship to the bi-sexed kings/queens that ruled their domains in Bantoom. "*****" roughly translated to "fathermother" but was far more than that. The kaldane kings were larger, stronger, more telepathic than their offspring—which were very intelligent and telepathic in their own right. In fact, the kaldanes considered themselves the greatest thinkers on the planet and in may ways that was correct. However, they had encountered something that even their mighty mentalities could not unravel, hence the presence of Ras Thavas and his scientific crew.
The distance to the tower of Mothri was not great, perhaps five haads. But as they neared that great building the number of towers in disrepair became greater. Ras Thavas frowned as his wife's mind linked with his.
"Is that part of the problem? You haven't said much why we are here."
Replying through that telepathic link that only they shared, of all the telepathic beings of Barsoom, "It is the manifestation of what appears to be a number of ills. I have not spoken of it because I did not want to have speculation in mind that might distract me from the investigation."
Deeb directed the kaldane driver, whose gorgeously decorated harness rivaled Deeb's own ostentatious display, to pull up before the entrance of Mothri's tower. To Ras Thavas' eye there was no sign of the damage that was apparent on every nearby tower. Hence, the master mind divined, the utter urgency in Mothri's request for assistance.
Ras Thavas assembled his small group, and Thasa Ras, and proceeded to enter the large doorless circular tunnel. Deeb led the way through several s-turns, each a gentle slope downward, until they came to a large interior chamber where a number of tunnels converged. One of those tunnels was decorated in gold and jewels. Deeb bowed, extending a directing hand to that entrance. "Mothri awaits, Ras Thavas."
The tunnel was less than twenty feet in length before opening on a chamber nearly as large as the tunnel connection. A magnificent rykor, surely the best that the breeders of Mothri could produce, stood erect with the over-large kaldane king riding the creature's shoulders. Ras Thavas knew that two large claws, six spider legs, and a mass of anterior tentacles were inserted into the rykor's neck where the exposed spinal column of the animal could be manipulated. The rykor was truly a beast regardless of its uncanny similarity to the red human form. The dazzling gems on Deeb's harness paled in the presence of Mothri's extravagance. A short cape reduced the disparity of kaldane brain on rykor body; however, the cape could not conceal the blue tint of Mothri's head or the blue, white, and red bands about the eyes and on each side of the face. The sphincter like mouth was concealed by the cloth. At one time kaldanes had been considered a hideous abomination until congress with the creatures had begun centuries earlier. Today kaldanes traveled the world beyond their fertile valley and no longer held their original contempt for "rykors with brains."
Mothri had spent time at the New City of Thavas—as a student—and crossed the chamber with happy eagerness to greet one of his old instructors, who was not Ras Thavas. "Du Nan! So good to see you again!"
Du Nan, the chief instructor of agriculture at New City of Thavas, grinned at the kaldane's sincere embrace. "I have finally kept my promise to come see your tower, Mothri. I am sorry it is under such circumstance. May I present Ras Thavas, my master?"
Ras Thavas looked up to the king's face, and the master mind was considered a tall man among his own people, and detected the intense relief in the kaldane's communication. "We are at wit's end, Master of Thavas. Thank you for coming!"
The red man believed if Kaldanes could weep, Mothri would have freely shed tears. "I can make no promise, your highness, but what we can do we will do. Please, tell us what has been happening here in Bantoom?"
Mothri gestured to a long table and chairs at the brighter side of the chamber, a concession—or affection recently learned—to the humans, for kaldanes in repose scurried about the floor on their spider legs while their rykors slept or ate from troughs. Once seated, with Deeb standing at his shoulder, Mothri summed up conditions in Bantoom."
"Not long after I returned from New City of Thavas things began to happen. Small things at first. In our vast underground caverns and burrows quantities of our stored foods began to rot. There was no cause for this that we could determine, particularly since that part of our domain is lacking atmosphere or temperature variations. I think it is an important clue, but how can you air-breathers examine the area?"
Ras Thavas gestured to a squat square-bodied and square-faced bald man, a vanity of appearance not age, and said. "Master Soltak has created suits with self-contained atmosphere. We will be able to view your burrows. Please continue."
"As you are aware all kaldanes, except the ***** are asexual, that is, they cannot reproduce. Yet," Mothri appeared embarrassed, "it has happened. Always a surprise to the individual, of course!"
The king raised his eyes to look upon a dozen or so lesser tunnels that were once sealed but were now opened. He spoke then with sadness. "More confusing, and a potential for extinction, is the partial failure of the cached ***** eggs which are held in the event that something should happen to me. This has happened in all the towers of Bantoom, even those showing no outward sign of decay. It is THIS mystery we most desperately need solved, Ras Thavas."
The master mind nodded. One in a thousand eggs the bi-sexed ***** laid were ***** clones—identical to the parent and, through a mechanism that not even the Kaldanes understood, contained full memory of the living parent, regardless of how long the egg had been hibernated. It was a racial trait that had kept the order of Bantoom whole. If that order was broken, or offspring from the worker class—which were deformed and inferior to their own parent—came in any great numbers the race of kaldanes would end.
"I hear your distress, your highness..."
"Mothri, please!" the embarrassed ***** said. "I have lived among your people. I have an understanding that the old ones have not yet embraced. I am young compared to them, having been hatched the year Helium's engineers prepared the landing field and brought mechanized farming and transportation equipment as trade for the grains from our fields. "I am no more a king than Deeb is a worker. He is my friend as well as my child. I fear losing all this and the wonderful life we have gained since embracing the outer world. The tower of Mothri has been rich and successful to the point that even the old ***** have asked how this had come to be. I shared what I had learned and sent workers to help set the ulsio traps and change diets from rykor and human flesh to that of the lesser orders and," with an almost laugh, "taught cooks how to prepare ulsio as a gourmet meal more tasty than grilled rykor.
"I brought a new understanding of the symbiosis between kaldane and rykor, one that should have been obvious from the first but we were too blind in our confidence of superiority that it never occurred to us. You one-bodies have taught us the use of tools and provided fascinating new methods of thought such as engineering, electricity, the Eight Ray, magnetic power. As great is our intellect is as great as our ignorance. To us the rykor was transportation, a source of pleasure and pain that we ourselves do not possess—yet we also knew it because we could not have created Bantoom without having the emotional and sensory teachings the rykors gave us. Fifty years ago I was successful in obtaining a consensus among the ***** that only rykors who died natural deaths were a food source and that each kaldane spend half the year mounted on a male and the other half mounted on a female. Our private quarrels between towers and between our children dramatically subsided. We have had a peace in Bantoom unknown to memory—and our memories are long as ***** transferred such from each parent to child back to the original kaldanes skittering about in the wet forests before they found and manipulated the primal rykor."
Mothri suddenly sat fully upright, embarrassed. Deeb gently gripped his ruler's shoulder. "My apologies, sirs. Some emotion has been found useful in accomplishing our present desires, but too much of it can..."
Ras Thavas rose and bowed. "Do not apologize, Mothri. Your declaration insures that we will work day and night to find out what is causing distress in Bantoom. Your problem is now our problem."
Mothri rose and bowed to the master mind. "Thank you, Master. Is there any more that you have to offer?"
Ras Thavas nodded and indicated Mothri resume his seat. Turning to face the men at the table, the master mind said. "The table is open for discussion. Any thoughts?"
A bedlam of comments, graciously delivered since these were savants not warriors, commenced. Mothri rose yet again and beckoned to Ras Thavas. The two walked to the chamber's exit where the kaldane and his shadow Deeb paused.
Mothri dared place a hand on Ras Thavas' shoulder, ignoring the fearsome calot at the red man's side. "Whatever you need, whatever materials or assistance, ask Deeb. I go to a community meeting with the *****. I already have their promise to cooperate, but I wish to communicate the need once more, now that you are truly here." Turning to his lieutenant the kaldane king said, "Show our guests to their quarters, and if such is not suitable locate what they need." Facing Ras Thavas with a parting grip the kaldane added, "We have a dozen one-bodies here at Mothri. I am sure meals with them will be more to your taste."
"That is unnecessary, Mothri. We provisioned the ship for a month and can eat there."
"As you wish, Master, but I fear our human friends will be disappointed if you do not grace their company."
"Yes," Ras Thavas smiled, "that would be poor form. Fare well with your meet. We shall get started."
* * * * * * * *
The sunlight though the window that Mothri had ordered put in the large room fell directly on the massive calot looking a bit ridiculous lying on her back, five legs up and drooping the other five limp on the hard floor. "At least," the wife of Ras Thavas yawned, exposing fearsome fangs, "the sun is as warm in Bantoom as it is in Thavas."
The master mind did not take his eyes from the notes written by the electromagnetic team, nor stop lightly rubbing his unshod foot on the calot's belly, but he did allow a gentle laugh. "Sometimes I think you live for the sun. Even when you were a little girl you relished basking in the sun."
The calot shifted just a little so the foot would reach a spot that itched. "I remember times you enjoyed spending time with me in the sun." Before her husband could respond Thasa Ras asked, "Have you found anything yet? I must admit that the scientist in me is quite baffled."
Ras Thavas sighed, laying down the report and rubbing his eyes. "Nothing electromagnetic. All readings are normal. If anything static electricity is lower in this valley because of the slightly higher humidity evaporated from the surface streams."
"Has the post mortem on the king eggs finished?"
"It has been difficult. I located some odd growths I've never encountered before in the shell casings. The blood chemistry was wrong, but the laboratory has not yet completed the analysis, though I expect that by lunch. As unusual as the kaldane appears to us they are an extremely admirable life form. No lungs, very little in the way of gastrointestinal organs, a heart that is built more like a perpetual motion machine than a vascular pump, efficient and sturdy limbs for transportation—limbs that will regrow if broken or severed, a set of incredibly dexterous tentacles for fine work, an overlarge and well developed brain..."
"They grow on you, but I hear a 'but'..."
"The kaldane's physiology is such that ordinary illnesses such as we might encounter have no effect. The only vector where the kaldane might be introduced to disease or illness is orally."
"You think it is something they eat that is causing the buildings to fall down, the king eggs to die, and workers to reproduce? I love you dearly, Ras Thavas, but we both know there is no food that can cause that."
"More importantly, the kaldane digestive fluids are as corrosive as sulphuric acid, no bacteria or virus could survive that. Yet, it must be something recently introduced to this valley, Thasa Ras, for there is no doubt that during a million years of health and evolution no such catastrophe has ever occurred!"
"Mothri believes whatever is causing the decline started after Bantoom and humans began commerce and trade."
"Agreed, though I am not prepared to say anything other than the coincidence of those two facts. I have devoted my life to medicine, studied all known diseases and discovered dozens more that have lain dormant for centuries because the planet itself has changed. But this—" Ras Thavas put on his sandal and rose from the bench, stretching his back and neck "—this is an interesting problem indeed."
* * * * * * * *
Ras Thavas and the calot returned to the Atana after lunch. The scientist studied the blood gas reports and spectrum analyses. Several items expected were not found, and some never expected were indicated. "Most curious!" Ras Thavas said to the biologist. "Any speculations?"
Thasa Ras became bored with the report, though she was a very good biologist in her own right, and went to the main deck to lay her snout on the gunwale looking to the low hills that surrounded the kaldane valley. It had been the sun that drew her up initially, but it was something else that interested her as the minutes passed. Her keen eyes looked again at the grasses and trees and the odd wild creatures moving through the vegetation, to the birds floating low on the horizon. She then turned and crossed the deck and looked into the valley itself, the fields of grains and somp, usa trees, the berries and nut producing trees and vines. She looked at the areas which were not under current cultivation, particularly those areas which had lain fallow long enough for the native plants to recover. Her keen mind catalogued the similarities and differences, and the differences intrigued her attention.
Ras Thavas exited the main cabin and came to stand beside the calot. He laid a gentle hand on his wife's short mane. "We've seen similar deficiencies in human blood before, but never this marked or debilitating. What can be causing this?"
Thasa Ras nudged her husband's leg. "You might ask yourself what caused this..." and then explained what she had noticed. "The color is wrong. If you look to the hills everything is full, crisp, as it should be, but the native plants in the valley are pale and unhealthy."
"I disagree, my love," the master mind replied. He turned his head several times gazing intently at her exhibits. "I see nothing out of the ordinary."
Thasa Ras reminded her husband of the obvious. "You cannot see in the dark, either."
"Your eyes are different. Yes!" With a laugh Ras Thavas scratched the sensitive spot between the calot's eyes with enthusiasm. "I must speak to Du Nan!" Within moments there was a flurry of activity as half of the investigators departed to take samples and tests of the nearby hills and the other half to the cultivated fields.
* * * * * * * *
Thasa Ras grew bored again. Though her brain was bright and intelligent, there was little she could do without hands. She told Ras Thavas she was going to hunt in the hills. "Good hunting," he had replied.
Once on the ground Thasa Ras exploded into motion. When she was alone, not hampered by the lesser abilities of humans, the wife of the master mind did enjoy the power and speed of her animal form used as nature intended the most successful predator on the planet to perform. The first hill did not slow her down, nor the second or third as these were still low and grass covered, but as she entered the higher section and the trees commenced to grow closer together, the wealth of scents and distractions soon side-tracked the calot.
Thasa Ras saw a darseen lizard sunning itself. Her stomach tightened at the thought of that delicacy. As silent as the gentle breeze she crept forward. Just as she was about to pounce a half-grown sith, a wasp-like creature, fell from the sky, stabbed the lizard with a rapier sharp sting, grasped it in claws and flew back into the sky in an instant of flashing wings.
Thasa Ras gave no thought to having her prey taken. In her calot body she had lived alone for months in the wilds of the southern coast of the Tonoolian Marsh. Such thefts of prey was a common occurrence. The secret of survival was to not become the prey. She was, however, hungry as she had not eaten in two days—which was normal—and she vowed that the next prey animal sighted would be her meal.
It was an ulsio, the many legged rat of Barsoom. With an internal sigh and a delicate leap and decisive snap of the jaw, Thasa Ras followed through on her commitment. Rending flesh from the elastic bones of the ulsio the brain of Ras Thavas' wife contemplated how much she had changed in attitude since she betrayed her husband those many years ago. Doing what was right, doing what she said she would do, was what was important. Important to herself, not out of any thought of regaining her human body.
There was a slight oily taste on her tongue when the meal was finished, a taste that was normal to the stringy flesh of ulsios. She found a small spring and drank water to satisfy thirst and to rinse the taste from her mouth. Raising her snout from the tiny pool sheltered between two slabs of upturned rock and a grove of usa trees, Thasa Ras gazed down into the valley of Bantoom. At this height, perhaps two hundred ads above the valley floor, she saw areas of blight, or what she now considered to be blight, surrounding the tower of Mothri, though the fields nearest that structure were—she was not sure how to phrase it—less blighted.
A tower, which had been immense at one time and nearest to her location, showed the greatest blight damage in its fields, tower, and out structures. Recalling the map one of her husband's men had created within hours of their arrival at Bantoom for the purpose of tracking their efforts, Thasa Ras determined what she observed was the domain of Vaark. The top third of the tower had collapsed upon itself. The fields, which appeared to be extraordinarily abundant, were the most pallid to her vision. A work shed was nothing more than a pile of rubble. The rykor pens showed many repairs to keep the brainless creatures safe from predators or from wandering off into the wilderness. A more distant tower showed the same kind of damage, but not quite as acute. The other towers displayed comparable problems, though some had more building damage while others had more blight in their fields.
This information seemed important enough to communicate immediately. Thasa Ras decided to halt her hunting, since the one ulsio was not enough to fill her belly, to report her findings to her husband. The information was not that important but it was an amusing game to pretend it was and extend all of her calot speed and skills in returning to Mothri. Ras Thavas was not on the Atana, nor was he on the grounds surrounding the tower of Mothri. He was not in the chamber set aside for the expedition's use. Using her incredible sense of smell Thasa Ras located the most recent scent—determined by its strength—and began a swift descent into the underground warrens below the tower. There were few radium lights, though there was a slightly phosphorous emanation from the walls themselves which, to her eyesight, turned the twisting tunnel into a brightly lit corridor.
How many levels she descended she could not say when she reached a large chamber with multiple exits where transport containers, a radium lamp, and other items of the expedition had been left. She sniffed each of the tunnels and could find no scent of her husband, yet his scent was in the chamber! What had happened to Ras Thavas?
An instant of panic entered the brain of Thasa Ras, for she truly loved her husband. She woke each day knowing he was there and that he, in his way, loved her. To not have that— Then the other panic intruded, the knowledge that she would never regain her human body because only Ras Thavas knew its location and the secret of the lock sealing the room. Frantic on both counts, Thasa Ras raced into the nearest tunnel which began an extreme descent into the bowels of the planet. She sensed two things almost immediately: A rude, noisome, almost offensive effluvium and an increasingly desperate pounding of her hearts and lungs.
The calot's speed became a crawl as weakness entered her ten powerful limbs and supple body. For a third time panic entered Thasa Ras' mind. What was happening to her?
Then, as it seemed the light on the walls was fading to black, Thasa Ras cursed and turned at her best speed and headed back to the upper chamber. "Stupid!" she chastised herself. "There is no atmosphere in the lower levels!"
Each step upward was a step closer to life and as the air became more life sustaining and strength began to return. Thasa Ras lay down on the floor of the chamber when she arrived. She felt better but did not feel well, too many toxins had accumulated in her blood and it would take more than a few minutes to expel them. The calot had regained sufficient strength to sit on her haunches when she observed a flickering of light from the tunnel left of the one that nearly killed her.
Three figures in full body suits with enclosed helmets exited the tunnel. Scrambling near their feet was a kaldane on spider legs. The light carried by the lead man pushed the all encompassing blackness back for his eyes but nearly blinded the calot which had been long accustomed to the faint natural light within her range of vision.
"Thasa Ras!" the man cried and hurried forward. "What are you doing here? It's not safe down here."
Thasa Ras would have smiled, merely gaping her jaws to mimic that expression. "So I remembered, almost too late. I am fine. I have something to tell you."
Ras Thavas shook his head inside the helmet. "Let it wait until we are a level or two higher. You go ahead—right now! I'll be right behind you."
The calot saw no reason to argue with such logic, thus complied.
In reality the master mind and his wife did not converse until they reached the surface. By that time Thasa Ras had fully recovered. She watched as Ras Thavas helped the others stow the atmosphere suits on the small, large-wheeled ground flier kept in the Atana's aft hold. The other two scientists, with their instruments, records, and samples, climbed into the vehicle and made for the ship.
Ras Thavas watched the vehicle for a moment, then knelt beside the calot. "Well," he said after an examination of Thasa Ras' eyes, mouth, and ears, "you seem well enough. What where you doing?"
"Following your scent. Then it disappeared and—" she opened her mind more fully and allowed her husband to experience her three panics. "I was playing a game with myself and got carried away, then when I thought I had lost you... But," she said decisively, "that did not happen so we'll just remember this as a stupid girl thing." When her husband appeared to object she added: "Please?"
The expression on Ras Thavas' face softened, became tender. "As you wish. So," he tried to change the subject, for he had experienced a moment of fear himself when he saw the calot in such distress in the lower levels of Mothri, "How was your hunt?"
"Incomplete. I am still hungry. Let me tell you what I observed..." and the couple walked toward the human one-head's area for dinner as the sun was about to set.
The meal was thoat, usa, somp, and wine for Ras Thavas with a small chunk of thoat for Thasa Ras with apologies to Ras Thavas from the cook: "We did not plan for another at the table. I will..."
Ras Thavas raised his hand. "No need. My calot will have ulsio," and that was because Thasa Ras had told her husband she'd go to the ulsio pens and dine there and be back by the time he finished his meal.
"It is passing strange," Thasa Ras later said to her husband as they walked beneath the two moons toward the Atana.
"What is that?" he asked.
"The ulsios were sweet, almost delectable. All the ulsios I have ever eaten have an oily aftertaste, except here—and at this time. The last time we were in Bantoom the ulsios were just as greasy, though I had to catch them myself rather than have a kaldane on rykor toss them to me."
Ras Thavas chose to sit on the lowest step of the gantry still attached to the Atana and allowed, no welcomed!, the heavy snout that came across his knee and lay on his lap. "When was the last time we were here?"
Thasa Ras thought for a moment then replied, "One hundred fifty years ago."
"And young Mothri returned to Bantoom from Thavas one hundred twenty-five years ago."
"Mothri already said that these things began to happen when he returned from Thavas."
"Suppose it was Mothri who caused this rather than some new force or disease to Barsoom?"
Thasa Ras would have puckered brows if her calot face possessed such expression. "Mothri is a good and sincere ah, person! There is nothing evil about him. He is dedicated to the modernization of Bantoom and bringing his people into the great societies of the world. And, dear husband, if he was the cause he certainly would not have requested help."
"I know," the master mind chuckled. "Mothri is a good person as you say. I like the kaldane quite a lot as a matter of fact. But let us look at what changes Mothri wrought in his zeal to benefit his people rather than seek some menace we have not yet faced."
Mollified, and a bit mortified to know that her feelings toward kaldanes had changed without her awareness, Thasa Ras said "Mothri obtained a standard education in agriculture, a course in electromagnetics and engineering for transport and farm equipment, passed his civil flier exam and flight test, and took a course in economics."
"And the results?"
"Are you determined to make me do your work, dear?" Thasa Ras laughed. "The big changes were increasing field yields for commercial trade, the moratorium on eating rykors, and social change in male/female experiences."
"There were other changes as a result of those noble efforts," Ras Thavas said. "I suspect that the proof of some of what I am about to say will be found from this day's tests of the fields, fallow or cultivated, and the wilderness areas. Let us return to Bantoom before Mothri left for Thavas: one of the most primitive and isolated areas of Barsoom, the kaldanes, rykors, their fields and internal politics and minor tower wars. Bantoom functioned without change for millennia until Mothri introduced two things that affect the kaldane physiology. A change in diet which no longer includes rykor, and foods influenced by human fertilization methods. I once observed that the only vector to introduce foreign substances into a kaldanes physical system was by mouth.
"What we use to fertilize our fields has no effect on humans. We use organic material for the most part, but do mix in a number of chemical substances which promote growth. Because these substances are normal in humans we did not see anything out of the ordinary when we examined the kaldanes but what we did not have was a baseline for what is ordinary in kaldanes. We have no records of blood chemistry, physiology or biology regarding kaldanes because none had ever been examined before Mothri's request."
Thasa Ras raised her snout, sniffing the night air as a matter of habit. There was nothing dangerous nearby. Without pause in their conversation she took up the thought and extended it. "Our fertilizer and agricultural compounds, or some subset of either, has a deleterious effect on kaldanes, but I believe it might be more than that, husband. The decay did not really start, if we have our time line of events recorded correctly, until a few decades after Mothri decreed rykors were no longer food items. Have we done chemistry on rykors, yet? I would not be surprised to learn there was something there that suppressed sexuality in workers and strengthened kaldane systems. Tell me, the king eggs which failed, was that before the cessation of rykor meat or after?"
"After," Ras Thavas nodded. "I think you may be right on both counts. I learned something from Deeb today as we investigated the underground storage areas. Were you aware the kaldane towers are built not of concrete as we thought, but from their excrement?"
"I did not know that, but that would explain why there are so many which climb the towers each day."
"Your analysis that the change in food intake brought about king egg failures and bisexual reproduction in workers might also explain the tower failures. Kaldanes no longer produced the same enzymes or bonding agents required for their primary building material."
Remembering the panic underground because of her husband's recent mention, Thasa Ras asked, "What were your findings in the storage areas? I noticed a foul odor before I turned back."
Ras Thavas smiled. "The kaldanes do not have lungs and without a need for processing air do not possess a sense of smell. I did not smell it either, being encased in a suit. What did it smell like? No matter, just one more aspect of the same problem. The kaldanes are great intellects and fanatic hoarders. You would not believe how much has been stored! In some areas the weight of the stored materials has collapsed upon itself and decomposition sets in despite the low or no atmosphere. We also saw many signs that ulsios ate from the decomposing materials, but all were old tracks. There were very few new tracks and I suspect that is because of the efficient trapping of ulsios since Mothri. You mentioned the ulsios were sweet. Could that be because their diet has changed from refuse and decay to fresh foods from the fields?"
"Husband, I said the ulsios tasted sweet, I did not say they tasted good."
Ras Thavas laughed aloud this time. "You are a dear!"
"If we take these thoughts and extend them a little it makes sense that where the greatest damage is found, such as the tower of Vaark, will be found the most abuse of fertilizer and growth agents. The one thing I know which is not causing these problems is electromagnetics."
"I believe you are correct in that, Thasa Ras. Well, it appears we have solved the mystery of Bantoom. Shall we go on board and see if the test results bear out our theories?"
* * * * * * * *
A week of further tests, now that a direction had been determined, confirmed Ras Thavas and Thasa Ras. During that week meetings with Mothri and other kaldane leaders, and demands for records which revealed the abuse of fertilizers from human agricultural areas, began to convince Mothri and the ***** that the ills in Bantoom were unfortunate, unexpected, and brought upon themselves.
Mothri questioned Ras Thavas at one of the meetings. "Is this condition permanent? Have I doomed my people to extinction?"
"There is no proof that will happen, Mothri," Ras Thavas replied. "I see no data that suggests the condition is irreversible. Two things must happen and happen immediately. Rykor is again a food item, for it has been proved in my laboratory that enzymes and proteins in rykor meat are essential to kaldane physiology. Second, abandon your current cultivated fields and allow them to go fallow. Our fertilizers do eventually leach from the soil, but it may take decades for that to occur. Now that you have mechanization and the ability to pump water and irrigate as the majority of the red race has been doing for a hundred thousand centuries, you can maintain your crops for the land beyond the hills is equally as fertile as your lovely valley. What you lose in yield per square haad can be made up by larger areas of cultivation.
"Your people have other decisions to make as well," continued the master mind. "Your underground storage. What kept the area freed of rot was ulsios, which we now know have the ability to forage in those nearly airless chambers and would rather eat the ruined instead of the good. Our tests indicate that ulsio is actually good for the kaldane diet and the amount of rykor needed for health is not extreme, once a week or so."
"What is the decision, Master?" asked Mothri. "We have already decided to continue the practice of eating ulsio."
"I am aware that the kaldane belief is that one day you will evolve into pure intellect and for that purpose the food is stored. May I offer my personal observations?"
"Please," Mothri urged, this subject was also voiced by several others in the chamber.
"Pure intellect will have no need for food because it will not have a body. What has been stored already will feed the current population of Bantoom for five hundred years even if another crop never is harvested. I leave it to your council to determine what these thoughts might suggest."
* * * * * * * *
"It is good to be home!" Thasa Ras stood at the Atana's rail as the ship's commander brought the vessel over the marsh toward its hanger at the Tower of Science. The wealth of marsh scents filled her sensitive nostrils and, despite her human brain, her tail wagged.
It was some time before the master mind and the calot left the Tower of Science and proceeded to walk toward the southern quarter of the main island and their apartment. Thasa Ras looked at the people in the streets, the light traffic of personal fliers overhead, the bustle within the buildings they passed. "What happened in Bantoom could happen to us."
"It could," Ras Thavas said. "Come, walk with me."
He turned into his original laboratory, the one that had been built when the New City of Thavas was young. The structure was still in use as a community center and Thasa Ras recalled many galas which had been held over the years. Ras Thavas led her down to the lower levels, which she remembered from other functions. When they reached the lowest level Ras Thavas entered the second room on the right. It was one of the surgical rooms which had maintained the health of the first settlers of the New City of Thavas. All the apparatus was in place, the cabinets fully stocked, as they would be since the room currently supported local emergency services.
Ras Thavas went to the last cabinet on the north wall and opened it. He knelt and removed a box of bandages and set it on the floor. Behind the box was a panel. He opened it and pulled a yellow handle and moved back. The cabinet swung away from the wall and revealed a duralumin door as bright in luster as the day it was cast. No denser or stubborn metal existed on the planet. A tumbler lock was on the door, located in an odd position only one ad above the floor's marble tile.
"Try it," Ras Thavas said. "Twelve."
Thasa Ras, perplexed, turned her attention to the lock which had notches on the tumbler wheel. One of her protruding teeth served to spin the over large thumb wheel to the position ordered.
Thasa Ras' multiple hearts began to race as a fevered thought entered her brain.
Her body nearly vibrated. The mane on her head and neck rose stiffly.
"Six. Move back."
The duralumin door opened with a sigh of released air pressure. Inside was a smaller operating room, one that seemed familiar. There were two tables. On one was a human figure under a shroud. On the second was a glass vat holding a brain in a moving nutrient solution. A calot's brain! Ras Thavas picked up the vat and placed it on a cabinet nearby. He patted the table's surface.
"Jump up, darling. You're too heavy to pick up."
Thasa Ras slowly backed away.
Ras Thavas' smile turned to a frown. "Thasa Ras? Please. I— What is it, dear?"
The master mind walked toward the calot, which suddenly hissed and arched her back and exposed wide jaws filled with triple rows of teeth. The threat stance of the wild calot.
"Thasa Ras," the man said soothingly.
"I do not want my body back!" The calot hissed again.
"Why?" Ras Thavas knelt down, not approaching closer.
"Our lives are not the same as they were, my love," said Thasa Ras. "I have been your pet calot and friend for hundreds of years. I am not now, nor will I ever be that girl you knew and married. I do not want to be human. I want to be yours. Your calot. Your friend. Your fellow adventurer. Were I human again you would not take me on your travels and explorations of Barsoom. I know you wouldn't because I have seen you be protective of others in that way and I cannot bear the thought of not being there to protect you or never seeing you again. No! Leave me as I am!"
"You're becoming hysterical, Thasa Ras." The master mind rose and reached into a cabinet.
Thasa Ras knew what he sought and acted before he could produce the sedative. Exploding into motion with a speed that only the most successful predator of the planet could display, Thasa Ras sprang forward, knocking her husband from his feet with a hard-muscled shouler. Pivoting on three legs she leapt upon the shrouded form and savaged it with her teeth, nearly tearing the delicate body in half. There was no blood on her fangs but the preserving fluids numbed her tongue as she turned and smashed the vat containing the calot's brain with her tail.
Ras Thavas gazed into the room with a look which was not quite shock, not quite horror. His eyes followed the calot's leap from the table, to floor, then out into the larger room.
"Close that door and forget what is within. And close your mouth, husband," Thasa Ras said.
The master mind of Barsoom stood for a moment, then nodded. He sealed the small room, changed the combination to something that even he did not know and caused the cabinet to swing back to its original position. He broke the yellow handle, replaced the box of bandages and closed the cabinet door. He took Thasa Ras over to a sink and rinsed her mouth. "Those fluids were not meant for consumption."
"I bit but I did not swallow," Thasa Ras replied.
"So," Ras Thavas asked as they left the building, "when did you know?"
"What? That I love you? That has been always. That I wished to remain a calot? The moment you showed me that room. The only thing I could give you in that body that I cannot give you in this one is children."
"What if I should want children one day?" Ras Thavas asked with a smile.
"I suppose that will be an adventure as dangerous as any we have faced together." Thasa Ras laughed at the worried expression on her husband's face. "We will face that together, my love, when the time comes. Now that I have made my decision I do not expect you to be celibate for the rest of our lives together. In fact, it might be fun to have a few of your children crawling over me as I lay next to the fire."
Ras Thavas, in the middle of the street with people passing and saluting the master of New City of Thavas, suddenly knelt and gripped the jaws of the calot as he had done hundreds of times before. "I love you," he said to the only mind that could hear him. The calot licked his face.
"I know. And I know you will eventually marry and have children. This world would suffer if you do not procreate and pass on your genius and passion."
"I will not!" Ras Thavas said, suddenly aware of the spectacle. He rose and marched to their apartment building. The calot easily kept pace. "There is no way I could marry—not after what I saw you do in the little room," he added. "Only true love such as we have known would have made you act that way. I do not believe you would ever allow another woman into our lives."
"Believe it," Thasa Ras, replied.
"It defies all logic," the master mind returned. "It will never happen!"
"You never thought I would be worthy of your trust or returning my brain to my body. If that impossible thing occurred, who knows what other impossible things might happen?"
The master mind of Barsoom grudgingly admitted his wife might be right.
* * * * *
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