Among the Therns
David Bruce Bozarth
Copyright © 2003
Illustrated by Andy Nunez
Copyright © 2004
Ras Thavas sat his thoat, a little weary but still determined as night drew near. "The city is in view. Let us hurry. I do not want to spend another night on the dead sea bottom."
"You are a fool, husband. For all that ruined fall of masonry that was once the home of humans it is now the home of white apes and worse. I will protect you."
"Yes, you would," Ras Thavas replied, gazing upon the ten-legged calot that raced at his side. "Therefore you will protect me in that ruined fall of masonry." He leaned forward on the great thoat's back. The master mind of Barsoom urged the eight-legged beast to full gallop. The wife of Ras Thavas raced ahead. She could do this because her brain was in the body of the calot, a predator and the swiftest and most tenacious animal on the planet.
The master mind considered yet again his wisdom. In his heart of hearts he knew the right choice had been made. When Thasa Ras used his knowledge imparted during their marriage to create artificial life–-a lover--and exhibited no conscience and a strong ambition to use that knowledge to upset the balance of power on Barsoom there were few resolutions short of killing her but he had not terminated her life and did the only other thing he could have done. The brain of Thasa Ras was transplanted into the cranium of his faithful hunting calot and that creature's brain now resided in sleep in the same vault below the streets of Thavas where his wife's beautiful body lay on a cold slab--in a cell that only he could open. But he loved her truly, the only woman he had ever loved in two lifetimes.
Long before the thoat entered the city Thasa Ras had explored the outskirts. She waited at the boundary between desert and the city. The sun had set, the darkness was near complete, but her senses as a calot were far more tuned than his.
"The deserted city is occupied," she said.
Ras Thavas did not see the ugly snout or the mouth with three rows of teeth. He did not see the large and muscular body. He saw the beautiful face of the woman who had betrayed him and perverted his affection and training.
"White apes?" he asked.
"Worse," she replied. "White Therns."
Ras Thavas dismounted. Into the shell of an outbuilding he led the thoat and mentally commanded the beast to remain there. With his hand on the grip of his radium pistol, the man joined the calot. "Show me."
Gripping the calot's short mane, Ras Thavas ran beside his wife through the narrow streets of the ancient city which had been abandoned a million years ago when the oceans of Barsoom began to recede. Their path neared the central plaza, which was an architectural common in the forgotten elder cities. When the calot reduced speed and began to hug the ground so, too, did Ras Thavas.
Thasa Ras came to a halt behind a tumble of concrete. Her eyes watched the group of white men around a pair of cook fires. In the shadows beyond were five large three-wheeled wagons. Nearby were five monstrous animals. "What are those?" she asked.
Thasa Ras had been raised from the egg on the Isle of Thavas. She had never seen zitidars before. "Beasts of burdern," her husband replied. "Twenty men and how many women?"
"Eight white and fifteen--sixteen--women like I used to be."
The calot's eyes were more keen than the master mind's. He saw ten of the red-skinned women and, with Thasa Ras', direction located the remainder. "Let us watch awhile."
A meal was prepared. The men ate first, then the women. The women cleared away the platters. Ras Thavas noted the guard mount, something logical in a dead city where white apes might reside. He also noted that some of the men collected several of the women and entered the wagons.
Thasa Ras nudged her husband's elbow. "I remember when you used to take me into the sleeping silks and furs..."
Ras Thavas almost smiled. "I remember when you no longer wanted that joy from me and sought it in the arms of an abomination of your creation."
The tone of the telepathic link between them changed.
"Will you never forgive me, Ras Thavas?"
"Perhaps one day, when I am sure you will not kill me." The master mind included a hint of humor in the reply. He did kneel to embrace the savage beast. "Or you can kill me now and remain as you are forever."
"I am patient," came the reply as a rough tongue caressed the scientist's cheek. "Only you know the location of my body. Only you or Vad Varo can restore my brain to my body. I do love you, but I hate you for wasting your--down!"
Man and calot crowded into the shadows of the rubble as a flier entered the plaza from the south. Ras Thavas did not recognize the markings on the vessel; therefore, the nationality was unknown but the Therns apparently had expected the ship and greeted the four who disembarked. Three black men and one white entered the fire light. Their conversation was animated.
"I cannot hear," Ras Thavas said, inching forward.
The calot accompanied the scientist with a pout. "No one but you can hear me. How did you do that? I thought I had learned all your..."
"Do not be silly, my love. You cannot know all my secrets because you did not beguile or wait long enough to accumulate all. Hush! This is very curious."
Ras Thavas located another mound of rubble two dozen ads closer. His super brain began to pick up the telepathic communication between the men. The pile of rubble next to him was his wife, and her ten legs were tensed for action if necessary.
"...the bones of Issus the goddess black. Tell me, Holy Hekkador, what use do you have?"
"What use? The same as when your people deceived us. An icon for the believers. You and I, Dator Arlbo, know the truth that for centuries the First Born preyed upon the Therns and the other races of Barsoom with the religion of Issus. Nay, my friend, before you take offense, know that I, for one, admire that betrayal. The Therns benefitted from that deception as much as the First Born. It was, how shall I say it? Profitable for both our people."
There was a moment between the men. The tense atmosphere dissipated and smiles of understanding where displayed. Arlbo gestured for his companions to leave as he linked arms with the Holy Thern. Walking away from the camp, toward Ras Thavas and Thasa Ras, the black man said, "I came because I was intrigued by what I have heard, Coax Rhe. A whispering campaign, a promise she will return. I like it."
"The people are idiots. John Carter intruded in our beliefs, but for every mind that accepts his secular view there are scores, if not hundreds, who yearn to believe again in Issus," Coax Rhe replied. "The River of Mystery and the Lost Sea of Korus, however, is not our destination."
"Where then?" Dator Arlbo asked.
The white man chuckled. "Why here, of course! Do you not know this city, the ridge upon which it stands? Or the great caverns below?"
"I sense you have a purpose. Tell me quick, and tell me faster how I might profit."
Coax Rhe suggested they sit on a block of concrete not twenty feet from the master mind and his wife. "Do you know the history of the city Epmar?"
"All know that story. It is the first city built when humans left the Tree of Life. Is this it?" The black man's eyes grew wide.
The Holy Hekkador swiftly replied. "Perhaps. Who will know? But if a lie is said often enough and loud enough it will be believed. And if the bones of Issus reside here then..."
Dator Arlbo did not require a blueprint. His only question was: "Are the caverns below large enough for the bodies?"
Coax Rhe rose. "This time we work together. Agreed?"
Arlbo grinned, a flash of white teeth in his black visage. "I am agreed, as long as I get first choice among the maidens."
The Holy Hekkador took Dator Arlbo back to the fire.
"Negotiated on an individual basis, of course; however you may have your pick among the servants of Issus who reside here this day."
A haad away from the encampment, back with Ras Thavas' thoat, Thasa Ras said, "A pretty picture! Simplicity! As the weak came to Thavas during the rebuilding so will come the weak who need religion and--"
"And you have learned nothing these five years."
Ras Thavas went through his pack to produce three strips of cured meat. He tossed two to his wife and chewed the third. "I know you desired my science, but did you ever truly think me stupid? Even in my first life the religion of Issus rang false, but that was because my mind dealt ever with facts not belief. John Carter was a savior from stupidity, a stupidity that had existed for thousands of years. The idiots were left with nothing when Issus was exposed, yet it seems that there is..."
"Ras Thavas," the calot gulped down the meat, "do not be stupid yourself. At least not between you and whatever you have made me. Is it belief or a desire to have something to believe in that frightens you?"
"They will succeed, Thasa Ras, as you did with me. A promise of more that is empty."
"I made no promises."
"No? I suppose it was no promise of hope when I found you as a new hatched child. No promise of hope as a young woman who dazzled the heads of state. No promise of hope when you came to my bed. Or the real promise to betray me with what you learned of my knowledge."
For a long moment there was no speech between the master mind and the calot as the twin moons of Mars raced overhead.
Thasa Ras crept close. She laid her massive head on Ras Thavas' leg. "This is not our battle."
Ras Thavas sighed. He ran his hand through the coarse mane, still seeing his wife in his mind's eye. "You do not understand. It is time we do no wrong, nor allow wrong to stand."
"But who decides that, husband? Who decides what is wrong and what must be done? I was not wrong in what I did and you made me this."
"You made you this, dear girl. You..."
"Hush!" Thasa Ras ignored the hand, her attention centered on the break in the rubble. "Hide!"
Ras Thavas did as requested. He returned to the thoat, which was skittish. He soothed the animal even as he heard a conflict and his heart was in his throat. He held his sword at the ready and almost attacked as his wife returned.
The blood dripping from her jaws was mute evidence.
"White ape. The body is too close to their camp. We must move."
Thasa Ras led the master mind to a different quadrant of the ancient city. When they were settled Ras Thavas anxiously examined the calot. "Are you injured?"
"No," was the reply. "Only hungry. And I was not the only one who made this..."
Ras Thavas lay next to the calot. He put his arms about the creature's neck. "Perhaps that is true. If true, then I failed you. I--"
The calot rose, the terrible jaws wide, but only a tongue touched Ras Thavas' face. "Wait here, love. All that meat. I must eat!"
The calot left him. His wife. To eat raw flesh as a beast.
He had not intended to sleep. Ras Thavas was startled when Thasa Ras' muzzle gently nudged his cheek. "I gorged," the calot said. "Stupid of me. Stupid like I thought--"
"I am glad to hear that," Ras Thavas exclaimed. "One of these days I will believe it. Meanwhile, sleep."
"Will you ever?" his wife asked, then clarified. "Will I ever get my body back?"
"One day, some day, not today," Ras Thavas replied. He hugged the wife inside the ferocious beast body. "I do love you, Thasa Ras."
The calot shook free and replied with honesty. "I loved you at one time."
Ras Thavas sighed. "More than one thousand years passed before I experienced love. And then, in a short span of time I learned that love means different things."
"I am weary," the wife of Ras Thavas replied. The calot wiggled into the sand for sleep. "What do you want to do about the Therns?"
The master mind replied with a question of his own. "What would you do, Thasa Ras?"
The calot raised her head and looked at her husband. "Why do you ask me, Ras Thavas?"
"I value your thoughts. Though our planet is dying, each day is new."
"The easy way is to kill them all," Thasa Ras replied. "But that is not the way to end it. This Epmar farce must be exposed in such a way that reports of the deception must be greater than the rumor of heaven."
"We have arrived at the same conclusion. Would that I had been so sage in my youth as you, my dear. The question now is how to achieve that result?"
"It must be a proof certain," Thasa Ras replied. Her cavernous jaw dropped in a yawn. "A gathering of respected men to overhear the plans or a recording or..."
"Yes! That is it! Rest, Thasa Ras. I have to investigate the airship."
The calot with the brain of a human woman rose at an instant. "What do you plan?"
"If the ship has a directional compass then I--"
Thasa Ras moved to her husband's side. "I am not weary," she said. "And even if I were," she continued, "I cannot let you go alone."
"They are too busy with the women to pay attention to me," Ras Thavas said.
"Where you go, I go, Ras Thavas. You know why."
Ras Thavas touched the snout of the calot with tender sadness. "I do. Lead the way, Thasa Ras."
The master mind of Mars returned to the Thern encampment, his hand wrapped in the short mane of his wife. Like shadows within shadows they advanced until they approached the airship which was outside the glow of radium bulbs and the small fire that had died down after preparing an evening meal. Ras Thavas entered the ten man flier with sword in hand if there was a guard on board. There was not. The muted male laughter from the encampment nearby explained why.
Thasa Ras positioned herself between the ship and the camp. "All is ugly, dear, but all is contained."
"I need only a few moments," Ras Thavas replied.
He swiftly removed the console panel and located the device he sought. From his harness he produced tools to remove it, and as swiftly replaced the panel. "I have it!" Ras Thavas silently dropped to the pavement of the ancient city and approached the calot. "Though not a ship we know, it has Carthoris' compass. I have opened the channel. Now we must eavesdrop."
Thasa Ras growled through the personal telepathic link that only she and her husband shared. "You are a clumsy oaf. Give it to me."
"I do not wish to endanger you, Thasa Ras!"
The calot's great head turned. Thasa Ras' eyes seemed to glisten under the light of the twin moons of Barsoom. There was a hint of acrimony in her response. "Better me than you!"
Ras Thavas cleared, then activated, the device taken from the ship and secured it about the calot's fore-leg with a strand of rope. "Be careful! I will ready the flier for your return."
The master mind gave no thought to the thoat they had left behind. The animal would eventually disregard his last command and again run the dead sea bottoms. The master mind gave no thought to his ability to pilot the ship, the controls were familiar. The master mind gave every thought to the time elapsed since his wife took the device to the Thern camp. The moons were three-quarters across the sky. Dawn was near. His patience was strained, his worry mounting.
There was a shift of sand, the near silent pad of feet. Ras Thavas drew his radium pistol. An instant later his wife's whisper touched his mind. "I recorded all I could before they fell asleep. It is enough."
Ras Thavas looked over the rail of the airship with anxious gaze. "Do you need help to board?"
The calot almost laughed as it leapt to the deck. "What now, love?"
At high speed the flier traversed the distance from Epmar to Helium in two days. Upon approach to Lesser Helium Ras Thavas' stolen craft was surrounded by patrol craft and eventually escorted to John Carter, Warlord of Barsoom. An audience was immediately granted. The master mind articulated his observations, and as proof offered the recording made by the directional compass as modified by Ras Thavas to reveal the plans of the Therns and First Born.
Carter thanked Ras Thavas. "I am not surprised. Yet, I am concerned that even this evidence you have provided will be insufficient. I learned long ago that people will believe what they want to believe even if there is evidence provided to the contrary."
"That is all that one can do, of course."
The warlord narrowed his eyes. "It is the 'of course' that concerns us, Ras Thavas." Carter glanced once again to the recording playback with a frown. "I have no religion, Ras Thavas, yet I recognize that religion is embraced. Perhaps there is validity in religion, therefore I meddle as little as possible. It appears that you have similar feelings."
"That is correct," Ras Thavas interjected.
"Yet it also incomprehensible to the logical mind that Something or a Presence did not create our world. I have a belief, but it is not Issus, nor the God of my world."
The master mind paused for a moment, his hand laid on the head of the massive calot at his side. "I am a scientist, sir. I order all my observations in reality. Yet, there are some things which cannot be explained. Perhaps there is a Presence which gave birth to the world and all beings. All I can state with certainty is a knowledge of how the worlds were created and how life evolved. This I can state with scientific certainty. I can also state with the same confidence that humans have embraced many beliefs and that some of those beliefs have achieved a tradition of thousands of years. I do not understand the comfort that some feel with religion, but I do know when beliefs are being manipulated for the gain of others. How you proceed from this information I do not wish to know. I am on vacation."
John Carter almost smiled. "I am not quite sure how to proceed. I will–" what he might have said was not stated. The warlord embraced the master mind. "Thank you for sharing this intelligence. Will you stay for dinner?"
Ras Thavas did smile. "I shall not be an embarrassment, sir. You have what you have and will, I suspect, have difficulty in obtaining support. How you deal with it is in your hands, as I stated, I am on vacation. Hunting with my calot."
"An amazing beast," Carter acknowledged with a trace of envy. "Would that my Woola was as well behaved. I will instruct Kantos Kan to deliver you and the calot to your next destination."
"You are too kind. Thank you."
Thasa Ras watched the Helium flier depart. She and Ras Thavas were 3,000 haads northwest of Helium, near the ancient city of Faz, a site of thermal geologic events the master mind wished to investigate. Rubbing her shoulder against the man's thigh she asked: "Is there a God?"
Ras Thavas knelt down to embrace the wife in the fearsome calot body. "I do not know. All I know is that I love you."
Thasa Ras replied with a rough tongue to the master mind's cheek. "I would love you more if you would return me to my body."
Ras Thavas replied, regretfully, "I love you, no matter what body you wear. I have not heard it yet..."
"What?" the calot replied as they entered the ancient city.
"Sincerity. Understanding. Regret. Remorse."
For a long moment the master mind and the calot exchanged gaze. Through the telepathic link that only they shared Thasa Ras replied. "I am sincere. I understand. I have no regrets. My remorse is having endured so long."
Ras Thavas suddenly laughed without humor. He rubbed the calot's mane. "One day, dear. Meanwhile, there is Faz. Let us see what we might learn!"
* * * * *
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