David Bruce Bozarth
Copyright © 2008
Cover Art: Tangor
Copyright © 2008
"Perhaps we should go back," Thasa Ras remarked as the wind blast increased. Her calot eyelids, three sets, were all but closed against the stinging grit delivered in gusts up to 300 haads per hour.
Ras Thavas, clad in cloak and mask, leaned into the sand storm. "No benefit in that, dear, except to take the force on the backside. We are lost."
"True, but not hopelessly. I smell mantila ahead. Perhaps there is a depression or a spine..."
"Lead on, Thasa Ras. I trust your senses over mine."
"If you had any sense, o mighty master mind, we would have stayed at..."
Ras Thavas declined to answer, concentrating on one supreme effort after another, his left hand entangled in the calot's short mane.
The Barsoomian Sand Storm: a force of Nature to which nothing else compares. Though rare, when atmospheric conditions are right, the low level dead sea bottoms assist in building tremendous walls of swift moving air. Fortunately Barsoom is sparsely populated and these storms do no damage, but on occasion entire citiesor even nationshave disappeared.
Into one such storm Ras Thavas and his wife had wandered. The master mind, tall, well-builtand by any standard,extraordinarily handsome, leaned into the wind as his wife. whose brain had been transplanted into the body of the planet's most successful predator walked at his side. She had betrayed their marriage years ago. For that alone Ras Thavas might have ended her life, but she had also perverted his science as well. Yet, so did he love Thasa Ras that the First Citizen of New City of Thavas had not terminated his wayward wife. He had, instead, transplanted her brain into the body of his favorite hunting calot so that she might do no further evil or cause harm. And that action continued to haunt the conscience of Ras Thavas, who had sworn to never again use that arcane medical knowledge learned over a thouand year and more lifetime.
Move. Move with great effort. Counting footsteps would not gauge distance since wind gusts might drive them back, and ground need be covered a second time.
"We are getting nowhere," the master mind said, a little curious that their conversation seemed muffled, as if the raging sand storm intruded even into their telepathic link.
Thasa Ras' laughter was a faint echo. "We are, just not quickly. The sun will go down soon."
"How can you tell? It already appears pitch black."
"Continue on, husband. I smell the mantalia quite well."
Indeed, very shortly after that comment, Ras Thavas stumbled into a depression, slid down slope, and ended tangled at the base of a half-dozen entwined milk plants.
The master mind smiled. "At least we won't starve."
"I'm not particularly fond of vegetable protein," his wife replied. "Come, there's a rock wall. We can shelter on the lee side."
Ras Thavas offered no argument. For a great many hours they had battled the fierce wind and blinding sand. When he sagged to the grit-encrusted ochre moss where the wind howl was less, he drew the cloak over his head and breathed a sigh of relief.
"I'm done in," he said.
"I know," she answered, curling the length of her sinuous body at his side. "Rest. I will watch."
Again there was no argument. The calot's senses were far superior to man's. Ras Thavas slept.
When he awoke hours later the storm continued unabated. To his ears there seemed no change in wind strength, in fact, the gale may have intensified. His second thought was for Thasa Ras. An exploring hand did not encounter the superbly muscled body. No trace of that short stiff mane. No rhythmic breathing at his side. He was not concernedThasa Ras was well able to take care of herself. The only predator more dangerous than the highly successful calot was the belligerent and much larger banthand Thasa Ras always prevailed. Her brilliant human brain easily countered whatever advantage in size and strength enjoyed by the banth. She, in fact, ate banths for breakfast, or lunch, or dinner.
"Thasa Ras...where are you?"
He tried again. Their mental link, which only they shared, was very powerful. While they had not truly tested it for distance and strength, multiple haads and penetration through several layers of stone or tunnels had yet to stop them.
The master mind raised his mental voice to a shout. He listened with that silent ear inside his mind. Twice more he called. Twice more he ignored the howling sand storm to intently listen.
She would never leave him. He knew that, as did she. Perhaps it was only a game, a way of showing her pique because Ras Thavas had insisted they depart the pleasant lost valley some hundreds of haads south of Manator, replete with rich darseen hunting which her calot taste utterly craved, to follow on foot a new species of voiceless bird the scientist had spotted. Days later the storm had swept down from the north.
The master mind applied his intellect to the problem. Yet there was no need for that disciplined mind or the centuries of hard won scientific knowledge. An ordinary man could figure it out: Thasa Ras had left him. Thasa Ras was hurt or injured. Or Thasa Ras was dead. But that massive intellect abhorred each of those possibilities.
"She can't hear me. I can't hear her. The refractive quality of the agitated sand particles is interfering with our telepathic link. Yes, that is so obvious!"
Any other explanation did not suit Ras Thavas.
Unfortunately, there was nothing to be done while the storm was in progress, nor would it be wise to wander blindly in search of her. The mantalia grove provided both shelter, food, and a starting place, should the search be prolonged.
The hours were miserable. Two-fold: The wind, even in the shelter of the wall, was torture; tugging at the cloak, the wind-blown sand entered his eyes and nostrils no matter how tightly he held the fabric across his face. The other misery was wondering what had happened to his companion of the last two centuries.
Ras Thavas never ceased to hope his wife would see the errors of her ways; would finally achieve that mental growth where the enormity of what she had done would give her the understanding of what was rightthat he could then, joyfully, restore her lovely human form. He had seen many changes over the years. There had been times he thought Thasa Ras was readyand then some odd little thing, some almost innocent turn of phrase would reveal she had not redeemed either herself or his trust. But even so, he loved her.
The bad thing about his shelter was sand. Sand over-topping the rock lost speed and piled about him like heavy water. He kicked constantly to stay on top of each new layer, else in a short time he might be entombed. Ras Thavas was not yet ready to become another forgotten memory of Barsoom's ancient dead sea bottoms.
Drawing water from a canteen to rinse his mouth, nose, and eyes, he remembered that long ago night shortly after they had married when they had washed each other on the grassy banks of an unnamed Tonoolian Marsh island. That had been a glorious ten days! And then the scrap of cloth was gritty and dry and reality resumed.
A thump hit the ground nearby. Startled, though unafraid, Ras Thavas exposed his eyes, gripping the butt of his radium pistol. He saw nothing in the darkness. The sand scoured his face horribly, yet he maintained his vigil; banths and calots were not the only dangerous creatures and, whatever had come over the top, was not small.
Barely heard amid the wind howl came a moan. It sounded human. Ras Thavas waited momentarily to see if it was repeated. The sound came again. Ras Thavas said, "Who are you?"
A grunt of surprise. "Who are you?"
"The man who will kill you if I don't like your answer."
"Probably do me a favor," the other replied. "Damn biggest calot I've ever seen has done me."
An ugly chill ran down the master mind's spine. "Calot? Where? When?"
"Don't worry," the voice replied. "I ran it through with my sword."
"Did you kill it?"
"Probably. It backed away when I stabbed it."
"Then it might still be alive?"
"Possible. Damn strange creature! I was trapped by a rock fall. The calot pushed the rocks away, guessing I was easy prey. When I stabbed it the calot mauled me then vanished in the darkness."
"Where did this happen?"
"Back there a ways. Don't know how long I've been crawling through this Issus-damned storm!"
"Are you armed?"
"Not anymore. The calot took my embedded sword with it. That was a nice piece of steel."
"Hold still," Ras Thavas said. "I am a physician, but if you make a wrong move I will kill you myself."
The master mind determined the man's injuries were serious, but not life-threatening. Attending the wounds as best he could under the conditions, Ras Thavas fretted feverishly at having to wait out the storm.
Hours, perhaps days later since the storm was so dense as to conceal day or night, the winds howled less. There came periods of odd silence followed by swift gusty squalls. It was night, thus Ras Thavas had to wait yet longer, and that endurance was chaffed raw.
Until that moment Ras Thavas held no desire to speak to the man who may have injured or killed his wifeif indeed the calot was Thasa Ras.
"I know why I travel the desert alone, but few do. Did you get separated from a larger party? Are others in trouble?
"Not anymore," the man almost laughed. "We came to find something."
"It doesn't matter. Greed was the reason. Death is what we found."
"Did you find what you sought?"
"Not exactly. That we were close all knew. That's when the murders began."
"I understand greed." Ras Thavas shook sand from his cloak. "I suppose you were the most successful?"
"Hardly. I was the last to know. Up until that final moment I thought he was my friend."
Ras Thavas stood. A few strides in the loose sand lifted his head above the sheltering wall of rock. Dawn appeared near. When he gripped the rock to steady the descent the master mind noticed a strange thing.
"This wall is man-made!" The First Citizen of New City of Thavas produced a small radium bulb from his harness pouch and unhooded it. The light revealed an ancient wall of black stone, cunningly fitted together, but old beyond timeso wind-eroded that every edge was smoothly rounded.
The other gasped.
"Da Sirtis! It was true!"
Ras Thavas frowned. Though he knew many things in many subjects that name meant nothing to him, but it surely excited his new patient.
"We have some time before daybreak. Why don't you tell me about Da Sirtis?"
The starlight in the clearing sky was sufficient to reveal an ugly avarice instantly hidden by an insincere friendly smile.
"Why not? Da Sirtis was the royal seat of Helsom Lu, Jeddak of Jeddaks of the Empire of Khodar. By the time he was ten years from the egg he had conquered the First Born. Ten years later he subjugated the Orovars. Ten years beyond that saw the ancient Marentinans of the frozen north under his control. Helsom Lu was, and remains, the greatest Warlord that Barsoom has ever seen."
Ras Thavas allowed a thin smileothers might bestow that honor on John Carter, Prince of Helium, the present Warlord; however, he did not interrupt the other, norhe realizedmight he have been successful in the attempt for the man was caught up in his own story.
"Helsom Lu was ruthless, but fair. Acknowledge him and live. Oppose him and die. It was all so very simple. He ruled five hundred years, building great fleets which sailed the five oceans to collect tribute from a thousand conquered nations. It was all gathered at Da Sirtisa fabulous treasure beyond compare, the like of which has never been seen."
"I suppose so," Ras Thavas chuckled. "Gone a million or more years ago!"
"Much of it did get taken after his murder, but the best of it was hidden."
"Betrayed by a young wife. A woman of uncommon beauty, with a voice like an angel, hands as soft as clouds, skin as radiant as the sun..."
"She sounds like the real treasure," Ras Thavas observed.
"Ah, yes! Parlita was her name. Where she came from is unknown, but how she caught the eye of Helsom Lu is what counts. The moment he saw Parlita he had to obtain her. He showered gorgeous gems, shimmering silks of the finest texture, exotic animals which are extinct these many years later. He married her, made her Jeddara of Jeddaras, and gave her every devotion. He gave her everything except the secret of Da Sirtis.
"Parlita desired Da Sirtis more than anything," the man continued as the sun rose over the horizon and bathed the sand-drenched moss with blazing reflected light.
Ras Thavas bent down, hooking a hand under the man's uninjured arm. "So she wooed him," he said. "She made promises so pleasing he lost his senses and, one night, revealed the secret she desired. When she had that she killed him. Was it knife or poison?"
The man grinned. "I thought you did not know the story."
"Not this story," the master mind replied, "but it is little different from a hundrednay, a thousand!just like it. Now, where did you meet that calot?"
"Why?" the man asked. "It is probably dead."
Ras Thavas hardened his voice. "You want your sword back, don't you?"
"Yes," the nervous man relaxed a bit. Looking about he said: "That way, I think. I remember going around a clump of boulders."
There was a clump of boulders in the near distance. And, just within the tangle of rock, anguished and licking at the dark blood seeping from the deeply embedded long sword, lay Thasa Ras.
"Wife! Can you hear me?"
"After the sand storm, yes. I also heard everything else. If he had not spoken sooner I would have called you. Pull this sword out then go away. I want to eat this ungrateful"
"Thasa Ras! How could he know you are at heart a compassionate, beautiful lady?"
The man watched in horror as the physician extracted the long sword and tossed it aside. "What are you doing?"
Ras Thavas ignored the man, attending the wound, which was not serious but might have ended his wife's life by incapacitating Thasa Ras. "You could not have known," he said. "This is my calot. She is very well-trained. Go. Sit in the shade. I won't be long."
Frowning, the man did as bid. He remarked upon the loving attention the tall man bestowed on the creature. "Some treat their calots well," he observed, "but none so tenderly as you. There are millions of calots."
"Yes," Ras Thavas agreed as he surveyed his work with satisfaction. "But there is only one Thasa Ras." Via their mental link he asked his wife: "Is there much pain?"
"I've had worse," she replied. "This mando not trust him."
"I won't." Turning, the master mind sketched a small farewell. "Good luck! We will depart now."
Ras Thavas watched his wife climb out of the boulders. She moved easily. Calots were difficult to kill and their resiliency is world famous.
The man, perplexed, watched the tall stranger and the great calot walking into the sunrise. He then examined the desert on all sides, including the half-exposed black wall of Da Sirtis.
Ras Thavas took two more steps then paused. He looked over his shoulder. The calot whined. Thasa Ras mentally pleaded: "Don't!"
"What?" the master mind asked the fellow.
The man licked his lips. "Half. Help me and you get half."
"I have all the wealth I need or desire. Come, Thasa Ras!"
"You can't leave me here! You owe me. Your calot tried to kill me!"
Ras Thavas refrained from belaboring the obvious. "Yes, she did bite you."
"See?" The man's face became animated. "You help me and we'll forget that."
Thasa Ras made another whine, this one heartbreaking in tone. Her husband ran his hand through the short mane, gripping it slightly to silence her.
Ras Thavas smiled. "And the offer?"
"Well," the man shied slightly, "we really don't know what it is, but I will make it fair."
They returned to Da Sirtis. Thasa Ras followed, thoroughly displeased with her husband.
Examination of the wall indicated it was part of a larger structure, mostly buried in the sand. Some excavation with hands exposed a ramp leading down. The sand was not difficult to move, but the sun was hot and, after the horror of the sand storm, not a breath of air moved over the desiccated terrain.
After several hours of labor the bottom of the ramp was revealed. A simple door set in an unadorned jamb was exposed. Both men stopped to rest, seeking any kind of shade their efforts had created.
Ras Thavas opened his canteen and took a long swallow. He capped the canteen and returned it to his harness.
"Hey!" the man cried. "I though we were partners!"
The master mind lifted the canteen again, but before the fellow could take it, pulled it back and said: "Half."
Between anger, thirst, and the pain of his wound, the man growled: "Half!"
Ras Thavas nodded and watched the man drink a reasonable share. He snapped the canteen in place then said: "Shall we?"
The door was obdurate. Another hour passed before the panel squealed and opened a hand's breadth. Ras Thavas grinned at the other, who was panting. The scientist was a little out of breath as wellreal muscle was required to move the heavy door on hinges frozen by eons of inactivity. As he bent his shoulder to the task Ras Thavas turned his back.
"Darling!" Thasa Ras screamed as she hurled her formidable body from the pile of excavated sand. Her jaw snapped wide then snapped shutsinking triple rows of flesh-rending teeth into the man's neck and shoulder. A flood of hot blood filled her mouth. A savage twist of her powerful body stilled his shrill scream forever.
Ras Thavas did not seem surprised to see the man's sword drop a bare instant before the lifeless body hit the ground. He leaned against the door, scowling. "I expected he would try. I did not expect he couldn't wait until the treasure had been found."
Thasa Ras, in calot mode, marked her kill by urinating upon it. "As the world's most brilliant man," she chided, "you can be incredibly stupid. We have come this far. Let us see the treasure of Da Sirtis."
The door was forced open. The master mind stepped inside the dark chamber. The calot followed. It was not a large room. The black stone was highly polished, the sands of the desert having never touched them. No decorations on the walls. The floor was of the same material.
On the floor, stretched before a waist-high stone pedestal, were the bones of a tall woman. A gold headdress adorned the white skull. Odd remnants of fabulous silk indicated a gorgeous gown. The bony hands were clasped about the hilt of a maiden's knife buried in the breastthe knife that Barsoomian women carry to take their own life rather than submit to a fate worse than death.
Thasa Ras sniffed the bones, inhaling a snootful of dust. She blew loudly, and the silken scraps vanished in a whirl of iridescent motes.
"Self-inflicted," Thasa Ras said. "Do you think this is Parlita?"
"None other," her husband replied. "And this is why she did it." His eyes were on an object atop the pedestal.
"What? I cannot see it from here. Must be absolutely worthless for her to commit suicide."
Ras Thavas respectfully reached out and lifted a porcelain plaque, edged in gilt, and knelt beside his wife. Passing from shadow into the sunlight slanting through the open door, Thasa Ras saw an image revealed, one painted by a master of the art. A regal man in martial apparel. A stunning woman wearing the same headdress as lay on the floor. The couple displayed smiles. They were hand-clasped. The exceptional skill of the unknown artist had accurately captured their happiness.
"This was Helsom Lu's treasure," the master mind said with great sadness. Aloud: "It is the treasure all men seek, and rarely find."
He replaced the exquiste plaque upon the pedestal. For a long moment he gazed upon the forlorn bones of Parlita then stepped outside Da Sirtis. He silently waited for the subdued Thasa Ras to exit. Ras Thavas firmly secured the door then spent the afternoon back-filling sand into the excavation, sealing Parlita's griefand the no-name would-be murderer.
Neither having a desire to remain near that tomb of great love and sad betrayal, the man and calot walked away from the sunset. Long shadows of themselves ranged farther ahead over the dust-covered ochre moss with each passing moment.
After a time Ras Thavas said: "Darling?"
Thasa Ras objected: "No talk. I wish to think."
Above the distant dark horizon the two lovers, Cluros and Thuria, rose into the heavens. Into that faint radiance of the Barsoomian moons walked two with much to think about.
* * * * *
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