Exploring the Life and Works of Edgar Rice Burroughs
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THE INVISIBLE WAR
Copyright © 2000
(A look at the personal and seamy side beneath Zodanga)
The darkness fell too quickly to suit Ersis of the Morgors. He was used to a perpetually red skyline and a stable temperature, not the sudden blackness and its attendant chill. He wore one of his race's newer inventions prepared after reconnaissance of Garobus, or Barsoom as its inhabitants called it in their staccato language. Morgor senior scientists called it a climate control array. It consisted of several stiff loops connected at intervals that encompassed neck, arms, torso, and knees. This apparatus was in turn connected to a small control box fixed to Ersis' belt. He felt compelled to keep the controls turned until the loops emitted a warm glow that took away the aching coldness that the Barsoomian night brought on.
He found the entrance to one of Zodanga's large storm drains unguarded, as his informants had indicated. He discovered that a few still held grudges in Zodanga, and loyalty to Barsoom could be overcome by a thirst for revenge. Ersis found such philosophies alien. His emotions were few, beyond a sense of duty to Bandolian and a hatred for inferior races, that, when coupled with a savage war lust, made all Morgors vicious opponents. With his right hand at sword hilt, Ersis raised the light cylinder from a Barsoomian radium torch and entered the dark pit, groping for a foothold as the yawning pipe slanted downward.
He was surrounded by a Stygian darkness, relieved only by the soft glow of his torch. Occasionally, Ersis heard rustlings and felt a furry form brush against the translucent ivory flesh of his ankle. He felt no fear, since countless training classes and psychological sessions had burned any hesitation from him. The passage bent away left and the Morgor followed along, noticing that he occasionally saw side drains, some of which dripped dark, shiny fluids. As he passed one such, he heard a voice whisper: "This way, you walking anatomy model!"
He turned lidless, deep set eyes toward the intersecting pipe and made out a faint glow from deep within. Somewhat disgruntled at the epithet used at his expense, Ersis nevertheless marched forward with the arrogant confidence of his race. He found another control box at his waist and activated its motor. The noiseless device made his skin tingle slightly as it charged. This was his trump card. Adapted from the electromagnetic devices that the Morgors used to magnetize their ship's hulls, this instead set up an elliptical magnetic field that totally enclosed Ersis. He need only touch another button and a bottle of magnetic sand from his home world would vent in a cloud designed to settle on the magnetic field and render all within the field totally invisible. Such personal devices were rare and used only by field operatives on dangerous missions.
Ersis did not feel his mission particularly dangerous, but there was no use taking chances. His informant, a former member of the guild of assassins, had directed him to this warren deep beneath Zodanga, a once proud city now little more than a provincial town dominated by the Heliumites, especially their Warlord, John Carter. Ersis extinguished the torch and clipped it to his harness. By now, he could see that he was entering into an area that contained a landing. A few steps led him to a platform. From a doorway adjacent to the platform came the glow Ersis had seen. He could see no human, but occasional six-legged creatures peered at him insolently from under debris before turning their furry bodies and fleeing to deeper gloom.
"Come in," came the disembodied voice he heard earlier. Assuming that the human taunting him had used the shadows to his advantage, Ersis gained the platform and slowly entered the doorway.
He found himself in a cluttered room lined with shelves. Indeed racks of shelving made a maze of the entire area. The shelves were filled with old, rusting tools, bricks, and other items no doubt used by the builders of the drainage system. Giant fans were inset at intervals above the shelving, but they seemed to have rusted also. Ersis felt his unease growing. He refused to consider it fear, just a bad feeling. He had no lips to snarl with, but a low mutter filtered from between his set teeth.
"Show yourself, man of Garobus," the Morgor growled. "I am here to deal with you for the information you possess."
"You must want it badly to travel through that dark tunnel, heedless to what may lie inside its darkness," came the voice again. Ersis made out the dark shape of a figure amid the labyrinthine racks.
"Morgors do not jump at shadows, human," Ersis snorted. "It is said you know of plans for a weapon that disintegrates metal, and a pilotless bomb that can be directed by radio waves."
"I know of such plans," said the man, stepping forward. Ersis could see the figure in Barsoomian harness was spare, his face sharp and smirking. "You have heard of these devices as belonging to the scientist Phor Tak. The disintegrating ray and the Flying Death."
"Yes," Ersis agreed. "What can you tell me? My superiors will reward you highly, giving you a good position in the new administration of this planet."
"Overseen by Morgors, of course." The man guided some sort of device on wheels forward.
"Of course," Ersis snapped. "You know that. Your race will be subjugated by our superior war-making capacity much like the blue humans of our world. My time is limited. Show me this device you have. Is it the disintegrating machine?"
"You know, Phor Tak died before revealing its secret, as well as that of the Flying Death," said the red man.
"What?" The Morgor gasped. "You have led me down here for nothing? You will pay, human."
"I think not." The red man pushed forward the object he was rolling forward. It looked for all the world like a ray weapon, being a tapered cylinder with an open barrel some six inches in diameter. An enclosed bin served it. The human touched a button at the device's rear and a whirring noise came from the device.
"So, you have lied again, and this is the weapon," Ersis growled. He touched a button at his belt and the bottle of magnetic sand showered out in a diamond-dust sparkle and the Morgor's form grew indistinct. "You cannot shoot what you cannot see."
"While you hide behind your presumed safety, let me tell you something," the red man called. "I told the truth when I said that Phor Tak died before revealing his plans for his two great inventions. However, there was a witness to these awful things. His name was Tan Hadron of Hastor. He described in a general way these weapons, but of course, he was no scientist. However, his brain retained all the images, even if he could not recall them exactly. It fell to a certain bowman from Lothar, a pale fellow named Kar Komak, to search Tan Hadron's mind using his own mental powers learned from the mental wizards of Lothar. He was able to accurately visualize all that Tan Hadron had seen, providing scientists with a mass of details to work from. And more, Sassoomian, he was able to locate random thoughts transferred to Tan Hadron's brain during telepathic exchanges between the warrior from Hastor and the wily scientist, thoughts concerning improvements in the weapon that Phor Tak's brain constantly dwelt on until he was destroyed by his own weapon. Rest assured, an effort goes forward to reconstruct both that ray and the Flying Death, though we have also heard through Jasoomian channels, that a more sunward civilization called Amtor possesses a similar device called a T-ray. Barsoomian scientists are trying to enhance their photographic abilities to penetrate the cloud cover of Amtor and get a glimpse of these devices in action. This leads me to this device, which is no ray, but a powerful fan."
The human turned a dial and swiveled the machine on its base. "You might be interested in knowing that the back of the fan is filled with red sand from the deserts of Barsoom. While non-magnetic and certainly not as pretty as your reflecting dust, it can act as a powerful abrasive."
The fan emitted a dull reddish bloom that bisected the room. Instantly, the Morgor's translucent midsection became visible. The red man could plainly see that the Eurobusian's heart was beating a trifle faster. He could also see Ersis' sword in his fist. Drawing his own razor-sharp blade, the human advanced.
"We need no vanishing rays to deal with you, Sassoomian scum," the red man snapped, parrying the Morgor's sudden thrust. The human got behind the fan projector and raised it to blow in Ersis' face. The Morgor staggered back and the human snapped off the device. "I am sure we will develop them, though. Since the pills of the Invaks are rare, however, development of your magnetic field device will be handy, as well as that silly set of rings you use to keep you warm. Also, your movements have been watched, so that we know your contacts and your headquarters. Raids there will certainly gain valuable information. All this makes you superfluous, I suppose."
Their swords clashed in glittering arcs, glancing from racks and sending refuse flying. Both opponents fought grimly, in silence, but the sneer never left the human's face, undeterred by the leering rictus of the Morgor.
"We will kill you all," vowed Ersis.
"Not today," the human smiled. "Today it is you who will die, at the hands of an inferior being, your host, Rapas the Ulsio of the Zodangan Guild of Assassins, and the second best swordsman in the Guild, next to John Carter himself." The last was a boast, but the name caused Ersis to whistle between his teeth. His venting was cut short as Rapas' blade found his heart. As life slipped from the Morgor, Rapas watched the alien heart beat slower and slower through the parchment-like skin until it stopped completely.
"Superior beings?" Rapas laughed, wiping his sword on his opponent before stripping him of his devices. "You are not even superior to an Ulsio, not even the phlegm of an Ulsio. Especially this Ulsio."