A Russian soldier with an unusual family history and extraordinary abilities survived the Soviet Occupation of Afganistan. Years later, he does not survive the First Gulf War awakening after death on the dead sea bottoms of Mars. Now Jak Flag must rescue two princesses, one of whom is the daughter of Vad Varo!
FLAG OF BARSOOM
Joseph L. White
Parental Warning: FLAG OF BARSOOM contains war-time violence, and adult themes.
My name is Jean Pierre Pennant, or at least that is a passable French-ification of the multi-syllabic name I was given in the small Iron Curtain, Eastern European country where I was born. In English it would be Jack Flag.
I was born in the mid-twentieth century, which means that I am at this writing in my mid-fifties. I appear to be about 30.
I was a sickly child, and Communist health care was not famous for its completeness or its excellence. But my case was unusual enough to attract the attention of the scientists. Before I was 10, I was moved to a specialized research center in endocrinology, where I was the subject of much replacement therapy and attempts to chemically rejuvenate certain glandsI am told.
I have since reviewed my own files and was struck by the lack of real data. Apparently the researchers were guessing what would be useful to my young body.
Oddly, I was a success. But because of the scientists' lackadaisical data-keeping, they were never able to replicate it. By the time I was 14, I appeared to be a normal 11. At 16 I looked a slow-maturing 14, and at 18 I seemed to be a fully-hormoned 16-year-old.
I was below average in height at 18, but I continued growing well into my 23rd year, ending up at 183 cm and about 80 km (for English-speakers: six feet tall, 176 lbs).
My reflexes and physical abilities always were normal for my apparent age, and perhaps better.
The endocrinology lab shared campus space with training quarters for Olympic athletes of the U.S.S.R. (and later the C.I.S.). Americans always nod their heads knowingly at this disclosure.
As a youth I lived with a research doctor and his wife, foster parents if you will. After I was removed from my original home I never saw my natural mother again; I do not remember my father at all.
I eased through the academic courses (I was schooled as a privileged child of the intellectual class) but my sport developed at the Olympic training center.
At the time the center was teaching fencing and the "military pentathlon" sports, no longer a team sport internationally but ever popular in Eastern Europe. Military pentathlon was invented for the first modern Olympics and involves running, swimming, jumping a horse over obstacles, pistol shooting and fencing, described generally as the skills needed by a messenger on a Napoleonic battlefield.
I became a "sparring partner," first for the women and then the men, in foil, epee and saber. I was agile, quick and good at the aggressive style of fencing then taught in the U.S.S.R.
I practiced with the small caliber pistol, swam with the second tier of competitors, ran the 4,000 meters with the best, and could even ride a horse.
By the time I was 18, I could beat all but the very best of the Olympic fencers and frankly wondered why I wasn't put upon the team. The scientists said I would never pass the chemical tests after all my therapy.
But they confirmed that I was in the top 1% in reaction time, the top 3% in body agility and the top 10% in endurance. But that I should take no personal pride in it as my performance had been "chemically enhanced."
During my post-secondary education I was trained as a medical technologist, specifically one who worked with electronic diagnostic equipment. I learned English to study that field.
After graduation I returned to the endocrinology institute briefly but later joined the Army of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics and became a junior officer in that rapidly decaying organization. I earned my pay in Afghanistan, two tours, where the veterans taught me much of the true "military pentathlon":
- Never leave an enemy behind you.
- Always use your longest-range weapon.
- Always keep your weapon clean and handy.
- Sleep when you have a chance.
- Carry extra food for yourself.
I had been in the service just long enough for comrades to begin wondering at my ageless appearance when the U.S.S.R. "tanked" (American is one of my languages, did I tell you?) and I joined the Army of the Czech Republic.
And so on a day in 1992, in my mid-40s but appearing to be a 20-something, I was with the Allies on the ground in Iraq, far behind enemy lines in medical support of an advanced Special Operations force from the U.K.
An Iraqi mortar shell landed square in our "hide" as we waited to rendezvous with the wounded Special Operators. In the aftermath, I looked around and saw nothing but body parts belonging to my soldiers.
I was dazed, lying on the ground unable to move. I thought that perhaps I was dead, and then, momentarily, I was floating above my damaged body, looking down upon a scene of complete destruction.
I felt a great suction from above, and I was drawn into a maelstrom of psychic cold and emotional turmoil. I cried out in panic. I believe I called upon Goda strange reaction from a lifelong agnostic like myself. I have since tried to justify it, but it is hard to know who was rightthe cynical disbeliever or the frightened supplicant of a nameless Deity.
In any case I eventually came back to consciousness lying on a red, mossy plain under a weak sun shining through a thin atmosphere.
Standing above me was a green creature, a biped with four arms, an alien warrior carrying a long spear and with a sword in one of his several hands. The creature was at least three meters high.
I had read my Edgar Rice Burroughs in three languages. I knew what I was seeing, whether I believed it or not.
"Barsoom, I think," I said.
My body appeared solid. It had nerve endings at the surface of the skin. I knew because the green Martian put the tip of his sword against the front of my thigh and leaned gently on it. I screamed.
Perhaps I should explain why a simple lad from Eastern Europe, raised under the prudish dictates of World Communism, would know anything of a decadent fantasy writer of the Capitalist Adversary, particularly an American author.
The scientists among whom I was reared were generally exempt from any restriction on science fictionresearch, you knowbut the Edgar Rice Burroughs chronicles of a fantastical Mars, or Venus, or Africa, didn't qualify under that rule. Burroughs fell into that category of story which basically predated modern Communist thought. By the middle of the twentieth century the Party had decided that Jules Verne-era science fiction was harmless, and ERB was tolerated under that theory. I read him mostly in French.
So even as a young person I read those rousing adventure stories. But it was after I turned 18 that I became particularly interested in them.
One may casually remember that "John Carter" was a Virginia gentleman, mustered out of the Confederate cavalry after the American Civil War. But in fact Burroughs was careful to explain when "Carter" first appears that he was already a mysterious person.
Carter identifies his Virginia relatives as persons "who claim close kinship." His putative nephew is astonished that the "Uncle Jack" he remembers from his youth has not aged when he meets him after a 20-year absence.
Carter says of himself (to Burroughs, or his nephew, or whoever) that he is already at least 100 years old and that he does not remember a childhoodthat he has always been about 30 years old, throughout his memory. And he mentions that he has always been a soldier and has fought for several kings and an emperor. That certainly puts him in Europe and/or Asia during some part of his 100 years, kings and emperors being in short supply in the American hemisphere during that period.
One assumes this was simply an interesting literary device which Burroughs introduced in A Princess of Mars, the first book, but which was never further developed as a "back story." Actually in the foreword of the second book the same narrator discloses that the ageless "John Carter" had "dandled" his grandfather's great-grandfather on his knee, which certainly would put the character back into the 1700s.
When I turned 18 and began to realize just how different I was from other young persons, I began to go back through the records of my birth. I began with the medical records of the endocrinology laboratory, which were not nearly so secure as the administrators imagined. For one thing they were being transferred to computer media during the 1970s, and someone had to do the keying-in, and dependants of the staff seemed logical workers for that chore. Bureaucracies all have their blind spots, and I lived in one of them.
By the age of 19 I had passwords into most of the "secure" databases of the establishment, and access. I had grown up in the institute. I was not so much invisible as part of the scenery.
From my own medical records I accessed those of my birth mother and found her to be deceased. But that led me to the background security force records of my family, most of which pre-dated the Communist era and were historical in nature rather than current. A simple query on Institute letterhead was sufficient to send copies of these records to "Dr. Pennant."
Eventually I devolved to genealogical records of my mother's family, inventing another paperwork identity to shield myself from any unwelcome government inquiries. Should you require genealogical research done, I have a perfectly believable office to do such inquiries in the former Soviet Union, particularly in Eastern Europe. The head of the agency, in fact, is easily proven (on paper) to be a former member of the Communist Party.
I learned that my family were relatively recent immigrants from Western Europe and had never been particularly important. My mother appeared to have been about 50 years old at the time I was born. Surely a mistake, I thought, surely this was my grandmother and my birth mother was missing from the files for some reason.
My "mother" had been born to a peasant named Pennant, who in turn was the son of a farm girlan unmarried mother who sometimes claimed a married last name which meant (in the local language) "one who makes carts," or "one who is in the cartage trade." Literally, "cart-man."
Supposedly this maternal ancestor had been briefly married to a French soldier by this "Carter" name (presumably named then in French), a father who had left to follow the guns. According to family diaries he never knew that my maternal ancestor was with child. He had died in that war (again presumably, because he never returned). His first name had been "Jean."
Taking everything at face value, my great-grandfather or great-great grandfather had been a western soldier named, for all practical purposes, "John Carter." Taken with my own slow rate of maturation, it was an interesting coincidence, and it gave me reason to remember almost every detail of the Burroughs stories.
As the tall green Barsoomian pricked me with the point of his long, slender sword, it occurred to me that Jasoomians like John Carter and myself surely had more apparent strength in the lesser gravity of Mars. With my free leg I kicked mightily against the shin of the green warrior's most convenient leg. As he staggered, I rolled away and bounded up.
Literally. I rose perhaps two meters into the thin atmosphere, looking straight across at the face of the four-armed monstrosity. I would say that he was astonished, but at that time I had no experience judging the facial expressions of four-armed Martians. Certainly I was astonished, and fell gracelessly, ass over teakettle, as the British would say, several meters from the warrior.
Hurriedly I thrust myself up and lurched away from the armed Martian, sprawling about every third step, like a drunken mariner still on his sea legs. I would surely have been overtaken by the green man, except that he seemed to be making excellent speed in the other direction.
Alas, he was not retreating but going for more weaponry.
A large, eight-legged creature with some sort of saddle apparatus was several hundred meters away. It was gray, 10 feet high at the shoulder. The green biped raced to the snake-headed creature, which bared its considerable teeth at him and snarled. The green Barsoomian casually raised his top left hand and smashed the creature in the forehead. The animal lowered its head in submission and the warrior dragged some sort of a firearm from a saddle boot.
The rifle (for such it turned out to be) was at least two meters long (English: six-feet-plus) and of an odd configuration, reminding me somewhat of pictures of Arab flintlocks in the 19th century. The warrior swung the rifle in my directionand fired, apparently well over my head, and then began to fumble to reload. Single-shot, I thought, and turned to run again.
There before me, flying low over the red moss ("Ochre," John Carter called it; I remembered) was an airborne boat. It was about four times the length of a human man, one of whom was standing on the deck and swinging another long rifle around in my direction. I dived for the ground. A round went over my head.
Twisting around, I saw that the green man had taken the bullet square in his chest and had fallen over, his death throes apparently upsetting the creature (throat? Croat? Thoat!), which whirled and perambulated in a fluid eight-legged gallop directly away from me and the airship behind me.
I stood up, wiped the trace of blood from the nick on my thigh, and raised my arms to indicate to the pilot/occupant of the craft that I was unarmed.
He appeared human and looked much like an Afghan warrior, only of a mellower hew. I was to learn later that he was one of the "yellow men" of Mars. He had a black beard. And only two arms. He was naked except for a suspender-like harness of some sort and various leather-looking shields and plates covering his more vulnerable parts. He was wearing a sword.
He hovered over mehis boat had a neutral colored hull, with a complex purple device painted at the bow, perhaps an alien compass rose. It had perhaps eight points.
The pilot turned his craft and appeared to coast away from me.
"WAIT!" I yelled, in Russian, as though that language would mean something to him. The craft paused and he looked back at me. I mimed helplessness with widespread arms. What was I to do now?
The pilot mused for a moment and then accelerated the craft after the escaping thoat. He circled the animal, lowered the boat nearly to the surface, and herded it back to me like an Australian shepherd dog. The thoat paused finally a few meters from me.
The man eyed the animal as though taking inventory, then disappeared below decks. He returned and threw a pillow-looking object down to me, turned his boat and drove it across the plain and finally out of sight.
The "pillow" turned out to be canvas wineskin or waterbag. I drank deeply. The thoat snarled at me. I smashed it in the forehead with my fist and it cowered. I took the animal's reins and began to learn to walk on the surface of my new planet.
That evening as the somewhat smaller but brighter sun slipped rapidly toward the nearby horizon, I found a small protuberance from the surface and climbed it. As I surveyed the circle of moss-covered "sea bottom" within my view, I sorted out what I knew and what I only supposed.
I knew that I was inside my own body, or a close duplicate, due to scars on my left arm. I told women that it was from an unfortunate encounter with an Afghani sword; actually it was shrapnel from an exploding steam sterilizer in a hospital lab, although it did happen in Afghanistan. And there were other scars and peculiarities.
I could still bleed; witness the nick from the green warrior's sword.
The sun was smaller here and the general flora and fauna led me to believe I had landed in John Carter's Barsoom. The sun was smaller; surely I could be on the fourth planet.
But I was not Edgar Rice Burroughs, writing in the early twentieth century. I knew that this landscape did not match the views of Mars sent back by American robot landers. Speculation, then:
IF I were on Mars,
BUT it was a different Mars,
THEN I had
(a) slipped dimensions, or
(b) traveled millions of years back in time to an earlier version of the planet.
Even now, years later, I have no better explanation or theory. Why Carter (and perhaps his kin) should be able to shuttle from one planet/time to another is still hidden from me.
But I was on Carter's Barsoom, I thought. And I became more sure of it as another small, wingless "airship" cruised directly toward me on my tiny hill. It was the model of the anti-gravity-powered, boat-like structures described by Carter, and on the upper deck were three creatures who seemed to be humans.
As the airship eased to a stop beside me, hovering like a twentieth century helicopter but without the wash from rotors, three "red men" of Mars looked at me from the rail. They were wearing leather harnesses from which depended swords of various lengths, capable-looking fighting knives, jeweled buckles and decorated pouches. Otherwise they were mostly naked, although not so thoroughly as I, and seemed athletic and well-muscled, though on the slim side.
Their complexion was bronze, their hair black. They were clean-shaven and their bodies were smooth, like swimmers' bodies. I myself am not lushly furred, but I had more hair on my chest than all the Red Martians.
One extended his arm over the side in an obvious invitation to come aboard. I leaped, grasped the rail, and hauled myself aboard.
One crewman descended by rope ladder to the thoat, stripped it of its accouterments, including the rifle and the warrior's great sword, and climbed back aboard. Another airman turned to a control panel amidships and guided the airship in a smooth circle to return the way they had come. As the breeze picked up, the pilot scooped up a loose cape beside his station and slipped it around himself. It was a brownish fur of some sort. Earth tones, I thought, and then corrected myself.
His two comrades and I went below to a tight and cozy cabin. I began to learn the language.
Three days later I knew how to say "flier," "Jasoomian," how to describe colors, and the entirely different words one used to describe colors of persons (green, white, yellow, red), the names of several edibles and how to ask to use the sanitary facilities. I could say "What is the word for "? And point to something. I could say "base camp," knew the words for breakfast and the evening meal and for "snacks," sixteen different words for differently shaped weapons with edges, the word for "sharpen," "sweep up," and "dump the trash."
Some words leaped back at me from reading Burroughs. A "padwar" was a lieutenant. A "thoat" was a riding animal; a "calot" a great hound. Some of the words for units of time were familiar; a "xat" was about a second. I learned the Martian names for the two moons that hurdled through the cold night heavens but couldn't remember which was (by Earth designation) Phobos and which Deimos.
I was a guest of a military outpost of the city-state Duhor, a long-time rival of Helium, the home city of the great John Carter. My hosts knew Carter's name and readily accepted that I was from his home planet. They asked me if I knew Ulysses Paxton, another traveler from Earth who lived in their city. They asked if I knew how to operate a "Gridley wave" transmitter.
And each soldier in this isolated outpost, a company of the Duhor Desert Scouts, must try his strength against me. Having read of John Carter's superhuman strength in the lesser gravity of Mars, I was bemused that I had no such power. I gauged that I was perhaps 30 percent stronger than most of the soldiers, but evenly matched with the very strongest of them. I thought I would have more enduring stamina, but first I had to acclimate to the "higher elevation" or thinner air of Barsoom. I suspected I would become an ultra-marathoner here, once I learned to breathe.
They threw me to the ground with new wrestling holds I hadn't learned. I demolished them with two simple judo throws, green-belt stuff, and once I determined that these soldiers were innocent of those moves I did not advertise any more of them but continued to learn their style.
When I was invited to fence, my reputation was made. The Soviet style in the late twentieth century was an all-out, aggressive attack that lacked finesse but was well-suited (it turned out) to actual combat.
We fenced, of course, with blunted blades, and once I gained my Mars legs I became the person to beat at the outpost. Of the twenty or so persons assigned to the camp, only the lieutenantthe padwarcould fence more than one course with me. Slowly I learned a Barsoomian defensive style, and he went from being able to beat me at will to marking me once in two passages. He was quite proud that he had a "natural" to whom to teach the basics.
They never actually asked me how I came by the green warrior's kit and mount. As I learned the language I found they assumed I had beaten the green Martian (a member of the Warhoon horde, by his rig) in single combat. By the time I could speak enough of the language to tell my story I had decided to hold back some information.
The outpost was supposed to keep track of the movements of the Warhoon horde. But it also included a broad sweeping search over millions of square kilometers looking for a particular yellow-skinned outlaw who had stolen his owner's private air-yacht from Duhor. The yellow-skin (the appellation had racial connotations with which I was uneasy) was an escaped prisoner of war.
After all, it was not my fight. I owed no more to the red men than I did to the yellow man. I kept my own counsel.
My reading about Barsoom, delivered by the American Burroughs, writing about the Virginian Carter, had taught me that all Martians were brave and honorable. Thus I was surprised the first time one slyly repositioned a playing piece when I looked away from a game of chess ("jetan").
I had assumed that Burroughs/Carter had been accurate in relating the high level of moral purity among the red men, particularly their elevation of the female. When I realized there were a number of camp followers, red women who were loosely associated with at least one but often more than one of the warriors on a very informal basis, I began to wonder if the adopted Barsoomian Carter had been quite candid with the Jasoomian Burroughs.
And I realized that while Carter had passed on the vocabulary of the palace and of the officer class, he hadn't said much about the rank and file of the various armies. I could not remember the title "sergeant," for instance.
I found the rankers to be far more humorous than the characters of a Burroughs adventure, more coarse, quick to play a prank on a newcomer, and anxious to score with the opposite sex on their night off.
They gave their officers as much respect as the officers earned, but only standard military courtesy to the unproven. In short, they were like Czech, Soviet and American enlisted men.
The Soviet Army where I learned my trade was atypical in history. Blessed with great volumes of manpower, the Soviets drafted youngsters for a year or less. They were like Young Pioneers (Westerners would say "boy scouts") with little useful technical knowledge for most of their service period.
Consequently junior officers like myself were more like non-commissioned officers in other armies, always stretched out on their backs under some piece of technical equipment, fixing it and telling the private what wrench to pass. The problem was exacerbated by the fact that the draftees were largely of a class who were useful but not promotable.
The British would forthrightly declare them "working class," a permanent designation. Americans would call them the "working poor," a first step toward circumlocution since being poor is a temporary state in America [Americans believe this implicitly despite statistical evidence to the contrary].
But circumlocution was paramount in the classless Soviet Union. The people who were not important enough to be deferred from the draft were called by many names, all of which meant:
People Who are Not Smart or Capable Enough to become Party Members but Who are Useful for Sweeping Out, Dumping the Trash, and May Aspire to Becoming Plumbing Repair-Persons.
Needless to say, one never ran into the son of an educated Party member amongst these draftees, although almost all the officers were. As a young officer in Afghanistan I tirelessly recruited amongst draftee country boys and poor proletarians, teaching them fundamental medical hygiene, how to operate specific machinery and how to address simple medical emergencies amongst the troops. Over my two tours I developed a modest gang of non-commissioned officers whom I assiduously brought with me whenever I transferred to a new stationI am excellent at working systems.
In other words, I know something about strange military systems. The Red Martian system was as strange as any I have ever seen.
The officers were of the aristocracy, mostly "landed gentry." A low birth rate overall allowed this to be a relatively stable system. The officers served nominal six month deployments to remote stations. At home in their own city states they showed up at their duty stations just as they wished, but certainly not every day. They were easily bored.
The everyday work of the military was accomplished by non-coms and professional rankers, who served five-year enlistments.
The use of weaponry as well as the class system reminded me of the former British Empire.
Officers used swords and cavalry officers carried lances. They belted on great clumsy "revolvers" but I never saw a member of the aristocracy practice with a handgun.
Enlisted warriors carried swords and other edged weapons but also operated anything technical. As a general rule, if the technology was less than 1,000 years old, it was operated by an enlisted person.
Specialist/snipers carried highly accurate rifles which could fire explosive bullets. But those weapons ordinarily were used only against the four-armed green men, a different species and one that also was expert with the Martian rifle. I do not recall seeing personal firearms used in any battle in which artillery or bombing hadn't already been used. In battles between red men, such rifles were typically used as anti-aircraft fire rather than being directed against individuals. There were exceptions.
If officers were casual about their duties in peacetime, they made up for it at war. In a war even the smallest action was commanded by a member of the aristocracy. Fliers were always commanded by officers; flight crews who operated machinery were universally of the enlisted/working class. I do not recall ever seeing an officer get his hands greasy in a piece of machinery.
Officers gained fame and preference by individual heroics and actions, as well as by their adherence and loyalty to successful political factions.
Enlisted men advanced due to merit in their fields, and if such recognition was lacking in one post, the enlistee simply allowed his five-year obligation to expire without renewing it.
The result: an amateur officer could cause a military disaster at any given moment through sheer incompetence. Like the British, the red men accepted this as necessary to perpetuate the class system.
After about a month, Padwar Reef Tak called me to his office to welcome a staff of officers who were actually supposed to be stationed at the remote outpost but who generally left that onerous duty to Reef.
The brass arrived in a civilian air cruiser that accommodated about 20 persons. They brought a celebrity with them.
"Jak Flag, come here," the padwar said, using the Martian cognate of my first name. "I want you to meet Vad Varo, your countryman." It was in fact Ulysses Paxton, the hero of Burroughs' The Mastermind of Mars, and a noble of the city-state Duhor due to his marriage to a princess of that political entity.
Paxton had been transported to Mars following an explosive mishap in the First World War (which he inevitably called "the Great War") very similar to although on a larger scale than that which occurred to me in Iraq. Regardless of the lieutenant's mistake, Paxton was an American infantry officer.
"Greetings to the Red Planet," Paxton said in Martian (the same spoken language covers the planet), and then repeated the welcome in American. "It's swell to have you here," he said.
What would an American from 100 years ago say, I wondered. "Dee-lighted," I said, quoting an American president of the period. Paxton beamed.
He was accompanied by hangers-on and by his wife, the Princess Valla Dia of Duhor, whose presence illustrated an interesting gap in my knowledge. Despite the Burroughsian report that the Red Martians reproduce by eggs, Mrs. Paxton was undeniably pregnant in a mammalian sense. She was wearing a basic leather harness which framed her swollen, beautiful belly. Her breasts, covered about as much as would be modest on a Black Sea beach, appeared fully functional.
Paxton and I found a more or less private corner in the mess hall and he corrected much of what I "knew" about Barsoomians.
"Green men do reproduce by egg," Paxton explained. "I believe John Carter probably equivocated about red men and their bodies in his early, brief visits to Mr. Burroughs.
"You must understand that John Carter is a simple soldier and thinks of himself thus. If he had to follow a civilian occupation, he would probably be a civil engineer. His drafts to his nephew were full of charts and tables explaining Martian measurements and methods of road construction and endless geological speculation.
"I myself transmitted hours of these drafts by Gridley Wave, and I assure you most pages are a sure cure for insomnia. Concerning matters of the heart, and certainly of the flesh, John Carter is at heart a prude. He put very little in the manuscripts of how Martians actually live. Burroughs obviously interpolated.
"Burroughs ignored the more scientific of these contributions and played up the adventurous aspects. He assumed (I believe) that the Red Martians reproduced in the same manner as the green. I eventually corrected him, but it was years too late. To admit he was wrong would have been to admit he had fabricated part of the story.
"And so Jasoomians believe that John Carter, a mammal, managed somehow to impregnate an oviparous female. Foolish, really; fertile offspring are only possible between members of the same species. On Mars, the belief is that both Earth and Mars were originally settled by the same human species.
"Speaking of 'Jasoomians,' you should know that Padwar Reef's nickname for you, 'Earth-boy,' is couched in the terms one would use speaking to an inferior. I have told the padwar that you are a Russian prince and should not be addressed in such a manner."
"Thank you, Mr. Paxton."
"Call me Vad Varo, everyone does."
"Yes sir. Now about reproduction"
"Oh yes, well about that…Carter sees everything through Victorian lenses, sees things not so much as they are but as they should be.
"For instance, according to the history of my family, my grandmother was a red-headed waitress in San Francisco in 1849, already married to a fellow named Paxton. In 1850 she was delivered of a black-haired, grey-eyed boy, my father, who looked nothing like my grandfather, Ernest Paxton.
"In conversations with John Carter I learned that he spent time in San Francisco during the gold rush. One night when we had both had too much to drink I asked if he had known a married waitress named Milly, a red-head, in those days.
"'Brown hair, I thought,' he replied without stopping to think. And then he blanched.
"I knew the women of the family said that Grandma had always dyed her hair and that no one could remember the actual original color. I could think of only one way that John Carter could have known.
"And so I believe that John Carter, not Ernest Paxton, was my grandfather. Carter did not answer the direct question, when I put it to him.
"Another evidence that I share his peculiar bloodlineI have now been on Mars more than 70 Earth years and I look no older than the day I arrived," Paxton said.
"You don't say so," I hazarded. "Perhaps there is some genetic predisposition for Carter's kin to travel to Mars?" And after I explained what "genetic" meant and my own suspicions about my grand-parentage, we continued briefly with the original topic.
I traveled on to Duhor with Paxton. I caught him up on some history, and he seemed politely relieved to know that world Bolshevism had, in the end, failed, and only mildly surprised that the British Empire had pre-deceased the Red.
Since I had rediscovered fencingthat is, I had discovered sword-fighting, which was much like the saber-fencing of my youthPaxton thought I should instruct the Duhor Regulars, a battalion of picked troops he himself commanded for his father-in-law, the jeddak of Duhor.
"You'll be given the insignia to pass anywhere one of my soldiers could go. You'll be a padwar, of course."
"Thank you, Vad Varo," I said. We were approaching his family quarters directly after the return to his city. His wife had disappeared from the landing site and gone on ahead of us. We sauntered leisurely through the streets of the first Martian city I had seen.
The population seemed happy to see their prince, or prince consort, or whatever his title was, but not obsequious. He was apparently a very democratic nobleman.
As we approached a three-story townhouse under the walls of the city, two of the most enchanting women I have ever seen came running from the front door. One was reddish, the other of the flavor I had been taught was "yellow."
"Father, father," cried the red-hued girl.
"Darling," said Vad Varo, "this is the earthman of whom Padwar Reef told us, a young man named 'Jak Flag.'"
"Padwar Flag, this is my daughter and oldest child, Her Brightness, Val Paxt. And her servant, Arife," the democratic American could not help but add. He pronounced it, "Air-EE-fay."
The yellow-skinned girlthe word 'servant' which Paxton had used also connoted 'body slave'was dressed as well as and in as little as Val Paxt and carried herself like a pampered family pet, hugging the master of the house with no hesitation.
"Will the padwar be staying with us, paterfamilias (father/head of household)?" asked the servant girl Arife.
"Of course, dear," said Vad Varo. "Make ready the visiting rooms on the second floor."
After a fairly luxurious dinner, which I was to learn was not common in the Varo-Dia household, the head of the family and I retired to his library-study on the first floor.
One end of the room was given over to books and artwork. On the walls were several draftsman-renderings of great ships. They appeared to me to be more streamlined than the Martian airboats I had seen. Vad Varo shrugged in the direction of the pictures.
"Trade has become very important in the past generation in this city. We are closest to the newly opened trading area of Okar, thus much of flow of goods from other cities is landed here to be repacked for transshipment to the land of the yellow men.
"The old ships, more suited to endemic warfare than to peaceful trade, weren't adequate. Some of the new designs which I have sponsored have proven more efficient."
A workbench anchored the far end of the room. A dozen swords and edged weapons were scattered about the bench, as though they were being tinkered with, filed here and weighted there for better balance.
A great bulky rifle with a revolver cylinder was mounted over the workbench.
The problem of the single-shot rifles nagged at me, because I thought I remembered that Edgar Rice Burroughs had reported repeating rifles in the hands of the tharks, and those accurate out to some hundreds of miles.
At the desert base where I first learned Martian, only Padwar Reef Tak seemed to know anything of history, and little of that. But he confirmed that he had only known of single-shot rifles to be the hands of the green warriors, and though he knew of multi-shot rifles among the wealthy Red Martians he was of the impression that they were relatively delicate items used for hunting.
Ulysses Paxton/Vad Varo was able to explain the confusion.
"When John Carter first arrived on this planet, there were a few older weapons still in use that had such capability. They were artifacts of an earlier civilization.
"I believe that in an early, oral accounting to his nephew on Earth, Carter mentioned these and Burroughs assumed they were the standard, and so wrote it into his books.
"I believe you have some military experience, Jak Flag"
I nodded in confirmation. In my years in the Soviet Army I had been a dog-faced soldier from the Warsaw Pact to Eastern Siberia.
"Then you realize that an accurate, multi-shot rifle is inconsistent with the continued use of cavalry, such as both the green men and the Red Martians continue to use unto this day.
"In the Great War in which I participated, it was obvious that cavalry could not stand up to machine gun fire. What perhaps may not be obvious to later generations is that a battalion of well-entrenched infantry, firing their multi-shot rifles accurately, can almost match the firepower of a company of machine gunners.
"The British Army in 1917 had a tactic called the 'Mad Minute' in which the bolt-action Enfields were fired as fast as they could be fired, which often fooled the Hun into thinking he was opposed by machine guns.
"With 500 soldiers trained to use multi-shot rifles I could wipe out any green man cavalry this planet has ever seen. Or Red Martian cavalry, for that matter. The fact is, the Red Martians have not pursued such technology because they were not interested. Ammunition for the old weapons became extinct and the method of manufacturing it lost. The single-shot breech loader suits the Red Martians to a T.
"I do have a three-shot rifle I use for hunting the great banth, utilizing a simple, prototype bolt action that I was able to design and which artisans here were able to render. Perhaps you would like to see it"
"I haven't seen a repeating rifle here," I said.(see sidebar)
"Ithat is, the riflesmiths of Duhor and Imarried the cylinder of the handgun with the accuracy of the rifle. It proved so heavy that the weapon must be mounted on a pivot, much like the machine guns of our planet. Still, a good marksman can get off five aimed rounds in ten seconds with that weapon."
"But I haven't seen it on a ship?"
"There is a difference of opinion between John Carter of Helium and myself about the propriety of such a weapon. He is a traditionalist, and dislikes the idea of bringing ideas from Earth to Barsoom. For now we have agreed not to put the weapon in place, although several are in the Duhor armory."
I asked Vad Varo about the institution of Martian slavery.
"Slaves actually have rights by custom in the lands of the Red Martians," Paxton explained, uneasily. "The same things that would be offenses against the person of a free Martian are offenses against a slave. A slave may not be mistreated by a master, upon pain of common law, punishable by a fine.
"Slaves may purchase themselves or arrange a plan to work toward their freedom. In any case they rarely serve for more than seven years in such a situation.
"Most slaves are war prisoners, and many are actually traded back to their original cities within a year or two.
"Arife was the dependant of a renegade yellow man, a pirate who was claimed by no city. After he was defeated and killed, she literally had no home to go to. She has been Val's servant since they were 14, and they have grown up together.
"Arife has a standing offer for her freedom, which she has always refused. I would like to marry her off to a suitable match, but Red Martians make much of racial differences"here the American blushed"and I haven't found a young man for her.
"In any case she could not have gotten married before Val, although that excuse will be gone soon," and here Vad Varo seemed to grow pensive.
"That young girl, your daughter, is to be married?"
"Her grandfather has made a match with a son of an odwar, a general, perhaps not so suitable as to one of the really great houses of another city, but the best that could be hoped for within this city.
"Val's father, after all," and here Val's father sighed, "is a commoner, for all that he came from another planet. She is a half-breed, although no one would say that to her face, and imbued with extraordinary strength for a Martian girl by her half-Earth ancestry.
"Her father is not quite high-handed enough to suit some Duhor nobles, and she herself is not subservient enough to suit those nobles' sons.
"Except for Padwar Reef, the son of the general," he finished.
"Reef? Reef Tak is to marry that flower?" I carefully did not use the English term "bozo" in connection with Reef.
"Padwar Reef comes of a good family and has much to recommend him. My wife Valla Dia thinks a great deal of his family.
"Of course Valla likes everybody," Vad Varo sighed again.
"Surely Val Paxt must find something in him that escapes me," I said. I realized it was out of place for me, a mere visitor, to speak about my host's family, but then I was the only other Jasoomian in the city, and the only one on the planet even remotely contemporary to Paxton.
"I believe they will find happiness together," Vad Varo announced, and immediately opened another topic of conversation.
There is an old Hungarian storyBela, my Hungarian fencing coach on Earth told it me, at leastthat to understand the difference in foil, epee and saber, one must burst a balloon behind the back of a fencer poised to engage.
The foilist will lunge, by reflex, the story goes.
The epeeist will remain on guard, quivering, alert.
The sabreur will turn around and attack YOU.
The use of the epee is more like a duel, in that speed counts and rules are simple. If you stab your opponent before he touches you, you win.
Foilists are practicing to be good enough to use an epee, under this logic.
And sabreurs get points for slashes that connect as well as thrusts. Saber was the last class of fencing to be electrified, in 1988 (long after I had left the salles) and so the feeling was more akin to real and traditional sword combat.
"Let's talk swords," he said.(see sidebar)
On Mars I was a sabreur reborn.
The standard long-sword of the red men was used in much the same manner as the Olympic saber, although it was longer and sturdier. Think of it as a warlike rapier, with a wider, thicker blade than the Three Musketeers used in the movie. The point is sharp and stout, the slashing edge honed to a sturdy wedge, stiff enough to survive a parrying block and still cut your opponent on the next attack. After a few hours with the springy blade I felt like a youngster again, crossing sabers with the Olympic trainees.
Carter, incidentally, gives little detail about sword-fighting on his adopted planet, giving the impression of a hack-and-slash melee better suited to men-at-arms in medieval armor than the naked warriors I found. He never mentions the use of the off-hand to parry, which was one of the first things I learned.
Some Martians favor small shields or bucklers for the non-weapon (usually left) hand; many, including high civilian duelists, prefer a long dagger or "main gauche." The Duhor military standard was a mailed gauntlet on the left hand which usually held some sort of baton, about a half-meter long. One would parry with the baton or slap with the backside of the armored glove.
As Paxton and I discussed the military connotation of such weaponry at his home, he drew a long dagger from the sword belt hanging behind him in his library.
"I get credit on this planet for inventing this," he said, drawing a double-edged blade as long as my forearm with an unmistakable pair of brass knuckles welded to the handle. "I saw some of these in the trenches in the Great War. I lengthened the blade and use it for a main gauche, a left-hand weapon, in melees. It has become the trademark of my battalion.
"Have the weapon-smiths turn out whatever you need, and charge it to the battalion," Paxton said. I had escaped the Earth and come to Mars to become a consultant, it appeared.
The next day I wandered down the Street of the Armorers until I found a stand of blades I found interesting. They were straight and from the point back about half their length was sharpened on both sides. The half nearer the hilt remained an unsharpened but substantial diamond-shape in cross-section. The sharpened half was slightly thicker, giving the blade a "sweet spot" about two-thirds along the length, unusual for a straight blade.
The swordsman could use the back half for parrying but the forward half would remain sharp enough for a drawing cut. It was the sort of cut-and-thrust sword I had been looking for.
I chose a blade of the length I had found useful at Padwar Reef's outpost, a little long for my size (and I was taller than most red Martians) but perfectly suited to the modest additional power of my Earth-strong muscles.
"Can you put a hilt on this?" I asked the armorer, who was hammering a dent from an orangey hot breastplate.
He stared at me across the blacksmith's hearth. "Perhaps I can find someone who can show me how to do it," he suggested. "It can't be all that difficult."
I blushed, having unthinkingly offered offense to a craftsman. "I'm sure anyone who can develop such original blades is an expert at all phases of sword-making," I said, trying to recover.
"I know little about it myself, having only done this work for about eighty years," the smith said.
"Look, I'm sorry. Let's start over. I'm Jak Flag, a friend of Vad Varo's. Would you make a sword for me with this wonderful blade?"
The smith smiled. "It's long for you, but you're an Earth-boy, like Varo, aren't you?"
"Jasoomian," I said.
"Yes sir. Yes, I'll be happy to. What kind of hilt would you prefer?"
We settled on an ergonomically curved handle, an old-fashioned pistol grip almost exactly those on practice sabers on Earth. Like a saber, it had a bell-shaped guard protecting the sword hand and a strap from the bell back to the pommel, protecting the knuckles.
The pommel was a diamond-shaped piece of steel that would break a skull if it landed hilt-first. The entire "handle" was to be weighted to exactly balance the weight of the blade, making the finished sword quicker in the hand.
The scabbard, of alumi-steel, would be covered with a mottled brown leather from a desert animal.
"I have never made such a weapon," said Kerf the Smith. "We will name it."
"Perhaps we will call it panthan," mused the smith, using the Martian word for free-lance warrior.
"Ronin," I counter suggested. "On Earth it is the same term, for a master-less samurai, a swordsman for hire."
"I will think about it," said Kerf, leaving the impression that as the artist he had naming privileges, rather than I, who was paying him to construct this marvelous weapon.
Two days later, at sunset, I took delivery, and the sword was all I had hoped, superbly balanced, flickering through the air like a blade of half its weight.
"Jasoom," said the smith, pointing at the star-bright planet Earth hanging just above the horizon. It flickered through the multiple densities of the Martian atmosphere. "At this season Jasoom is called 'the dancing star.' The sword should be named Star-dancer, after your home planet."
And so it was.
The house was in turmoil.
Valla Dia was in labor, sometimes a dangerous time for Martians, who had a high number of miscarriages, a fact which held down their birthrate.
Vad Varo was an unsheathed nerve, full of concern about his beautiful wife, who was straining against unaccustomed pain on the top floor of the house.
Padwar Reef had shown up unexpectedly, having taken leave of his desert posting to be available in case his future mother-in-law should require one of his undisclosed talents in order to deliver Vad Varo's second child.
Neither Vad nor his daughter Val seemed particularly happy to see Reef. The slave girl Arife was positively frozen toward the lieutenant, fearing for her future in a household in which he was the paterfamilias.
Vad soon excused himself. Val Paxt was fidgeting in the courtyard garden enclosed between the house and the city wall, attended by Arife and waited upon by Reef and myselfafter all, I knew them all and as a new Padwar in Vad's picked Regulars I was the social equal of Reef, at least in uniform. Actually he was a lieutenant of the first rank, I of the second rank, but seniority among lieutenants is theoretical at best. Reef knew I had years of combat experience on Earth.
Still I found it uncomfortable to deal with the stilted Red Martian social conventions, in which the betrothed spoke to each other in such formal terms and the companion girl Arife was treated as a social inferior. I soon arranged myself beside a rather Zen rock garden near the door into the house. The other three were at the far side of the garden, under a tree which grew too near the city wall for my military approval but which was quite lovely. They were just out of earshot.
The two lovers were having a rather languid conversation, and Val seemed distractedher mother, after all, was delivering a little brother or sisteruntil Reef made some offhand comment, apparently (by his demeanor) in a joking manner.
Arife stiffened but did not look up. Val's shoulders braced and she swiveled her face toward Reef, fire in her eyes.
On guard, I thought. She snapped several short sentences to her intended, which he answered with short and possibly incomplete sentences. He grew more animated and drew himself up in a defensive posture.
Parry, parry, I thought. Reef made a strong declarative statement (it is easy to read Red Martian body language, rather like watching Shakespearian actors on the stage).
Counter-thrust, I thought.
Val literally took a step backwards, spun on her heel and marched toward the door by which I was standing. Arife scurried after her.
"Padwar Flag, would you escort me to my quarters?" the frosty princess asked. Since I knew the girl was perfectly capable of going anywhere in the city unescorted, she obviously did not need my arm to find her own suite in her own house. It was a barely-contained insult to Reef. I could not help thinking that I was glad that neither of we two men were armed. Reef, after all, was arguably my equal with a sword.
"With great humility, mythat is, Princess Val Paxt." Only Reef had the right to call Val Paxt 'my princess,' an intimate term for 'lover and soul-mate' in Martian culture. The bride would call her intended husband 'my chieftain.' I had been about to say 'my lady,' as though I were a character in some Elizabethan bodice-ripper, but had realized I did not know the implications of that term. There are some advantages of growing up in a system where everyone is 'comrade.'
And as I watched Val's heaving breasts under her suspender-plus-bikini harness, I realized she probably didn't own a bodice.
Val and Arife disappeared into their suite on the second floor. Arife slammed the door for her.
I returned to the main floor, where an abandoned Padwar Reef was gathering his weapons by the front door and about to take his leave. "Good morrow, Flag," he said to me, distantly (Martians have 20 different ways to say goodbye, depending on the hour of the day). As he swept by the enlisted guard outside the front door, a Regular who uncharacteristically failed to salute, I heard Reef mutter, "Damn all yellow-skins!"
I was sitting on a balcony off my second floor quarters. Quite by chance I could see the matching balcony of the two girls' quarters across the open courtyard. Luckily there was nothing of any prurient interest being displayed, because Vad Varo, the father of the household, walked through my quarters and joined me on the balcony.
"Hope you don't mind," said the transplanted Jasoomian. "A birth is so terrifying on Mars, I just wanted to sit withwell, you know."
I did know. Earth was a long way off but we two shared that home-place. We sat in companionable silence for a while.
In the garden below us, two servants marched stiffly across from the kitchen door to the main back entrance. One was a yellow man, the other red. Both, I assumed from their dress, were slaves.
Vad Varo leaned forward. "Dispute in the slave quarters," he sighed.
"Time to be paterfamilias?" I asked, wondering if he would leave or if I should.
"Oh no," he said. "Watch."
The two slaves fidgeted at the entrance until one gave way and the other preceded him through the door. Perhaps two minutes later a curtain lifted on the opposite balcony and Arife glided out. The yellow girl took a seat with her back to the courtyard. The two disputants came through the curtains and stood before her. They spoke quietly, and we heard only a subdued buzz.
The yellow man was unhappy with something that the red man had done, or said, or imputed. His body language was that of a person insulted, his stiffness somehow warding off further disrespect.
The red man, his shoulders and tight movements of his arms proclaimed, had been goaded past any holding back. Surely the lady could understand that he was the aggrieved party and was thoroughly in the right.
Arife's body wilted as she listened to the claims and counterclaims. When they ceased, she bowed her head a while longer, then rose and went inside the room. She re-emerged with a teapot and a handful of cups. Carefully, almost ceremonially, she set a cup before each man. Then she knelt, the picture of a humble servant, and holding the pot's handle with both hands carefully poured the precious tea into each cup.
The humble clay of the cups seemed enriched by the formality of her service.
Subdued, the men waited, and then reached for the cups. The red man reached first, and then paused, and the yellow man reached out and they took up their cups at the same time. Each man carefully, formally, used both hands to pick up the precious cups.
Arife sipped from her own cup and asked the red man a question, getting a two-word answer. She looked at the yellow man and got the same short response.
She framed a longer question, and the red man began to answer.
It was fascinating. The yellow man interrupted, the red man frowned, and then the yellow man seemed to apologize but continued to talk. The red fellow listened intently and then nodded agreement, and both turned to Arife and spoke almost together, trying to make some joint point that they both agreed upon.
The girl reached out a hand to the red man. He paused as she touched him. She was looking at the yellow slave, who dipped his head and made the universal Martian symbol of apology. But the red man so quickly followed with the same gesture that for a moment I was unsure who was first.
The slave girl stood, a mere sylph but somehow like a mighty judge or a queen. Her hands were unequivocally on both men's heads. They bowed like supplicants, receiving the justice they had petitioned for.
The men stood and clasped wrists in the symbol of friendship, thanked the girl profusely and backed off the balcony into the adjacent room, as though she were some sort of priestess. She turned and stared down into the garden. Her face seemed entirely serene.
Vad Varo very quietly broke the silence.
"It began when she reached puberty," said the paterfamilias. "First the yellow slaveswe had more here thenwould bring their little disputes to the girl, and she would admonish them to be better friends, and it seemed to salve their feelings.
"And then if a red slave and a yellow slave had an argument, they would bring it to Arife and she would rule in absolute fairness. It was her gift. Finally if two red servants fell into a dispute, it was taken to the yellow princess to resolve. And always she seems to make them feel as though the world is bigger and more important than their little argument, bigger than her opinion of it. They seem to go away refreshed, reinforced, trying to understand each other as she tries to understand them."
Vad Varo sighed. "If she were red I would marry her off to a jeddak, and she would rule more mercifully than any queen of history. But here she is the queen of the backstairs, the powerless princess whose glance or touch mends hurt feelings and damaged pride."
I realized that Vad Varo had two daughters, only one of which was of his flesh.
The baby was delivered at sundown, a healthy boy whose mother was tired by the ordeal but seemed strong and in good spirits. She held her new son as though he was something she had awaited for 100 years (which given Martian longevity, perhaps she had).
I didn't go onto the third floor, leaving the family and their trusted retainers to attend to the mother. Arife eventually came back down to the first floor kitchen, where I was drinking a mug of strong Martian tea. She sat beside me and poured herself a cup of tea. The kitchen was the servants' lounge. I was out of place but as an alien being I was given great leeway.
"You know Padwar Reef Tak well?" she finally asked, dispensing with the "sir" she would have used in the family rooms.
"His Scouts unit rescued me from the desert. He taught me Martian fencing."
"Was he good to the people under him? Is he at all a kind man?"
"I could not say, as I do not fully understand the customs of your peopleof the Red Martians, that is. His men seemed to respect him. He took his share of the patrol work, which he could have avoided. He stayed at his station when other officers took leave.
"By the standards of my people, of Earth, I would say he is a fair man and a good junior officer. I have not seen him in combat."
"You Earthers gauge people by their actions, not their birth. I have noticed the same about Vad Varo."
"That's 'Jasoomian,' and that's not universally true. But Vad and I do value people for themselves, not for who they may be connected with. That is true."
"I think Reef intends to place me with another household after he marries my mistress," Arife said, staring at the gray kitchen wall.
"Sell you as property?"
"Not so heavy-handed as that. I would undoubtedly end up on one of his father's farms, mucking out stalls or feeding livestock, or be apprenticed out to some seamstress in another city.
"Reef told my mistress he would only have Red Martians in his household when he has his own doorplate."
"Ah. You are dismissed but it is nothing personal. I see."
"Are persons of different races treated so shamefully in your own world?" And then she realized how presumptuous the question was and set her teacup down, posing both hands in front of her mouth in the Martian custom of apologizing for hasty words.
"I fear people are much the same on my world. It is a great fault of entire" I searched for the word "cultures" and couldn't find it.
"What an entire people agrees to believe is not the same as what individuals would do, in a perfect world, perhaps," I finished lamely.
"Reef will come between Her Brightness and me. That is true," Arife concluded. I stared into my mug and kept silent.
The wedding day was set for a spring day a fortnight hence. I was invited. The unmarried girls of the household, mostly servants but led by Valla Dia's maiden great-aunt, Aunt Shee, were practicing the traditional songs of blessing and well-being performed at all Martian weddings.
I was sitting in a workshop off the garden, attired in a sort of canvas jockstrap and a rough tee-shirt/tunic, polishing my military dress harness like any member of the working class. A groom ran past me and entered the main house through the workshop entrance. I heard him reporting to the head of the servants, the "butler," I suppose.
"Gone, chamber-master," the groom said. "Her Brightness's riding thoat and the little mare favored by the yellowskin, along with their saddles and several saddlebags. The supply room has been rifled, but I am not sure what else is missing."
"Check the feed bags and wineskins. They have taken flight to the wilderness," the butler said.
I heard a woman's voice, Aunt Shee. "Their rough-country gear, sleeping silks, a fur throw each. Val took a short-sword, although her father hasn't missed it from the library yet. Arife carried off several duffels of Northern cut, apparently containing her own gear." The yellow Martians are from the north polar regions of Mars.
I went to change to my leather duty harness, with mail shoulder pads and protection over my heart and other vulnerable areas. I had a new pair of boots that protected my legs as high as my shins.
My duty duffel had several kilograms of new weaponry, mostly forged by Kerf, the weapon-smith. I slung it over my shoulder.
I had inherited the long-rifle of the slain Warhoon, my right since my rescuers were still under the impression that I had somehow killed him. An armorer had bobbed the barrel and refitted the stock to human scale. It was still long. I looked the very image of a musketeer of the 100 Years War, or perhaps a Long Hunter of the early Americas, carrying his Kentucky rifle through the woods. The rifle was in a saddle scabbard.
Perhaps five minutes later I heard the call for the household to assemble in the garden. Vad Varo stood at the back door, trying to hide his fear under a mask of anger.
"My daughter and her companion are missing. We do not know if they are larking about or if they have been taken, kidnapped.
"Valla Dia and the household staff will talk to the City Watch. I would ask all of you to comb Duhor in case the two of them are still here.
"Flag, you and I will go with the Regulars and search the nearby desert on the theory that they havebeen abducted."
"My duty to you, Vad Varo," I replied. It was the equivalent of "Aye Aye," I hear and obey.
Battalion headquarters was flooded with half-pay officers as well as the usual enlisted staff.
I was a Padwar, theoretically an officer to lead a group of 20 to 50 men. A Dwar, or "captain," commanded a utan of 100 men. Ten utans made up 1,000 men, commanded by a Teedwar, which I thought of as a colonel.
In between were partial utans, which I have characterized as "battalions" but which each had separate names, like the "Duhor Regulars" and the "Desert Scouts."
The Regulars numbered between 400 and 500, depending on what day they mustered, and Vad Varo held the rank of "ober-dwar," or senior captain, commanding the unit. I would have called him a major.
The place swarmed with dwars I had never seen before and padwars, many of whom I had instructed in saber-work. I decided that at full muster the battalion was badly over-officered.
Vad had mobilized the battalion's 20 airships and drafted 15 one-man fliers from the city armory, and borrowed another dozen fliers from citizens. Each supernumerary Padwar and dwar was given a one-man ship, a map and a sector of the desert to criss-cross in the far-flung search.
Personnel carriers were mostly turned over to squads, each headed by an officer. Half the battalion stayed at base, to organize the day-to-day business of the unit, maintain logistical support for the fully mobilized unit, and provide "second shifts" to relieve those in the field in the next day or so.
After reviewing the medical unit, which was to stay at base but could be deployed at a moment's notice, I approached the dwar who was Vad Varo's chief of staff.
"I am not in charge of any particular unit and have no duties except to teach," I told the dwar. "I am not a pilot. With permission, I will take a riding thoat and try to follow the two girls on the ground." In Afghanistan I had spent time with Spetznaz, Soviet special forces, and had learned some tracking skills in that rocky, dusty hellhole.
The dwar casually waved permission at me and turned back to the charting table on which he was laying out a search grid for the fliers, the real backbone of the search.
I carefully signed out with the senior sergeant and told him where I expected to be. The sergeant noted the days and times and said he would check my progress with the fliers detailed to search those quadrants. I told him where my search area would be.
I gave the sergeant much more detail than I had the dwar; for one thing, he seemed interested. Finally the sergeant set down his pencil and spoke directly to me.
"Of course the Padwar has much experience traversing the desert?"
"I was out overnight once," I said.
"Perhaps the Padwar would not object if I sent aa crewman?" I wondered to myself what the Martian term for babysitter might be.
"Not at all, Senior Sergeant."
"BIG GLYF! Front and center."
"Yes, Senior Sergeant," intoned a deep voice from behind me. I looked around and found a Red Martian at least a head taller than me, adorned in the modest harness of a than. His sword was a great curved scimitar of a blade, not the straight rapier-type favored by the upper class.
"Big Glyf, draw 10 days equipment and supplies for yourself and Padwar Flag. Go to the corrals and take four riding thoats, the big war-captures from the Warhoons, not the little ones for the officers.
"Go with the Padwar to the desert. You are under his command from now."
"My duty, sergeant," drawled Big Glyf. The sergeant looked at the big trooper and did not answer. In exactly the same intonation the big soldier repeated, "My duty to you, Padwar."
Thoats are strange creatures, even by Martian standards. The green men of Mars, ride a large version; the Red Men ride a breed which is smaller and more agile and frankly does not require as much forage time on a long march.
They glide across the moss-covered deserts on paws, rather than hooves, and make little noise. Their "gallop" is a ripple, like watching a skunk or other small Earth mammal flowing over the ground.
Because they run on soft paws they really cannot carry the massive load that you would expect of an Earth horse or mule of that size. Big Glyf and I loaded the concentrated rations, extra weapons and camping supplies on the two "spare" thoats and rode out the main gates on the two larger. Glyf hammered his on the forehead with his mail glove to get its attention. I looked sharply at mine, who appeared to think over his (or her) options and decided not to bite me.
Despite my claim to the dwar that I intended to track the two runaways, we galloped along a dry watercourse without looking for any miniscule marks the fugitives might have left. A few spectators watched from the city walls. If Val and Arife had left just before the gates were closed at sundown the day before, they would not have been visible in the dark, going this way.
Big Glyf was silent, content to follow and wait for orders. Shortly after mid-day, we reined in where the dry channel met another channel at right angles, surely an irrigation connection in ancient times. Within an hour, a clumsy low-flier, a cargo carrier, cruised down the new channel and hovered to one side, finally sinking to the ochre moss.
"Sergeant said to pick you up here and take you and the beasties to a certain point on the map," said the pilot, a civilian employee of the battalion. I wondered that an officer was not in command, then realized the vehicle was a large garbage scow.
Only an hour later we had threaded through a low pass and were on the eastern side of the Frozen Mountains. We off-loaded the thoats and our gear at the very point where I landed on Mars, months before. The bones of the green man were still strewn about, where he had been left uncovered for wild calots to find.
I turned and sighted in the opposite direction, trying to find the line on the ground where I had once seen a neutral colored flier with a purple insignia slipping along.
"There," I told Big Glyf, "that old rift in the ground. We follow that line, that way."
"Ancient irrigation ditch," hazarded Big Glyf. "Very old. Once upon a time it went somewhere."
"Perhaps it will lead us to a yellow man," I said. "Perhaps it will lead us to two yellow persons."
An hour before sundown Glyf turned his mount off toward a wide expanse of red moss, which even to my eyes looked richer than what we had seen all day.
"Padwar, we should let the beasts graze and make camp," he said. "I will reconstitute the rations." And dinner was no better than that, a thin stew of reconstituted rations heated over a smoldering fire of dried thoat dung. I wondered how much trouble it would be to invent American style Meals-Ready-to-Eat.
"Excellent," I said of the meal. Big Glyf looked unconvinced.
"Tomorrow we will reach those foothills to the north," the soldier said. "We will look for wild berries and tubers in the better soil. Mayhap we will kill a small game animal."
We watched the raised hillsides before us as dark fell, but we could see no hint of habitation, no light, no fire. I had told Glyf about seeing the yellow man and his stolen flier.
"Probably he has since gone north to his homeland," Glyf offered.
"I believe he has made some recent depredations on a herd of zitidars in the general neighborhood," I said, neighborhood being defined as a circle with a radius equal to a day's travel in a fast flier. "Such was the intelligence available to those searching for him last week. I spoke to the troopers of Padwar Reef's base.
"They believe the yellow outlaw remains near Duhor because he wishes to retrieve something from the city. I didn't know what that might be until I saw Arife."
"Ah," said Glyf, and used a soldier's vulgar expression which indicated that the subjects of our discussion might be well and truly in love.
"Or perhaps he is smitten with her, but not her with him," I suggested. "Arife could have left the city at any time and fled to him."
The next day we rose at daybreak, drank copious amounts of tea and gathered our mounts. Duhor was a very northerly city, but situated over a thermal fault. As we had trended north, the chill had become noticeable.
"Ahhave we cloaks, Glyf?"
"Actually, sir, something better. Over-the-top duds," he said in fractured English. From a khaki-colored duffel he drew two sets of clothes.
Accustomed to seeing Red Martians in harnesses or in flying leathers, I was a little taken aback at the Victorian-era commando outfit that emerged. A woven sweater with a turtleneck covered the body down to the crotch, maintaining body warmth. Closely tailored pants of some canvas-like material covered the legs down to below the knees, where the cuffs buttoned close to the calf and ankle to allow boots to be worn over the layer of cloth. The whole outfit was a dark green, not quite olive green. Accentsbuttons and collar linings and suchwere black.
The war-harness with its minimal armor, attached weapons and several pouch-pockets was strapped on over the clothing.
"Ober-dwar Vad Varo designed these for our battalion to use on maneuvers. They are never worn in the city. They areworking uniforms," said Big Glyf.
We plodded back onto our ancient trail, tending again to the north.
About noon the ears of my thoat laid back along his head. I reached forward and rubbed gently along the top of his skull, a familiarity the great beast was becoming used to.
A two-man flier glided down toward us from ahead, one of the Regulars scout models. The junior padwar and crewman who manned it stopped and settled down with us, sharing the fresh hot tea produced aboard the comfortable little craft.
The senior sergeant had told the pilot to watch for Glyf and me in this area.
"Last night we hovered, lightless, above yonder peak," said Padwar Thimkey, a likely lad who had taken well to my fencing instruction. "About there" he showed us on a rudimentary map "there were lights about the middle of the night, as though a large door opened and closed. A hangar? A shed? We cruised over it in daylight but saw nothing.
"We will return tomorrow near sunset," said Thimkey. "Perhaps you might like to cover those hillsides on the ground, searching for something we may have missed."
By daybreak the next morning we were settled in a hide near where the airship had hovered. The thoats grazed the reverse slope. I had a spotting telescope trained in the direction in which the airship crew had seen a light. Big Glyf was using binoculars, which were apparently a recent innovation from the city of Helium. John Carter again, I thought.
By mid-afternoon we were trading off with the binoculars. I was napping when Big Glyf muttered, "Padwar. Target." I rolled to the tripod-mounted telescope and followed his directions.
There, creeping along only head-high over the bottom of the ancient valley, was a beige-colored seed pod with a purple splotch on its nose. My mind snapped it into perspective; it was at least three kilometers across the valley. I could not make out human forms on the weather decks. "Target," I agreed.
We tracked the airboat as it skimmed the moss for several kilometers. Finally it slowed. A wooded hillside before it seemed to waver, then disappear. The boat slipped into a previously unseen bare spot in the woods, and then the shimmer of woods was back in place.
"Mark it, Glyf," I said without raising my eye from the scope. I carefully opened up the field of view, triangulating on as many features as I could in order to fix the spot in my memory. I left a stick pointing directly at the unseen opening, hoping that would help.
That evening, camped on the reverse slope out of sight of our target, we spread marker panels. Our flier friends found us at last light and settled down.
I started to tell the pilot what we had found.
"Later," he said. "We were followed."
A large flier with the colors of the Desert Scouts settled down behind our comrades' airship. It appeared to be a converted cargo carrier. On the bow was one of the large, pivot-mounted revolving rifles that I had seen on the wall in Vad Varo's study.
Hmmm, I thought, Vad has deployed the modern weapons in the hunt for his daughter. How will John Carter react to that?
Out came Reef Tak, strapping on a new sword with a fancy jeweled hilt. He was wearing flying leathers against the chill.
"What news, Padwar?" Reef addressed me preemptively. Surprised he hadn't called me "Flag" or "Earth-boy," I looked at his insignia of rank. He had been brevetted to dwar, captain of a hundred.
"We know little more, Dwar Reef Tak," I answered. "We search slowly, hoping to find something not obvious from the air. And your group is here because…?"
"You are in our assigned desert area. We have been combing it ourselves, in aircraft and aground. It is not clear what the Regulars are doing this far north?"
"Probably on a …" I searched for a term meaning 'wild goose chase' and came up empty. "We follow trails which now grow less and less likely," I dissembled.
"We will likely be moving back out of your area tomorrow," I said, "having been contacted by our main base." I looked to young pilot Thimkey, who assumed a serious mien, as though he had just delivered the most important news of the decade.
"Flag," he said, slipping back into one-on-one without using his new rank, "I will find Val Paxt and that yellow-skin bitch who abducted her. This is none of your concern. Do not oppose me on this, Earth-boy."
"That's 'Jasoomian,' Dwar Reef Tak. And I will do my duty as a Regular."
"You're a fencing instructor, Flag, barely a Regular and not a citizen of Duhor. So do not cross swords with me. Val Paxt will never be yours."
Reef stalked off, followed by his leather-clad Scouts. The pilot-padwar cleared his throat. "Well, we'll be on our way also," he said, and he and his crewman ambled back toward the two-man flier.
Big Glyf pursed his lips. "The mating customs of different social groups are endlessly fascinating," he said innocently.
I frowned, and Big Glyf did not pursue the subject.
Thuria, the mad moon, sank below the horizon an hour later, leaving a foreseeable stretch of zodes before the landscape would be lit again by the further moon. I tied rags around our weapons and accouterments so they would not jingle in the dark and give away our positions. I wished for duct tape; I could as well have wished for night-vision goggles.
"We will not charge across the valley waving our swords like young dandies," I said as I slipped on my plain brown harness. The metal parts were blackened with soot, as was my face.
"We will sneak across in the dark. We will find what we are looking for and with luck never have to land a blow. I would like to complete this mission while gaining no honor whatsoever, and no new scars," I said.
"Excellent, padwar," said Big Glyf. We hung our swords over our shoulders, out of the way. We slipped over the crest of the hill and began a walking advance across the valley. An hour later, still in darkness and about 400 meters from where we thought the secret entrance lay, we went to hands and knees.
As the major moon of Mars finally rose above the eastern horizon, we found our shimmering curtain. It was actually a real fabric, thin as a moth's wing, hanging from some swiveled support arms 20 meters above the ground. In the moonlight it seemed black. I assumed that in daylight it took on the appearance of the greenish-brown forest on either side.
We burrowed under the curtain, watching for trip wires. Behind the camouflage tapestry we saw small lights, near to the ground, leading back to an obvious hangar structure made of wood. Limbs of trees overhung the structure. From the air, with the lights off, none of it would stand out. But it seemed quite elaborate. I wondered how long it would take one runaway to build such a base.
From the front door of the hangar a human figure emerged, allowing me to range the hangar at about 150 meters. It was a male, carrying a straight sword and a glowing electrical torch. I wished I had brought the thark's firearm with meit was back at the campbut I consoled myself that I still didn't know if I should shoot the yellow man.
Glyf reached forward and tapped me on the ankle, then pointeda gesture which occupied only a few centimeters of motiontoward the tree line to our left. We low-crawled into the forest and worked our way along its outer edge until we were within spitting distance of the hangar.
"I will go to the doors and peek inside," I whispered to Glyf. "You come running ifif " I tried to think of a signal. Glyf handed me a hand-carved whistle of bone, on a lanyard.
"Yes, if I whistle."
"Twice. If you need me, whistle twice," said the veteran soldier. "One sound alone might be mistaken for a bird. But I would be concentrating to hear the second sound, and so would not mistake it."
I started to crawl forward. Glyf's massive hand stopped me. He pulled a similar bone whistle from his collar. "If I whistle twice, go to ground. Something will be coming," he said. I nodded.
The front hangar door was open and vaguely backlit. I crawled instead to a lit window along the side, which turned out to be in a man-sized door. Carefully I peered through a lower corner of the window.
Inside the two women sat at a table. Behind them loomed the beige flier with the eight-pointed purple compass rose, large inside the shed. The women were drinking tea from sturdy mugs.
I concentrated on the susurration of their voices.
"Mutter mutter mutter back search mutter my mount."
"No mutter mutter only if mutter both of us."
"Mutter mutter escape mutter."
Escape. Overall, my impression was that they were there voluntarily. Still, I had nothing left to do except make contact. I took a deep breath and stood tall, reached for the latchstring and lifted the bar on the other side, stepping inside in view of the two.
"By my first ancestor …" exclaimed Her Brightness, erupting from the table.
"Sword of an unbeliever!" cried Arife, suiting action to words and coming up with a gleaming short sword which looked completely at home in her hand.
"What assassin is this?" prompted Val Paxt, daughter of my friend. I remembered my face was camouflaged with soot. "Tell me whom I am about to slay!" The half-Jasoomian girl reached past the teapot and swung in my direction a pepper-pot pistol with four barrels. It looked like two small double-barreled shotguns, two barrels up and two down. They were a pattern of four dark holes behind which Her Brightness's grey eyes focused on my face.
"Oh crap!" I said. "I am your friend, Jak Flag! Don't shoot!"
"An assassin who knows the name of my father's friend! A clever corpse to be sure," said Val, taking aim over the top two barrels.
"Wait, Val, it is him. I recognize the accent," said Arife.
"Even so, he has come to take us back to the city. He must die," Val argued.
"He will die one day, but perhaps not today, my mistress. Drop the sword, Earther, and come forward slowly."
I took a breath, thus resuming a goodly habit that I had heretofore taken for granted. Oxygen, intact skin, not leaking any blood or gutsI counted my blessings, as the Americans would say, and did not even correct the yellow girl on the slight planetary slur.
"Let's not jump to conclusions," I tried to say, and then realized that in translation it came out 'Not to finish in mid-air.'
"Let us not judge in haste," I amended. I unbuckled the strap supporting the sword Star Dancer and let it slip gently to the floor.
From behind me I heard the clear, dulcet tones of a bone whistle. Two faint, singing notes. Behind me the door opened.
"A Red Man in disguise, never good news. Shoot him, Val Paxt, and have done with it."
At the new voice, I froze. I felt an obscure itch between my shoulder blades. It seemed best to address the threat behind me, assuming it was the yellow warrior I had met once before.
"If you are the pilot of this craft, you saved me once. Perhaps there was a reason for that," I suggested. The word for "reason" was more like "fate/decider" or "karma."
"You are the Earth-boy the women have told me of?"
"That's 'Jasoomian,' and yes I am, the one you left in the desert with a thoat and a wineskin of water."
"You are Vad Varo's creature, come to take back his daughter and my sister," said the yellow man behind me. One mystery solved, I thought.
"I am here to see that no one is hurt. I did not tell the Scouts where I thought you were, brother of Arife…" I paused to let him identify himself. No response.
"You rescued me from the Warhoon warrior, and I owe you my life. If you have offended against Duhor, I would have to take up arms against youtry to capture youbut I have seen no evidence that you have done anything but try to escape, which is the duty of every prisoner of war."
"Soft words do not explain your presence here, armed and in stealth," pronounced Val Paxt from behind the un-winking four eyes of the pistol. Who teaches Martians to speak in such a manner, I wondered, then shook my head to clear my mind.
"If Her Brightness wishes to leave the city of her own volition, IJak Flag, the personhave no reason to stop her," I said. "And I have no objection to a slave escaping to freedom. In my world slavery is outlawed, a crime against all humanity." In Martian it came out, "against all bipeds of any color," but I thought that was close enough.
I had my hands up level with my head to show they were empty. "I'm going to turn around now," I said. I slowly rotated. The bearded yellow warrior stood just inside the open access door, carrying a Red Martian's short sword in his left hand and a mace-like club with a metal handle in his right.
"If you're waiting for the hairless ape outside to appear behind me and rescue you, you will be disappointed," said the yellow warrior. "He's taking a nap," and he raised the mace significantly. With his left hand, without looking, he spun the short sword and dropped it neatly into its sheath. I would have stabbed myself trying it. Yellow warrior reached down to his belt with his left hand and lifted the bone whistle, which hung there by its lanyard.
"You didn't kill him?"
"No, and if you give me a choice, I will not kill you, if only because I may need you. Arife, search him for weapons and put them on the table. I require your parole for the next hour, Jasoomian, and then you may choose to stay or to help my sister and me."
"And I give parole for myself and my soldier to whom?"
"Perhaps I do not need both of you?"
"Find another point of negotiation. My man and I will share the same fate. I will not leave him."
"Put your weapons on the table. Get a mug of tea. We will talk."
Arondithe name of the warrior who was brother to Arife, and who was the escaped prisoner of war from Duhorwanted to get his sister back to their country of Okar at the north pole of the red planet. Neither had a real place to go there, but anything seemed preferable to incarceration and servitude in the city of Duhor.
"Jasoomian, we would travel from here across the great desert, far into the north. From here forward we would need warmer clothes, and soon furs of orluk.
"The little skyboat will carry only one, and it travels slower and lower each day. I do not have the knowledge to fix it, and it may be simply low on motive power/fuel. I don't have any supply of whatever power it uses."
"People never send batteries with the toys," I said.
"Never mind. You and your sister would go north?"
"For a thousand haads we would be subject to capture by the green tharks of Warhoon. Two traveling alone would one night be captured in their sleep. If you had a flier that would take three in safety, I would gladly rob you of it."
"Her Brightness wishes to see Arife safely home. She refuses to abandon her comrade, as it were. You didn't answer my question about a flier."
"You didn't ask a question. We arrived here by thoat, not flier. We have four beasts nearby.
"Not necessarily a bad answer. I have two small thoats here that the girls came on. And two large ones, along with two allies who stumbled into the clearing to escape the Warhoon hordes."
"Green tharks of the South. Green men routinely kill those of other tribes and the Warhoons were tracking these two. The two from the South are at some modest obligation to me for disposing of their pursuers."
Arondi furrowed his brow.
"Seven travelers, with five trained warriors, might be a small enough group to slip through the desert and big enough to fight off Warhoons, given the right weapons… rifles, revolvers. At least they would be a hard tuber to swallow for the barbarians. Eight thoats would be enough for transportation, did the warriors occasionally walk.
"A Warhoon patrol sighting any sign would assume, from the thoats, that it was other green men. The Red Men rarely patrol on the ground, and never this far north."
"You would use me and my man as guards/warriors for the trip, then. You do not fear that we would turn traitor and recapture you?"
"I need your help to go to the edge of the territory of Illall, a city where we can disappear and be hidden by friends. At that time you and your man, and presumably the Duhor princess, would be free to return. You would return with Val Paxt, the person you set out to save. A fugitive in the desert would have disappeared, but there would be no connection to you. The princess' slave would have disappeared. A great mystery.
"When all that comes true, what would be the disadvantage to you or your city? In the meantime, you are simply protecting Val Paxt, who as you see is traveling with us by her own will.
"Consider your options, Jasoomian. If I free you and your man, you must make your way back to your support base. Meanwhile I leave with the two women and strike out across the desert. If we fugitives survive the trip, you can try to 'rescue' the women from me and perhaps they would be killed or harmed. I believe your duty is to help Arife and the princess travel to my ancestral country."
"Arondi, in your home city, are you a warrior or a politician?"
"I believe I am officially a person in exile, not welcome within the city bounds. Arife has no such limitation."
"I will talk to my man Glyf about this."
"He is located about where you left him. Show this amulet to the thark sitting on him and say Arondi said to let him up."
Glyf and I agreed that the offer was insulting and would lead to no honor for ourselves. Our duty clearly was to refuse and go down fighting against the yellow man and his two tharks. Her Brightness might die as a side effect, but our honor would be assuaged.
"So we're agreed? We go along with Arondi and deliver Arife home?" I asked Glyf.
"Excellent, my Padwar," said Glyf. "And if an officer later accuses us of doing something dishonorable, we will lie to cover each other."
"You must tell me more of the customs of the enlisted class, Glyf."
"There are things you don't want to know, Padwar. But today your back is safe."
We started the next day, strung out on eight thoats and muffled in such a manner to disguise our race.
The two southern Tharks who accompanied us were both named "O-Mad" something-or-other, a low-ranking title. One had lost a lower arm and so I called him "Trey," for the three arms he had left. The other, by extension, became "Quad."
Trey led the column and Quad brought up the rear, so that a Warhoon patrol coming at us from before or behind would initially assume we were a party of green men.
The two women were mounted on the smaller, Red Martian breed of thoats. Disguised and at a distance, those mounted proportions were about right for green warriors on large thoats.
All the humans were wrapped in long, orluk-skin parkas with four arms, the bottom two being stuffed and tied down at waist or across our stomachs. At need we could release the extra arms to wave about and disguise our outline. Each of us wore a tall green headdress, which again at a distance might be mistaken for the head of a thark.
Arondi, Big Glyf and I were unmistakably of human proportion when contrasted against our large thoats, so the drill was that if observed, we human males were to walk some distance away from our mounts so as to make the comparison more difficult.
Granted the remoteness of the route, it was not an unlikely scheme. With luck we would never be seen.
We traveled a natural path with the Frozen Mountains on our left (to the west) and the dead sea bottom to our right (the east). Our mounts, including the extra pack-thoat, carried weapons, gear and food. We could cover about 50 miles a day, 125 haads, although to do so we had to feed the thoats concentrated grain rations.
Arondi was a driver. Once an hour we dismounted to spell the thoats, and usually we walked forward during the break, leading the animals. At noon we rested an hour. After the first day I typically walked throughout the morning, riding only in the afternoon. My natural endurance was increased by the lesser Martian gravitywhere at home I could easily hike 20 miles a day on maneuvers, here I could make 30 miles on foot before seeking the saddle.
On the third day during our noon break, Quad pointed to the eastern horizon. A Warhoon sat his great thoat on a hillock, looking in our direction. I could pick him out with binoculars. At that distance we would have appeared to him to be green menwe hoped. The Warhoon did not approach us.
That night Arondi and I sat alongside a fire of dried thoat dungthere were centuries worth of the stuff on the sea bottomsand nursed mugs of strong tea.
"You are brother and sister from Illall," I said, naming the city to which we traveled."
"Actually we have never lived in the land of Okar. Our father was a great warrior of Kadabra, the son of the jeddak, Salensus Oll. During his young manhood the throne was ripped from our grandfather by a coalition of Red Men and a rebel prince, Talu from Marentina.
"Our father, Tarn Oll, fled from the resulting persecution and for a while lived with the outlaws of these mountains." Arondi indicated the Frozen Mountains to our west.
"My sister and I were born there, afterthoughts of a previous dynasty. Our father never attempted to go back to Kadabra. He at first urged us to make a life for ourselves in the greater realm of the Red Martians.
"But the Red Martians pursued my family and their followers even into the snow-covered mountains and bombed our poor villages. My father by warrior's guile and manly violence seized a great ship of the Red Martians and went aloft to punish certain cities for their persecution of his people."
"Freedom fighter," I murmured. "Mujahideen."
"Never mind. If we contacted these mountain brigands of your own race, would they be helpful or harmful to us? Could their friendship be perhapshired?"
"They do what seems best to themselves. Probably our best hope, if they captured us, would be ransom by your city Duhor or your friend, Vad Varo."
On the fourth day, at mid-morning, Arondi swiveled nervously from his saddle and aimed his long rifle to the east. The sun winked off three airships, slipping along at great speed on a northerly course. Big Glyf swung the binoculars up.
"Duhor Scouts," he judged. "Two two-man ships and one larger."
We did not see the skyboats again, but Arondi kept us even closer to the flanks of the mountains in case we needed to disappear into a draw or ravine.
At noon the fifth day, with an easterly breeze blowing grit across our faces, Arondi led us back between two lines of ridge rock that extended out into the floor of the desert. I believe geologists call it a "re-entrant"; I would have called it a "cove."
Arondi chewed his hot rations, some sort of mystery meat made barely palatable by the heating process over a fire of dried thoat dung. He stared out to the desolate east.
"Scouts, Warhoons, bandits. I've gone months in the desert without seeing so many enemies stirring about."
"Bandits?" I asked.
"The yellow tribes of the mountains. Yesterday I saw the glint of long glasses, telescopes, upon us. They shadow us on our trip."
We were mulling over the possibilities and dangers when the attack began, with a rattle of rifle shots from the tip of the low ridge that was supposed to be sheltering us. Explosive bullets exploded all around us. We were cut off at the mouth of the cove.
The yellow man swore sharply. "Warhoons," he said.
Sweeping around the north-most spur of rock came a score of huge thoats, careening along with great orluk-clad green men in their saddles. The four-armed warriors were waving large, curved swords, or alternately, the long-barreled rifles they favored.
Trey and Quad sprang toward their tethered mounts and grabbed down their rifles and moments later were firing carefully at these ancestral northern enemies, reloading and getting off a round about every 10 seconds.
They were between the attackers and our thoats, all tied together at a tether line. If we lost the thoats, we were as good as dead in the desert.
Glyf and Arondi whipped out swords and jumped to stand between the onrushing horde and the two women, who were huddled around the noon fire. I did not see Glyf again in the fight, but no enemy came from his sector.
I had a glimpse of the two women scrambling for the pistols they favored. Val Paxt had a pair of the four-barreled pepper-pots, and Arife hauled out one of those great Martian revolvers which (for one of her size) must be fired with two hands, in a modern and very-Earth-like combat grip.
I spun up the carbine the Duhor craftsmen had shortened for me from the Warhoon rifle. I had been carrying it on a leather sling. I fired at the greens' leader. I unhinged the trap-door beech-loading mechanism and pushed the next round into the chamber, slammed the beech shut and fired by reflex at the warrior jumping his thoat at me. He was yanked from his saddle by the impact of the bullet.
Val stood like a competitor at an Olympic firing line, firing her little pistols with devastating accuracy. Even with four barrels, each about as long as those on a policeman's revolver, the pistol was smaller than the big military revolver her maid used. The pepper-pot fired a smaller caliber bullet, apparently, but was much more precise.
In a brief lull I asked her about the weapon as she reloaded.
"Using ball ammunition?"
"Father disapproves of using explosive bullets on living creatures," she said with a very American shrug. My position on the matter was like her father's.
"Dislikes over-kill. How old-fashioned," I said. Of course I said it in English, since both concepts were counter-intuitive in Martian. She glanced at me and answered me in her father's native language.
"Over-kill. A word I have never heard before, yet it makes perfect sense," she said. "I wonder sometimes if there are other English words I do not know because Daddy never uses them."
"My English is somewhat colloquialeveryday wordsthat I learned from American scientists and soldiers. But perhaps we could practice, if it pleases Her Brightness."
"That would be swell," she said in English.
It seemed hours, but could only have been minutes, that we stood with our backs to the snow-clad hills and fired into the onrushing horde. Once, twice, three times they attacked into the withering fire of our weapons (they had fired first, relieving us of any honorable Red Martian notion of sticking to swords).
As they closed in with the inevitability of a rising flood, each rush came closer to wiping us off our defensive positions, each skirmish more desperate.
Quad sprawled, wounded in some manner. Arondi took a vicious sword cut in a melee with a mounted green, who was himself dropped by Arife's revolver. My carbine over-heated and a spent round jammed the breech. I drew Star-Dancer, my long-sword. I swore in Russian, a most satisfactory language for strong verbiage.
I stood, sword in hand, directly in front of the two women and the wounded Arondi.
A huge Warhoon raced toward me, afoot, a curved sword held in a two-handed grip in his top hands. Something the size of a boulder or perhaps a telegraph pole hit me between my shoulders and I pitched forward on my face.
As the green man neared, I swear I could see a smile around those boar-like tusks. A Red Man's riding thoat landed between me and my doom, and I realized the creature had hit me a glancing blow as it had leaped over me.
Its rider, his legs leather-clad, trunk obscured by a cloak of orluk fur, made a flying dismount and stuck perfectly to the moss-covered landing ground.
The human who had interposed himself spun his cloak out of the way in a left-handed veronica and pointed a long straight sword at the Warhoon. The man was clad in flying leathers of the Duhor Desert Scouts.
"How tall are you, Big Ugly?" howled Dwar Reef Tak.
Amazed, the green swordsman skidded to a halt. "Fifteen sofads," the creature stammered.
"I didn't know they stacked calot-crap that high," Reef laughed.
The Warhoon roared and closed in. Reef Tak's sword grew a dozen points and flared in defensive patterns until it looked like a fan of silver. The green brought back his long-sword for a mighty sweep and was thus poised when he was transfixed by a foot and a half of Duhor steel. The green warrior slumped to the ground as I pulled myself up.
"Did I show you that move, Jak Flag? Remind me to do so when we have time," said Reef over his shoulder.
"I am less irritated than usual to see you, Dwar Reef Tak," I said. "Remind me to show you how to jump a mount over an obstacle without fouling."
I prepared myself for the next wave of attackers, who despite the arrival of Reef Tak would surely overrun us. Instead, the green men dodged and darted back toward the desert. From behind us, three airboats eased forward and passed above us, with rifles barking from each foredeck.
They were two two-man craft and the converted cargo boat. It flew the modest pennant of a dwar-in-command. That would be how Reef transported a cavalry thoat so far north.
Each foredeck had one of the new pivot-mounted repeating cylinder rifles. The gunners were doing great damage to the green men, even with non-explosive rounds.
"Once they would have stood and fired back at us," Reef said, apparently thinking aloud. "They have learned caution, or at least discretion."
The three ships harried the Warhoons back to the empty sea bottom. The thoats were rippling at top speed, the green warriors stretched out along their beasts to offer a smaller target. Perhaps a mile away the riders were splitting up, diving down into different unseen fissures and ravines to get away from the deadly fire of the Scouts.
I heaved a sigh of relief, but immediately was drawn by the cry of the downed southern thark.
"Comrade," he called (interestingly, the meaning is about the same on both worlds). "I am wounded." It was not a complaint, merely a statement of fact. I rushed to him, unlimbered a pressure bandage and clamped it to the puncture wound left by the Warhoon bullet.
"Val Paxt?" I heard the dwar call to his intended.
"Here," she snapped back. She was bent over the wounded yellow man, Arondi, winding a long bandage around his sword cut to stop the bleeding.
"Arife, bring me the red kit," called Val Paxt, indicating the first aid kit to be used for seriously bleeding wounds. It contained a coagulant of which I was in awe, far in advance of anything available on any battlefield on Earth.
"Arife?" she repeated.
Arondi's head craned up. "Arife?" he called weakly.
Quad stirred under my ministering hands.
"Yellow men take," Quad said. "Just before the last charge. Three yellow men came from behind the rocks and grabbed the yellow maiden, clamped a gag over her mouth, disappeared into the rocks. On foot. Three swords. One pistol, and they took the revolver she was using." He reported with a soldier's eye for appropriate detail, even if he was a four-armed barbarian with tusks.
"By my first ancestor," swore Val Paxt, ice in her voice. "Abducted. I will show their tripes to the morning sun. Jak Flag! We ride in pursuit!"
Reef Tak looked astonished.
"Surely the woman is now safe with her own people! You ask for this Earth-boy in order to save his life! You have attempted to make a fool of me, and I will stand it no more!
"On guard, Jak Flag, seducer, defiler of true love, blasphemer, outlander! I will spit you like the calot-spawn you are."
I had just put my sword back in its sheath. I reached for it with my right hand, looking at my left to be sure the mail glove was still in place. It was debatable whether Reef or I was the better swordsman. It looked as though it would cost a life to settle the question.
"You imbecile!" raged Val Paxt, the color rising in her half-red cheeks. "You ninny!" I believe she added a naughty word as an adjective, but I was unfamiliar with the meaning so I have left it out.
"Jak Flag is not my lover!" she cried. "Arife is!"
Reef Tak had already started toward me, left eyebrow raised in an expression of severe disdain, a scowl of hatred. He stopped as if pole-axed. His face grew blank as he absorbed this new information; the right eye tried to maintain the squint but instead began to twitch.
"You!" he stared at me and croaked, "you knew this!"
Only the French can shrug with that particular grace which says, c'est la vie. When I, a mere technician of the former Communist culture, attempt it, it comes across like a Chinese action hero attempting to portray some broad American gesture.
My spread hands were intended to convey something like, We were all surprised you couldn't see it; surely everybody else understood? I thought for a moment that he would run me through anyway.
Val Paxt cut him off.
"Here's what we do," said the half-Earth girl. No, the half- American girl; I could hear her father's decisive voice behind her musical tones.
"Reef, you and your men will stay and protect Arondi and his two warriors," speaking of the tharks as though they were comrades in arms, which of course they were.
"Arondi is an important man in his home city, and Duhor must not be seen as taking sides in persecuting him. If you consider him a fugitive," she cut Reef off; he had opened his mouth to protest, "then be aware that in this latitude he is far beyond your jurisdiction. To seize him would be an act of war, which I believe is beyond the authority of a dwar of the Desert Scouts. Jak Flag and I will pursue Arife's kidnappers. As her brother is important, so is she. She is of noble birth and has a valid claim on the throne of Okar," the entire country of the yellow men. "If she survives she could be used as a pawn by those seeking power. Her kidnapping re-opens the probability of civil war to stain the polar region red."
Reef stared, dazzled at a summary of diplomatic intelligence that would have not been out of place at the briefing of a jeddak. As she spoke, Val strode to Arife's little thoat and began stripping the rudimentary saddle off the two-girth harness. Within moments she had converted the harness to a pack saddle. I had never seen it done so quickly.
"Trey," she commanded the unwounded thark, "Two rifles, ball and explosive ammunition, and shells for my pistols. An extra set of flying leathers for Arife, two extra orluk parkas, three sleeping furs. My swords, Arife's set of knives. Rations for three persons for five days, the small metal stove. Grain for the beast for five days."
"You and I," she addressed me, "will run alongside the creature. The big Warhoon thoats would slow us down in the tangled ground of the mountains. We will be able to track the kidnappers on foot, and no pure Red Martian could match our pace at something like this."
She was right. I am no superhuman, even in the lighter gravity of Mars, but on Earth I could run my 80 km along a marathon course in four hours. On Mars I weighed about a third of that yet had the same musculature and cardio-pulmonary system.
Reef Tak cleared his throat. "My lady," he said carefully. "I cannot allow one of such importance to risk herself in such a manner. We will take my flier and follow theyour friend."
"Suicide," dismissed Val Paxt. "In those mountain passes the flier would have to fly so low to see the trail that it would be rifled out of the air in the first hour. This will be wet work, and done on the ground."
"Then I will take my little thoat and ride with you. I may not be able to keep up with this alien on foot," he casually indicated me, ignoring the fact that Val was half-Earth, "but I can ride with the best. And you will need my sword at the end."
"I determined that due to your racial prejudice I could not marry you, Reef Tak. You must have realized that. I fled to avoid the scandal of a broken vow. Your volunteering here does not change those facts."
"Immaterial," sniffed the dwar. "As a man of Duhor I have no choice. I cannot let a woman of our city go alone on this quest, even if you despise me." I was startled enough that I did not at first notice that he had again conveniently ignored me.
"We leave in ten xats," Val said. "Pack your gear."
It was more like an hour later that we moved out. Reef's men were constructing a shelter like a geodesic dome (although it reminded me more of an igloo) which flowed from hoses like some gelatin mixture and hardened quickly in the northern cold. As it stiffened they cut doors into the interior and moved some sort of stove into the little house, to be powered by one of the fliers parked alongside. Our wounded would at least be warm.
I gave Glyf private orders to defend the tharks and Arondi from any unforeseen action by the Scouts. I did not want to return and find the Scouts had been ordered back to the base with "prisoners."
We left the camp with me in the lead and Val directly behind, both on foot. Reef Tak rode his athletic little thoat and towed that of Arife, which carried most of the gear. Val had unbent enough to allow Reef's big flier with one pilot to follow us within two days, to re-supply us or to provide emergency airlift out. We carried flares of various colors to attract the searching airship.
The yellow men were no tharks, and the dusty passes of the mountains were unlike the ubiquitous moss-covered expanse of the sea bottoms which hid all sign. In these mountains I could follow occasional marks in the ground where the fleeing brigands had landed too deep on toes or heels. Once I stopped and marked off a full pace between the left and right feet of one outlaw, and counted the indentations in between.
"Six of them," I said, "counting Arife." The royal slave girl was wearing Duhorian high-heeled riding boots. She dragged her feet in several places early in the abduction but now was being forced to keep up. One of the abductors was lighter and shorter than the rest, by his shorter steps. It could have been another woman.
They had no mounts but ran afoot. They were pushing themselvesI found a place where one of them, body racked by the exertion, had thrown up. I hoped it wasn't Arife.
Val ran like a Soviet athlete, uncomplaining, steady. Like me, she was wearing a version of the "over-the-top duds" designed by her father, which were far more flexible and warmer than flying leathers.
She and I were wearing boots which I thought had been commissioned by her father, because they resembled the desert ankle boots the British call chukkas. In Paxton's time that would have been called brogans, I thought. They were flat-soled (many Martian riding or military boots have "cowboy" high heels) and laced tightly around the ankle to give support. A separate, long hard leather tube circled the lower leg from ankle to knee, like a World War I legging, giving some protection from a random sword cut in a melee. We did not wear the leggings while running. It was all foot soldier gear, unnecessary for air crew and not nearly flashy enough for cavalry.
As Val ran, tirelessly, she taught a course in international realpolitick to the captain riding beside her.
"The old families of Kadabra, the capitol of Okar, were removed from political power when John Carter's minion Talu became jeddak," she said. "But they did not give up economic power, and they require only a rallying point in order to bring the north country to a boil again. Arondi and Arife would be pawns in that game."
"But wouldn't that make Arife a queen?" Reef asked. "For a week, a month, a year? Then what would be simpler than to have her die of an illness, or in childbirth, and the great families choose a new ruler?"
"Our city of Duhor is entangled in all this, my innocent captain of the frontier, through trade."
"Trade?" repeated Reef. "Surely trade takes care of itself?"
"Trade pays the tariffs that pay the salaries of dashing young padwars and dwars, buys them speedy scout-ships to skim along the wilderness paths, underwrites the mighty vessels that have been built in the last 40 years to ply the routes between the city-states of the world. When Okar was opened to trade with the rest of Mars by the overthrow of the previous jeddak, Duhor was the nearest civilized city. Our city has become the focal point through which goods not made in Okar are funneled into trade at Kadabra. "If the puppet of John Carter stays in command, Duhor trades through his administration. But if he is replaced by the former regime, Duhor must still trade with Okar. Our strong new economy is built on it."
Reef Tak frowned as he rode alongside. "So Duhor is unaffected by the change"
"Far from it. If Duhor trades with a new jeddak, a counter-revolutionary, then Duhor takes sides against Carter's man, and thus is cast in opposition to John Carter, and thus in opposition to our ancient rival, Helium."
"War," said Reef Tak, with dawning comprehension. "We have made great strides in linking Duhor and Helium more closely, particularly with Jasoomians sitting in high seats in both places. But war would disrupt that and pit us against the most powerful armed force on Barsoom."
"Exactly," said the diplomat-maiden, running effortlessly by his side. "Civil war in the north is a disaster for Duhor both in trade and in diplomacy. And it is up to us to prevent it."
When darkness fell we thought we hadn't really closed up any distance, but we could not take the chance of losing the trail. We curled up, the three of us sheltered between the warm bodies of the two thoats.
We ate warmed, but indifferent, rations. Cold rations will wrack your stomach with pain in such temperatures. Val Paxt chewed a steaming mouthful of mystery meat.
"I did not mean to encourage you improperly," she said rather formally to Reef Tak. "I did not dislike you. But Arife is my sister, my life."
"I did not understand. I have been a fool," the chastened captain said to the woman he had intended to marry.
"I was shocked that you thought I would be attracted to Jak Flag," she said guilelessly.
"In retrospect it does seem highly unlikely," he agreed.
I snorted and rolled over and went to sleep, dreaming of an Earth girl who had once found me adequate for three full years.
At mid-morning the next day I found another clear space on the dust-covered trail and again counted the heel-marks within the distance of one stride. My old Soviet special forces friends would have been proud.
"They have doubled," I said. "At least 11, perhaps 12 now travel before us." I rocked back on my heels and looked about at the high sides of the narrow pass. I thought back to the movements of Afghan rebels, on another world and perhaps another dimension, certainly another time.
"He left lookouts on his back trail to ensure he wasn't surprised from behind," I guessed. "He's picking them up as he returns along the only trail to his goal." If there had been two ways in, he would not have had to guard the back trail.
"And so he knew which way he would be returning," said Reef Tak, bending to the tactical analysis.
"And he fears enemies to his rear," said Val Paxt, already thinking strategically.
Tentatively I agreed. "But I would expect such a leader to leave behind an ambush for trackers, or at least" (how to say 'booby trap'?) "unmanned traps for us to trip across," I said.
Val theorized, "He does not fear us. He thought the Warhoons had us finished and did not see the Scout airships from his narrow defile as he escaped. In any case, the enemies now before him are sufficient to require all his manpower. But he might have left one lookout, not to fire on us but to run and tell him he is followed," she reasoned.
Thereafter we trailed more slowly, aware that the difference between a lookout and an ambush could be one rifle. That night each of us took a watch, no longer trusting to the noses of the thoats to warn us of intruders.
At noon on our third day in the mountains we found home base, a stone-and-wattle village spread in a wide spot in a low pass. A crowd of yellow people was gathered where the road widened in the center of town, creating an informal commons.
We left the two thoats tied up in a side canyon and crept toward the village until we could make out the voices.
"Talu, the jeddak of Okar, has set a price on her head. We have taken his salt/bread/money and she will be turned over to him," declared a low, grumbling male voice. Our kidnapper, I thought. "Those who took the woman will share in the reward."
A female voice countered, going up the shrillness scale as she fought to be heard above crowd noise.
"The old families of Kadabra have made a counter-offer which far exceeds that of Talu. The jeddak may kill the woman to remove her as a threat to his throne. The old families will protect her. And pay more."
The man's voice continued, irritated at being opposed. "The old families think us fools. They left us here in the mountains as refugees rather than try to redeem us. We were thrown out of the land for following them. Let us cast our lot with Talu."
"Blood is more important than blood money," the woman argued. "If the major families regain the throne, we know we will be welcome home again."
The male thundered. "My men and I took the woman and will sell her where we wish. You have no say in the matter."
A score of voices welled up from the tiny civic clearing, and then a military revolver barked and echoed off the enclosing rock walls.
"You bastard," choked the female, and then a hundred voices swelled up in anger.
Reef, Val and I raced toward the village center. Reef and I had our swords out, Val her two multi-barreled pistols.
At the edge of the tiny village "square" we were almost overrun by fleeing villagers. The yellow folk noted our swords at the last minute and swerved to each side of us, and behind them more shots hammered the thin air of the mountains.
"There," cried Val. "On the platform!"
On a timber stage between the road and some building that looked to be a tavern, Arife stood with hands tied behind her. Before her sprawled the body of a tiny woman.
Two yellow men tugged and pulled Arife in opposite directions as they fought to possess the little girl. Her black hair shone in the thin sunshine. I imagined that her eyes were wet with frustrated tears, and then yanked myself back to the task at hand.
Reef and I thrust and daggered our way up the wooden steps to the platform, there to find the girl swept off her feet and over the far edge of the stage. A rider on a small mountain thoat swept her up from willing hands and yelled to his mount, which rippled off and in seconds was out of sight.
Val stood on the first step up from the ground, a four-barreled pistol leveled at the nearest person in the mob that surrounded her. I did the math in my head. Perhaps 30 villagers in sight, all staring at us, many armed. We were outnumbered 10 to one.
"Merde," I said. French swearing always sounds to me as though one has been thoughtlessly inconvenienced by cretins. I re-evaluated the situation. "Holy Crap!" I said in American.
"Reef," I said. He was yelling in frustration at the escape of the kidnappers. "Reef. Flare."
"Flare?" he repeated.
"Explosive device, a signal, bright thing on a rocket. Goes up, attracts attention. You've got the launcher on your belt. Use a yellow one."
"Flare!" he agreed, and fumbled for the pistol-shaped rocket launcher.
I leaped past Val Paxt, landing on the ground nearer to the mob. I extended Star-Dancer and spun around twice. When I stopped I had a great deal of room around me.
It worked, I thought. It's the first suggestion in the Book of the Five Rings, by the Samauri sword saint, Musashi Miyamoto, but I had never had occasion to test it.
Despite the threat of the sword, a young-looking yellow manhis black beard was modesttook a step forward.
"Sheath your weapons, outlanders," he said. "We have nothing worth stealing and if you are a-journey you may claim the truce of passage through these mountains."
I must have looked confused. Young yellow man smiled. "Otherwise there would never be any trade at the tavern, and never news from the outside.
"We did not take the Kadabra woman," he added.
Behind me I heard the flare go up, then smelled the acrid fumes of yellow marking smoke. Reef had lit a smoke pot to further attract our flier.
Very well, I thought. "Sheath weapons," I thoughtlessly ordered a princess and my senior officer.
I looked around. Val Paxt holstered her pistols, her face a diplomatic mask. Reef Tak slammed his jewel-hilted sword back into its scabbard. "I concur," said the dwar. "Sheath weapons."
"I am Doon Pas," said the young yellow man. "I own the inn. If you claim the Truce of Passage"
"We do so claim."
"Please come inside. Tea or wine?"
Doon Pas had only recently inherited the tavern from his late father. The young yellow man brought us mugs of tea and told a woman behind a counter to prepare a noon meal for us. We must have looked pretty ragged.
"We are a community of refugees of the last war in Okar," he said. "We live here because we are not welcome in Kadabra under the leadership of Talu, the claimant who prevailed, and we are too many to impose on any other city in the frozen North.
"Here we survive by hunting, growing tea in small cleared patches during the short growing season, and exporting it. In my case, I serve food and wine to the few travelers who pass through.
"The community drinks most of our wine, actually, and so my father became a focal point in local politics. Until his death he was the mayor/headman," Doon said.
"And now you are," I deduced.
"No, the woman who was just now slain was our Lady Mayor. She learned of the plot of the Typ brothers to kidnap the Oll granddaughter and sell her to the jeddak Talu, and went along with the raiding party to protect the girl and, as it developed, to try to remove her from what she thought was the greater danger."
The tracks of the smallest kidnapper, I thought. Doon Pas continued:
"She died for her troubles. Typ Ilo is now outlaw for killing a community member. He is undoubtedly on his way to Kadabra to market his merchandise to the current jeddak."
"Did you know the Oll granddaughter?" I said, carefully not mentioning that she had a brother. He was ahead of me.
"We knew Arondi, her brother, who has visited here twice since he escaped from Duhor six years ago. He traveled through here on his way to and from the capital, Kadabra.
"We knew of the girl through him, and there were enough of us who were close to the Oll family to vouch for them. Several of the veterans sailed with their father on his last mad raid to punish the red men.
"The families here are deeply split, many wishing only to return to the northland, under any circumstance, and end this bleak existence on the edge of nowhere.
"And many wish to ride back in triumph, having backed a leader who prevails. The Old Families of Kadabra learned of the children's existence and apparently put the current plot into motion. My sense is that Talu is merely reacting to it."
"You seem well-informed, to be living on the edge of nowhere."
"More people travel here than you might think. We even have Red Men traveling through, perhaps once a month, pursuing trade. Tea is big business throughout Red and Yellow Barsoom. The Black Barsoomians are also developing a taste for it, although they tend to come once a year in great vessels and upset the market for months by their purchases throughout the mountains."
Reef Tak took over the conversation. "Your people will not oppose us if we pursue this Typ Ilo and try to free the girl, I presume," said the dwar of the frontier scouts.
"Typ Ilo is outlaw, every man's hand turned against him," repeated Doon Pas in what was obviously a formula. He reached out and covered the salt cellar with his hand. "We will show you the trail to Kadabra and will not stand in your way."
The front door of the inn banged open and the sunlight outlined a large man wearing a plain warrior's harness and carrying a curved scimitar.
"Kaor, my padwar," said Big Glyf. "Would have been here earlier if the flare had gone up earlier." He stepped forward.
"Kaor, Glyf," I welcomed him in return. "Who's here?"
"Several of us," said Arondi, his right arm lashed to his damaged chest but looking strong as he followed Glyf into the room. Arondi carried his left hand sword. Doon Pas and several other villagers immediately stood, as though to attention. Important family, I thought.
"Arife?" asked Arondi.
"The kidnappers are only xats ahead of us on the trail to Kadabra; we saw her and she seems physically unharmed," I reassured her brother.
"I was that close to swording the calot who held her," complained Reef Tak. And he had been, first onto the platform as I tarried to dispatch a kidnapper who had wanted to fight instead of run. Arondi measured the captain with his eyes.
"We can follow in your large cargo boat if you permit," Arondi told Reef. "Otherwise I will follow on a thoat" He looked at Doon Pas.
"Without taking sides in the matter, we will make thoats available to His Excellency that he may protect his sister," responded Doon Pas politely. But his point was made: His village would act on its own will and not react to threats of force from outsiders.
Outside I could see the green legs of a thark, his back to the tavern as he watched the plaza for threats.
"Your forethought proved correct, Padwar," said Big Glyf. "On yesterday a five-man ship of the Imperial Guard came to the camp, carrying a staff calot… I mean, a staff officer who said the odwars had forbade any further incursion to the north and ordered us back to the city.
"Unfortunately he had too much wine to drink last night and this morning we followed our original orders and took off in the dwar's big boat, the two green uglies, myself, and the yellow prince. I was able to convince the padwar-pilot of the cargo boat that his duty lay in rescuing Dwar Reef Tak." Glyf tested the edge of the curved sword with his thumb.
"A bit drastic, big soldier?" I asked.
"Operational exigencies, Sir," Big Glyf responded.
"Hmmm," said Reef, turning several shades paler than his usual bronze complexion. "And the rank of thisstaff officer?"
"Teedwar, I believe, Sir," said Glyf, naming the rank I thought of as "colonel."
"May my ancestors have mercy on me," muttered Reef, and then he raised his head. He was, after all, senior officer here. Until he was court-martialed back in Duhor.
"We follow by flier, Your Brightness," Reef said. "It has room for both our thoats. Where the way ahead seems unduly dangerous for that method, we will send Flag and his soldiers to scout out the terrain."
He looked at me.
"We will provide covering fire, of course. Glyf, did you bring the multi-shot rifle?"
"Actually, Sir, we brought all three of them. If it please the Dwar."
"It does please the dwar," Reef said, smiling for the first time in days.
"With respect, sirs," said Doon Pas, "I will accompany you. It may be that you need further guidance on the trail, and my staff can handle business here."
Doon reminded me of the independent Afghans I had known of old, trying to protect their village from both sides in a vicious war. When I paid the bill before we left, the girl behind the counter thanked me, using the grammatical construction of one equal talking to another.
We paused only long enough to load the small thoats and bales of food for them, and to top off the water tanks and restock the wine locker.
I was exhausted and would have slept aboard the cargo carrier, which was large enough to have bunks, but the trail was too hot for that.
Doon Pas and Glyf stood on the foredeck and guided the pilot through the narrow pass that was the trail to Kadabra. Our speed was only about that of a fast thoat, but we hoped if we held steady we would close up on the fugitives. It grew dark quickly as the sun dropped behind the high mountain walls to the west.
Reef Tak stood beside the pilot at the steering station halfway back on the starboard side. Reef's head bobbed about as he tried to take in as much of the sky above as he could. Finally he pointed aft of us, and up.
"There," he said.
"Five-man ship?" I guessed aloud, watching the flier maneuvering to follow us from above.
"Staff calot, I suppose," forecast Reef Tak moodily. He looked down at the dwar's badge of rank he had worn such a short time. But our chaperone stayed above and behind us for hours as we zigged and zagged through the narrow pass. Finally it passed above us, paused, and we saw a man at the foredeck station use a long rifle, one-handed, to pantomime that there was something ahead of us.
"That's helpful," muttered Reef. "I wonder why he's being helpful."
Below us was a cluster of yellow men, six, gathered around four mountain thoats. One of the animals was down, wounded or exhausted. The others didn't look all that fresh. We swept over them and landed the cargo boat on the far side, blocking the trail to Kadabra. The staff officer's flier dropped down to hover above us. I tapped Glyf on the shoulder and pointed to the flier above and to my two eyes. He nodded in understanding and dropped back so as to keep the other flier in sight.
Arondi jumped from the deck of our flier to the rocky path below. His right arm was tied down because of his injury but he had a short sword in his left hand. I remembered his spin-into-the-scabbard trick with his left hand and guessed that he was ambidextrous.
But he was still facing six armed men, so Reef and I and the two tharks spread out behind him. Val Paxt remained on the foredeck behind us, looking down at the assembly from a slightly higher position. I remembered her deadly little guns.
"You cowards, calots, traitors," fumed Arondi. His sister was now visible, kneeling on the ground, her hands in front of her. "You would betray an innocent for blood money, for your own benefit. You will die for this insult," he pledged.
"Bastard!" responded the gravel-voiced leader, who I took to be Typ Ilo. "I end your dangerous plotting here," and true to the notions of all right-thinking, civilized Martians, shifted his sword to his left hand and charged the one-armed Arondi.
Arondi took him out in two swipes. It wasn't even pretty, just crudely efficient blade-work. Arondi charged toward the remainder of the group, clustered around Arife. I was on his right, Reef on his left, the tharks behind us.
In that curious stop-action sequence that happens sometimes in combat, I realized that Arife had worked her bonds loose and now had use of her hands. She was only moments from freedom.
One of the kidnappers raised a rifle and swung it toward the avenging brother. A shot cracked from the deck of the boat above us and the kidnapper keeled over. Two more turned to flee. One threw away his sword, the other held onto an old rifle. Both were shot in the back from above.
"I yield," cried another, but Arondi put a sword through his throat. I tried to grab the yellow man's shoulder but he shook me off in fury.
The last kidnapper made no attempt to surrender to the yellow berserker but leaped behind Arife, yanking her up for a shield. He swept a dagger around to indent the perfect skin at her throat.
"Two will die, princeling, not one," the bandit hissed. He began to back up. The yellow girl's hands clutched at the arm that confined her.
I heard the voice of Val Paxt, calm, level.
"Reef. Her knife."
A black thorn as long as my forearm flew from the boat to Reef Tak, who caught it left-handed in his mailed glove and lobbed it underhanded to the couple in their pas a deux ahead of us.
Arife caught the dagger by the handle, reversed it and the blackened blade disappeared behind her.
The kidnapper gagged, choked and tried to scream. Then he clattered to the ground, leaving the royal slave, heir to the throne of a mighty kingdom, standing alone in the mountain trail, a bloody dagger in her hand.
We stood, shaking with adrenaline, whipping our heads about looking for more targets, clasping and unclasping the handles of our weapons. It was all over but the letdown.
I sensed as much as heard the textile whisper of glove against rope, the singing of the friction of a sailor zipping down a backstay or a mountaineer rappelling.
"Padwar," called Glyf. I looked up and saw an officer of Duhor sliding down a line from the hovering military flier. A gunner stood on the foredeck with one of the new multi-shot rifles, but it wasn't pointed at any one of us. Not quite.
The teedwar, for he was indeed a colonel, walked into the middle of our tableau. He wore a sword that would have cost all our paychecks for a year, but he kept it sheathed. The feather cluster on his left chest bespoke a high staff officer in the Imperial Guards. Since the Imperial Guards houses the general staff for the entire Duhorian army, his word was godlike. Now we would live or die, bureaucratically, I thought.
"Nice job, Dwar Reef Tak. Glad to see the situation is under control."
Breathe, Reef, I thought at him,then answer him
"Th-th-thank you Sir," said Dwar Reef Tak. "Justjust trying to do what seemed right, Sir."
Back at the inn it became apparent that the staff colonel, Teedwar Harl, had been sent to get some sort of resolution to a "situation" that the general staff saw as dangerously out of control.
"There is no political, diplomatic nor military reason to return the two former prisoners of war to Duhor," pronounced the colonel, avoiding the words 'slave' and 'escapee.'
"From here, Arondi Oll, you are convinced you can reach the safety of the city of Illall? You have no further wish for armed escort?"
"We are in good hands here, honored Teedwar Harl," responded Arondi. Hmmm, I thought, Glyf and I are relieved of that duty.
Arife looked from the colonel to her brother, her lips pursed. Something troubled my memory. It was like a tiny pebble in your shoe.
"The jeddak of Duhor entrusted me with a message to yourfamiliesin Illall, assuring them of any aid if you should be further endangered. The jeddak approves of this idea of yours of disappearing into a lake of other yellow persons," said the colonel.
"I will add my notes to the letter and seal it," said the colonel, scribbling with a pen, then folding the document. He reached for a candle that he had earlier lighted, and dripped wax onto the edges of the paper. Purple wax.
He indented it with the sigil of the ring on his left hand. I was sitting on his left and leaned forward. The symbol was eight pointed, like a compass rose, imprinted on purple wax.
I cleared my throat. Glyf stood at the counter with a mug of wine in one hand. He set the wine down, turned to face our table and squared his shoulders.
"I am curious as to a couple of things," I said, to no one in particular. "I am new here," I started, and Reef and Val both smiled at the understatement. "Possibly there are a few things I do not understand but which are perfectlyobviousto others. For instance:
"On our fifth day in the desert we entered a rock-bound cove in the foothills, where we were eventually attacked. And yet you, Arondi, did not warn us that our back was not securethat behind the rocks was an entrance to the main trail to this village."
"I didn't know…" began Arondi.
"That's interesting, because it appears that is the only trail directly from the desert to this village …" I looked at Doon Pas, who nodded affirmatively "…and you have visited this village at least twice in the past six years. I believe you know the trail well.
"I believe that the original plan was that you and your sister were to be 'kidnapped' and disappear into the mountains with those you thought to be your advocates, avoiding our inconvenient presence.
"The attack by the Warhoons changed that plan. You were not aware when your former partisans took Arife that their plans had changed.
"Second: Those who kidnapped your sister started out at least two days before wesomehowended up in that very cove. I feel they knew our schedule."
"We were spied on from the hills, I told you that," said Arondi.
"Third: When the kidnappers were apprehended, finally, they were shot down mercilessly, even while fleeing or attempting to surrender. Thus they were not able to tell uswhose side they were on."
The teedwar spoke up. "In the confusion of the combat"
"And you, Teedwar Harlyour signet ring device is the same that was on the civilian flier that Arondi 'stole' from his former master in Duhor. Yet neither you nor he has mentioned any previous connection."
Val Paxt and Arife gasped at the same time and then spoke at the same time.
"You never said…" began Arife.
"That is not what we were told," said Val, overriding her.
I stared at the teedwar and the displaced prince, sitting across from each other, both stiff with apprehension. "You have each acted as though you had never meta curious action by an officer whose private air-car has been stolen. Curious for a prisoner of war who was 'mistreated' by his former master."
"You little..." started the teedwar, who was certainly not used to being questioned by a mere Padwar of the second rank.
"And if the letter were from the jeddak, wouldn't it already be sealed with his signet? What message has a staff officerintelligence, I imagine?to send to the good people of Illall who will hide these two refugees?
"How do we know that the 'Old Families' of Kadabra are stirring the pot against the jeddak Talu? So far I have heard that rumor from no one except Arondi Oll and the yellow men of this village, who, I believe, got it from?"
"Arondi Oll," contributed Doon Pas. Other villagers around the walls nodded wisely.
"And who were those who favored Talu, and would have turned Arife over to the current jeddak, and who are unfortunately unavailable to enlighten us?"
Doon Pas tilted his head and looked at Arondi. "They were previously partisans of the young Oll princebut perhaps there was a falling out."
I paused and then continued.
"A number of inconsistencies, teedwar, and prince. A simpler explanation might be:
"Teedwar Harl, an intelligence officer and a member of the old military families, saw an opportunity to place a puppet on the throne of Okar. After training and indoctrinating the young Arondi Oll, he allowed the scion of Salensus Oll to 'escape,' along with enough equipment and aid to set up a full-scale, camouflaged flight base in the Frozen Mountains. It was hardly built by a runaway.
"Arondi Oll traveled to and from Kadabra, not Illall, to gauge when the people would be likely to turn against the new jeddak. Not being overwhelmed with support by the so-called 'Old Families,' he invented a conspiracy but stayed distinctly aside from it, keeping his skirts clean.
"When the impending marriage of the Duhorian princess seemed about to inconvenience his sisterwhom he had ignored for six yearsArondi became the conduit by which they could flee to a 'safe city' in Okar.
"But you never intended to go to Illall, did you, Arondi? The plan was always to go directly to Kadabra. Your own personality had failed to move the potential rebels. But now you could use the beauty and charisma of your sister to attempt to seize the throne.
"And your backing was not the 'Old Families' of Kadabra but a secret cadre of dissatisfied officers in Duhor who would bring that city into the fight on your side.
"Through Harl, after all, the Duhorian generals controlled the flow of information from Kadabra. They could tell the story most advantageous to themselves.
"After the coup, they would redistribute the lucrative trade with Kadabra among themselves, cutting out the new Duhorian merchants who were becoming toopretentious.
"Is that pretty close?"
"Calot," hissed Arondi, leaping up from the table. "Commoner. Interloper." The yellow man snarled at the stunned teedwar, still sitting over a sealed piece of paper. "I told you to stay away, fool. Even the Jasoomian has deduced the truth."
It was only later I realized he hadn't called me 'Earth-boy.'
Arondi whipped up his left-hand sword and slashed away the bandages binding his right. He stretched that arm and then, like a stage magician, looped his arm around and came up with the colonel's bejeweled saber, which had been resting on the table between the two.
He called me a name which is so rare in polite Martian society I was not even sure how to translate it and came across the table at me.
Star-dancer was hanging on the wall behind him. I angled my arms inside his two blades and deflected them out at the cost of some blood on each forearm. I dropped toward the floor while planting my right foot in his mid-section, and rolled back. In judo the throw is called tomoe nage, although Star Trek fans all over the Earth call it 'Captain Kirk's throw.' It bought me four seconds, two of which I used clambering back to my feet and the other two launching myself in space toward my saber. I whipped it out of its sheath in time to parry Arondi's first thrust. Immediately we spread out parallel to the tavern wall.
Villagers scattered, the front door banged open and shut as they flew out.
Arondi drove me back with a blur of blades, a mad two-handed attack which I opposed with only onemy mail glove was stowed on the cargo boat.
From the bar I heard Glyf shout the Martian equivalent of "heads up" and the big soldier's own main gauche came sailing through the air, the long double-edge still in the sheath. I grabbed it left-handed, slipped my fingers somehow through the brass knuckles and snapped the sheath off into Arondi's face.
In the split-second that he was off-balance I went on the attack, driving forward. The ambidextrous yellow man met my every attempt, easily parrying my best work. I redoubled my efforts, imposing an Jasoomian's brute strength into almost every blow, requiring him to expend all his energy in blocking me.
His face took on a grim look, but he redirected every thrust and then began his own attack. The wall on his left, my right, partially blocked his short sword. He concentrated on using his right arm and the long sword. I sensed that he wanted more room to use both swords.
When I began my counter-attack I shifted to my left and tried to jam him back into the wall. Two exchanges later (Glyf told me later) I had him backed into the corner. He threw the long sword at my face and threw his body at me, spearing my chest with his skull.
I refocused my eyes and looked up from the floor, trying to remember how to catch my breath. Arondi stood above me, his short sword held above his head with both hands, his body bleeding from a score of cuts I had inflicted upon him, none of which would prove fatal in time to aid me. His eyes were mad. He was over the edge. I still couldn't breathe. His feet were pinning my arms against the legs of a table, which was probably why I couldn't move. I died several times in the nanoseconds in which I realized all this.
A pistol barked behind me. A red hole appeared in the forehead of the man above me. The short sword slipped from his hand and buried its tip in the floor, only centimeters from my unprotected side.
"Unreliable," I heard the voice of the staff teedwar behind me. "I always said he was unreliable." I twisted my head around. The colonel was holding a small pistol the size of a derringer, a wisp of smoke or perhaps condensation rising from the barrel.
Arife's tortured scream collapsed on itself.
I swiveled around and sat up, facing the colonel. The rest of our party was behind him. Arife has somehow spun into the shoulder of Reef Tak, who was holding her close as though to protect her from the reality of her brother's death.
The deadly colonel continued. "I feel your little spitfire aimed between my shoulders, Your Brightness. Put it away, as I will holster my own weapon. Enough people have died today.
"A dangerous revolutionary has brought about his own end."
"It was your plot," countered Val Paxt, holding her pistol steady on the colonel, who had laid down his tiny gun.
"If you go back to Duhor and tell that story, you open inquiries into how the plot began," the colonel said.
"Money was used to get the 'plot' underway. Those who paid the bills will be presumed to be the original plotters.
"Would it surprise you, Brightness, if the paper trail led back to your grandfather?"
"You lie, you conniving" Val's eyes flashed like warning flares.
"Who else but the jeddak has access to discretionary funds to be used to fund such an undertaking? Is it not the duty of the high king to protect his people from foreign usurpers? What would make more sense?"
The colonel reached for his mug of tea, as though he intended to sit and refresh himself while various persons, none of them as smart as he, tried to catch up to his thinking.
"Kor San would have nothing to do with such a mad scheme, which would put Duhor at such risk for so little return," Val argued.
"You do not know how much your grandfather may have been involved, Your Brightness. Supposesuppose he has private investments with a small company which would have stood to benefit from a redistribution of trade?
"You only know that a person of such ability as myself has had six years to lay the back trail.
"Do you take that chance, princess? Will you bring down your grandfather's house?"
"I think," said Teedwar Harl, sipping his tea, "that we will bury this dangerous revolutionary, who lied even to his own sister and risked her life for his own ends, and we will return to our home city.
"We willforget much of what happened here. You will be given an official story, which will become the only story, and thus the truth. And in that manner, Brightness …several lives will be saved."
I looked up. The colonel had four soldiers on his personal craft. There was one at the center of each wall of the tavern, all wearing revolvers, all facing inwards at us. No one was smiling.
Arife sobbed, heartbroken.
We were soon underway, with a new passenger.
"I would go with you," said Doon Pas simply. "The future for my people lies south, not north. One of us must go there first."
"Your inn?" I asked.
"I have sold it to the widower of the mayor. He was my best customer anyway. Now he no longer has an appointed hour to go home."
"Kaor, Doon Pas."
Shortly after we arrived in Duhor, Val Paxt was met by her father, Vad Varo, in the uniform of an ober-dwar of the city Regulars. They gravely took their leave of us. Arife hied herself off to visit the nursery and the new baby brother.
I assumed Val was being taken to meet with her mother. I should have known that affairs of state take precedence. I put together the following information from things that Val let slip, from Paxton (who is practically an open book) and from Aunt Shee, the jeddak's sister, who was present.
The Jasoomian Paxton and his half-Jasoomian daughter, Val Paxt, were ushered into the presence of the Jeddak of Duhor, Kor San, in the informal audience room. Paxton stood at attention, as was his wont when greeting his father-in-law, and Val took a knee.
Kor San sat in a plain but comfortable chair. His sister Shee sat at his side.
"Rise, Granddaughter," said Kor San. "Respect for your elders is good, but I require of you a report of thismisadventure?
"I have read the summaries of the commanders of these two young officers, Reef Tak and the new Earth-boy"
"That's 'Jasoomian,'" responded both father and daughter. "Sire," added Val Paxt.
"'Jasoomian,' then," smiled the jeddak. "The generals are quite ambiguous, not knowing what our response would be and not wanting to back the wrong thoat. Perhaps you could enlighten me on a few points. Be seated."
Val Paxt spent about an earthly hour recounting the deeds of the past few days, and then comparing opinions with her father and grandfather about what risks and opportunities faced the city of Duhor in the wake of those events.
"Granddaughter," said the jeddak, at last relaxing back into his chair, "I think you were surprised that I made a marriage match for you with the son of a mere general. I hope you did not think that I thought you in any way unworthy.
"You are only half a Red Martian. But you are completely and with all your heart a citizen of Duhor. You are the visible, tangible future of Duhor.
"The city does not need, at this point, geographic and military alliances with other cities, sealed with the weddings of innocent young people.
"I do not wish to create a military alliance among the cities of the northern hemisphere. The only thing such an alliance can do is make war. Nor do I want the southern alliance of Helium and its satellites to gain power on our side of the equator.
"In pursuing such a path the city of Duhor must stand alone. And to do that we need an alliance between two powerful groups.
"When your father came to us we had artisans and shopkeepers. In less than a generation many of them have become 'manufacturers' and 'merchants,'" said the hereditary leader of the city, stumbling over the strange English words.
"Those who were already traders and shippers have become vastly more important with all the new trade and 'industry' which your father and his friends have initiated.
"In short, we need an alliance between the new merchant classes of the city, championed by your father, and the old, powerful, military classes.
"And this is why I thought that a match with young Reef Tak would be in the best interest of the city, and thus our duty.
"I was aware of your pre-existing relationship with the young Arife," he said, exhibiting a look of predetermined sternness for a predetermined time, and then smiling. "I am also aware of a brief interlude with a young nobleman of Helium on your 18th birthday.
"I believe there was a dalliance for a year between the twin A-kor lads and you and Arife, and a barely averted duel between two padwars of the Imperial Guard over a misunderstanding about personal privileges to which each thought he had an unobstructed right.
"That one cost the treasury some money to cover up."
Val Paxt glared at her Aunt Shee. Aunt Shee maintained a look of innocence.
"I must ask, Granddaughterdo you raise a personal objection to renewing the proposed marriage match to Dwar Reef Tak?"
"My duty to you, Grandfather. Actually, Reef risked his life to rescue Arife and me. I believe Arife thinks he is'cute.'" It was the first time she had used the English word, one her father barely remembered. Ulysses Paxton beamed.
"Brightness," declared the jeddak, who had given her the call-name as a child, "your father may not inherit this throne. He and I have talked at length, and it would not be acceptable for a person from off-planet to rule here.
"Perhaps in the fullness of time it will be your new baby brother who rules here, with you sitting in the untitled throne beside him." Aunt Shee smiled.
"Or perhaps you will rule. The people of Duhor, our real masters, will make that decision, although they will believe that I did. In the meantime we will do all that we can to keep them safe and make them strong."
"My duty, Grandfather."
I sat beside a dejected Reef Tak on a stone bench in Vad Varo's garden. We were too exhausted to pass the usual half-insults that characterized our conversations.
"We never settled who is the better sword," I observed listlessly.
"I am no longer interested," Reef said, staring into some distant space. "Besides, it is obvious. If I moved fast enough in the first few xats, I would prevail. If it lasts longer than that, your Earth-boy endurance would win out."
"That's 'Jasoom' never mind. Will you return to your desert post?"
"I do not know. I may retire and become a librarian, or a scholar, bumbling around with armloads of books in dim halls of learning." He was feeling really sorry for himself, I decided.
"And again," he continued, "I have heard there is a post with a scientific expedition to the Toonolian Marshes. A person could while away a year or two in seclusion in such a setting."
Val Paxt and her maid Arife approached. They were attired in new robes, they had been coiffed and they looked unaccountably fresh and rested. I still felt like I had run across half of Mars with a thark on my back.
They were still the two most beautiful women I had ever seen. Val's gray eyes were dancing. I felt sorry for Reef Tak, the semi-innocent, jack-booted aristocrat who had lost so much.
We two, once again mere soldiers, rose to greet the princess and her privileged attendant.
"Reef, Jak, so good to see you," said Val, as though we had never huddled together against the cold, nestled between the heartbeats of two warm thoats. "You must tell us your plans."
"Desolated as I am, my lady, I will probably go into seclusion. Yet I am proud if anything I have done was of service to you and your family," said Reef, nodding gracefully at Arife at the word 'family.'" Arife smiled.
"Desolated?" asked Val Paxt. "Why so, my chieftain?"
Time lurched to a halt.
'My chieftain' was the lover's identification from married women to their husbands, or used by those who have found the man they intend to marry.
"Have I said something to offend my chieftain?"
"I had thought that since you prefersince you alreadythat perhaps you …because of your relationship"
"You thought that my favors were only for a person of my owngender?
"Arife," said Val, pointedly addressing her 'maid,' "have I ever made such a statement to Dwar Reef Tak?"
"I believe not, my lady."
"Have you ever known me to make such a statement?"
Arife appeared to think carefully. "Well, there was that time we were avoiding that odious captain of the Imperial Guard… no my lady, never," she quickly amended.
"Reef, I believe my grandfather still thinks that a match between your family and mine would be a good thing. Perhaps we should talk about itthe three of us," Val said, reaching one hand to touch Reef Tak and the other to absently caress Arife.
I thought Reef Tak would melt.
Big Glyf and I went down to battalion headquarters to turn in our paperwork explaining how we had lost, expended or otherwise mislaid every scrap of equipment and all the animals that had been issued to us for our little search of the desert.
"Not good, Padwar," said the senior sergeant. "If the ober-dwar decides to take this out of your pay, you will be working until …" he made a show of scratching with a pencil on a piece of paper, and then gave it up and sighed heavily."a long time."
"Exigencies of war, Senior Sergeant," I said, reflecting that I still owed the Soviet Army millions of rubles for similar happenings. "Anything else for us to sign?"
"Changing the subject only a little, Padwar, you will hear this officially from the ober-dwar later today, but you are to be advanced to Padwar of the first rank. I mention it only because I will have to find a position for you within the chain of command, to give you operational experience.
"There is an opening in the supply company, over the office of procurement. The previous occupant had some trouble with his books and is no longer with us"
I felt Glyf stiffen behind me.
"Alas, I do not read or write Duhorian, Senior Sergeant," I said. He stared at me as though he had not previously considered it a disqualification for officers. Absently he picked up the sheaf of hand-written alibi sheets I had just filed with him. He rapped them on the bottom edge and again on the side, straightening the entire reportwhich I had writtenand laid it to one side.
Touche, Senior Sergeant, I thought.
"Well, the jeddak has expressed some concern about sickness among the workers in thelesserparts of the city, and has suggested the odwars put together a company of military doctors and health officials to do 'outreach' to improve the general level of health. You have some medical experience, I believe, Padwar?"
Glyf cleared his throat.
"All very inappropriate to such an undertaking, I assure you, Senior Sergeant. Some low-level appointment over a platoon of common soldiers, perhaps? Are the Regulars to be assigned any particularly dull patrol duties in a place where dwars and ober-dwars never visit?"
The senior sergeant paused theatrically and then drew a file from a corner of his highly organized desk.
"A scientific expedition to the Toonolian Marshes," he announced. "The engineers are wondering at increased flooding in the swamps, more water than expected, and wish to study further. There will be many academics along, some workers, and the Regulars have been tasked to provide security. Operation departs in a month, to be on station three months to a year," he said, using the Martian terms for time.
"Your name has apparently already been filled in, Padwar," said the sergeant, as though he had just discovered that fact. "You'll need a sergeant."
"I have one," I said, looking at Glyf. He remained at attention, but I believe it was the first time I ever surprised him.
"Glyf 26, call-named 'Big,'" said the senior sergeant, adding the name to the form. He looked up. "Glyf, you are officially a corporal/squad leader as of today. Tomorrow you will be advanced to sergeant of the third rank. That should be enough time in grade."
"My duty, Sergeant," said Big Glyf, morosely staring straight ahead.
"Padwar, you already have a pilot, Thimkey, the officer I sent to contact you during the last operation. He and his crewman requested to serve under you. And two members of the Duhor Desert Scouts requested to be attached to your command."
"Am I the last to learn of this promotion?"
"Perhaps not, although I would not wager money on it," said the sergeant. "You will have a complement of 12, all together, and I suspect you will have no trouble filling the ranks."
"They will include a yellow man and two tharks," I said, pushing my luck. The sergeant pursed his lips as though he had tasted something sour and weighed the demand.
"In responding to your request, Sir, I believe we can add the yellow as a provisional militiaman attached to the Regulars for active duty, the tharks as indigenous scouts," he said. "That about do it, Sir?" he signaled me that my luck had run his course.
"Excellent, Senior Sergeant. Should I report tomorrow?"
"Have your three recruits report for training at the beginning of the week, Sir. I believe you and Glyf are slated for a month's leave. Here's a copy of the operational plan for the mission."
Thus Big Glyf and I became explorers of the Toonolian Marshes.