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A Repellent Sight







From: The Chessmen Of Mars

The cruiser Vanator careened through the tempest. That she had not
been dashed to the ground, or twisted by the force of the
elements into tangled wreckage, was due entirely to the caprice
of Nature. For all the duration of the storm she rode, a helpless
derelict, upon those storm-tossed waves of wind. But for all the
dangers and vicissitudes they underwent, she and her crew might
have borne charmed lives up to within an hour of the abating of
the hurricane. It was then that the catastrophe occurred--a
catastrophe indeed to the crew of the Vanator and the kingdom of
Gathol.

The men had been without food or drink since leaving Helium, and
they had been hurled about and buffeted in their lashings until
all were worn to exhaustion. There was a brief lull in the storm
during which one of the crew attempted to reach his quarters,
after releasing the lashings which had held him to the precarious
safety of the deck. The act in itself was a direct violation of
orders and, in the eyes of the other members of the crew, the
effect, which came with startling suddenness, took the form of a
swift and terrible retribution. Scarce had the man released the
safety snaps ere a swift arm of the storm-monster encircled the
ship, rolling it over and over, with the result that the
foolhardy warrior went overboard at the first turn.

Unloosed from their lashing by the constant turning and twisting
of the ship and the force of the wind, the boarding and landing
tackle had been trailing beneath the keel, a tangled mass of
cordage and leather. Upon the occasions that the Vanator rolled
completely over, these things would be wrapped around her until
another revolution in the opposite direction, or the wind itself,
carried them once again clear of the deck to trail, whipping in
the storm, beneath the hurtling ship.

Into this fell the body of the warrior, and as a drowning man
clutches at a straw so the fellow clutched at the tangled cordage
that caught him and arrested his fall. With the strength of
desperation he clung to the cordage, seeking frantically to
entangle his legs and body in it. With each jerk of the ship his
hand holds were all but torn loose, and though he knew that
eventually they would be and that he must be dashed to the ground
beneath, yet he fought with the madness that is born of
hopelessness for the pitiful second which but prolonged his
agony.

It was upon this sight then that Gahan of Gathol looked, over the
edge of the careening deck of the Vanator, as he sought to learn
the fate of his warrior. Lashed to the gunwale close at hand a
single landing leather that had not fouled the tangled mass
beneath whipped free from the ship's side, the hook snapping at
its outer end. The Jed of Gathol grasped the situation in a
single glance. Below him one of his people looked into the eyes
of Death. To the jed's hand lay the means for succor.

There was no instant's hesitation. Casting off his deck lashings,
he seized the landing leather and slipped over the ship's side.
Swinging like a bob upon a mad pendulum he swung far out and back
again, turning and twisting three thousand feet above the surface
of Barsoom, and then, at last, the thing he had hoped for
occurred. He was carried within reach of the cordage where the
warrior still clung, though with rapidly diminishing strength.
Catching one leg on a loop of the tangled strands Gahan pulled
himself close enough to seize another quite near to the fellow.
Clinging precariously to this new hold the jed slowly drew in the
landing leather, down which he had clambered until he could grasp
the hook at its end. This he fastened to a ring in the warrior's
harness, just before the man's weakened fingers slipped from
their hold upon the cordage.

Temporarily, at least, he had saved the life of his subject,
and now he turned his attention toward insuring his own safety.
Inextricably entangled in the mess to which he was clinging were
numerous other landing hooks such as he had attached to the
warrior's harness, and with one of these he sought to secure
himself until the storm should abate sufficiently to permit him
to climb to the deck, but even as he reached for one that swung
near him the ship was caught in a renewed burst of the storm's
fury, the thrashing cordage whipped and snapped to the lunging of
the great craft and one of the heavy metal hooks, lashing through
the air, struck the Jed of Gathol fair between the eyes.

Momentarily stunned, Gahan's fingers slipped from their hold upon
the cordage and the man shot downward through the thin air of
dying Mars toward the ground three thousand feet beneath, while
upon the deck of the rolling Vanator his faithful warriors clung
to their lashings all unconscious of the fate of their beloved
leader; nor was it until more than an hour later, after the storm
had materially subsided, that they realized he was lost, or knew
the self-sacrificing heroism of the act that had sealed his doom.
The Vanator now rested upon an even keel as she was carried along
by a strong, though steady, wind. The warriors had cast off their
deck lashings and the officers were taking account of losses and
damage when a weak cry was heard from oversides, attracting their
attention to the man hanging in the cordage beneath the keel.
Strong arms hoisted him to the deck and then it was that the
crew of the Vanator learned of the heroism of their jed and his
end. How far they had traveled since his loss they could only
vaguely guess, nor could they return in search of him in the
disabled condition of the ship. It was a saddened company that
drifted onward through the air toward whatever destination Fate
was to choose for them.

And Gahan, Jed of Gathol--what of him? Plummet-like he fell for a
thousand feet and then the storm seized him in its giant clutch
and bore him far aloft again. As a bit of paper borne upon a gale
he was tossed about in mid-air, the sport and plaything of the
wind. Over and over it turned him and upward and downward it
carried him, but after each new sally of the element he was
brought nearer to the ground. The freaks of cyclonic storms are
the rule of cyclonic storms, demolish giant trees, and in the
same gust they transport frail infants for miles and deposit them
unharmed in their wake.

And so it was with Gahan of Gathol. Expecting momentarily to be
dashed to destruction he presently found himself deposited gently
upon the soft, ochre moss of a dead sea-bottom, bodily no worse
off for his harrowing adventure than in the possession of a
slight swelling upon his forehead where the metal hook had struck
him. Scarcely able to believe that Fate had dealt thus gently
with him, the jed arose slowly, as though more than half
convinced that he should discover crushed and splintered bones
that would not support his weight. But he was intact. He looked
about him in a vain effort at orientation. The air was filled
with flying dust and debris. The Sun was obliterated. His vision
was confined to a radius of a few hundred yards of ochre moss and
dust-filled air. Five hundred yards away in any direction there
might have arisen the walls of a great city and he not known it.
It was useless to move from where he was until the air cleared,
since he could not know in what direction he was moving, and so
he stretched himself upon the moss and waited, pondering the fate
of his warriors and his ship, but giving little thought to his
own precarious situation.

Lashed to his harness were his swords, his pistols, and a dagger,
and in his pocket-pouch a small quantity of the concentrated
rations that form a part of the equipment of the fighting men of
Barsoom. These things together with trained muscles, high
courage, and an undaunted spirit sufficed him for whatever
misadventures might lie between him and Gathol, which lay in what
direction he knew not, nor at what distance.

The wind was falling rapidly and with it the dust that obscured
the landscape. That the storm was over he was convinced, but he
chafed at the inactivity the low visibility put upon him, nor did
conditions better materially before night fell, so that he was
forced to await the new day at the very spot at which the tempest
had deposited him. Without his sleeping silks and furs he spent a
far from comfortable night, and it was with feelings of unmixed
relief that he saw the sudden dawn burst upon him. The air was
now clear and in the light of the new day he saw an undulating
plain stretching in all directions about him, while to the
northwest there were barely discernible the outlines of low
hills. Toward the southeast of Gathol was such a country, and as
Gahan surmised the direction and the velocity of the storm to
have carried him somewhere in the vicinity of the country he
thought he recognized, he assumed that Gathol lay behind the
hills he now saw, whereas, in reality, it lay far to the
northeast.

It was two days before Gahan had crossed the plain and reached
the summit of the hills from which he hoped to see his own
country, only to meet at last with disappointment. Before him
stretched another plain, of even greater proportions than that he
had but just crossed, and beyond this other hills. In one
material respect this plain differed from that behind him in that
it was dotted with occasional isolated hills. Convinced, however,
that Gathol lay somewhere in the direction of his search he
descended into the valley and bent his steps toward the
northwest.

For weeks Gahan of Gathol crossed valleys and hills in search of
some familiar landmark that might point his way toward his native
land, but the summit of each succeeding ridge revealed but
another unfamiliar view. He saw few animals and no men, until he
finally came to the belief that he had fallen upon that fabled
area of ancient Barsoom which lay under the curse of her olden
gods--the once rich and fertile country whose people in their
pride and arrogance had denied the deities, and whose punishment
had been extermination.

And then, one day, he scaled low hills and looked into an
inhabited valley--a valley of trees and cultivated fields and
plots of ground enclosed by stone walls surrounding strange
towers. He saw people working in the fields, but he did not rush
down to greet them. First he must know more of them and whether
they might be assumed to be friends or enemies. Hidden by
concealing shrubbery he crawled to a vantage point upon a hill
that projected further into the valley, and here he lay upon
his belly watching the workers closest to him. They were still
quite a distance from him and he could not be quite sure of them,
but there was something verging upon the unnatural about them.
Their heads seemed out of proportion to their bodies--too large.

For a long time he lay watching them and ever more forcibly it
was borne in upon his consciousness that they were not as he, and
that it would be rash to trust himself among them. Presently he
saw a couple appear from the nearest enclosure and slowly
approach those who were working nearest to the hill where he lay
in hiding. Immediately he was aware that one of these differed
from all the others. Even at the greater distance he noted that
the head was smaller and as they approached, he was confident
that the harness of one of them was not as the harness of its
companion or of that of any of those who tilled the fields.

The two stopped often, apparently in argument, as though one
would proceed in the direction that they were going while the
other demurred. But each time the smaller won reluctant consent
from the other, and so they came closer and closer to the last
line of workers toiling between the enclosure from which they had
come and the hill where Gahan of Gathol lay watching, and then
suddenly the smaller figure struck its companion full in the
face. Gahan, horrified, saw the latter's head topple from its
body, saw the body stagger and fall to the ground. The man half
rose from his concealment the better to view the happening in the
valley below. The creature that had felled its companion was
dashing madly in the direction of the hill upon which he was
hidden, it dodged one of the workers that sought to seize it.
Gahan hoped that it would gain its liberty, why he did not know
other than at closer range it had every appearance of being a
creature of his own race. Then he saw it stumble and go down and
instantly its pursuers were upon it. Then it was that Gahan's
eyes chanced to return to the figure of the creature the fugitive
had felled.

What horror was this that he was witnessing? Or were his eyes
playing some ghastly joke upon him? No, impossible though it
was--it was true--the head was moving slowly to the fallen body.
It placed itself upon the shoulders, the body rose, and the
creature, seemingly as good as new, ran quickly to where its
fellows were dragging the hapless captive to its feet.

The watcher saw the creature take its prisoner by the arm and
lead it back to the enclosure, and even across the distance that
separated them from him he could note dejection and utter
hopelessness in the bearing of the prisoner, and, too, he was
half convinced that it was a woman, perhaps a red Martian of his
own race. Could he be sure that this was true he must make some
effort to rescue her even though the customs of his strange world
required it only in case she was of his own country; but he was
not sure; she might not be a red Martian at all, or, if she were,
it was as possible that she sprang from an enemy people as not.
His first duty was to return to his own people with as little
personal risk as possible, and though the thought of adventure
stirred his blood he put the temptation aside with a sigh and
turned away from the peaceful and beautiful valley that he longed
to enter, for it was his intention to skirt its eastern edge and
continue his search for Gathol beyond.

As Gahan of Gathol turned his steps along the southern slopes of
the hills that bound Bantoom upon the south and east, his
attention was attracted toward a small cluster of trees a short
distance to his right. The low sun was casting long shadows. It
would soon be night. The trees were off the path that he had
chosen and he had little mind to be diverted from his way; but as
he looked again he hesitated. There was something there besides
boles of trees, and underbrush. There were suggestions of
familiar lines of the handicraft of man. Gahan stopped and
strained his eyes in the direction of the thing that had arrested
his attention. No, he must be mistaken--the branches of the trees
and a low bush had taken on an unnatural semblance in the
horizontal rays of the setting sun. He turned and continued upon
his way; but as he cast another side glance in the direction of
the object of his interest, the sun's rays were shot back into
his eyes from a glistening point of radiance among the trees.

Gahan shook his head and walked quickly toward the mystery,
determined now to solve it. The shining object still lured him on
and when he had come closer to it his eyes went wide in surprise,
for the thing they saw was naught else than the jewel-encrusted
emblem upon the prow of a small flier. Gahan, his hand upon his
short-sword, moved silently forward, but as he neared the craft
he saw that he had naught to fear, for it was deserted. Then he
turned his attention toward the emblem. As its significance was
flashed to his understanding his face paled and his heart went
cold--it was the insignia of the house of The Warlord of
Barsoom. Instantly he saw the dejected figure of the captive
being led back to her prison in the valley just beyond the hills.
Tara of Helium! And he had been so near to deserting her to her
fate. The cold sweat stood in beads upon his brow.

A hasty examination of the deserted craft unfolded to the young
jed the whole tragic story. The same tempest that had proved his
undoing had borne Tara of Helium to this distant country. Here,
doubtless, she had landed in hope of obtaining food and water
since, without a propellor, she could not hope to reach her
native city, or any other friendly port, other than by the merest
caprice of Fate. The flier seemed intact except for the missing
propellor and the fact that it had been carefully moored in the
shelter of the clump of trees indicated that the girl had
expected to return to it, while the dust and leaves upon its deck
spoke of the long days, and even weeks, since she had landed.
Mute yet eloquent proofs, these things, that Tara of Helium was a
prisoner, and that she was the very prisoner whose bold dash for
liberty he had so recently witnessed he now had not the slightest
doubt.

The question now revolved solely about her rescue. He knew to
which tower she had been taken--that much and no more. Of the
number, the kind, or the disposition of her captors he knew
nothing; nor did he care--for Tara of Helium he would face a
hostile world alone. Rapidly he considered several plans for
succoring her; but the one that appealed most strongly to him was
that which offered the greatest chance of escape for the girl
should he be successful in reaching her. His decision reached he
turned his attention quickly toward the flier. Casting off its
lashings he dragged it out from beneath the trees, and, mounting
to the deck tested out the various controls. The motor started at
a touch and purred sweetly, the buoyancy tanks were well stocked,
and the ship answered perfectly to the controls which regulated
her altitude. There was nothing needed but a propellor to make
her fit for the long voyage to Helium. Gahan shrugged
impatiently--there must not be a propellor within a thousand
haads. But what mattered it? The craft even without a propellor
would still answer the purpose his plan required of it--provided
the captors of Tara of Helium were a people without ships, and he
had seen nothing to suggest that they had ships. The architecture
of their towers and enclosures assured him that they had not.

The sudden Barsoomian night had fallen. Cluros rode majestically
the high heavens. The rumbling roar of a banth reverberated among
the hills. Gahan of Gathol let the ship rise a few feet from the
ground, then, seizing a bow rope, he dropped over the side. To
tow the little craft was now a thing of ease, and as Gahan moved
rapidly toward the brow of the hill above Bantoom the flier
floated behind him as lightly as a swan upon a quiet lake. Now
down the hill toward the tower dimly visible in the moonlight the
Gatholian turned his steps. Closer behind him sounded the roar of
the hunting banth. He wondered if the beast sought him or was
following some other spoor. He could not be delayed now by any
hungry beast of prey, for what might that very instant be
befalling Tara of Helium he could not guess; and so he hastened
his steps. But closer and closer came the horrid screams of the
great carnivore, and now he heard the swift fall of padded feet
upon the hillside behind him. He glanced back just in time to see
the beast break into a rapid charge. His hand leaped to the hilt
of his long-sword, but he did not draw, for in the same instant
he saw the futility of armed resistance, since behind the first
banth came a herd of at least a dozen others. There was but a
single alternative to a futile stand and that he grasped in the
instant that he saw the overwhelming numbers of his antagonists.

Springing lightly from the ground he swarmed up the rope toward
the bow of the flier. His weight drew the craft slightly lower
and at the very instant that the man drew himself to the deck at
the bow of the vessel, the leading banth sprang for the stern.
Gahan leaped to his feet and rushed toward the great beast in the
hope of dislodging it before it had succeeded in clambering
aboard. At the same instant he saw that others of the banths were
racing toward them with the quite evident intention of following
their leader to the ship's deck. Should they reach it in any
numbers he would be lost. There was but a single hope. Leaping
for the altitude control Gahan pulled it wide. Simultaneously
three banths leaped for the deck. The craft rose swiftly. Gahan
felt the impact of a body against the keel, followed by the soft
thuds of the great bodies as they struck the ground beneath. His
act had not been an instant too soon. And now the leader had
gained the deck and stood at the stern with glaring eyes and
snarling jaws. Gahan drew his sword. The beast, possibly
disconcerted by the novelty of its position, did not charge.
Instead it crept slowly toward its intended prey. The craft was
rising and Gahan placed a foot upon the control and stopped the
ascent. He did not wish to chance rising to some higher air
current that would bear him away. Already the craft was moving
slowly toward the tower, carried thither by the impetus of the
banth's heavy body leaping upon it from astern.

The man watched the slow approach of the monster, the slavering
jowls, the malignant expression of the devilish face. The
creature, finding the deck stable, appeared to be gaining
confidence, and then the man leaped suddenly to one side of the
deck and the tiny flier heeled as suddenly in response. The banth
slipped and clutched frantically at the deck. Gahan leaped in
with his naked sword; the great beast caught itself and reared
upon its hind legs to reach forth and seize this presumptuous
mortal that dared question its right to the flesh it craved; and
then the man sprang to the opposite side of the deck. The banth
toppled sideways at the same instant that it attempted to spring;
a raking talon passed close to Gahan's head at the moment that
his sword lunged through the savage heart, and as the warrior
wrenched his blade from the carcass it slipped silently over the
side of the ship.

A glance below showed that the vessel was drifting in the
direction of the tower to which Gahan had seen the prisoner led.
In another moment or two it would be directly over it. The man
sprang to the control and let the craft drop quickly toward the
ground where followed the banths, still hot for their prey. To
land outside the enclosure spelled certain death, while inside he
could see many forms huddled upon the ground as in sleep. The
ship floated now but a few feet above the wall of the enclosure.
There was nothing for it but to risk all on a bold bid for
fortune, or drift helplessly past without hope of returning
through the banth-infested valley, from many points of which he
could now hear the roars and growls of these fierce Barsoomian
lions.

Slipping over the side Gahan descended by the trailing
anchor-rope until his feet touched the top of the wall, where he
had no difficulty in arresting the slow drifting of the ship.
Then he drew up the anchor and lowered it inside the enclosure.
Still there was no movement upon the part of the sleepers
beneath--they lay as dead men. Dull lights shone from openings in
the tower; but there was no sign of guard or waking inmate.
Clinging to the rope Gahan lowered himself within the enclosure,
where he had his first close view of the creatures lying there in
what he had thought sleep. With a half smothered exclamation of
horror the man drew back from the headless bodies of the rykors.
At first he thought them the corpses of decapitated humans like
himself, which was quite bad enough; but when he saw them move
and realized that they were endowed with life, his horror and
disgust became even greater.

Here then was the explanation of the thing he had witnessed that
afternoon, when Tara of Helium had struck the back to its body.
And to think that the pearl of Helium was in the power of such
hideous things as these. Again the man shuddered, but he hastened
to make fast the flier, clamber again to its deck and lower it to
the floor of the enclosure. Then he strode toward a door in the
base of the tower, stepping lightly over the recumbent forms of
the unconscious rykors, and crossing the threshold disappeared
within.





Next: Close Work

Previous: In The Toils Of Horror



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