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The Air Battle







From: The Gods Of Mars

Two hours after leaving my palace at Helium, or about midnight, Kantos
Kan, Xodar, and I arrived at Hastor. Carthoris, Tars Tarkas, and Hor
Vastus had gone directly to Thark upon another cruiser.

The transports were to get under way immediately and move slowly south.
The fleet of battleships would overtake them on the morning of the
second day.

At Hastor we found all in readiness, and so perfectly had Kantos Kan
planned every detail of the campaign that within ten minutes of our
arrival the first of the fleet had soared aloft from its dock, and
thereafter, at the rate of one a second, the great ships floated
gracefully out into the night to form a long, thin line which stretched
for miles toward the south.

It was not until after we had entered the cabin of Kantos Kan that I
thought to ask the date, for up to now I was not positive how long I
had lain in the pits of Zat Arras. When Kantos Kan told me, I realized
with a pang of dismay that I had misreckoned the time while I lay in
the utter darkness of my cell. Three hundred and sixty-five days had
passed--it was too late to save Dejah Thoris.

The expedition was no longer one of rescue but of revenge. I did not
remind Kantos Kan of the terrible fact that ere we could hope to enter
the Temple of Issus, the Princess of Helium would be no more. In so
far as I knew she might be already dead, for I did not know the exact
date on which she first viewed Issus.

What now the value of burdening my friends with my added personal
sorrows--they had shared quite enough of them with me in the past.
Hereafter I would keep my grief to myself, and so I said nothing to any
other of the fact that we were too late. The expedition could yet do
much if it could but teach the people of Barsoom the facts of the cruel
deception that had been worked upon them for countless ages, and thus
save thousands each year from the horrid fate that awaited them at the
conclusion of the voluntary pilgrimage.

If it could open to the red men the fair Valley Dor it would have
accomplished much, and in the Land of Lost Souls between the Mountains
of Otz and the ice barrier were many broad acres that needed no
irrigation to bear rich harvests.

Here at the bottom of a dying world was the only naturally productive
area upon its surface. Here alone were dews and rains, here alone was
an open sea, here was water in plenty; and all this was but the
stamping ground of fierce brutes and from its beauteous and fertile
expanse the wicked remnants of two once mighty races barred all the
other millions of Barsoom. Could I but succeed in once breaking down
the barrier of religious superstition which had kept the red races from
this El Dorado it would be a fitting memorial to the immortal virtues
of my Princess--I should have again served Barsoom and Dejah Thoris'
martyrdom would not have been in vain.

On the morning of the second day we raised the great fleet of
transports and their consorts at the first flood of dawn, and soon were
near enough to exchange signals. I may mention here that
radio-aerograms are seldom if ever used in war time, or for the
transmission of secret dispatches at any time, for as often as one
nation discovers a new cipher, or invents a new instrument for wireless
purposes its neighbours bend every effort until they are able to
intercept and translate the messages. For so long a time has this gone
on that practically every possibility of wireless communication has
been exhausted and no nation dares transmit dispatches of importance in
this way.

Tars Tarkas reported all well with the transports. The battleships
passed through to take an advanced position, and the combined fleets
moved slowly over the ice cap, hugging the surface closely to prevent
detection by the therns whose land we were approaching.

Far in advance of all a thin line of one-man air scouts protected us
from surprise, and on either side they flanked us, while a smaller
number brought up the rear some twenty miles behind the transports. In
this formation we had progressed toward the entrance to Omean for
several hours when one of our scouts returned from the front to report
that the cone-like summit of the entrance was in sight. At almost the
same instant another scout from the left flank came racing toward the
flagship.

His very speed bespoke the importance of his information. Kantos Kan
and I awaited him upon the little forward deck which corresponds with
the bridge of earthly battleships. Scarcely had his tiny flier come to
rest upon the broad landing-deck of the flagship ere he was bounding up
the stairway to the deck where we stood.

"A great fleet of battleships south-south-east, my Prince," he cried.
"There must be several thousands and they are bearing down directly
upon us."

"The thern spies were not in the palace of John Carter for nothing,"
said Kantos Kan to me. "Your orders, Prince."

"Dispatch ten battleships to guard the entrance to Omean, with orders
to let no hostile enter or leave the shaft. That will bottle up the
great fleet of the First Born.

"Form the balance of the battleships into a great V with the apex
pointing directly south-south-east. Order the transports, surrounded
by their convoys, to follow closely in the wake of the battleships
until the point of the V has entered the enemies' line, then the V must
open outward at the apex, the battleships of each leg engage the enemy
fiercely and drive him back to form a lane through his line into which
the transports with their convoys must race at top speed that they may
gain a position above the temples and gardens of the therns.

"Here let them land and teach the Holy Therns such a lesson in
ferocious warfare as they will not forget for countless ages. It had
not been my intention to be distracted from the main issue of the
campaign, but we must settle this attack with the therns once and for
all, or there will be no peace for us while our fleet remains near Dor,
and our chances of ever returning to the outer world will be greatly
minimized."

Kantos Kan saluted and turned to deliver my instructions to his waiting
aides. In an incredibly short space of time the formation of the
battleships changed in accordance with my commands, the ten that were
to guard the way to Omean were speeding toward their destination, and
the troopships and convoys were closing up in preparation for the spurt
through the lane.

The order of full speed ahead was given, the fleet sprang through the
air like coursing greyhounds, and in another moment the ships of the
enemy were in full view. They formed a ragged line as far as the eye
could reach in either direction and about three ships deep. So sudden
was our onslaught that they had no time to prepare for it. It was as
unexpected as lightning from a clear sky.

Every phase of my plan worked splendidly. Our huge ships mowed their
way entirely through the line of thern battlecraft; then the V opened
up and a broad lane appeared through which the transports leaped toward
the temples of the therns which could now be plainly seen glistening in
the sunlight. By the time the therns had rallied from the attack a
hundred thousand green warriors were already pouring through their
courts and gardens, while a hundred and fifty thousand others leaned
from low swinging transports to direct their almost uncanny
marksmanship upon the thern soldiery that manned the ramparts, or
attempted to defend the temples.

Now the two great fleets closed in a titanic struggle far above the
fiendish din of battle in the gorgeous gardens of the therns. Slowly
the two lines of Helium's battleships joined their ends, and then
commenced the circling within the line of the enemy which is so marked
a characteristic of Barsoomian naval warfare.

Around and around in each other's tracks moved the ships under Kantos
Kan, until at length they formed nearly a perfect circle. By this time
they were moving at high speed so that they presented a difficult
target for the enemy. Broadside after broadside they delivered as each
vessel came in line with the ships of the therns. The latter attempted
to rush in and break up the formation, but it was like stopping a buzz
saw with the bare hand.

From my position on the deck beside Kantos Kan I saw ship after ship of
the enemy take the awful, sickening dive which proclaims its total
destruction. Slowly we manoeuvered our circle of death until we hung
above the gardens where our green warriors were engaged. The order was
passed down for them to embark. Then they rose slowly to a position
within the centre of the circle.

In the meantime the therns' fire had practically ceased. They had had
enough of us and were only too glad to let us go on our way in peace.
But our escape was not to be encompassed with such ease, for scarcely
had we gotten under way once more in the direction of the entrance to
Omean than we saw far to the north a great black line topping the
horizon. It could be nothing other than a fleet of war.

Whose or whither bound, we could not even conjecture. When they had
come close enough to make us out at all, Kantos Kan's operator received
a radio-aerogram, which he immediately handed to my companion. He read
the thing and handed it to me.

"Kantos Kan:" it read. "Surrender, in the name of the Jeddak of
Helium, for you cannot escape," and it was signed, "Zat Arras."

The therns must have caught and translated the message almost as soon
as did we, for they immediately renewed hostilities when they realized
that we were soon to be set upon by other enemies.

Before Zat Arras had approached near enough to fire a shot we were
again hotly engaged with the thern fleet, and as soon as he drew near
he too commenced to pour a terrific fusillade of heavy shot into us.
Ship after ship reeled and staggered into uselessness beneath the
pitiless fire that we were undergoing.

The thing could not last much longer. I ordered the transports to
descend again into the gardens of the therns.

"Wreak your vengeance to the utmost," was my message to the green
allies, "for by night there will be none left to avenge your wrongs."

Presently I saw the ten battleships that had been ordered to hold the
shaft of Omean. They were returning at full speed, firing their stern
batteries almost continuously. There could be but one explanation.
They were being pursued by another hostile fleet. Well, the situation
could be no worse. The expedition already was doomed. No man that had
embarked upon it would return across that dreary ice cap. How I wished
that I might face Zat Arras with my longsword for just an instant
before I died! It was he who had caused our failure.

As I watched the oncoming ten I saw their pursuers race swiftly into
sight. It was another great fleet; for a moment I could not believe my
eyes, but finally I was forced to admit that the most fatal calamity
had overtaken the expedition, for the fleet I saw was none other than
the fleet of the First Born, that should have been safely bottled up in
Omean. What a series of misfortunes and disasters! What awful fate
hovered over me, that I should have been so terribly thwarted at every
angle of my search for my lost love! Could it be possible that the
curse of Issus was upon me! That there was, indeed, some malign
divinity in that hideous carcass! I would not believe it, and,
throwing back my shoulders, I ran to the deck below to join my men in
repelling boarders from one of the thern craft that had grappled us
broadside. In the wild lust of hand-to-hand combat my old dauntless
hopefulness returned. And as thern after thern went down beneath my
blade, I could almost feel that we should win success in the end, even
from apparent failure.

My presence among the men so greatly inspirited them that they fell
upon the luckless whites with such terrible ferocity that within a few
moments we had turned the tables upon them and a second later as we
swarmed their own decks I had the satisfaction of seeing their
commander take the long leap from the bows of his vessel in token of
surrender and defeat.

Then I joined Kantos Kan. He had been watching what had taken place on
the deck below, and it seemed to have given him a new thought.
Immediately he passed an order to one of his officers, and presently
the colours of the Prince of Helium broke from every point of the
flagship. A great cheer arose from the men of our own ship, a cheer
that was taken up by every other vessel of our expedition as they in
turn broke my colours from their upper works.

Then Kantos Kan sprang his coup. A signal legible to every sailor of
all the fleets engaged in that fierce struggle was strung aloft upon
the flagship.

"Men of Helium for the Prince of Helium against all his enemies," it
read. Presently my colours broke from one of Zat Arras' ships. Then
from another and another. On some we could see fierce battles waging
between the Zodangan soldiery and the Heliumetic crews, but eventually
the colours of the Prince of Helium floated above every ship that had
followed Zat Arras upon our trail--only his flagship flew them not.

Zat Arras had brought five thousand ships. The sky was black with the
three enormous fleets. It was Helium against the field now, and the
fight had settled to countless individual duels. There could be little
or no manoeuvering of fleets in that crowded, fire-split sky.

Zat Arras' flagship was close to my own. I could see the thin features
of the man from where I stood. His Zodangan crew was pouring broadside
after broadside into us and we were returning their fire with equal
ferocity. Closer and closer came the two vessels until but a few yards
intervened. Grapplers and boarders lined the contiguous rails of each.
We were preparing for the death struggle with our hated enemy.

There was but a yard between the two mighty ships as the first
grappling irons were hurled. I rushed to the deck to be with my men as
they boarded. Just as the vessels came together with a slight shock, I
forced my way through the lines and was the first to spring to the deck
of Zat Arras' ship. After me poured a yelling, cheering, cursing
throng of Helium's best fighting-men. Nothing could withstand them in
the fever of battle lust which enthralled them.

Down went the Zodangans before that surging tide of war, and as my men
cleared the lower decks I sprang to the forward deck where stood Zat
Arras.

"You are my prisoner, Zat Arras," I cried. "Yield and you shall have
quarter."

For a moment I could not tell whether he contemplated acceding to my
demand or facing me with drawn sword. For an instant he stood
hesitating, and then throwing down his arms he turned and rushed to the
opposite side of the deck. Before I could overtake him he had sprung
to the rail and hurled himself headforemost into the awful depths below.

And thus came Zat Arras, Jed of Zodanga, to his end.

On and on went that strange battle. The therns and blacks had not
combined against us. Wherever thern ship met ship of the First Born
was a battle royal, and in this I thought I saw our salvation.
Wherever messages could be passed between us that could not be
intercepted by our enemies I passed the word that all our vessels were
to withdraw from the fight as rapidly as possible, taking a position to
the west and south of the combatants. I also sent an air scout to the
fighting green men in the gardens below to re-embark, and to the
transports to join us.

My commanders were further instructed that when engaged with an enemy
to draw him as rapidly as possible toward a ship of his hereditary
foeman, and by careful manoeuvring to force the two to engage, thus
leaving him-self free to withdraw. This stratagem worked to
perfection, and just before the sun went down I had the satisfaction of
seeing all that was left of my once mighty fleet gathered nearly twenty
miles southwest of the still terrific battle between the blacks and
whites.

I now transferred Xodar to another battleship and sent him with all the
transports and five thousand battleships directly overhead to the
Temple of Issus. Carthoris and I, with Kantos Kan, took the remaining
ships and headed for the entrance to Omean.

Our plan now was to attempt to make a combined assault upon Issus at
dawn of the following day. Tars Tarkas with his green warriors and Hor
Vastus with the red men, guided by Xodar, were to land within the
garden of Issus or the surrounding plains; while Carthoris, Kantos Kan,
and I were to lead our smaller force from the sea of Omean through the
pits beneath the temple, which Carthoris knew so well.

I now learned for the first time the cause of my ten ships' retreat
from the mouth of the shaft. It seemed that when they had come upon
the shaft the navy of the First Born were already issuing from its
mouth. Fully twenty vessels had emerged, and though they gave battle
immediately in an effort to stem the tide that rolled from the black
pit, the odds against them were too great and they were forced to flee.

With great caution we approached the shaft, under cover of darkness.
At a distance of several miles I caused the fleet to be halted, and
from there Carthoris went ahead alone upon a one-man flier to
reconnoitre. In perhaps half an hour he returned to report that there
was no sign of a patrol boat or of the enemy in any form, and so we
moved swiftly and noiselessly forward once more toward Omean.

At the mouth of the shaft we stopped again for a moment for all the
vessels to reach their previously appointed stations, then with the
flagship I dropped quickly into the black depths, while one by one the
other vessels followed me in quick succession.

We had decided to stake all on the chance that we would be able to
reach the temple by the subterranean way and so we left no guard of
vessels at the shaft's mouth. Nor would it have profited us any to
have done so, for we did not have sufficient force all told to have
withstood the vast navy of the First Born had they returned to engage
us.

For the safety of our entrance upon Omean we depended largely upon the
very boldness of it, believing that it would be some little time before
the First Born on guard there would realize that it was an enemy and
not their own returning fleet that was entering the vault of the buried
sea.

And such proved to be the case. In fact, four hundred of my fleet of
five hundred rested safely upon the bosom of Omean before the first
shot was fired. The battle was short and hot, but there could have
been but one outcome, for the First Born in the carelessness of fancied
security had left but a handful of ancient and obsolete hulks to guard
their mighty harbour.

It was at Carthoris' suggestion that we landed our prisoners under
guard upon a couple of the larger islands, and then towed the ships of
the First Born to the shaft, where we managed to wedge a number of them
securely in the interior of the great well. Then we turned on the
buoyance rays in the balance of them and let them rise by themselves to
further block the passage to Omean as they came into contact with the
vessels already lodged there.

We now felt that it would be some time at least before the returning
First Born could reach the surface of Omean, and that we would have
ample opportunity to make for the subterranean passages which lead to
Issus. One of the first steps I took was to hasten personally with a
good-sized force to the island of the submarine, which I took without
resistance on the part of the small guard there.

I found the submarine in its pool, and at once placed a strong guard
upon it and the island, where I remained to wait the coming of
Carthoris and the others.

Among the prisoners was Yersted, commander of the submarine. He
recognized me from the three trips that I had taken with him during my
captivity among the First Born.

"How does it seem," I asked him, "to have the tables turned? To be
prisoner of your erstwhile captive?"

He smiled, a very grim smile pregnant with hidden meaning.

"It will not be for long, John Carter," he replied. "We have been
expecting you and we are prepared."

"So it would appear," I answered, "for you were all ready to become my
prisoners with scarce a blow struck on either side."

"The fleet must have missed you," he said, "but it will return to
Omean, and then that will be a very different matter--for John Carter."

"I do not know that the fleet has missed me as yet," I said, but of
course he did not grasp my meaning, and only looked puzzled.

"Many prisoners travel to Issus in your grim craft, Yersted?" I asked.

"Very many," he assented.

"Might you remember one whom men called Dejah Thoris?"

"Well, indeed, for her great beauty, and then, too, for the fact that
she was wife to the first mortal that ever escaped from Issus through
all the countless ages of her godhood. And the way that Issus
remembers her best as the wife of one and the mother of another who
raised their hands against the Goddess of Life Eternal."

I shuddered for fear of the cowardly revenge that I knew Issus might
have taken upon the innocent Dejah Thoris for the sacrilege of her son
and her husband.

"And where is Dejah Thoris now?" I asked, knowing that he would say the
words I most dreaded, but yet I loved her so that I could not refrain
from hearing even the worst about her fate so that it fell from the
lips of one who had seen her but recently. It was to me as though it
brought her closer to me.

"Yesterday the monthly rites of Issus were held," replied Yersted, "and
I saw her then sitting in her accustomed place at the foot of Issus."

"What," I cried, "she is not dead, then?"

"Why, no," replied the black, "it has been no year since she gazed upon
the divine glory of the radiant face of--"

"No year?" I interrupted.

"Why, no," insisted Yersted. "It cannot have been upward of three
hundred and seventy or eighty days."

A great light burst upon me. How stupid I had been! I could scarcely
retain an outward exhibition of my great joy. Why had I forgotten the
great difference in the length of Martian and Earthly years! The ten
Earth years I had spent upon Barsoom had encompassed but five years and
ninety-six days of Martian time, whose days are forty-one minutes
longer than ours, and whose years number six hundred and eighty-seven
days.

I am in time! I am in time! The words surged through my brain again
and again, until at last I must have voiced them audibly, for Yersted
shook his head.

"In time to save your Princess?" he asked, and then without waiting for
my reply, "No, John Carter, Issus will not give up her own. She knows
that you are coming, and ere ever a vandal foot is set within the
precincts of the Temple of Issus, if such a calamity should befall,
Dejah Thoris will be put away for ever from the last faint hope of
rescue."

"You mean that she will be killed merely to thwart me?" I asked.

"Not that, other than as a last resort," he replied. "Hast ever heard
of the Temple of the Sun? It is there that they will put her. It lies
far within the inner court of the Temple of Issus, a little temple that
raises a thin spire far above the spires and minarets of the great
temple that surrounds it. Beneath it, in the ground, there lies the
main body of the temple consisting in six hundred and eighty-seven
circular chambers, one below another. To each chamber a single
corridor leads through solid rock from the pits of Issus.

"As the entire Temple of the Sun revolves once with each revolution of
Barsoom about the sun, but once each year does the entrance to each
separate chamber come opposite the mouth of the corridor which forms
its only link to the world without.

"Here Issus puts those who displease her, but whom she does not care to
execute forthwith. Or to punish a noble of the First Born she may
cause him to be placed within a chamber of the Temple of the Sun for a
year. Ofttimes she imprisons an executioner with the condemned, that
death may come in a certain horrible form upon a given day, or again
but enough food is deposited in the chamber to sustain life but the
number of days that Issus has allotted for mental anguish.

"Thus will Dejah Thoris die, and her fate will be sealed by the first
alien foot that crosses the threshold of Issus."

So I was to be thwarted in the end, although I had performed the
miraculous and come within a few short moments of my divine Princess,
yet was I as far from her as when I stood upon the banks of the Hudson
forty-eight million miles away.





Next: Through Flood And Flame

Previous: Black Despair



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