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The Headless Humans







From: The Chessmen Of Mars

Above the roof of the palace that housed the Jed of Gathol and
his entourage, the cruiser Vanator tore at her stout moorings.
The groaning tackle bespoke the mad fury of the gale, while the
worried faces of those members of the crew whose duties demanded
their presence on the straining craft gave corroborative evidence
of the gravity of the situation. Only stout lashings prevented
these men from being swept from the deck, while those upon the
roof below were constantly compelled to cling to rails and
stanchions to save themselves from being carried away by each new
burst of meteoric fury. Upon the prow of the Vanator was painted
the device of Gathol, but no pennants were displayed in the upper
works since the storm had carried away several in rapid
succession, just as it seemed to the watching men that it must
carry away the ship itself. They could not believe that any
tackle could withstand for long this Titanic force. To each of
the twelve lashings clung a brawny warrior with drawn
short-sword. Had but a single mooring given to the power of the
tempest eleven short-swords would have cut the others; since,
partially moored, the ship was doomed, while free in the tempest
it stood at least some slight chance for life.

"By the blood of Issus, I believe they will hold!" screamed one
warrior to another.

"And if they do not hold may the spirits of our ancestors reward
the brave warriors upon the Vanator," replied another of those
upon the roof of the palace, "for it will not be long from the
moment her cables part before her crew dons the leather of the
dead; but yet, Tanus, I believe they will hold. Give thanks at
least that we did not sail before the tempest fell, since now
each of us has a chance to live."

"Yes," replied Tanus, "I should hate to be abroad today upon the
stoutest ship that sails the Barsoomian sky."

It was then that Gahan the Jed appeared upon the roof. With him
were the balance of his own party and a dozen warriors of Helium.
The young chief turned to his followers.

"I sail at once upon the Vanator," he said, "in search of Tara of
Helium who is thought to have been carried away upon a one-man
flier by the storm. I do not need to explain to you the slender
chances the Vanator has to withstand the fury of the tempest, nor
will I order you to your deaths. Let those who wish remain behind
without dishonor. The others will follow me," and he leaped for
the rope ladder that lashed wildly in the gale.

The first man to follow him was Tanus and when the last reached
the deck of the cruiser there remained upon the palace roof only
the twelve warriors of Helium, who, with naked swords, had taken
the posts of the Gatholians at the moorings.

Not a single warrior who had remained aboard the Vanator would
leave her now.

"I expected no less," said Gahan, as with the help of those
already on the deck he and the others found secure lashings. The
commander of the Vanator shook his head. He loved his trim craft,
the pride of her class in the little navy of Gathol. It was of
her he thought--not of himself. He saw her lying torn and twisted
upon the ochre vegetation of some distant sea-bottom, to be
presently overrun and looted by some savage, green horde. He
looked at Gahan.

"Are you ready, San Tothis?" asked the jed.

"All is ready."

"Then cut away!"

Word was passed across the deck and over the side to the
Heliumetic warriors below that at the third gun they were to cut
away. Twelve keen swords must strike simultaneously and with
equal power, and each must sever completely and instantly three
strands of heavy cable that no loose end fouling a block bring
immediate disaster upon the Vanator.

Boom! The voice of the signal gun rolled down through the
screaming wind to the twelve warriors upon the roof. Boom! Twelve
swords were raised above twelve brawny shoulders. Boom! Twelve
keen edges severed twelve complaining moorings, clean and as one.

The Vanator, her propellors whirling, shot forward with the
storm. The tempest struck her in the stern as with a mailed fist
and stood the great ship upon her nose, and then it caught her
and spun her as a child's top spins; and upon the palace roof the
twelve men looked on in silent helplessness and prayed for the
souls of the brave warriors who were going to their death. And
others saw, from Helium's lofty landing stages and from a
thousand hangars upon a thousand roofs; but only for an instant
did the preparations stop that would send other brave men into
the frightful maelstrom of that apparently hopeless search, for
such is the courage of the warriors of Barsoom.

But the Vanator did not fall to the ground, within sight of the
city at least, though as long as the watchers could see her never
for an instant did she rest upon an even keel. Sometimes she lay
upon one side or the other, or again she hurtled along keel up,
or rolled over and over, or stood upon her nose or her tail at
the caprice of the great force that carried her along. And the
watchers saw that this great ship was merely being blown away
with the other bits of debris great and small that filled the
sky. Never in the memory of man or the annals of recorded history
had such a storm raged across the face of Barsoom.

And in another instant was the Vanator forgotten as the lofty,
scarlet tower that had marked Lesser Helium for ages crashed to
ground, carrying death and demolition upon the city beneath.
Panic reigned. A fire broke out in the ruins. The city's every
force seemed crippled, and it was then that The Warlord ordered
the men that were about to set forth in search of Tara of Helium
to devote their energies to the salvation of the city, for he too
had witnessed the start of the Vanator and realized the futility
of wasting men who were needed sorely if Lesser Helium was to be
saved from utter destruction.

Shortly after noon of the second day the storm commenced to
abate, and before the sun went down, the little craft upon which
Tara of Helium had hovered between life and death these many
hours drifted slowly before a gentle breeze above a landscape of
rolling hills that once had been lofty mountains upon a Martian
continent. The girl was exhausted from loss of sleep, from lack
of food and drink, and from the nervous reaction consequent to
the terrifying experiences through which she had passed. In the
near distance, just topping an intervening hill, she caught a
momentary glimpse of what appeared to be a dome-capped tower.
Quickly she dropped the flier until the hill shut it off from the
view of the possible occupants of the structure she had seen. The
tower meant to her the habitation of man, suggesting the presence
of water and, perhaps, of food. If the tower was the deserted
relic of a bygone age she would scarcely find food there, but
there was still a chance that there might be water. If it was
inhabited, then must her approach be cautious, for only enemies
might be expected to abide in so far distant a land. Tara of
Helium knew that she must be far from the twin cities of her
grandfather's empire, but had she guessed within even a thousand
haads of the reality, she had been stunned by realization of the
utter hopelessness of her state.

Keeping the craft low, for the buoyancy tanks were still intact,
the girl skimmed the ground until the gently-moving wind had
carried her to the side of the last hill that intervened between
her and the structure she had thought a man-built tower. Here she
brought the flier to the ground among some stunted trees, and
dragging it beneath one where it might be somewhat hidden from
craft passing above, she made it fast and set forth to
reconnoiter. Like most women of her class she was armed only with
a single slender blade, so that in such an emergency as now
confronted her she must depend almost solely upon her cleverness
in remaining undiscovered by enemies. With utmost caution she
crept warily toward the crest of the hill, taking advantage of
every natural screen that the landscape afforded to conceal her
approach from possible observers ahead, while momentarily she
cast quick glances rearward lest she be taken by surprise from
that quarter.

She came at last to the summit, where, from the concealment of a
low bush, she could see what lay beyond. Beneath her spread a
beautiful valley surrounded by low hills. Dotting it were
numerous circular towers, dome-capped, and surrounding each tower
was a stone wall enclosing several acres of ground. The valley
appeared to be in a high state of cultivation. Upon the opposite
side of the hill and just beneath her was a tower and enclosure.
It was the roof of the former that had first attracted her
attention. In all respects it seemed identical in construction
with those further out in the valley--a high, plastered wall of
massive construction surrounding a similarly constructed tower,
upon whose gray surface was painted in vivid colors a strange
device. The towers were about forty sofads in diameter,
approximately forty earth-feet, and sixty in height to the base
of the dome. To an Earth man they would have immediately
suggested the silos in which dairy farmers store ensilage for
their herds; but closer scrutiny, revealing an occasional
embrasured opening together with the strange construction of the
domes, would have altered such a conclusion. Tara of Helium saw
that the domes seemed to be faced with innumerable prisms of
glass, those that were exposed to the declining sun scintillating
so gorgeously as to remind her suddenly of the magnificent
trappings of Gahan of Gathol. As she thought of the man she shook
her head angrily, and moved cautiously forward a foot or two that
she might get a less obstructed view of the nearer tower and its
enclosure.

As Tara of Helium looked down into the enclosure surrounding the
nearest tower, her brows contracted momentarily in frowning
surprise, and then her eyes went wide in an expression of
incredulity tinged with horror, for what she saw was a score or
two of human bodies--naked and headless. For a long moment she
watched, breathless; unable to believe the evidence of her own
eyes--that these grewsome things moved and had life! She saw them
crawling about on hands and knees over and across one another,
searching about with their fingers. And she saw some of them at
troughs, for which the others seemed to be searching, and those
at the troughs were taking something from these receptacles and
apparently putting it in a hole where their necks should have
been. They were not far beneath her--she could see them
distinctly and she saw that there were the bodies of both men and
women, and that they were beautifully proportioned, and that
their skin was similar to hers, but of a slightly lighter red. At
first she had thought that she was looking upon a shambles and
that the bodies, but recently decapitated, were moving under the
impulse of muscular reaction; but presently she realized that
this was their normal condition. The horror of them fascinated
her, so that she could scarce take her eyes from them. It was
evident from their groping hands that they were eyeless, and
their sluggish movements suggested a rudimentary nervous system
and a correspondingly minute brain. The girl wondered how they
subsisted for she could not, even by the wildest stretch of
imagination, picture these imperfect creatures as intelligent
tillers of the soil. Yet that the soil of the valley was tilled
was evident and that these things had food was equally so. But
who tilled the soil? Who kept and fed these unhappy things, and
for what purpose? It was an enigma beyond her powers of
deduction.

The sight of food aroused again a consciousness of her own
gnawing hunger and the thirst that parched her throat. She could
see both food and water within the enclosure; but would she dare
enter even should she find means of ingress? She doubted it,
since the very thought of possible contact with these grewsome
creatures sent a shudder through her frame.

Then her eyes wandered again out across the valley until
presently they picked out what appeared to be a tiny stream
winding its way through the center of the farm lands--a strange
sight upon Barsoom. Ah, if it were but water! Then might she hope
with a real hope, for the fields would give her sustenance which
she could gain by night, while by day she hid among the
surrounding hills, and sometime, yes, sometime she knew, the
searchers would come, for John Carter, Warlord of Barsoom, would
never cease to search for his daughter until every square haad of
the planet had been combed again and again. She knew him and she
knew the warriors of Helium and so she knew that could she but
manage to escape harm until they came, they would indeed come at
last.

She would have to wait until dark before she dare venture into
the valley, and in the meantime she thought it well to search out
a place of safety nearby where she might be reasonably safe from
savage beasts. It was possible that the district was free from
carnivora, but one might never be sure in a strange land. As she
was about to withdraw be hind the brow of the hill her attention
was again attracted to the enclosure below. Two figures had
emerged from the tower. Their beautiful bodies seemed identical
with those of the headless creatures among which they moved, but
the newcomers were not headless. Upon their shoulders were heads
that seemed human, yet which the girl intuitively sensed were not
human. They were just a trifle too far away for her to see them
distinctly in the waning light of the dying day, but she knew
that they were too large, they were out of proportion to the
perfectly proportioned bodies, and they were oblate in form. She
could see that the men wore some manner of harness to which were
slung the customary long-sword and short-sword of the Barsoomian
warrior, and that about their short necks were massive leather
collars cut to fit closely over the shoulders and snugly to the
lower part of the head. Their features were scarce discernible,
but there was a suggestion of grotesqueness about them that
carried to her a feeling of revulsion.

The two carried a long rope to which were fastened, at intervals
of about two sofads, what she later guessed were light manacles,
for she saw the warriors passing among the poor creatures in the
enclosure and about the right wrist of each they fastened one of
the manacles. When all had been thus fastened to the rope one of
the warriors commenced to pull and tug at the loose end as though
attempting to drag the headless company toward the tower, while
the other went among them with a long, light whip with which he
flicked them upon the naked skin. Slowly, dully, the creatures
rose to their feet and between the tugging of the warrior in
front and the lashing of him behind the hopeless band was finally
herded within the tower. Tara of Helium shuddered as she turned
away. What manner of creatures were these?

Suddenly it was night. The Barsoomian day had ended, and then the
brief period of twilight that renders the transition from
daylight to darkness almost as abrupt as the switching off of an
electric light, and Tara of Helium had found no sanctuary. But
perhaps there were no beasts to fear, or rather to avoid--Tara of
Helium liked not the word fear. She would have been glad,
however, had there been a cabin, even a very tiny cabin, upon her
small flier; but there was no cabin. The interior of the hull was
completely taken up by the buoyancy tanks. Ah, she had it! How
stupid of her not to have thought of it before! She could moor
the craft to the tree beneath which it rested and let it rise the
length of the rope. Lashed to the deck rings she would then be
safe from any roaming beast of prey that chanced along. In the
morning she could drop to the ground again before the craft was
discovered.

As Tara of Helium crept over the brow of the hill down toward the
valley, her presence was hidden by the darkness of the night from
the sight of any chance observer who might be loitering by a
window in the nearby tower. Cluros, the farther moon, was just
rising above the horizon to commence his leisurely journey
through the heavens. Eight zodes later he would set--a trifle
over nineteen and a half Earth hours--and during that time
Thuria, his vivacious mate, would have circled the planet twice
and be more than half way around on her third trip. She had but
just set. It would be more than three and a half hours before she
shot above the opposite horizon to hurtle, swift and low, across
the face of the dying planet. During this temporary absence of
the mad moon Tara of Helium hoped to find both food and water,
and gain again the safety of her flier's deck.

She groped her way through the darkness, giving the tower and its
enclosure as wide a berth as possible. Sometimes she stumbled,
for in the long shadows cast by the rising Cluros objects were
grotesquely distorted though the light from the moon was still
not sufficient to be of much assistance to her. Nor, as a matter
of fact, did she want light. She could find the stream in the
dark, by the simple expedient of going down hill until she walked
into it and she had seen that bearing trees and many crops grew
throughout the valley, so that she would pass food in plenty ere
she reached the stream. If the moon showed her the way more
clearly and thus saved her from an occasional fall, he would,
too, show her more clearly to the strange denizens of the towers,
and that, of course, must not be. Could she have waited until the
following night conditions would have been better, since Cluros
would not appear in the heavens at all and so, during Thuria's
absence, utter darkness would reign; but the pangs of thirst and
the gnawing of hunger could be endured no longer with food and
drink both in sight, and so she had decided to risk discovery
rather than suffer longer.

Safely past the nearest tower, she moved as rapidly as she felt
consistent with safety, choosing her way wherever possible so
that she might take advantage of the shadows of the trees that
grew at intervals and at the same time discover those which bore
fruit. In this latter she met with almost immediate success, for
the very third tree beneath which she halted was heavy with ripe
fruit. Never, thought Tara of Helium, had aught so delicious
impinged upon her palate, and yet it was naught else than the
almost tasteless usa, which is considered to be palatable only
after having been cooked and highly spiced. It grows easily with
little irrigation and the trees bear abundantly. The fruit, which
ranks high in food value, is one of the staple foods of the less
well-to-do, and because of its cheapness and nutritive value
forms one of the principal rations of both armies and navies upon
Barsoom, a use which has won for it a Martian sobriquet which,
freely translated into English, would be, The Fighting Potato.
The girl was wise enough to eat but sparingly, but she filled her
pocket-pouch with the fruit before she continued upon her way.

Two towers she passed before she came at last to the stream, and
here again was she temperate, drinking but little and that very
slowly, contenting herself with rinsing her mouth frequently and
bathing her face, her hands, and her feet; and even though the
night was cold, as Martian nights are, the sensation of
refreshment more than compensated for the physical discomfort of
the low temperature. Replacing her sandals she sought among the
growing track near the stream for whatever edible berries or
tubers might be planted there, and found a couple of varieties
that could be eaten raw. With these she replaced some of the usa
in her pocket-pouch, not only to insure a variety but because she
found them more palatable. Occasionally she returned to the
stream to drink, but each time moderately. Always were her eyes
and ears alert for the first signs of danger, but she had neither
seen nor heard aught to disturb her. And presently the time
approached when she felt she must return to her flier lest she be
caught in the revealing light of low swinging Thuria. She dreaded
leaving the water for she knew that she must become very thirsty
before she could hope to come again to the stream. If she only
had some little receptacle in which to carry water, even a small
amount would tide her over until the following night; but she had
nothing and so she must content herself as best she could with
the juices of the fruit and tubers she had gathered.

After a last drink at the stream, the longest and deepest she had
allowed herself, she rose to retrace her steps toward the hills;
but even as she did so she became suddenly tense with
apprehension. What was that? She could have sworn that she saw
something move in the shadows beneath a tree not far away. For a
long minute the girl did not move--she scarce breathed. Her eyes
remained fixed upon the dense shadows below the tree, her ears
strained through the silence of the night. A low moaning came
down from the hills where her flier was hidden. She knew it
well--the weird note of the hunting banth. And the great
carnivore lay directly in her path. But he was not so close as
this other thing, hiding there in the shadows just a little way
off. What was it? It was the strain of uncertainty that weighed
heaviest upon her. Had she known the nature of the creature
lurking there half its menace would have vanished. She cast
quickly about her in search of some haven of refuge should the
thing prove dangerous.

Again arose the moaning from the hills, but this time closer.
Almost immediately it was answered from the opposite side of the
valley, behind her, and then from the distance to the right of
her, and twice upon her left. Her eyes had found a tree, quite
near. Slowly, and without taking her eyes from the shadows of
that other tree, she moved toward the overhanging branches that
might afford her sanctuary in the event of need, and at her first
move a low growl rose from the spot she had been watching and she
heard the sudden moving of a big body. Simultaneously the
creature shot into the moonlight in full charge upon her, its
tail erect, its tiny ears laid flat, its great mouth with its
multiple rows of sharp and powerful fangs already yawning for its
prey, its ten legs carrying it forward in great leaps, and now
from the beast's throat issued the frightful roar with which it
seeks to paralyze its prey. It was a banth--the great, maned lion
of Barsoom. Tara of Helium saw it coming and leaped for the tree
toward which she had been moving, and the banth realized her
intention and redoubled his speed. As his hideous roar awakened
the echoes in the hills, so too it awakened echoes in the valley;
but these echoes came from the living throats of others of his
kind, until it seemed to the girl that Fate had thrown her into
the midst of a countless multitude of these savage beasts.

Almost incredibly swift is the speed of a charging banth, and
fortunate it was that the girl had not been caught farther in the
open. As it was, her margin of safety was next to negligible, for
as she swung nimbly to the lower branches the creature in pursuit
of her crashed among the foliage almost upon her as it sprang
upward to seize her. It was only a combination of good fortune
and agility that saved her. A stout branch deflected the raking
talons of the carnivore, but so close was the call that a giant
forearm brushed her flesh in the instant before she scrambled to
the higher branches.

Baffled, the banth gave vent to his rage and disappointment in a
series of frightful roars that caused the very ground to tremble,
and to these were added the roarings and the growlings and the
moanings of his fellows as they approached from every direction,
in the hope of wresting from him whatever of his kill they could
take by craft or prowess. And now he turned snarling upon them as
they circled the tree, while the girl, huddled in a crotch above
them, looked down upon the gaunt, yellow monsters padding on
noiseless feet in a restless circle about her. She wondered now
at the strange freak of fate that had permitted her to come down
this far into the valley by night unharmed, but even more she
wondered how she was to return to the hills. She knew that she
would not dare venture it by night and she guessed, too, that by
day she might be confronted by even graver perils. To depend upon
this valley for sustenance she now saw to be beyond the pale of
possibility because of the banths that would keep her from food
and water by night, while the dwellers in the towers would
doubtless make it equally impossible for her to forage by day.
There was but one solution of her difficulty and that was to
return to her flier and pray that the wind would waft her to some
less terrorful land; but when might she return to the flier? The
banths gave little evidence of relinquishing hope of her, and even
if they wandered out of sight would she dare risk the attempt?
She doubted it.

Hopeless indeed seemed her situation--hopeless it was.





Next: Captured

Previous: At The Gale's Mercy



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