DAVID BRUCE BOZARTH
Copyright, July 1985, 1988, 1997
Tony Martin and Connie Wescott lay dying, victims of society's most technologically advanced form of mass murder--the automobile. The young couple, miraculously thrown from the burning wreckage, would not; however, long survive.
The burly young man gathered Connie into his arms, dragging the pitiful, bleeding form of the woman he loved beyond the crimson inferno. Martin, with frantic desperation powering his battered body, ignored inhuman pain and a broken spine to move the woman and himself from immediate danger solely through the incredible strength of his arms. Heart pounding frightfully from the enormous effort, Tony lay beside Connie Wescott, fifteen feet from the twisted metal, shattered glass and melting plastics of his restored 1966 Ford Mustang.
The young right tackle's indomitable will had thus far staved off the Grim Reaper, though Tony Martin held no delusions regarding the severity of their injuries.
Tony Martin's actions were dictated by that mysterious and little known portion of the human psyche responsible for the many unbelievable instances of super-human endurance; that invisible force powered his bruised muscles and broken form, forcing a fatally-injured body to respond to his desires. This unyielding determination so saturated Tony Martin that it also supported the dimming life-spark in Connie Wescott's body.
The orange glow from the hellish gasoline fire was reflected by low clouds partly obscuring the cold brilliance of the summer moon. Martin knew he was dying, yet he valiantly fought against this undesired fate as a shard of window glass worked into his brain through the shattered socket of his right eye. Tony Martin knew his time was short and, therefore, most precious; yet, his only concern was for his semi-conscious companion -- which argued greatly for his moral fiber and strength of character.
Connie Wescott's eyes opened for the first time since the accident. A froth of blood on her smashed lips indicated massive internal hemorrhaging. When she tried to speak, a red flood spewed forth. She convulsively cleared her lungs with a single wail. Her eyes, blinded by blood, strained to see the youth leaning over her. "So much is gone!" she cried. "We had so much to live for!"
Awkwardly, disregarding his pain, Tony pressed the shattered body close to his breast. Despite unbearable pain, the young couple clung to each other and Tony, angry with frustration, felt cheated of what might have been. He screamed his rage to the cold, uncaring stars winking above the blazing inferno.
Martin's head spun crazily; his dimming sight drawn to the dull red gleam of distant Mars. A thin smile played about his once handsome features.
"I still live! Connie still lives!" he whispered hoarsely. "I won't let cold, cruel death claim us!" He coughed blood, eyes narrowed with agony. "Where one has gone before, others may follow!"
A single, diamond-hard thought formed in the pain-numbed brain of the determined man. His fast failing will was instantly channeled into a single idea -- a single, burning desire. An onlooker, if any witnessed the tragic accident other than the deceased drunk in the other vehicle, might have felt pity for the heart-breaking efforts of the football player.
But to Tony this mad thought represented a way of survival! Connie sensed the athlete's grim concentration on the misty red eye of Mars and, when Tony Martin demanded, she gave freely of the ebbing will left in her burned and broken body. She poured her vitality forth, her diminishing consciousness augmenting Tony's. She gave unselfishly, supporting the direction of her friend's incredible thought. It was the only hope left to them and Connie Wescott fought the black waves crashing against her senses.
Eyesight began to fail, life fluids drained onto the dirty, grease-spattered roadway, but the sharply defined thought held in both young minds gathered strength. Life at any cost fueled the desperate gamble of Tony's promised salvation. A bizarre event, once read in an Edgar Rice Burroughs novel, was their only hope. And they believed because they must!
"We still live!" Tony cried, grimly holding Connie Wescott in his arms.
There was a sharp, crackling sound, an instant of utter cold and silence, then--oblivion.
* * * * * * * *
I. ADVENT ON MARS
Tony Martin shook Connie Wescott's shoulder. When she failed to respond, he nervously shouted. "Come on, Princess! Wake up!"
The man almost let the shapely girl sleep; the unexpected view of smooth, white skin was delightful and provocative, but Tony Martin's mind tottered on the brink; desperately in need of reassurance. The husky- built youth was mortally afraid he was off his nut, that both oars weren't in the water, that his elevator didn't go all the way to the top; which meant he was too terrified to truly enjoy Wescott's superb nakedness. Tony's all-consuming fear overcame his normal gracious manners: he shook the girl so violently Connie's teeth rattled inside her skull.
The brunette's eyes fluttered open. Connie moaned as she groggily focused on the big youth leaning over her. The woman's voice slurred petulantly as she struggled towards consciousness. "Tony! Stop that! You'll chip a tooth!" The petite brunette peevishly placed tiny hands against Martin's bare chest. At the touch of his naked warmth, Connie Wescott simultaneously discovered her own rather informal lack of attire.
"Tony!" she screamed, fending his hands away, "What have you done? Oh My God! If you've..." Connie bit off her accusation as she swiftly covered herself. Comically, the young girl was unable to decide which was more important for concealment--top or bottom. She split the difference. She hissed at him, scathingly.
"If you'd asked I might've been eager to let you to jump my bones, Tony Martin, but this? You didn't have to hit me over the head! You're the most despicable person I've ever met!" Connie trembled as the night breeze whispered against her pale skin.
Turning her head, seeking her clothes, Connie's eyes grew wide. They were in the lowest part of a small depression, sitting on a springy moss, under a sky that had too many stars. "What is this place?" Connie cried breathlessly. "If you had to rape me, why not pick a nice, warm hotel, or the back seat of your car?"
The plaintive note in the woman's puzzled voice lasted only a moment before hardening into outraged anger. "Okay! Joke's over! Where's my clothes?"
"Probably where mine are," Martin replied. "Connie, didn't you hear me?" he whispered. "I think we're on Barsoom."
Frowning, the bemused football player lowered his eyes from the night sky. He saw the disbelief on the girl's face, heard the contempt as she sneered, "You've read too many Burroughs books, me bucko! Barsoom's an impossibility: the figment of a gifted writer's imagination!"
"Take a look, Princess!" Tony swept his thickly muscled arm in a wide arc. He gazed out over the moss-covered terrain. "You've read nearly as many Barsoom novels as I have. Damn it, girl, I loaned them to you! Think about it! This is Barsoom!"
He sounded so convincing the woman made no comment as she tilted her head to gaze at the multitude of stars. A moment later she asked Tony how many people helped build this fantastic sound stage, then her breath caught in her throat a second time in as many minutes. Connie Wescott's contemptuous appraisal faded into a series of unrecognizable sounds. She gasped, eyes bulging in amazement. The young woman, so startled by the sight on the horizon beyond Tony's broad shoulders, and without a thought for modesty, raised a shapely arm to point at the night sky. "What the hell is that?" she demanded.
Tony sighed with audible relief. "If you can see it I haven't lost my grip on reality!" Martin's eyes followed the direction of Connie's outstretched arm. "I told you what I thought, Princess. You should know--you helped. I remember you helping."
Bewildered confusion in their eyes, the shivering pair stared at the tiny moons rising over the far horizon--a horizon which seemed to suggest a ring of low lying hills in the darkness. The moons hurtled toward them at markedly different speeds. Against the backdrop of a sky filled with more stars than either had ever observed at night, the smaller moon moved with such swiftness its pace was easily marked by the naked eye. The other moon traveled at a more sedate velocity, though incredibly faster than the silver orb they had known from birth. The pale illumination reflected from the tiny orbs made it possible to note, in greater detail, the resilient ocher-tinged moss covering the ground.
With his attention centered on the celestial display, Tony didn't observe the awe on Connie's pretty face when the shifting light from the moons revealed certain features of the athlete's well-muscled anatomy. Despite the disturbing circumstances and her indignant anger, the young woman was suddenly and totally interested in the scenery. This was her first opportunity to see the huge right tackle au natural and the sight took her breath away. When Martin lowered his head, Connie quickly diverted her eyes toward something less visually stimulating. She was so self-conscious of the fever in her belly that she nearly missed his whispered question.
"What were we doing before we woke up?" Tony inquired.
Connie Wescott was relieved to discover the night sufficiently dark to conceal the crimson flush suffusing her cheeks. When the meaning of his words penetrated her discomfort, she stared at him with perplexed bewilderment. "You weren't taking unfair advantage of me?" Her voice shook tremulously from more than the bitter chill in the night air.
"We've known each other a few months, Connie. I've never given you the least reason to suspect my behavior. I've always treated you with the greatest respect. In all that time we've never--" Tony Martin lowered his gaze to the ground, stammering bashfully. "I remember we had talked about doing it tonight, but if we'd been screwing I sure as hell would have remembered!"
"Me, too," Connie chuckled with a sweet leer.
Tony covered his privates as a hot flush crept from shoulders to pate. "Cut the comedy, Princess," he implored. "This is no time for clowning around." The sincerity in Tony's voice made Connie instantly regret her teasing, yet, it was all so absurd, sitting under a strange sky naked as the day she was born.
Wescott's voice hardened. "You've had your fun and scared the shit out of me with your cleverness. This is a great gag, Tony, but enough is enough. Give my clothes back. I want to go home." The girl rose to her feet. She briskly rubbed warmth into her deliciously curved buttocks.
"Fine with me!" Martin almost shouted with frustration. "Go ahead, look under the rocks. See if you can find our clothes. Go ahead! I dare you!"
Connie looked down at the cross-legged youth with the first stirring of alarm. He was too sincere, too nervous, too willing for her to accept his challenge. Tony Martin was either the best actor she'd ever met, or something was drastically wrong. She didn't want to believe him. "Come on, Tony, it is a joke, isn't it? You're just trying a novel way to get a piece of my ass--right?" Her laughter faded when there was no response in kind. Connie Wescott abruptly felt colder than the physically numbing chill of the breeze. Tony Martin did not argue with her and this was so unlike the Tony Martin she knew. Her knees became weak, she knelt on the ground, eyes begging the football player to reveal this bizarre circumstance as an elaborate hoax.
"Why can't you believe me?" Tony asked. He massaged his forehead, fingers distractedly tugging at his thick black hair. "Why do you think I asked what we were doing?" Tony blurted with exasperation. "I'm a bit hazy--but wasn't I taking you to the fencing match at Chandler Stadium?"
Connie chewed the knuckle of her right index finger as she struggled with her memory. As events began to come back, the look of concentration gradually changed from bewilderment to amazement.
"I'm competing in the State Championship finals in women's fencing..." Connie hugged herself, shaking violently as a premonition of disaster descended over her. "You picked me up at the house. We were driving down Ferguson. We turned onto Mulberry toward MacDonald's." Connie's eyes glazed as she visualized the immediate past.
Suddenly Connie Wescott screamed: "Tony! He's run the light! Look out!" The terrible memory of the accident caused Connie to cover her face with both hands and fall to the moss. "The car's on fire!" she cried. "Get me out! Tony! Help me! My God! Tony!"
As he'd done before Tony Martin pulled Connie Wescott into his arms. He protectively embraced her shuddering form as they reexperienced that awful horror. Connie collapsed in tears, clinging to the young man.
A shadowy pain forced Tony's hand to involuntarily cover his right eye, fingers exploring the area where the glass splinter had entered. Consciously, he knew the fatal shard was non-existent, but he could not refrain from making sure.
Connie noted his action, raising her trembling hand to draw his hand away. She touched his face, making sure it whole. "You were hurt, Tony." A look of horror crossed her expression as memory cleared. "So was I -- I remember." Her body twitched spasmodically in empathy. "We died, didn't we?"
Tony didn't trust his voice, so he merely nodded. Martin held the tiny woman, a tight embrace that was much more than mutual comfort: it was frantic desperation, groping for an anchor in a new and unexpected reality. For long moments the young couple shared inconceivable panic until Tony, in spite of that ghastly memory of fiery death, took delight in the soft, smooth curve of Connie's satiny skin. When Connie became aware of her companion's wandering touch, she quickly pulled away.
"Just what do you think you're doing?"
"I just realized you didn't feel very dead to me," Tony blushed. His breast rose rapidly with sudden ardor. He leaned down to nuzzle Connie's neck and shoulders.
Connie Wescott allowed that affection to continue for all of three seconds. "Stop that!" Connie abruptly lifted her shoulder with such force it met Martin's chin with a painful thump! Tony withdrew, a wounded expression etched on his confused features.
Tony rubbed his jaw and scowled. "Why'd you do that?"
"That's all you jocks ever think about!" Connie chastised the football player. "Sex, sex, sex! I don't know why I ever started dating you!"
Hearing her talk so disparagingly made Martin smile. He chuckled impishly. "Glad to see you're back to your old self!"
Connie continued to glare at him. Tony's attempt at humor vanished as he realized she was not interested in changing the subject. The set of her chin, the tightness of her lips; the frightened look in her eyes made his next words come out in a very sober tone.
"Sorry. You're right. Not about the sex thing, Princess, but about being scared shitless. If this isn't some dream, some nightmare before death, you'll see a lot more of me than you might have intended--and probably John Carter, Dejah Thoris, Tara, Tars Tarkas, Gahan of Gathol..."
"Stop it!" Connie shouted, arms akimbo on the swell of her hour-glass hips. "I don't want to be here!"
"Come on, kitten!" The varsity right tackle pleaded. "Back home we'd be dead. The accident wasn't a dream. It happened! We weren't ready to die. That's why we're here. I love life, and if living to the end of my natural days means an unnatural existence on Barsoom, I'll take what I get without complaint!" He shook his head, deep in thought. Tony Martin's next words made the girl cringe. "We can't go back, Princess."
"This can't be happening, Tony! Do something!"
"What?" Martin helplessly spread his hands. "You want to go back and be dead? Or if you didn't die in the wreck, how about being a faceless cripple for the rest of your life? I saw you, Connie! Must've broken every bone in your body..."
It was not difficult to accept Tony's logic. Connie recalled that brief nightmare of choking pain, that red agony which twisted her body. No matter how brief that terrible experience had been, it had lasted far too long. The tense desperation riding her emotions abruptly vanished. "When you put it that way--" Wescott made an attempt at wry humor "--I suppose Barsoom 'red' is better than body-bag dead."
"That's my girl!" Tony reached out to embrace her. His efforts cultivated a swift smack to the chops. Tony backed off, massaging his tingling lips. "Hey!"
"Keep your distance, Mr. Martin!" Connie's voluptuous breasts heaved with contradictory emotions as she struggled against her sense of displacement and her very real desire to cling to the man. The frightened woman's next words were acidic, more than intended since she felt true affection for the great hulking brute sitting before her. "I'm not sure I want to play house with you!"
"Okay, Connie," Tony sulked. "If that's the way you want it, it's fine by me. But what makes you think I'd be interested?" he growled.
Tony was hurt. He thought their relationship was long past friendship, especially now; yet, the opportunity to explore that intimate next phase had not previously occurred while dating the tiny brunette. Connie's harsh reaction, however, made it clear to Martin it might never occur. He turned his broad back to the sulking girl to stare at the alien skyscape.
Connie swiftly sensed his injury and was ashamed. She liked Tony. She more than liked--no, she wouldn't admit that just yet--however, she couldn't let Tony think she didn't care at all. Connie Wescott hung her head and stammered an embarrassed apology.
Tony heard her heartfelt words and gratefully acknowledged them. "I can wait," he declared hopefully. "Any guy'd wait for a pint-sized Elizabeth Taylor."
"Down, tiger," said Connie. She almost giggled with relief, tenderly touching his cheek. "Just because you're the spittin' image of a muscle-bound Burt Reynolds doesn't mean I'm going to give you a tumble." She laughed when his face split into a wide grin.
"Don't be too stuck on yourself, hero! Speaking of which," Connie asked, "what do you propose to do about our current situation? I'm freezing!" Her practical tones made Tony's eyes catch fire, his grin become even wider. Connie had no difficulty discerning the youth's thoughts. "There's other ways of keeping warm besides screwing!" she quickly reminded him.
Tony chuckled as he rose to explore the immediate area. To his chagrin, his first step resulted in a precipitous landing on his nose. Connie vacillated between laughter and tears as she gazed upon the great, sprawling hunk sitting shamefacedly on the crimson sward.
"I forgot about Mars' lesser gravity," Tony admitted with a wry grin. He gingerly rubbed the side of his nose. "I've played football for ten years and never broke my nose. Seems like I've once again managed to retain my good looks."
Connie could no longer restrain herself. She burst out laughing. "You look silly sitting there," she gasped. "Get up!"
Tony carefully complied. Connie found her vision centered on the sway of his all too obvious manhood following the dictates of the lesser Martian gravity. She concealed a wanton smile, deciding she wouldn't play too hard to get. At the same time the young woman knew she wasn't quite ready to make a commitment of that magnitude. Tony was a very good friend, an extremely pleasant companion, but what would happen to their friendship if he became a lover? Connie was much too bewildered, too confused by extraordinary circumstances, to make a decision of that importance. To be whole after that horrible wreck was almost more than she could believe--much less being on Barsoom! She attempted to convince herself that the paramount and immediate considerations revolved about their survival. When Connie realized she was lying to herself, she blushed. When she spoke, the tremor in her voice passed for shivering from cold, not her breathless attention on Tony Martin's handsome body gingerly crossing the moss-covered sward.
As he drew near, Connie Wescott said, "This is your chance to live all the fantasies you've ever had, Tony Martin." Though the comment was meant to be amusing, it finished as a rising wail of despair. "You've proven we are on Barsoom!"
Tony offered his arm as he towered over her petite figure. Connie nervously shied away. "Hey, Princess!" Tony pleaded. "I'm cold, too!"
Connie was embarrassed for a second time. She apologized by meekly accepting the tender, sheltering strength of his embrace.
The girl smiled bravely, looking up to his strong, regular features shadow-etched by the nebulous light of the twin moons. "Which way, John Carter of Mars?"
"You pick it, Princess."
And so, beneath the twin moons of Mars, Connie Wescott and Tony Martin learned to walk in the lesser gravity of Barsoom.
II. THE CITY
Dawn arrived like a shot from a rifle. The Martian atmosphere is so rarefied there is no true pre-dawn or twilight; the sun swiftly rose above the eastern terminator line, casting a harsh light that left ink-black shadows in the low hills surrounding the moss-covered desert.
Topping a rise, the two earthlings slowly walking across the resilient sward were startled by the electrifying appearance of a huge Martian city on the rim of the dead sea basin. The tops of the ancient towers, some cracked and shattered, glowed with ruddy fire from the stark solar illumination.
Awe-struck by the alien tableau several hundred feet above him, Tony cried: "A city! One of the dead cities of Mars!" The petite woman stepped forward, eagerness plain on her features. Tony stopped her with an urgent warning by grabbing her shapely arm. "Careful, Connie!" he ominously intoned. "There be Tharks in there!"
"Or white apes, or the evil Ras Thavas," Connie teased light-heartedly. "The dead cities Burroughs described always seemed to have something of value for bone-weary travelers. What I want most is a new set of clothes. I can't run around naked on Barsoom like Dejah Thoris--I get goose bumps!" Connie began to scale the lower edge of the incline. She paused, looking back, when the girl realized her companion had not immediately followed.
In the full light of day Connie lustily appraised her male companion. Tony Martin was certainly stud quality. "To think," she breathed in mute soliloquy, "I've dated Tony all this time, never dreaming..." The lushly proportioned maid quickly stilled the too provocative thoughts. She called out to him. "Aren't you coming? If you're too scared, hero, I can hold your hand..."
"Sit on it, Connie." Tony smarted under the sting of her whimsically delivered assessment of his courage. "I was visually reconnoitering the city for any signs of danger." He angrily stomped up the slight incline at the foot of the escarpment. As he passed her, Tony voiced a gruff command. "Stay behind me!"
Tony scrambled up the steeper part of the slope then suddenly stopped dead in his tracks when Connie's husky "With pleasure!" belatedly announced exactly what sort of spectacle his swinging testicles presented to the laughing woman from her particular vantage point. He hoped the hot flush creeping from forehead to foot was not as obvious as it felt to him. "Come on up," he said, voice sounding strained to his own hearing. "We'll go together."
Connie's impishly amused expression did nothing to ease Tony's discomfort. Tony managed to overcome his embarrassment as he happily observed the gentle sway of Connie's firm breasts as she gingerly ascended the incline. An involuntary stirring in his groin caused Tony to quickly locate something else in the way of visual interest before he made a true ass of himself.
Tony regained control of his aroused libido long before Connie reached his side. Then, hand in hand, the couple scaled the time-eroded cliff once hidden beneath the vanished oceans of Mars. Topping the upper edge of the worn granite, covered in places by patchy areas of thick moss, they chose the first avenue encountered as an entry into the city.
Tony restrained the anxious woman while cautiously examining the rubble-filled street. He moved forward one hundred feet where he stopped to repeat the same intense examination of the ancient, weathered towers. He felt uneasy; The outer parts of the city were in ruins with huge mounds of stone or Martian concrete choking the streets. There were too many places where danger could close on them unexpectedly. After traveling three blocks in this cautious, crawling fashion, Connie stamped her pretty foot in exasperation.
"At this rate," she pouted, "it'll take forever! We haven't seen anything dangerous, Tony. Let's get downtown so I can find something to wear! I've got delicate skin--I sunburn easily!"
The central core of the city lay at least two miles away. Tony was forced into grudging agreement. At their current rate of progress, the young woman's exasperated 'forever' would be an entirely proper estimate of the time needed to reach the imposing inner edifices. Tony grumbled his reluctance, though he submitted to Connie's demands. "We'll go faster, babe, but if anything happens, you stay behind me!"
"I will, Tony," the young woman meekly replied.
Connie Wescott decided to avoid an argument for the time being. She was appreciative of the big youth's gallant offer to protect her; but there remained her own unvoiced determination to share in any danger they might encounter. Wescott demurely matched Martin's lengthened stride. She noted his eyes constantly searching the side-streets and buildings. Some of the young right tackle's intense caution possessed the perspiring woman. She began to use eyes, ears, and nose to extend her senses as an early warning system.
The earthlings eventually entered an area of older, more finely crafted edifices. Some of the ancient piles soared hundreds of feet in the air. The windows were ebony-black shadows in the glaring light of the sun. Ornate carvings embellished the towers from ground level upwards to the fifteenth or twentieth stories; though more than one building had intricate designs from base to crown.
With the morning sun still so close to the horizon, the wide avenue was shrouded in gloomy semi-darkness. The earthlings quietly endured the alien strangeness, the oppressive aura of impending doom. To Connie's silent relief, Tony gradually slowed the pace. She, too, had felt awe in the ghostly center of the silent city as they ventured deeper into the forest of cold Martian concrete, granite and marble.
There were no sounds within the city except a gentle breeze and the tiny snap, crackle and pops of expanding building materials as the sun heated the stone. They saw no signs of life and their sense of smell became quite useless dealing with so many alien scents.
Tony proceeded with caution without reverting to his "lead point and squad follow" method of movement. It seemed better to have Connie at his side or no more than a few paces behind rather than so far to the rear he could not easily protect her. Still, he felt inadequately armed to defend them from whatever horrors might lurk within the immense buildings hemming the rubble clogged avenue.
Tony Martin cautiously examined the open, doorless, archway entrances of each building they passed. He entered none; however, the dark, dusty interiors were too foreboding and their chosen destination, the central core of the city, still lay before them.
Sunlight dispelled the wide avenue's gloom near midday; the heat gradually increasing until both humans sweated profusely under the harsh, brilliant white light. Connie, hot, weary, and impatient, could stand it no longer. "When are we going inside? We probably passed Saks, J. C. Penney and Kmart!"
Tony sighed when he faced the petulant, glistening, wonderfully naked maiden. Dirt smudges from climbing over debris marked her creamy arms, legs, and torso. Despite the sweat-streaked grime, Connie Wescott was the most tantalizingly desirable woman the young man had ever known. Martin knew he looked equally bedraggled and suddenly wondered if Connie found him attractive. What if she were disappointed? Maybe he wasn't what she expected. That would explain why she rebuffed him the previous night. This unaccustomed personal insecurity prompted Tony's weary response.
"You're right." Martin rubbed the back of his stiff neck with a shaky hand. "We're getting worn out. I suppose we're close enough to the center of the city. Pick one, kitten, we'll see what we can find."
In reply to his statement, Connie Wescott abruptly entered the doorway of the nearest building. After scanning the street one last time with a wary eye, Tony quickly followed the impetuous young woman into the cool interior of the huge edifice.
It took a moment for their eyes to adjust to the building's spooky darkness. The first floor was a tremendous hall. Magnificent frescoes of heroic size adorned the walls. Connie ignored the works of art since the lower level was obviously bare of any artifacts. Only wind blown sand, lying in drifts on either side of the entrance, relieved the stark barrenness. Wescott traversed the hall towards the nearest spiral ramp giving access to the upper stories. Tony trotted unsteadily in her wake.
Connie's easy adjustment to the difference in gravity made it possible to swiftly outdistance her huge companion. Tony continued to have difficulty with locomotion, due to his great bulk and the inherent inertia thereof. He could manage walking without falling; though he tended to overcompensate. In an effort to catch up he inadvertently passed Connie, who gracefully jogged toward the ramp.
Tony's Nautilus-trained body deceived him once again; he could not stop. Tony rolled his shoulder and crashed into the wall, strong arms absorbing the shock. He grinned with grid-iron memory: he'd been hit harder by running backs trying to escape him on the scrimmage line.
Tony slowly pushed himself away from the wall. Something about the mural beneath his palms caught Martin's eye and he knelt to examine the lower section, a perplexed frown furrowing his brow. The woman stopped at his side. Connie grunted in surprise when Tony's strong hands gripped her arm, pulling her beside him on the dusty floor. He directed the woman's attention to the wall with an excited jab of his finger.
"Look at this!" Tony showed her the time-faded mural depicting the struggles of a maritime nation contending with the evaporation of the five great oceans of Mars. He pointed out a series of marks at the base of the painting. "Am I seeing things?"
Connie compressed her lips in anger. "You're always seeing things." She resisted his demand to examine the painting until her attention was riveted on the stylized Martian hieroglyphics. Shocked by what she read, the stunned woman suddenly announced: "The Failing of Throxeus by J...A... can you make that out, Tony? Is it 'H' or 'N'?"
"'H' ... I think. Jah Nur," he supplied. Tony whirled her about, his huge hands tightened spasmodically on her soft-curved shoulders. He trembled with bewilderment. "How can we read this? Isn't this supposed to be Martian?"
"Maybe we're seeing things," Connie countered with uncertainty. "Let's look at another one."
At her suggestion the young couple eagerly crossed the great hall in enormous leaps impossible to duplicate on Earth. Connie squatted to read the inscription of a mural illustrating a great conflict between the Orovars, the white race of Mars, and the six-limbed barbaric green men.
"War with the Warhoons--The Marshes of Zanathia. Tony! It's a picture of our dead city! See the towers in the painting? That's the same skyline we saw from the basin! They must've fought a great battle near here before the marshlands evaporated!"
"I guess you didn't notice them on the way in, but I thought I could read street signs as we came through the city," Tony said. "They're carved on the second story of all the buildings. I thought I was imagining things. Do you suppose this city used a form of English for its written language? Burroughs said the written languages varied among nations, or even cities within a nation, while the whole of Barsoom shared a common oral language."
"If Burroughs actually is the godfather of Barsoom," Connie bit her lip as she focused her thoughts, "it's reasonable to assume his 'Martian' is really English with a few invented words thrown in to create the illusion of an 'alien' language."
Tony raised his eyebrows as he digested Wescott's diagnosis. His active mind pursued her explanation as they ascended the nearest ramp. His next words were chosen with care. "We know Barsoom is an impossibility in our own universe. The Viking Landers proved Mars barren of life and having a thin, unbreathable atmosphere of carbon dioxide." He was gripped with excitement, "What if this Mars--where we are right now--is part of an alternate universe? Suppose it's really real!"
"I'm not into metaphysics, or crystal ball gazing," Connie took another step up the twenty-five degree ramp, "If you want to get into weirdies," she chuckled, "be my guest. I'm more inclined to believe Burroughs' imagination was so powerful that Barsoom sprang into existence from the sheer force of his personality. Do we call that an alternate universe, or an alternate reality? We both believed in Barsoom after the accident. I know. I heard it in your mind. Perhaps--" Connie Wescott froze in mid-stride.
Dumfounded, she faced her companion. "I actually heard it in your mind! You said 'We still live!' and I heard it! Tony! It really was you!" The grateful woman threw her arms about Martin's neck and kissed him, her eyes glistening with tears. She brushed at the moisture on her cheek with an embarrassed gesture. She drew back and gazed at the youth with adoration. "You saved my life!"
"We both did, darling." Tony blushed under the compliment. "I couldn't let you die, but I almost failed until I got some help from you. I couldn't have done it alone..."
"I don't care about that!" she cried. "I couldn't have done it at all!" Connie stepped close to the six-foot-two right tackle and kissed him a second time (she had to pull his face down and stand on tiptoe). The kiss was much longer and executed with more enthusiasm. "Thank you," she whispered.
"For what?" Tony blushed. "I thought you were pissed about being on Barsoom."
Connie giggled sweetly, shaking her head. "Don't mind a thing I said last night. You were right. 'Alive' is everything. 'Dead' is a date with the coroner--Ugh!" She shivered as if a chill wind had blown through the hot corridors. "I look terrible in black plastic!"
"You'd look pretty in anything," Tony complimented shyly, trying to capture the delicious creature in his arms.
Connie laughed merrily, spinning free. "Not now, lover!" she promised. "First I've got to find something to wear!"
Connie led the way. She was first to explore each floor, which made Tony nervous. The first time she got out of sight he asked her to slow down. She laughed. The second time he mentioned it, she told him to jump out the nearest window. Martin decided it best to let Connie have her way since there was nothing he could do short of physically restraining her. No matter how delightful the prospect of wrestling with those gorgeous curves might be, the football player was afraid it might permanently damage their future relationship. He resigned himself to stay as close to the impatient young woman as possible.
The layer of fine dust covering the floors had been undisturbed for centuries. The first three levels were vacant, the fourth level revealed the first evidence of the original inhabitants though there was little enough to see. By the time they investigated the seventh level, they'd discovered a few large pieces of furniture, some of which crumbled to dust at the slightest touch. The majority; however, had survived uncounted years since Zanathia was abandoned.
"Must be sorapus wood," Tony commented as Connie marveled at the attractive grain of a handsome chest they found in a small room on the eighth floor. "Sure is pretty."
"Yes it is, but it might be skeel," Connie added, her fingers sliding over the polished surface coated with an inch of dust. "Burroughs said both were hardwoods highly prized for strength, durability, and beauty."
"You actually did read those books I gave you!" Tony breathed in amazement. "I kind of thought you were putting me on. Imagine that, a brainy chick who enjoys athletics and a bit of fantasy on the side. No wonder I love you!"
Tony's candid declaration triggered a hot blush on the woman's cheeks. Overwhelmed by his spontaneity, and sincerity, Connie Wescott unconsciously sought to contain his affections. "Why not?" she said haughtily. "Didn't you think I could read?"
She noted Martin's furrowed brow and immediately regretted her disparaging comment. "I didn't mean that, Tony." She reached out, asking forgiveness. "Just don't say you love me. I'm not sure I'm ready for that--" Connie denied him a chance to reply or to continue his declaration of love. She slipped her sun-redden arm beneath his. Further conversation was avoided as she led the way back to the ramp. "How about it?" Connie asked. "Ready for the next floor?"
Tony rubbed his day old stubble as if he were troubled with a delicate decision. He understood why Connie had snapped, he was pushing too hard. Shrugging his massive shoulders, Martin gave the nervous woman a toothy grin. "Why not? Palm Beach, Christian Dior, and Botany 500 here we come!"
The hulking youth led the way to the next floor. It was Tony who discovered the air-tight door on the left side of the corridor. Long moments passed as he studied the seal on the wooden door. He could find no easy method of opening the panel.
"They must've had a damn good reason to seal this room," he said.
"Why?" Connie asked. She stared at the door which resisted Tony's repeated efforts. "Jewels? Riches?" She was eager to force the door. She tried adding her own shoulder to the panel, but there was not enough room for them both.
"I have no idea, princess," Tony cried, "but I'm going to find out! Stand back, kitten. I'm going to break it in!"
* * * * * * * *
III. BEYOND THE CLOSED DOOR
"Don't use your shoulder!" Connie yelled.
"Are you kidding?" Tony grinned. "That's television! I'll show you how it's done at the police academy." Tensing his iron-hard muscles, Tony moved back two paces. Raising his right foot, he delivered a terrific kick to the solid panel.
"Oh shit!" he yelped. Martin hopped about on one foot as he clutched the other in agony. "Son-of-a-bitch!"
"Are you hurt?" Connie watched her friend's gyrations with concern.
"Hell, yes!" Tony replied. "But, I'll live!"
"Sit down, honey," Connie advised. She offered a shoulder as support and Tony let her help him hobble to the wall where he leaned back, foot in hand.
The ridiculous pained look on his face made it difficult for the young woman to hide her amusement once she was sure Martin was not permanently maimed. "I'll take a look around, Tony. Maybe I can find something to pry that door open."
Connie started down the corridor but stopped short. Her full lips twitched with a smile as she held back a laugh. "Do you know what a Barsoomian crow-bar looks like?"
"You be careful," Tony grimaced as he massaged the heel of his foot. "Keep your eyes open. Yell if you have trouble--I'll be there in a flash."
Tony's pride suffered more than his bruised foot. He sank to the marble floor over-laid with eons of undisturbed dust. His appendage ached, but a good part of his attention was centered on Connie's shapely buttocks dipping in gorgeous figure eights toward the first room to the right.
"Nothing here," the woman declared when she reappeared. "I'll check the next one." She emerged, empty handed, and tried the next. When she came out, her face was creased with a white-toothed smile. Her small hands clutched a heavy something-or-other which vaguely resembled a 1950's floor lamp.
Tony hobbled in her direction, the pain in his foot forgotten. Years of football taught Martin to endure pain without complaint. After high school several colleges offered athletic scholarships based on Martin's ability to take, as well as deliver, bruising punishment.
Connie laughed as she skipped past the big right tackle. She swung the 'floor lamp' at the enigmatic panel. Tony reached out for the metal bar with a growl. "Give me that!"
The muscles of Tony's back and shoulders rolled under his sun-bronzed skin as he raised the 'floor lamp' over his head. It hit the door with bone-crushing force. The wood shuddered from the jarring impact. A tiny fracture appeared. Encouraged, Tony repeatedly struck the panel, each blow backed by his enormous strength.
Connie watched breathlessly, fascinated by the supple movements of his Herculean frame. She found herself becoming aroused from watching the unconfined movements of Tony's love muscle as he wreaked havoc on the door. Moments later, glistening with sweat, Tony's strong hands ripped the few remaining pieces from the door frame.
Connie feverishly rushed into the room beyond. In her haste to conceal the trembling of her inflamed body, the young woman's shoulder knocked the football player off-balance. Tony slipped on powder-fine dust and banged his head against the ersite stone doorway. Tony swore, rubbing his cranium with an angry hand. Entering the room, sealed a million or more years since the death of the Martian oceans, Martin growled at Connie Wescott's beautiful back.
"That was totally uncalled for, Connie." Tony wiped moisture from his brow as he looked around the interior of the chamber. "I'd have gladly moved aside."
Connie ignored Martin's complaint by averting her face, afraid to display the hot flush on her cheeks. The young woman was determined not to reveal the libertine thrill which consumed her in the hallway. She kept her back turned toward the muttering man and concentrated her attention on the stacks of fine silks and bolts of cloth lining the room. In hopes of concealing her heated excitement the trembling woman reached for a bolt of blue fabric; she was extremely fond of blue. As her hand touched that heavenly silk the shimmering cloth disintegrated. The one next to it vanished as swiftly, and so it was with each of the remaining bolts on the shelf. She went to the next rack with similar results and began to think she was being punished for her lascivious behavior. Rack after rack crumbled at her slightest touch.
Tony's mischievous chuckles echoed inside the storeroom each time the frustrated woman voiced her dismay. Connie knew his snickers were retaliation for the bump on his head; however deserved, it irritated her no end. Connie faced him with ill-controlled fury. "Will you keep your damn mouth shut? I'm sorry! Okay?
"Hey!" Martin's smile vanished, the bump forgotten. "This is Tony--remember me? I'm one of the good guys..."
His simple plea cut deeply. Connie was mortified and outraged with her undisciplined and childish behavior. The woman picked up the nearest solid object: a goblet encrusted with a king's ransom of emeralds, rubies, and diamonds. She threw it. She did not aim, only wishing to release all tension and embarrassment in a physical act. The goblet crashed into the quartzite window pane of the sealed room. The quartz, instead of shattering, exploded into dust.
"Connie? Kitten?" Tony's voice was filled with self-reproach. He tried to change the subject--to still her quiet tears with gentle words. He made a production out of examining an array of leather harnesses suspended on numerous pegs near the entrance. When he touched one it remained solid.
"Connie? These things don't turn to dust..." He showed her a harness, popping the leather straps between his massive hands. "The silks are too far gone."
Tony's fence-mending did not go unnoticed. Connie blinked, a look of repentance softening her angry pout. Remorseful, eyes downcast, Wescott traced the edge of a tightly- fitted flooring block with her toe.
The big man's heart went out to his companion. "I know it's rough, Princess, but we've just got to keep trying..."
"Let's have a look-see." Connie sniffed back tears and rubbed at her eyes. Ashamed of her recent behavior, the woman avoided Tony's kindly gaze as she inspected the harness he presented.
There was not much to the simple Martian garment: a belt which buckled at the waist, a single strap that crossed over the shoulder from front to back, a variety of hooks and snaps embedded in the leather. Most of the harnesses were of a similar style; though some were embossed with intricate tooling, or encrusted with precious gems, or varied in the color of the material. There were plain and utilitarian harnesses as well. Connie's sigh of frustration as she moved along the wall brought a tender smile to Tony's face.
"I think the only reason," he observed, "women want clothes is to make themselves sexier. Madam," he displayed a harness, bowing at the waist, "this particular style is most becoming. Perhaps I could show you something more suited to your abundant figure? More, shall we say, exotic?" Tony pulled down another harness with double straps that criss-crossed at mid-chest and mid-back.
"As you can see," Tony's easy grin was quite infectious, "this model is most flattering for unbound bosoms. It offers full separation of madam's most spectacular mammary glands. May I suggest..."
Connie's immediate vexation evaporated under the grinning jock's showroom manner. She burst out with the giggles. "You've got a lot of nerve! Talk about unbound? What about that weather vane of yours? Stands straight out when the wind blows!"
"All the more reason," Tony replied, pleasantly chagrined, "for us to find something to wear." Without waiting for a response, Martin tried on the harness in his hands. He quickly discarded it when it became obvious it was much too small. He looked to another and as he reached for it, Connie's playfully caustic remark was fully understood. He laughed, raising an amused eyebrow towards the woman feverishly trying harnesses for size and almost as rapidly discarding them on the floor.
Connie's eyes questioned his sudden amusement. Tony explained with a huge smile on his face. His hand dropped to his crotch, massaging his genitals. "So you noticed which way the wind was blowing, eh?"
Wescott blushed from head to foot. Not only was she embarrassed by his statement, she was totally unprepared for his gesture. It didn't help the situation in that she'd entertained similar thoughts of touching his impressive masculinity ever since he'd broken through the sealed door. She turned away, covering her face with her hands. This distressed reaction disturbed Tony Martin. He'd anticipated laughter, not tears. "Sorry," he mumbled an awkward apology. "Too crude--huh? We better get some clothes in a hurry so we can talk to each other like we used to..."
Connie silently nodded her agreement. Tight-lipped, the anxious maiden quickly sorted through the harnesses on the wall. Twenty minutes later they had selected and helped each other don the unusual Barsoomian costumes.
Tony was hardest to fit since ancient Orovars rarely achieved his great height or stature. There were two different harnesses which embraced his titanic proportions but Tony's final choice was a double-strapped harness of plain, unadorned leather with matching g-string, and short paneled breech clout.
"Why didn't you chose the other one, Tony?" Connie referred to the second harness lying on the floor. She touched the gem encrusted leather with her booted foot. The afternoon sun shining through the broken window made the harness sparkle. "All those jewels," she sighed. "Must be worth a fortune!"
Martin disagreed. "Diamonds Are A Girl's Best Friend, so Ms. Channing says, and Diamonds Are Forever, to quote Ian Fleming. Me--I've never had a yen for jewelry, with the one exception of a Super Bowl ring."
Tony tightened the harness strap across his shoulder with more force than necessary. He jerked the leather about his waist, checking the fastening a second time. His voice dropped an octave as he bit his bottom lip. "I doubt I'll ever have a chance to win one now..."
Tony sat on the edge of a table to measure his foot against one of the many pairs of boots lying on the floor beneath the harnesses. He found an approximate fit. Bending over, he pulled the amazingly well-preserved, supple lizard-skin boots over his bare feet.
Connie detected the remorse in Martin's voice. Wescott had been so engrossed with her own thoughts of death and Mars that she had neglected to consider her best friend's reactions. Connie instinctively knew any existence was better than none, but to discover Tony felt the same dislocation in space and time came as a shock. Martin had been so cheerful, so strong--so Tony--that the young woman had somehow assumed his adjustment to the transition in worlds.
With a guilty start Connie realized how much they both had lost: families in tears, friends who mourned; the careers they might have pursued. She'd have ended up a housewife, teacher, or secretary; Connie Wescott had no delusions about her abilities or drives, but Tony Martin had lost a promising professional football career.
She recalled late night conversations when he visited her home. Her father often joined in, proud of the young man's accomplishments and as eager as Tony for his shot at the big time. Connie remembered Tony's ambitious dreams and how he'd always included her in his wonderful visions, beginning with their second date. She silently vowed to distract his thoughts from the what-might-have-been. With a brave laugh the lady fencer performed a pirouette, calling for Tony's approval.
"What do you think? Like it?"
Tony's eyes rose from tiny booted feet, to whirling brown hair, his stubble-bearded face etched with a broad smile of appreciation. A single broad strap crossed Wescott's right shoulder over the smooth curve of her gorgeous back then down between her generous, firm breasts. The skimpy leather breech clout barely covered the area between her legs. Oddly, the brief costume drew Tony's eyes more imperatively than her previous nudity.
"STUNNING!" he shouted with a happy laugh. If Connie Wescott could make shopping on Barsoom as normal as going to Sears for a new blouse, he could do no less. He gave her his best old lecher leer. "You look good enough to eat! Reminds me of the pretty ladies in porno mags!"
Wescott spun once more before stopping to catch her breath. She stepped close, caressing Tony's bristly cheek. Her eyes sparkled mischievously. "You read those, too?" Connie smiled impishly, laying her palms the great arch of his chest. "Porno--Edgar Rice Burroughs--and probably Sports Illustrated! That's what I call a well-rounded literary diet!" Her gaiety fueled Martin's sheepish grin. Connie gave him a playful shove. "I'll tell you what, though, outfits like this might look good in those sleazy publications or on the cover of science fiction paperbacks but in real life it's for the birds!". Connie surprised herself by emulating Tony's earlier suggestive action by deliberately running a provocative finger beneath the harness strap between her breasts. She suddenly laughed. "I'll get chaffed in this thing!"
"Beats having your buns exposed to the cold." Tony replied, rising to the occasion, the melancholy dissipating under her cheerful influence.
"Just BARELY!" Connie giggled. She presented her backside to him, flipping her short leather breechcloth like a can-can girl. His whistles and applause brought a flush to the woman's cheeks as she playfully tossed one of the previously discarded harnesses at him for being too appreciative. Tony instinctively attempted an interception, but the missile was too far over his head.
Martin's eyes followed the air-borne object as it sailed past. The leather harness landed on an untouched pile of silks with the expected result; the ancient fabric vanished in a swirling cloud of dust, but this time something more than wood racks and stone flagging was revealed. Connie's ecstatic cry echoed in the ancient corridors. "Swords!"
Hidden beneath the fragile silks were more than thirty finely-crafted examples of the Barsoomian sword-maker's art. Connie's shriek of delight brought a smile to Martin's face as she crossed the room in a single leap. She tested the weight and feel of each sharp-edged instrument. Tony watched the excited woman enthusiastically examining the Martian weapons so similar to the ones she used with such skill in fencing tournaments on Earth.
Connie found eight matched sets of long sword, short sword, and dagger as described in the Barsoomian books. The other pieces were an assortment of unmatched styles and were ignored by the exuberant woman. Tony maintained his seat, pleased Connie found something on Barsoom that was a plus instead of a minus.
Connie constantly returned to a single set of weapons fashioned with a plain curved guard and adorned with a single large emerald in the pommel of each. The green of the gems perfectly matched Wescott's beautiful eyes. Her pleasure with the gleaming lengths of metal was evident in her ecstatic smile and the careful way she set them aside before she went back through the weapons. Another set was carefully chosen; heavier and of longer reach. These weapons were embellished with rubies instead of emeralds. Connie deposited all six weapons on the table where Tony sat.
"Move that big butt of yours," she ordered. Tony speedily obliged as the glowing woman caressed the gleaming blades on the table. "There must be some sheathes around here..."
Her eyes searched the room. Connie returned to the pile of discarded swords. She touched the bundled silks on either side. Under the brittle fabric to her left were the objects of her hunt. Eyes sparkling, she selected the proper sheathes and brought them back to her treasures. Connie slammed the emerald-hilted long sword into a leather sheath then snapped it onto her harness.
"Now," she declared with a bold grin, "I don't feel so naked! Here's a set for you." Connie handed Tony the long sword with the ruby studded hilt. "The longest and heaviest I could find. Try it! Might make the difference between life and death some day."
Martin experimentally wrapped his ham-sized fist about the hilt, awkwardly swinging the shiny weapon. "I can't tell if it feels right or not, Connie." Tony didn't hide behind macho pretenses. "Anything bigger'n a hunting knife and I'm all thumbs."
"You'll learn!" she promised. "I'll teach you." Connie assisted Tony by snapping the weapons to his harness. She stepped back and crossed arms beneath generous breasts to inspect her companion's new appearance. "You'll do, John Carter!"
Tony looked with dismay at the swords suspended from his thick waist. "I can't use these things, Connie! I'll cut myself!" Martin gave Wescott an oblique shrug of his great shoulders. "On you they look good--but me Klutz Martin?" He snorted with uncertainty. "By the way, girl, why didn't you get gaudy? Your harness is as plain as mine."
"I'm the simple type." Connie replied.
"Right--" Tony chuckled, never one to pass a golden opportunity--"Simple in the head."
"Why, you little fart!" Connie cried, picking up the nearest thing to hand: her short sword. She deftly turned the blade to pop his back side with the broad face of the steel.
"Ouch! I was only kidding!!"
Connie stuck out her tongue and giggled. "I know," she said mischievously, "I was just testing my quick draw and the heft of the sword." She sheathed the rigid length of Martian steel, eyes still sparkling with amusement.
Tony grinned sheepishly, then sobered in an instant when his hand brushed the hilt of his great sword. "You don't really think I'll ever have to use this, do you?"
"I've read six of the eleven Martian books by E.R.B., Tony. You've read them all--you tell me." There was a terrifying hint of practicality behind her words.
Tony sighed unhappily. "Looks like I'll end up as cut-bait, Princess. I can't use one of these things," he patted the hilt of the great sword. "Me--I'm the M-16 type. Give me a couple of grenades, lots of ammunition, and the 101st Airborne and then I'll feel adequately armed for the terrors of Barsoom."
"What are you complaining about, Tony? If the situation should ever arise I'll take care of you." Her voice was filled with confidence.
What cut Tony to the bone was his awareness Connie Wescott could actually do as she declared. "Great," Tony scowled with resentment, "the big football hero being nurse-maided by a little girl..."
"I'm a woman and I'm not little!" Connie's tone contained a hint of exasperation. "You'll do just fine after you learn the basics, Tony! Give it a chance!"
Tony sighed. "Rather have a rifle or a pistol."
"All right! We'll get you one of each!" Connie cried with exasperation. "Burroughs had something called a radium rifle in his stories. They could shoot a hundred miles or more, if you can believe that! We'll get you a Mars rifle!"
"Barsoom," Tony corrected with a tight smile. "We better start using Barsoomian words."
"Right," Connie agreed. "Jasoom--Earth; Barsoom--Mars..."
"Bosooms--Tits... Hey! Ouch! Connie! Quit!"
Connie Wescott disregarded Martin's protests as she paddled his bum with the broad side of her great sword. Tony jumped at the first stinging blow. Subsequent efforts to evade her failed. Connie continued to apply her punishment. The unfamiliar swords at his waist brought about Tony's ignominious defeat: the scabbards tangled between his long legs, tripping him. The right tackle slid the length of the room. His head and torso disappeared beneath a pile of silks which erupted into a great cloud of dust.
"Yahoo!" Tony cried before succumbing to an attack of sneezing as the powdered fabric entered his nostrils. "I'm ready for anything now!"
When the particulate matter began to settle, Connie Wescott made out the figure of her immense friend searching though the piles of dust at his feet. In one hand Tony held a Martian long bow manufactured from nearly indestructible skeel wood. It was the longest of the three bows he'd blundered into by chance. A pair of quivers dangled over his sturdy wrist by their leather straps.
"There must be over a hundred arrows!" Tony grinned as he crossed the room. He stopped at a nearby table covered with an assortment of hammered gold objects of incredible beauty and various sacks of jewels. The exquisite trinkets were swept aside by a single stroke of his brawny arm so that his real object d'arte could be laid upon the surface for closer examination.
Fingering flaps which covered various compartments on the quivers Tony extracted a dozen bow strings which curiously appeared to be made of a bright, flexible metal. The arrows were fletched with some unknown material; forty inch shafts as straight and strong as the day they were made. Tony whistled his appreciation of the viciously barbed arrowheads.
Tony had no difficulty stringing the powerful Martian bow due to his Earthly-endowed strength. He slipped the metal string over the steel-capped ends of the weapon. The bow string thrummed satisfactorily when Tony tested its tension with a flick of his finger.
"Dad and I hunt with these all the time. Bagged a brown bear last summer. If you want my unbiased opinion, I'm Freakin'-A-Number-One with these critters! Damn! I feel a lot better now!"
Tony went to the window, nocked an arrow, drew, aimed, and released. Such was the strength of the bow and the arm which drew it that the shaft whistled in a high arc over the buildings. Before disappearing from view, the arrow had travelled over five hundred yards. "Wow!" Tony exhaled slowly, his astonishment plain to read in his wondering gaze. "That's what I call one hell of a bow!"
Connie was about to add her enthusiastic approval when they were startled by a wall-shaking roar. The earthlings whirled about to face a pair of the dreaded man-eating white apes of Barsoom!
IV. THE STRANGE BEASTS OF MARS
The huge beasts were an unlovely breed standing ten to fifteen feet tall in the Barsoomian books; these particular specimens were twelve and fourteen. They had six limbs; two for walking erect and two at the shoulders near the thick neck covered with a huge, bristly shock of white hair. The third set of limbs, located below the upper pair, could be used for locomotion or an extra set of hands, depending on the needs of the beast. The head, in both shape and contour, was strikingly similar to that of the African gorilla.
The awesome beasts advanced on Tony and Connie, emitting coarse, guttural growls. The apes displayed complete confidence in their prey by splitting ranks--an earthling apiece.
The petite earth woman did not hesitate for an instant. Whipping her long sword free, Connie charged the beast closing with her. Tony's astonishment at her incredible bravery lasted only a micro-second--the other ape was charging him!
The earthman nocked an arrow to hurriedly fire at the huge beast. The shot was poorly aimed, but such was Martin's luck the creature crashed to the floor. The wickedly barbed point of the arrow shattered the ape's skull, splashing great gouts of blood and grey matter across the room. Tony contained his surprised relief while reloading to face the ape attacking Connie. What he saw was so astounding he lowered his weapon in awe, staring with open-mouthed wonder.
Connie had completely severed two of her assailant's thick arms. The ape's head and shoulders were hacked and bleeding from a dozen cuts. Connie leapt forward, the point of her sword accurately skewering the right breast of the ape. She'd remembered Burroughs' Martian creatures had their hearts center and right--the opposite of humans and the various warm-blooded creatures of Earth.
Her thrust was backed by the greatly enhanced strength of her supple body in the lesser gravity of Mars. Connie ended her lunge with a twist of her wrist. The ape fell to the blood-stained marble with a cry of agonized rage on its ugly lips.
"Ugh!" Connie shook her blood-spattered body from head to toe. "What a mess! Did I get any in my hair?" The woman placed her boot against the ape's crimsoned breast to wrench her blade free. "Gosh that was fun!"
"Fun, my ass!" Tony replied, looking pale around the gills. The adrenaline still thumped through his body.
Connie noted his nauseated expression as he stared at the still twitching corpses. "Perhaps I got carried away," the panting woman admitted as she wiped the blade on the hairless chest of her deceased opponent. "But this is the first time since I started fencing I could hack away for real!"
"Remind me not to get you pissed off at me."
"Oh, pooh!" Connie chided with a tremulous laugh. She faced Tony with genuine admiration after viewing the gory mess Tony's arrow made of the ape's skull. "What a shot! Right through the eye! Damn! You weren't kidding, were you?"
Tony's self-esteem revived as Connie glowingly complimented his apparent marksmanship. He declined to admit pure chance had directed his shaft. "Thanks," he managed with a straight face. "You weren't too bad yourself. Regular hell on wheels with that meat cleaver of yours."
"Why thank you, kind sir," Connie curtsied. She eyed the apes then looked back at Tony. "You hungry?"
"Very, but if you're thinking what I think you're thinking, count me out. My appetite just got up and went. I don't think I could stomach raw ape."
"Me either." Connie's cute nose wrinkled expressively. "I was trying to be practical. What do you say? Should we move on--see if we can find something edible?"
Connie stepped closer, shining approbation in her beautiful green eyes. Tony found the admiration of the blood-spattered woman much too sensual for him to handle. He gained breathing time by pulling the arrow out of the ape's skull. He replaced it in one of his quivers.
"Fine with me," Tony replied, basking in her approval, "but watch out, there may be other apes lurking about."
"Right you are," Connie nodded. "Let's not push our luck."
Connie led the way out. Tony quickly scanned the apartment to see if there might be other arrows hidden beneath the silks. He quickly discovered he carried all which had been stored in the sealed room. Martin joined Wescott on the descending ramp.
When they emerged on the sunlight street Connie frowned. "What did Burroughs put on this planet for people to eat? Do you remember?"
Tony silently kicked the question about before answering. "Mantalia, usa, sompus, thoat, zitidars, fruits, berries, roots and tubers, fish, breads, cakes, and honey--but he didn't give exact descriptions of the plants. We'll probably walk right through a land of plenty and starve to death."
"Don't be such a pessimist," Connie groused. She booted a chip of stone in their path. It skipped a dozen feet before it disappeared in a sand drift at the base of a tower. "What do we look for?"
"I have no idea, but I'll tell you this: I'm more thirsty than hungry. We've got to have water, Connie. Soon--"
"I'll go for that, my chieftain. Which way do we travel?"
Her words brought Tony to an abrupt, breathless, halt. Connie's green eyes narrowed as she gazed nervously at his suddenly intense expression.
"My chieftain?" Tony scanned her delicious, abundant beauty displayed in brief barbaric costume with bated breath. "You mean 'my chieftain' the same way Burroughs meant it?"
Connie shrugged her shoulders with an upturning of her full lips. "Perhaps I'm playing 'Lost on Barsoom' a little too realistically, sweetheart. I'm not sure I'm ready to make that kind of commitment, Tony. But until something better comes along you'll do quite nicely." Tony's bitter frown perplexed the woman. "What is it, darling?"
"Want to find out how nice it could be?" he asked.
"I thought you were thirsty." Connie laughed.
"I am." Tony's husky emotion pleased the woman. She hoped she didn't show her feelings to the young man. His next words flustered her. "For you!"
"So what else it new?" Wescott avoided the direct answer, not trusting herself. She nervously led the way. "We've got places to go--things to do. Can't be fooling around..."
Tony's only comment as they passed out of the city onto the dead sea bottom was: "Spoil Sport!"
By late afternoon they were beyond sight of the city, desperately hot and fatigued. The blood stains on Connie's smooth, white skin had turned into long, ragged smears as the sun's boiling heat sucked moisture from her body. Tony, while not exhibiting the crimson evidence of Connie's encounter with the white apes, smelled rank enough that he was no longer enamored with his own company.
Logic told them that water runs downhill. Therefore, they descended into the gigantic depression that was, millions of years ago, covered by the rolling waters of a great Martian ocean. The city of Zanathia, which once stood on the ancient shoreline, disappeared from sight as the long slopes and miles intervened. The two humans struggled onward, weakened by dehydration and hunger. Connie frequently stumbled and came to depend on Tony's generous support.
"Burroughs made this one hell of a big planet," Connie remarked as casually as she could with a swollen tongue filling her mouth. Attempts at bravado were wearing thin. She was still gamely confident, however, or so she thought until they topped a ridge and looked down into yet another empty ravine. Wescott sank to the moss, cursing. "Are we going to die?"
Tony patted her shoulder, lifting Connie to her feet, "We're both ready to drink a river and eat a horse. Please don't quit on me now."
The earthlings heard a soft padding sound in the distance. They anxiously whirled about. With the frightening example of the white apes of Zanathia still vivid in their minds, they faced their back trail with weapons at ready. Connie used both hands to steady her sword in a weak, though determined grip. Tony, shoulders back and head held high, braced his legs and calmly nocked an arrow to the powerful Orovar bow. For long eternities the young couple searched the ridges to the rear with intent eyes. Suddenly, a huge, ugly, reptilian-shaped head topped the last rise to the rear.
The earthlings beheld a monster-sized beast warily trotting in their direction. The eight legged creature, over ten feet high at the shoulder, had not scented the humans who watched it stagger to the top of the ridge. The animal was equipped with a long tail, broader at the tip than at the base. Its head was split by a large mouth from the fanged snout to where it joined the thick, massive neck. The creature's general coloration was dark slate and it was entirely devoid of hair. The belly was white, gradually becoming a vivid yellow at the feet that were heavily padded and without nails.
"What is it?" Connie lowered the point of her sword in awe.
"I think it's a thoat. A Martian horse."
"Looks more like an eight-legged alligator to me." Connie said. "Whatever it is, kill it, Tony! I'm hungry!"
Tony started to comply, but a sun reflection from the animal's slick hide made him lower his weapon. "Connie," he said softly, "I think there's a rider..."
Connie peered through the heat shimmers to eventually agree with Tony. "But," she added after long observation, "Whoever he is, he's been dead for a long time. Somebody tied him to the thoat."
"I can see that!" Tony whispered harshly. "Must have been Warhoons!" Tony shivered as he thought of the fierce green Martian tribe who callously reduced their thoat herds by turning unwanted creatures out with a dying torture victim lashed to their backs. The blood scent invariably attracted vicious ten-legged Martian lions --banths-- that would ruthlessly pursue, then devour, both thoat and unfortunate passenger.
"Damn it, Tony! It's his problem not ours! Kill the beast! I'm hungry! Quick, I think he's seen us!"
The thoat's ugly snout rose at an oblique angle, fleshy nostrils extended to the wind. Tony estimated the distance with a shake of his head. "Too far for a clean shot. I'll have to get closer."
"Why don't you call it over?" Connie snapped. "John Carter and the green Martians controlled those animals by telepathy!"
"Now that's a thought!" Tony quipped, trying to reassure his agitated lady. He set his mind to the task of sending out a mental command to the thoat, not knowing exactly how, but trying just the same. For a time nothing happened, then the creature's grotesque snout jerked in their direction. The thoat slowly padded towards the earthlings.
Tony considered the strength of the bow, the size of the thoat, the distance from which to release the shaft: fifty feet. The thoat plodded nearer, head down and drooping. Soon the beast would be near enough for the barbed arrow to penetrate the thick hide.
(Curious mental feedback side effect:) Fatigue. Six banths... fear... stinking weight... dead man on my back...
Tony nearly stumbled as the mental images from the thoat entered his mind like a ghostly shadow of his own thoughts. Animal telepathy, mentioned in the Barsoom books and considered by the athlete too fantastic to believe, caused the burly tackle to release the tension on his bow and turn away. "I can't," he said. Connie gazed at him with disbelief.
Tony, filled with unhappy embarrassment, ducked the woman's accusing stare. "The damn thing's talking to me!" Tony explained. "I can't kill it."
"Are you bull-shittin' me, Tony?" Connie hissed. She was incredulous.
"Can't do it. I'm gonna cut that dead man from his back."
"Like hell you will! If you can't do it, I will!" Connie started forward, sword at the ready. "I'm hungry!"
"So am I," Martin whispered. "But I just can't do it--"
Connie moved towards the tired Martian animal, her brow furrowed in concentration as she sent forth a mental summons. She called to the thoat, calmed it, prepared it for her sword. Five minutes later she was cutting the ropes which held the dead Martian to the thoat. Her hand timidly rose to caress the thick neck of the great beast. Tony came to her side.
Connie lowered her eyes, feeling as embarrassed as the football player had just moments before. "Gets to you, don't it?" she said. "I can't kill it either." There were tears of apology, frustration, and hunger in her eyes.
"Hard to kill something which can talk to you," Tony patted the leathery side of the beast, grinning at Connie. The smile vanished as the young man dismally gazed upon the body of the red man. "The Warhoons sure did a job on him..."
Connie stared at the dead man as if she were seeing it for the first time. "I was so concerned with killing the thoat I never realized that was a human being--" she swallowed hard, turning green. "Oh, God, Tony! They didn't leave much of his face and look at his hands...oh, Tony!" The tiny brunette shivered violently, plunging herself into the athlete's arms.
The big man wasn't too steady either. The Martian, perhaps as tall as the right tackle but much slimmer in build, was horribly disfigured. Tony was used to the sight of blood and broken bones; you can't play football without seeing some of that from time to time, but none of those injuries were done with such calculated cruelty as the corpse exhibited. The red man, slightly darker in color than the American Indian, almost a copper-bronze in tone, was naked and there was nothing on the man's body or the thoat which might identify the victim. Tony Martin gently led Connie away from the mute evidence of Barsoomian violence, hoping distance would reduce the shock.
"Burroughs created a savage, barbaric world, Tony. We've got to remember that!"
The tackle nodded, his arm trembling about her shoulder. "We knew that, Connie, but seeing proof is quite different than reading about blood and gore, slash and blunder. You stay here, I'll go bury him." Tony turned and walked into the huge thoat's snout. The huge animal, momentarily forgotten, had silently followed the young couple.
"Hey, big fellah!" Martin chuckled as the great fanged snout dipped to nuzzle his chest. "Bet you're glad to be rid of that..." Tony was surprised to receive that exact message in the form of chaotic mental images from the giant beast. Foremost in the creature's mind was the fearful image of a half-dozen banths which had pursued it for days.
"Stay with Connie," he silently commanded the thoat. Martin nervously walked back to the corpse. His sudden apprehension had nothing to do with burying the dead man. His concern focused on the thoat's anxiety regarding the proximity of banths. After meeting Barsoomian white apes in Zanathia, Tony wasn't eager to face the dangerous Martian lions because, it seemed, ERB hadn't pulled anyone's leg about the ferocity of white apes. Knowing this, Tony surmised, Barsoomian banths were to be greatly feared!
Tony used his sword to hurriedly flip sand and moss over the red man's mutilated body. He swiftly rejoined Connie, who unashamedly allowed her companion to inter the deceased Martian by himself. She took Tony's hand, gazing wistfully at the massive fang-filled snout of the thoat. "Do you suppose we could get a ride from the great beastie?"
As soon as she uttered the statement, Connie Wescott vaulted astride the thoat's neck. The beast remained docile, unaffected by her slight weight. Connie made room for Tony by sliding forward on the creature's thick neck. Martin awkwardly mounted the huge animal, taking a position behind the petite woman.
"Let's go, nice thoat," Connie whispered.
Tony added his thought to hers, concentrating on sending the same message with his mind. To the woman's delight the great beast accepted the mental rapport and amicably responded to their soothing efforts, eventually becoming quite tractable. The thoat soon moved into in a ground eating trot which threatened to jar every tooth from the heads of the newly-arrived Jasoomians.
Intent on their search for water, the young couple continued north, descending ever deeper into the immense depression of the dead sea bottom. Tony and Connie maintained a constant mental contact with the thoat, a prospect made difficult by the ever present images of dangerous banths clouding the animal's limited consciousness. The thoat, a sub-sentient creature, was unable to be specific; though it did inform the humans that it had narrowly avoided its persistent, carnivorous pursuers over the last few days.
Near sun down, after hours of riding, the weary riders became alarmed by a series of high and low pitched grunts, growls and roars. The nervous thoat reacted violently, nearly throwing its riders to the crimson sward.
"What's that?" Connie tried to shut out the horrible sounds by covering her ears. She trembled as vehemently as the terrified thoat beneath her.
"Banths!" Tony snarled, watching the back trail.
Connie's first sight of the multi-legged demons froze the blood in her veins. One of the horrible creatures emitted a thunderous roar which set the others off, a tremendous cacophony that echoed through the ravines. Connie desperately clung to Tony before she reached over his shoulder to pull an arrow from his quiver. The young man smiled at her while swallowing his own fear.
"Princess, as long as you keep your chin up we'll be fine!" He strung his bow and nocked the arrow. "Keep a tight rein on the thoat. I'll see what I can do..."
The thoat's massive head turned round, its eyes wild as the banths closed in along both flanks and rear. Connie slapped the neck of the creature several times as her face contorted with concentration. "Get going, you ugly thing!" she cried.
"No! Hold him steady!" Tony shouted.
Denying her own desire to flee, Connie managed to bring the thoat under a semblance of control just as Tony released his first arrow. Before the whistling shaft sank into the breast of his primary target, the lead banth, he coolly nocked a second arrow. The wounded banth frantically tore at the skeel shaft protruding from its breast. The scent of fresh blood caused its fellows to turn on the shrieking creature. A younger banth, maddened by the hot gush of blood, turned from the hunt to snap at its stricken companion. The older banth retaliated with a single, mighty blow which nearly decapitated its attacker.
"Get the hell out of here! Move it, girl!" Tony shouted as he watched the feeding frenzy with astonished disbelief. The other banths, amid great roars and blindingly fast lunges, tore their wounded and dying pack members to bloody bits.
Connie sent a sharp mental command to the thoat, which responded so willfully that Tony tottered precariously. Had the agile woman not reached back to grasp his harness, locking her strong thighs tight about the thoat's quivering neck, Tony Martin would have fallen to the ground.
"Thanks!" Tony whispered in the diminutive brunette's ear.
His thickly-corded arm encircled Connie's waist from behind. Wescott banished the terrible image of Tony Martin lying somewhere behind the galloping thoat, threatened by hordes of vicious banths. She reached down to grip that hard column of bone and muscle, his encircling arm, as it strained against her middle.
She couldn't speak, just then, her throat too tight at the thought of her handsome young man savagely mauled by wild beasts and the sudden, near paralyzing fear of being left alone in the Martian barrens. Instead of communicating these thoughts to Tony Martin, Connie reinforced her will upon the frightened thoat until the frenzied banths' raucous din faded in the distance.
V. OASIS IN THE DESERT
All through the night Tony Martin and Connie Wescott clung to the back of the mighty thoat. The huge beast bravely stumbled across the increasingly difficult terrain, hard on the edge of exhaustion. Known as a creature accustomed to the brutal hardships of the Barsoomian dead sea bottoms, the thoat's normally incredible endurance was well over-extended. Denizens of the desert, thoats were adapted by harsh evolution to survive deprivation. They could go as long as a month, if necessary, without food or water. Unwanted by his harsh green Martian masters, Throxeus was denied nourishment for several weeks before the unfortunate red man was lashed to his back as bait for the vicious banths roaming the wilds of Mars. Green Martians often reduced their thoat herds by this cruel fashion, though the bait could have been any fresh-slaughtered creature capable of producing a blood scent. Throxeus had been fleeing banths for three days before the Earthlings removed the corpse from its over-taxed body. The two young humans clinging to the mighty thoat's back weren't in much better shape than the stumbling animal.
Connie Wescott's head lay limp on the right tackle's breast. "I'm starved!" she softly complained.
"Hello, Starved," Tony replied with a tired grin. "I'm Famished." His fatigued play on words echoed their pitiful condition; both humans reeled unsteadily on the Barsoomian creature's broad back. Connie attempted a thin smile, but the effort was too great. She collapsed against Tony's breast, an uncontrollable trembling seizing her hands as the sun cleared the horizon.
"I don't think I can make it." Connie gasped an hour later, throat so parched her voice cracked. Though the words were difficult to enunciate her meaning was clear; the girl surrendered to a feverish, fitful sleep.
"Don't give up on me, Princess," Tony whispered into the thick mass of Wescott's brown curls. "I'm not as good at this survival thing as old John Carter, kitten. We need to stick together..."
The weary thoat stopped frequently to stand head lowered, sides heaving. Tony Martin was relentless, immoderately expending vast amounts of mental energy to urge the huge beast into a shuffling gait. The strain of maintaining the unfamiliar telepathic contact increased until sometime in the fifth hour of the day when the thoat suddenly became animated. The animal raised its unlovely head to sniff shifting breezes from out of the north.
"What is it, boy?" Tony breathed. "What have you found? Water?"
The thoughts Tony received from the thoat were only vague images, but he had an impression of cool, open water somewhere ahead.
"Go for it, Throxeus!" Tony urged the animal he'd named after the greatest of the five ancient Barsoomian oceans. "Find the water!"
Throughout the long afternoon, Tony's on-going struggle narrowed to supporting Connie's limp figure and maintaining his seat astride the great thoat. More than once the haggard man nearly fell from the animal; both man and beast reeled with fatigue and hunger. However, the thoat's mental eagerness of "something good!" strengthened Tony Martin's grim determination.
At sundown the thoat began a brisk trot; a gait it sustained without urging from the Earthman. Tony's heart quickened as Throxeus descended a relatively steep slope into a gigantic depression. The beast's ugly snout centered on the lowest part of the basin where a towering spire of rock, like an acupuncturist's needle protruding from wrinkled flesh, jutted from the floor of the colossal bowl-shaped valley. When the oceans of Barsoom rolled over this wasteland the crest of the towering peak might have been a tiny island far off the original coast line.
Tony forced sand-begrimed eyes to focus on the mountain. At least six or seven miles lay between them and its base. The dark verdure surrounding the peak held a tantalizing promise of water and vegetation. The young man hoped that splash of vibrant color so welcome after the monotony of ocher moss and so briefly glimpsed before darkness fell was a sure sign of food and water.
Throxeus negotiated the rugged terrain while Tony Martin tightened his grip on the massive neck. The thoat snuffled the air and began to move with a sense of urgency. Even the Earthman's citified nostrils could detect the evidence of moisture in the air.
Connie's head lolled on her breast as the athlete tried to rouse her. Nearing the peak, Tony tried to communicate his news to the tiny brunette. He became frantic when the girl failed to respond to gentle shakes. He pressed trembling fingers against the unconscious girl's jugular, relieved to feel the steady heartbeat.
"Don't you dare give up the ship, kitten!" Tony whispered to the unresponsive girl. "We'll be just fine when Throxeus gets us to the water!"
Tony urged greater effort from the thoat. The huge beast stumbled across the rim of the final slope and slid precariously downward, all eight legs stiffly braced. A blinding cloud of dust accompanied beast and riders all the way to the bottom.
"Okay, Throxeus?" Martin patted the animal's thick hide as the thoat regained its footing. Tony loved horses, spending every summer on his father's small breeding ranch. To his mind Throxeus was a horse, though far more hideous than the magnificent thoroughbreds his father raised; yet, the youth found no fault with the magnificent heart of the grotesque beast. Whenever he spoke to Throxeus, Tony adopted the same quiet tones used when handling the fine stallions and mares on the ranch of his childhood. His father, a true master of horse, taught him that animals were not mere property, they were cherished friends to be treated with respect and kindness.
The thoat, within its limited span of intelligence, knew the difference between this soft-voiced Jasoomian master and the fierce green Martians who turned him out on the desert as banth fodder. In response to this kindness Throxeus expended the remainder of his titanic strength moving toward the promise of water without displaying the characteristic foul temper thoats usually exhibited.
Though they were now on level ground and well into scrub brush rising as thin shadows about the thoat's mighty flanks, Tony realized his original distance estimate was distorted by the uncommonly rarefied atmosphere. It was well past dark when Throxeus finally entered the strange Barsoomian forest at the base of the mountain.
Thuria's pale, mad, shadow-shifting glow fitfully illuminated the path chosen by the thoat. Tony peered intently ahead, marveling at the unfamiliar shapes and forms of the vegetation of Mars.
Acutely concerned for Connie Wescott, Tony pressured Throxeus to even greater speed. The stout-hearted animal redoubled its efforts, stumbling into a fast walk--the best pace the thoat could manage. Tony stroked Connie's cheek, whispering encouragement. Moments later, despite its fatigue, Throxeus trumpeted with pure joy when the trio entered the clearing at the foot of the imposing granite spire.
Cluros, the farther moon, had cleared the horizon and his greater light, added to that of his lunar lover Thuria, disclosed a scene welcomed by thoat and humans. A narrow stream of water fell down the side of the eight-hundred-foot mountain, ultimately confined in a rock bound pool no more than forty feet across. A fine mist from the waterfall saturated the air; a pleasant moisture that excited the thoat and reminded Tony of the ever-present humidity of the Texas Gulf Coast.
Throxeus waded into the pool's shallow depths to dip fanged snout into the life-giving fluid. Tony slipped into the cool, knee-deep water then lifted Connie from the thoat's back. The football tackle laid the woman's quiet form on the soft sward at the edge of the pool. He gently cradling Wescott's head and dipped water to dribble over her parted lips.
Connie's eyes slowly opened, then suddenly aware of the moisture, she gasped once and avidly sucked what her companion offered. Tony brushed ape-blood encrusted hair from the girl's eyes and heaved a sigh of relief.
"Feeling better?" The concern in his voice was quite evident.
"No shit Sherlock! Lead me to it!" Connie's brave words were feeble in delivery but strong with determination. Martin proudly helped the woman to the water's edge, watching as she dipped trembling hands into the clear fluid. Once Tony was certain Connie Wescott could manage her own needs, he lay full-length on the bank and pressed sun-blistered lips to the surface of the restorative liquid.
Connie became more alert as the minutes passed. When her tongue no longer seemed too large for her mouth, she splashed water over face, neck and arms. Rising to shed the recently acquired leather harness and weapons, Connie waded into the pool. At knee-depth she sat on the rock-lined bottom with a grateful sigh. She washed the last of the white ape's blood from her sun-burned body.
Tony Martin, aware of his own locker room stench, asked, "Do you mind if I join you?"
"Please do, Stinky!" Connie replied with a shadow of her former spirit.
Tony removed his Orovarian harness and joined Connie in the refreshing water. He stopped long enough to give her a kiss on the forehead before wading out to the deepest part of the pool. He found enough depth for swimming, enjoying the sensation of liquid on his dry, wind-roughened skin. Tony completely immersed himself several times, vigorously scrubbing sand from his hair. The water cleared his eyes and relieved a thousand itches and, in general, renewed his outlook on life. Martin swam towards Throxeus, intending to care for the beast, but the creature was so intent on draining the pool it would not even mind-link with the Earthling. Tony thankfully patted the thoat's flank before leaving the pool.
Connie spent more time at her ablutions. She longed for a brush or a wash-cloth to scrub her skin. The cool water eased the feverish heat of prolonged exposure to the sun. Oddly, the girl found herself more concerned about blisters and peeling than the lack of soap to shampoo her thick brown hair. She'd picked up quite a burn. Gods! she thought to herself. What if I get freckles? What will Tony think?
While Connie finished her bath, Martin rinsed their harnesses and weapons. Connie had carefully cleaned her blade after the battle with the apes and there was little blood left on the weapon, but Tony diligently scrubbed it with a handful of wet sand just the same. Later, as the air gradually chilled toward the near freezing temperatures of late night, the two humans huddled together. Connie snuggled against Tony while they waited for the harnesses to dry. Her damp head lay on his shoulder. She was no longer self-conscious of her nudity, or his, for sometime during the last few days they had lost that prohibitive tabu of American society. The young people were as relaxed as if they sat on the couch of the Wescott's house watching the Oilers getting beat for the umpteenth time.
"I'm hungry," Connie declared, pulling away from his arm. She quickly poked a rough warning into Tony's ribs, "I do not want to hear 'Hello, Hungry, I'm Starved' again!"
"Won't have to, Princess," Tony chuckled. "You said it for me!" He poked her in the ribs and got an embarrassed laugh in return.
"Cheeky bastard," Connie light-heartedly chuckled. She pouted, "What's for din-din, Tony?" She edged away, her hand enfolding the jeweled pommel of the Martian steel, eyebrow arched in playful warning.
"Maybe nothing." Tony, tired of the game, shrugged. He glanced at the great thoat leaving the pool to wallow on the moss. Throxeus settled, blew a long sigh, then tucked his massive head under his right foreleg. Within a dozen heartbeats it appeared the beast was sleeping. "Maybe Throxeus?" Tony speculated.
"Tony!" Connie was appalled by the suggestion. "I couldn't eat him!" She slapped him on the shoulder. "Neither could you!"
"You're right, Connie." Tony laughed for exactly three seconds then dejectedly bowed his head. "So--we're back to square one, darling. Nothing to eat."
Thuria, Cluros' flirtatious lover, spanned a half degree of the Martian heavens as the young people consoled each other. Suddenly, like a part of the earth rising up, Throxeus headed for the brush growing at the perimeter of the clearing. Both Earthlings fought vague visions of steak on the hoof departing until they observed the thoat grazing. Throxeus greedily stripped a strangely shaped bush liberally covered with dark, glistening berries which seemed to delight the massive brute.
Connie raised an eyebrow in thought. She looked to Tony with a fatalistic shrug. "We can die now or later... Throxeus says it's delicious and safe to eat. Want to try?"
"Did he actually say that?" Tony asked.
"No," Connie admitted, "but if bad got worst, wouldn't you eat what the animals ate?" She rose on unsteady legs, drawing her dagger. Tony jumped up to grab her wrist. Connie frowned, jerking free to angrily turn on Martin. "I'm not thinking of Throxeus, you big, soft-hearted dummy! Berries! I'm going to try the berries, before that big pig eats them all!"
"What the hell," Tony apologized, "we might as well but I draw the line at the leaves, Connie! Looks too damn much like spinach to me!"
"You better be glad we're on Barsoom and Popeye's not around!" The naked girl smiled impishly and ran to the edge of the clearing.
Thuria flew two-thirds of the Barsoomian sky before the Jasoomians lay back with full stomachs. The night was chill, but neither bothered to don the damp harnesses which, after all, offered little in the way of protection. Throxeus lay on the sward near them; his enormous body cutting off the brisk wind from the high-reaches of the desert. Connie scooted across the moss until her back was six inches from the thick hide of the immense thoat. Throxeus's ungainly head twisted on it's short, massive neck until the fanged snout dipped toward the diminutive girl.
"I'm going to find out how neat a 'person' Throxeus is," Wescott announced. She sidled back on her buns until her shoulders pressed against Throxeus. She leaned torso and head against the heaving side of the animal and grinned when Throxeus allowed her to do so.
"Come on, Tony!" Wescott cried. She patted the moss-covered ground beside her. "Old Throxeus is a giant, heated recliner!"
Martin did not require a second invitation. The night was cold and any source of heat was better than none. Tony was amazed at how closely the thoat's smell reminded him of the horses on his father's ranch. "Just like sleeping in a hay barn," he told Connie. "Good old Throxeus!" The youth pounded the beast's side with a hearty hand. Throxeus heaved a tremendous sigh and tucked its huge, ugly head under one foreleg. The great eyes closed.
Connie slipped her slim arm between Tony's and his hard-muscled ribs. "How about me? Do I remind you of a hay barn?"
Tony chuckled, pulling her into his lap, hugging her close. "You remind me of what you do in a hay barn!"
When Connie giggled, he kissed her. Connie released a long, slow breath before putting her arms about the man's massive neck. Her lips pressed against his, her right hand tugging gently at the hair on the back of his neck. Tony Martin no longer felt cold. Her caress ignited inner fires. His husky voice trembled unsteadily when he finally gathered breath to speak. "That was nice! Want to get to know each other a little bit better?" His grin was acceptably lecherous.
"All balls and no brains!" Connie quickly unwound his arms and slipped to the ground beside him. Hugging knees to breast, she was plagued with indecision, wanting to say "yes", yet unable to do so. "Please don't push it, Tony. We'll have to see how things work out..." Connie laid her head on his shoulder.
Feeling emotionally trampled, Tony pulled back so abruptly Connie's skull thumped against the thoat's slippery hide. "Fine with me," he growled.
"Ouch!" Connie cried, rubbing her head. "Don't be so mean!" Her full lips tightened into a thin-line pout.
Tony nodded towards Connie's right hand firmly gripped about the hilt of her Martian dagger. "I wasn't the one threatening violence, my dear..."
"Damn!" Connie disbelievingly stared at the knife. She tossed it to one side. She rested her chin on her knees and stared at the surface of the pool reflecting the too-brilliant stars overhead. After a long moment of silence Connie spoke. "This is happening too fast. Can we just wait awhile?"
Tony leaned back against the thoat. He crossed arms on chest, then crossed legs at ankles. He snorted with disgust. "You've made that clear enough! First you're on, then you're off. You remind me of a traffic light. Stop! Go! Stop! Are you waiting for something better? Is that it?"
Connie turned to kneel beside the youth, her pleading hand on his crossed wrists. She stared at him, an injured look on her face. "No," she replied softly.
"Really?" Tony wasn't convinced. "And what were you planning just now, handing me my guts on a platter?"
"I wasn't going for the knife. I don't know why I--" Connie was frustrated: her explanation sounding vague even to herself. Wescott straightened her back, frowning, and hugged herself against the chill. The woman's nipples were painfully contracted from the temperature, her teeth chattered. "It's getting colder. Truce?"
"There's plenty of thoat--" Tony's meaning was clear: he didn't trust her. This pained Connie.
"Tony, please. I over-reacted. Since we've been here we've been starved, frozen, attacked by apes and banths...can't a girl's nerves wear a little thin?"
Her sincere apology made Tony feel like an uncaring brute. He grinned sheepishly and opened his arms. Connie gratefully crawled into his embrace with a sigh of relief.
"Just don't take things for granted," Connie whispered, snuggling close. "Okay?"
Martin resisted his immediate impulse to thrust her away. She came begging, then demanding. Fatalistically he shrugged his shoulders. He had no desire to fight with the gorgeous young woman whose lovely breasts threatened to burn a hole in his side. Unable to construe her delicious proximity as an acceptance of his earlier advance Tony's thoughts bordered on frustrated chaos as Cluros hovered over the rim of the depression.
Lulled by the comfort of the athlete's embrace the woman was nearly asleep. Her voice slurred with fatigue when she responded. "Huh?"
"I do like you, princess--a lot." He gave her a tender squeeze. "You're the best. I can't think of anyone I'd rather be with than you. The absolute best. I mean it."
"You're not too bad yourself, Tony Martin." She gave him a quick peck on the cheek. "Now shut up and let's get some shut-eye."
VI. STARTLING DISCOVERIES
The young couple lay curled together, spoon fashion, at the side of the thoat. Simultaneous with the golden splendor of the Barsoomian dawn came the sound of voices. Throxeus, head alertly raised and sensitive nostrils testing the air, remained motionless. The beast appeared restive because of the noises in the forest beyond the pool clearing.
"What is it?" Connie urgently whispered as she and Tony gazed upon the strange alien foliage surrounding their life-saving oasis in the Martian desert. She had no time to examine the vegetation because Tony grabbed his bow, a grim expression on his handsome features.
Tony Martin anxiously gazed in the direction of the sounds. "Stay put, I'll check it out." Connie nodded, silently wishing the big man luck as he moved into the forest.
Tony was aware of Connie's confidence in him, but he had no delusions about his abilities or bravery. He was just a 'good ole boy' trying to make it from one day to another--without becoming banth fodder!
The muted roar of the falls made it difficult for the football tackle to determine the exact origin of the mysterious voices. Tony scaled a skeel tree to pinpoint the location of the hauntingly familiar sounds.
Accompanying the voices were the sounds of feet crunching forest mold and the occasional swish of foliage parted by moving bodies. Tony had just reached his chosen position twenty feet above the ground when a most unusual sight passed beneath him.
A red man of Mars came into view. Clad in a light-colored cloak, a worn leather harness from which his blade weapons depended, the red man seemed quite casual in the company of seven white apes! He was an impressive figure, nearly six feet in height, slim and wiry in build and apparently used to commanding men; his baritone voice rang with authority. Tony had expected to one day meet red Martians, but not talking white apes only two and one-half feet tall!
"... and so, Kantos Kan," the leader of the ape party said to the red man strolling at his side, "you think your John Carter will push this legislation past the thirty-one jeddaks of Barsoom? We, of course, have water in abundance but this irrigation plan of Carter's might make it possible to raise more food which will result in the extension of the realms of the red man. I would be interested in learning how this would affect our humble city since we have been so isolated over the last thousand years."
The red man paused before he replied. "Let's be realistic for a moment, Takar. Even if John can raise water from the vast underground Omean Ocean beneath the south pole, pending the consent of the First Born of course, this ambitious project has no guaranty of success. Let's suppose all goes according to plan," the well-built Martian rubbed a weary hand over his eyes as he sought words to explain his feelings, "the population will increase! Not only the red man, but green, yellow, black and white will become more numerous and you know how war-like humans are. My well meaning friend, John Carter, as a result of this enterprise, will promote aggression, death and destruction on an even greater scale. Haven't we endured enough?" As if he realized the fatalistic tenor of his pronouncement, Kantos Kan chuckled, clasping a reassuring hand on the little ape's shoulder.
"I love John Carter but I'm damn tired of blood-shed in the name of righteous causes. Thank Issus Dejah Thoris hasn't been kidnapped these last fifty years! The first few times it happened John Carter came close to depopulating the entire planet single-handed!"
"This Warlord of Mars is a man of violence?" Takar the ape inquired.
"He's a hell of a man and a good friend, but J.C. would rather cut a throat than ride a thoat. What can you do with a mind like that?" The Martian shrugged his shoulders. Kantos Kan started forward, lifting a low-hanging multi-hued frond away from his face. The apes followed, Taker keeping pace with the red man.
"I have no idea, Kantos Kan," the ape leader avowed.
"I want to thank you for your hospitality, Takar. Clixia and I..." The conversation grew fainter as the small group moved farther from Tony's perch in the trees. Martin was stunned. His jaw gaped open and it was difficult to maintain his grip on the tree bole.
"Connie was right! I understood every word!" The astonished Earthling leaned broad shoulders against the main trunk of the tree, his mind a conflicting riot of thoughts and emotions.
John Carter! Dejah Thoris! Kantos Kan! My God, they're real! The Earthling closed his eyes, struggling to control the wild beating of his heart.
A shudder in the tree froze Tony's heart. The rustle of leaves over head alerted Martin that something was moving toward him. The youth tried to ready his bow, but the close-set branches and his need to maintain a grip on the tree made it almost impossible to nock an arrow. Just as he thought himself prepared, the leaves above parted with an ominous rustle. Tony stared into a gruesome, fang-filled visage grinning down at him.
Tony was so startled by the little white ape's unnerving appearance he lost his grip and fell out of the tree. I've been discovered! he said to himself, jumping up from the ground. The young man took to his heels and proceeded to turn in his life time best for the 100 yard dash. If Tony's coach could have viewed the right tackle's astounding performance, he would have taken young Martin off the defensive line and turned him onto the biggest, meanest, and fastest tight-end football had ever known.
Tony shouted a warning to Connie as he crashed through the underbrush. He desperately hoped she'd not been discovered by the apes. When Martin burst into the clearing, he found his lady not only safe but enjoying herself immensely. Connie had a tiny white ape in her lap, which was chattering excitedly in a high-pitched voice. Though four other apes were in the clearing Connie's easy laughter alleviated the athlete's apprehension. Two stood at the edge of the pool, another of the miniature creatures investigated a patient Throxeus; the disinterested fourth ape hung upside down from a tree limb at the edge of the clearing.
There was a fifth personage which held Tony's undivided attention. He nearly dropped his beloved bow as his sight became riveted on the briefly-attired, breath-takingly beautiful, red Martian woman. She was giggling, which made her bounteous bare breasts jiggle in a delightful manner. The statuesque woman was clad in diaphanous silks which accentuated rather than concealed her incredible beauty. Her long, well-shaped legs were bare to the Barsoomian breeze stirring the foliage bordering the pond. The woman wore a pair of sandals exhibiting hand tooling on the supple leather straps which crossed trim ankles. Her hair, blown by the wind, was significantly lighter than Connie's, showing copper-bronze highlights under the rays of the rising sun. The red woman's eyes, beneath high arched brows, were equally enigmatic, changing from brown to iridescent gold when she tilted her head in Tony's direction. Her lips smiled as she moved to greet the young man.
The stunning woman, whose cunningly draped silks flowed from shoulder to the junction of her rounded thighs, induced a wanton fever in the awed tackle. Tony's heartbeat increased until it seemed his cardiovascular system would overload as he imagined what it would be like to run hands over that unblemished copper-bronze skin; to cup the weight of smooth breasts in his palms; to fondle the perfect curve of her buttocks--and instantly had his fervent wish fulfilled before he knew it was coming.
The older woman smiled and came into his arms, pressing her, taut, vibrant body close. Warm lips sought his through the scratchy stubble of new beard. Tony dropped his Orovarian bow and tried to control his Cupid's arrow, which threatened to breach his loin cloth and pierce this fantastic woman.
Connie, playing with the little ape sitting in her lap, introduced the woman to Tony without looking up. "Tony--Lady Clixia. She's a friend of Kantos Kan."
The youth's only thoughts were of the firm breasts threatening to cave in his ribs. The last time he'd been this excited was the night his mom forbade him taking Coach's evening field trip. The field trip was to a local bawdy house to psyche the team up for a championship game (which they won). Tony's mother, unaware of the true nature of the "field trip" refused to allow her son to go, thinking the scheduled hours were inappropriately late. She did not, however, say 'no' when Coach's wife called to see if Tony could come over and "help" move bedroom furniture. And how she and Tony had moved it that night!
"Am I glad to meet you!" Clixia whispered breathlessly, embracing the quivering youth. "Thank Issus all Jasoomians aren't egotistical prudes like John Carter and Ulysses Paxton!"
"They were from a different time," Tony stammered. His voice was so husky the football player hardly recognized it. "If we keep this up, I'll get my ass in a sling!"
"Maybe we can swing in your sling together..." the lady suggested with a wink.
Tony gave up. He attempted to determine the total capacity of the lady's lungs by pressing his lips to hers. Clixia of Barsoom wrapped herself about the right tackle as tightly as bacon around filet mignon. One hand tugged at his thick black hair, the other tried to squeeze the hard, thick muscles of his buttocks. Tony thought events were progressing inordinately well until Connie Wescott's shrill cry pierced the clear Martian air.
"Get your mitts offa my old man you man-hungry Martian bitch! He's mine! I saw him first!"
"Pardon me!" Clixia slowly unwound her ample abundance from Tony's quivering body. "How was I to know that this fine-looking warrior carrying the weapons of Kar Komak's hallucinatory legion was yours?"
"Kar Komak is a figment of Barsoomian imagination!" Connie shrieked. She laid a possessive hand on Tony's well-muscled shoulder. "Tony's real and he's mine! You got that, you old hussy?"
"Yours?" Clixia slowly unwound graceful arms from the panting young man. She let one delicate hand linger caressingly on Tony's rough cheek before she faced Connie. "My apologies, Jasoomian. Apparently your world has friends and 'friends'".
Tony hoped to cool his companion's unexpected jealousy. "Connie, I--"
"I'll get to you later!" The petite brunette growled so fiercely Tony quelled a sudden desire to take a finger count--to determine how many were missing.
Clixia smiled with unabashed amusement, taking not the slightest insult at Connie's behavior. Against his better judgment Tony Martin chuckled. He was flattered to be the center of contention between two beautiful women.
Connie quickly flushed with embarrassment. She realized how ridiculous she appeared to Clixia and Tony--especially Tony, since she'd told him 'no' the night before! Chagrined, Connie Wescott chewed her lip, fighting to regain control of herself. The tiny brunette mumbled an apology to the red woman.
"I'm sorry, Clixia. I shouldn't have acted that way. I thought you were trying to steal my old man." Connie lowered her gaze, her voice tight, low, "Actually, I have no claim on Tony..."
Clixia placed her hands on her hips and giggled. "I'm supposed to be Kantos Kan's, Connie," she told the jealous Jasoomian Jill. "However, that great idiot friend of John Carter has yet to make up his mind! Kantos Kan says he has to consider the future of Helium and his family. Well," she pouted sweetly, "if Kantos Kan feels he must keep his options open, so do I. If Tony Martin champions your cause, I'll back off."
"You just better get used to the idea!" Connie replied, glaring at Tony.
"What?" Tony asked, confused by the brunette's imperious anger.
Connie narrowed her eyes, shaking a finger in his face. "You better watch it, buster!"
Before Tony Martin could fathom the full content of Wescott's ambiguous warning, a gruff male voice interrupted from the brush. "What goes on here?"
The trio of humans quickly turned to see Kantos Kan, Overlord of Helium's vast aerial navy, briskly enter the clearing. Takar, leading his band of miniature apes, closely followed the grim-visaged warrior. "Once again, I say: What goes on here?" the red man cried.
"Cut the stilted dialogue, Kanty," Clixia gently admonished. "We're among friends, dear. This is Connie Wescott," the red woman said sweetly, gesturing toward the attractive Earth woman. Turning to the well- muscled athlete, her voice took on the illusion of warm honey. "And this is Tony Martin!" She wrapped her arms about the young Earthling for a second time. Tony was startled by the woman's impulsive action, sensing sudden death as Kantos Kan and Connie Wescott converged upon him with drawn swords.
"Wait a minute!" he cried, pushing, however reluctantly, the glamorous red lady to one side. "Let's talk this over!"
"There's nothing to talk about, defiler of women!" Kantos Kan shouted.
"I'll have your ass for breakfast!" Connie added, her voice filled with menace.
"Enough!" Clixia screamed, fists clenched, chin trembling. "Kantos Kan! You're the most asinine, egotistical bastard I've ever met!" She petulantly stamped a sandled foot on the crimson sward before turning to face Connie. "And you're the most jealous, insecure, blind, stupid bitch I've ever met!"
Connie stopped so abruptly her heels slipped on the wet moss. She sputtered with anger, indignation, then blushed. She slammed the sword into her sheath and turned away. Kantos Kan went through a similar sequence, though he did not display his feelings as vividly as the Earth girl.
Clixia walked over to Kantos Kan. She defied him to continue. For a long moment the warrior glared at his fair lady's determined eyes, then sheathed his blade to pull her into his arms. Connie, standing to one side, grabbed Martin by the arm and towed him to the edge of the pool.
"I think we ought to leave them alone, Tony," she whispered. "Apparently they have problems of their own to work out..."
"Okay," the big youth replied, his feet shuffling through the moss, "as long as you don't stick me with that great butcher knife of yours just for reacting to that lovely lady's invita--"
"I might have, too." Connie frowned. She suddenly slapped his shoulder then quickly kissed him. "I can't blame you much, she's so damn pretty!" Connie leaned her forehead against his breast.
The apes were greatly interested in this by-play between humans. Those who'd arrived with Takar joined the other apes. They spoke together in whispers which the Earthlings could not overhear. Tony and Connie silently waited while the Martians had a low voiced conversation, occasionally accompanied by violent gestures from Kantos Kan.
A subdued Jedwar of the Navy finally released Clixia to face the wary Jasoomians. "Please forgive us," his words were quietly delivered with courtly elegance. "This unfortunate incident has nothing to do with you. Milady Clixia and I have certain matters to resolve between ourselves. You were, unfortunately, caught in the middle."
"Can we," Tony gallantly offered, "start all over?"
"Admirable idea!" Kantos Kan replied. His smiling face, the pleasant entreaty in his voice relieved the tension. His next words were quite amiable. "How came you to this place?"
Tony and Connie alternately related the astonishing events following their deaths and the subsequent adventures which brought them to the beautiful oasis hidden in the vast Barsoomian desert. Kantos Kan and Clixia listened with interest and without comment until the amazing story was concluded.
"It appears," Kantos Kan remarked sympathetically, "that you survived a great tragedy, thank Issus, and seem none the worse for wear. It is fortunate indeed you arrived at no great distance from Zanathia and thus outfitted yourselves with the means of survival, then were able to command this magnificent thoat to bring you hither to this incredible lost city of hospitable apes. Any other location on the face of this dry, desolate planet might have resulted in your pre-mature deaths by the agency of any number of potentially vicious inhabitants indigenous to this bizarre world."
"The banths and white apes were enough," Tony replied, ears tingling under the convoluted phrasing of the red man. He shot a quizzical glance at Connie and wondered if they'd escaped the horrors of the desert only to be consumed by vagarious assaults of flowery language.
Kantos Kan continued, his early animosity entirely forgotten. "Clixia and I are also victims of ill-fated circumstance. I had been pursuing Clixia's abductors for several days without success. By mere chance I located her crossing the dead sea bottom--after escaping her kidnappers--some 700 haads south of Gathol. I brought her aboard my tiny two man flier. We joyously headed for glorious Helium where her anxious family awaited news of her safety and health.
"Shortly after, at one of our night camps, we were attacked by a band of howling savages. We managed to get aloft in the flier which prevented further devilment from the savages but we were caught in the grip of a terrible Barsoomian windstorm that carried our frail craft far to the south--across the equator and thousands of haads beyond Helium. The craft was severely damaged during the storm; yet, by the kind grace of Issus, we contrived a safe landing near this lost and forgotten city. Of all the strange and exotic places of Mars, this fortunately turned out to be the most hospitable; especially if one must be lost and far from home."
"Mars?" Tony exclaimed. "I thought this was Barsoom!"
"And it is, my friend," Kantos Kan replied. "We use Barsoom and Mars interchangeably. This is due to the many, varied religious groups. The cults of Tur, Issus, Komal, the followers of Burroughs; all have used the term 'Mars' on occasion."
"Burroughs?" Tony and Connie cried simultaneously. "You know about Edgar Rice Burroughs?" Tony's voice was filled with incredulous wonder.
The red man slipped his arm about Connie Wescott's waist. "Just through minor contact with the religion," Kantos Kan explained. "I, myself, do not subscribe to any deity beliefs, with the sole exception of using a god's name in colorful blasphemies." His laughter was heartening and genuine. Tony found himself liking the man who'd been ready to cut his gizzard out a moment earlier. "The Burroughs Cult believes him to be the true father of Barsoom." The red Martian shrugged broad shoulders and continued. "Who is to say? As far as I am concerned: I live. For me, that is all I require."
This revelation stunned the Earthlings. However, Kantos Kan did not allow the Jasoomians to dwell over long on the startling information which revealed Burroughs as the Creator, or the injection of the historical Roman name for the fourth planet--Mars--in the ordinary language of Barsoom. The red warrior turned his attention to immediate matters.
"What do you intend to do on Barsoom?" he asked Connie Wescott.
Kantos Kan's arm was still about the young woman's waist and Connie did not seem overly eager to break the embrace of the strikingly handsome red man. She answered the smooth-faced Martian without hesitation.
"Our long range plans are rather nebulous, Kantos Kan." Connie's eyes never left the Martian's face, she was as smitten by the Overlord's physical appearance as Tony had been by Lady Clixia. "At the moment, mainly survival..."
"A subject worthy for any rational being's contemplation," Kantos Kan's laugh was warmly contagious. "But, my dear friends," the Heliumite continued with a congenial display of even, white teeth, "what have you envisioned beyond that?"
Tony took a deep breath and shrugged his shoulders. He knelt to retrieve his Orovarian bow. For a brief instant he entertained the thought of sending a forty-inch shaft through the Martian who held Connie so tightly. He curbed the peevish desire and answered the man's question. "Have some exciting adventures, perhaps?"
Kantos Kan chuckled as he clapped a hand to the young Earthling's brawny shoulder. "Perhaps--"
An ape suddenly appeared amidst the fronds of a fantastically blooming glorestra bush. "The sun has risen high, milords. Shall we retire to the city for food and water, or, for those who wish, fine wines with vintages over a million years old?"
"Excellent suggestion," Takar, leader of the apes acknowledged. "Will you join us, Kantos Kan, Tony Martin?"
Kantos Kan answered for them all: "Best idea I've heard all day." With a swirl of his cloak, the red man led the way to the well-travelled pathway carved into the granite of the imposing butte. He kept Connie Wescott on his arm and Tony was determined not to be outdone in the gallantry department. The Earthling bowed and offered his arm to the graciously smiling and very attentive Martian princess, for she was so beautiful Clixia could be nothing less in the young man's eyes.
The humans and apes began the long ascent to the ancient ape city high above the dead sea bottom.
VII. WHITE APES, RED MARTIANS, AND LOVE
Tony Martin, feeling slightly self-conscious, stood at the center of the large, well-appointed room chosen for this meeting of Martian, ape and Earthlings. "As you well know, Connie and I are new to Barsoom. We thank you for the generous kindness you have shown two strangers in your land." Martin attempted a courtly bow without doing too badly. He gazed over the assemblage, a winning smile on his beard-stubbled face.
"We aren't totally ignorant of Barsoom," he continued. "An American writer gave us a series of fine books detailing your world; but we are, however, sadly out of date. The last novel written about Barsoom occurred in 1942, some twenty-odd years before Connie and I were born. Would you mind telling us what important events have transpired since that time?"
Nods of eager assent from the Martian couple and the score of tiny white ape elders infused Tony with a feeling of warm acceptance. Takar rose, politely gesturing for Tony to resume his seat on one of the ornately carved marble benches lining the frescoed walls of the huge auditorium. The kindly ape's grizzled countenance smiled as Takar cleared his throat.
"Perhaps a brief history of our ape culture will be of assistance, large sir. Our conversations with Kantos Kan and his lady have revealed that we talking apes of Mokur are apparently quite unique on Barsoom." Taker dramatically paused, tiny chest puffed with self-importance. He proudly continued his narration.
"A million years ago, Orvorarian scientists began breeding experiments with the wild white apes of the forest regions. This was, of course, long before the oceans receded. Our present mountain home was then a tiny island quite isolated from the mainland. Mokur was built to house special genetic projects developed by the scientifically advanced Orovars and it was here that a thousand of years of breeding experiments resulted in increasingly smaller apes than our more vicious giant brethren, who still roam the vast wilderness areas of Barsoom.
"We were bred to our present size about the time the oceans began to recede, but unfortunately the cross-breeding for intelligence and vocal qualities was left incomplete as scientists were called away to construct the gigantic plants which supply this desolate planet with a breathable atmosphere. It was interesting to note that, according to Kantos Kan, how construction of those atmosphere generation plants has erroneously been credited to the war-like red race of Barsoom; however, Tony Martin, I digress.
"Our Orovarian masters were eventually forced to abandon the island when nothing more than a marsh swamp encircled the base of the mountain. Since that terrible time, while barbaric green Martian hordes overran the desert basins of Mars, our ape ancestors utilized their genetically increased intelligence to improve our race until we reached our present development.
"Yes, we are unique; yet our contacts with the present dominate race of Barsoom have been rare. The last encounter was over 700 years ago when a dying red warrior expired by our pool at the foot of the mountain. We have lived in a cultural vacuum until Kantos Kan and Clixia arrived; though we have done much to rectify our ignorance in these few days since their arrival.
"Where we once despaired of learning more about the red race, Kantos Kan and Clixia have been most helpful. It was illuminating to discover the mating rituals of humans differs but little between ape and man, aside from the vastly more prominent size of human genitalia. We are rather looking forward to observing your conjugal techniques with Lady Connie so we can..."
Connie's hot blush was mild compared to Kantos Kan's rage. "You've been spying on us?" The furious red warrior laid eager hand to the hilt of his long sword. There was menace in his stance; fire in his eyes. Lady Clixia's embarrassed gaze was riveted to the marbled floor.
"Forgive me!" Takar quickly pleaded, backing hurriedly away from the towering Martian. "We did not know it was forbidden to observe!"
Clixia laid a slim, calming hand on the tense shoulder of her warrior. "Kantos Kan," she softly pleaded, "they are innocents. Let it pass..." Her perfect oval face was upturned to the unbending figure of Helium's Naval Overlord. As he returned her imploring gaze, the anger in his heart dissipated. Kantos Kan released a frustrated sigh before he faced Takar.
"You are forgiven," Kantos Kan said with a quiet warning to the anxious ape, "but don't place us under such surveillance again."
"Most assuredly!" Takar cried with relief.
Tony was reluctant to break the following heavy silence because of the intense emotions he observed between the two Martians; however, he hoped he could smooth the tenseness by bringing the attention of the others back to the Earthlings specific problem. "Kantos Kan, your understanding acceptance of Takar's apology is indicative of your magnanimous generosity. I'm sure no insult was intended toward your wife and we..." Connie's sudden, wide-eyed warning and shake of head told Tony to chose another tack "...uh, that is, Connie and I are hoping you can tell us what we should do. We're both agreed that Helium should be our destination but we require your help and knowledge about which course we must take to insure our safe arrival. We are totally ignorant about food, water, or any mode of transportation which could move us from here to there. Are you planning a return to Helium soon? Perhaps we could travel together."
The Overlord maintained his terse silence, still glaring at the ape chieftain. The little ape lord shivered and turned away from the Martian to talk to Tony. "We will help where we can, Warrior Martin, but we cannot give you directions to Helium. We never venture more than a few karads from our city. There are banths and other dangerous beasts that wander the dead sea bottom. We can give you provisions.
"I would, however, hope you would stay with us for a while," the ape continued. "There is much we might learn from you; but you are, of course, free beings. You must choose for yourselves."
Tony acknowledged the ape's generous offer with a smile of gratitude. "Thank you, Takar, but no. Connie and I have never been to Helium. We would like to meet the Warlord of Mars and his consort, Dejah Thoris. I hope you understand."
The leader of the apes rose. "Certainly, one is more comfortable among one's own kind. If you will excuse us, we have other matters to attend. When you are ready to leave, let me know, we will furnish you with as many provisions as you wish." Takar and his apes paused at the great entrance to the hall. He looked back and offered a salute. "Perhaps Kantos Kan will be gracious enough to answer any other questions you may have." The small aped then hastily left.
Connie joined Tony at the center of the great room; the silence of the hall unnerving. Martin placed his arm about the brunette's shoulders, holding her reassuringly as they watched Kantos Kan. The flint-hard anger in the jedwar's eyes gradually relaxed under the gentle pressure of Clixia's trembling fingers on his shoulder.
"Kantos Kan?" Clixia's husky whisper was clearly audible in the silent hall. "The apes didn't know--how could they? Nor could the Jasoomians have known; though I think Connie guessed." The tragic unhappiness in the woman's tone engendered a sympathetic embarrassment in both Earthlings. They overheard an intimate confidence never intended for the public. Kantos Kan did not answer. As the uncomfortable tension increased, Connie and Tony turned to leave.
Clixia's pretty voice stopped them. "Come," the Martian lady gestured to the place next to her on the wide ersite bench. "Sit with us. We have an apology to make--and tell you something you should know..."
The Earthlings hesitated under the unrelenting gaze of the Overlord of Helium's Navy. When they did not immediately respond, Clixia shook her head. "Kantos Kan will not be angry. I promise."
Perplexed, but intrigued, Martin and Wescott joined the Martians, waiting patiently waited as Clixia gathered her thoughts and courage. After a time Clixia quietly admitted: "Kantos Kan and I are not married."
"But I thought--" Tony began, and stopped the instant Connie's foot stomped his toe. Angered by her action, Tony glared at his young companion and was surprised to observe a pleading concern which marked Connie's sun-reddened features. With a sigh Tony curbed his tongue and temper.