The Mastermind of Mars


Valla Dia

Edgar Rice Burroughs

I LAY awake a long time that night thinking of 4296-E-2631-H, the beautiful girl whose perfect body had been stolen to furnish a gorgeous setting for the cruel brain of a tyrant. It seemed such a horrid crime that I could not rid my mind of it and I think that contemplation of it sowed the first seed of my hatred and loathing for Ras Thavas. I could not conjure a creature so utterly devoid of bowels of compassion as to even consider for a moment the frightful ravishing of that sweet and lovely body for even the holiest of purposes, much less one that could have been induced to do so for filthy pelf.

So much did I think upon the girl that night that her image was the first to impinge upon my returning consciousness at dawn, and after I had eaten, Ras Thavas not having appeared, I went directly to the storage room where the poor thing was. Here she lay, identified only by a small panel, bearing a number: 4296-E-2631-H. The body of an old woman with a disfigured face lay before me in the rigid immobility of death; yet that was not the figure that I saw, but instead, a vision of radiant loveliness whose imprisoned soul lay dormant beneath those graying locks.

The creature here with the face and form of Xaxa was not Xaxa at all, for all that made the other what she was had been transferred to this cold corpse. How frightful would be the awakening, should awakening ever come! I shuddered to think of the horror that must overwhelm the girl when first she realized the horrid crime that had been perpetrated upon her. Who was she? What story lay locked in that dead and silent brain? What loves must have been hers whose beauty was so great and upon whose fair face had lain the indelible imprint of graciousness! Would Ras Thavas ever arouse her from this happy semblance of death?—far happier than any quickening ever could be for her. I shrank from the thought of her awakening and yet I longed to hear her speak, to know that that brain lived again, to learn her name, to listen to the story of this gentle life that had been so rudely snatched from its proper environment and so cruelly handled by the hand of Fate. And suppose she were awakened! Suppose she were awakened and that I——A hand was laid upon my shoulder and I turned to look into the face of Ras Thavas.

“You seem interested in this subject,” he said.

“I was wondering,” I replied, “what the reaction of this girl’s brain would be were she to awaken to the discovery that she had become an old, disfigured woman.”

He stroked his chin and eyed me narrowly. “An interesting experiment,” he mused. “I am gratified to discover that you are taking a scientific interest in the labors that I am carrying on. The psychological phases of my work I have, I must confess, rather neglected during the past hundred years or so, though I formerly gave them a great deal of attention. It would be interesting to observe and study several of these cases. This one, especially, might prove of value to you as an initial study, it being simple and regular. Later we will let you examine into a case where a man’s brain has been transferred to a woman’s skull, and a woman’s brain to a man’s. There are also the interesting cases where a portion of diseased or injured brain has been replaced by a portion of the brain from another subject, and, for experimental purposes alone, those human brains that have been transplanted to the craniums of beasts, and vice versa, offer tremendous opportunities for observation. I have in mind one case in which I transferred half the brain of an ape to the skull of a man, after having removed half of his brain, which I grafted upon the remaining part of the brain in the ape’s skull. That was a matter of several years ago and I have often thought that I should like to recall these two subjects and note the results. I shall have to have a look at them—as I recall it they are in vault L-42-X, beneath building 4-J-21. We shall have to have a look at them someday soon—it has been years since I have been below. There must be some very interesting specimens there that have escaped my mind. But come! let us recall 4296-E-2631-H.

“No!” I exclaimed, laying a hand upon his arm. “It would be horrible.”

He turned a surprised look upon me and then a nasty, sneering smile curled his lips. “Maudlin, sentimental fool!” he cried. “Who dare say no to me?”

I laid a hand upon the hilt of my long-sword and looked him steadily in the eye. “Ras Thavas,” I said, “you are master in your own house; but while I am your guest treat me with courtesy.”

He returned my look for a moment but his eyes wavered. “I was hasty,” he said.

“Let it pass.” That, I let answer for an apology—really it was more than I had expected—but the event was not unfortunate. I think he treated me with far greater respect thereafter; but now he turned immediately to the slab bearing the mortal remains of 4296-E-2631-H.

“Prepare the subject for revivification,” he said, “and make what study you can of all its reactions.” With that he left the room.

I was now fairly adept at this work which I set about with some misgivings but with the assurance that I was doing right in obeying Ras Thavas while I remained a member of his entourage. The blood that had once flowed through the veins of the beautiful body that Ras Thavas had sold to Xaxa reposed in an hermetically sealed vessel upon the shelf above the corpse. As I had before done in other cases beneath the watchful eyes of the old surgeon I now did for the first time alone. The blood heated, the incisions made, the tubes attached and the few drops of life-giving solution added to the blood, I was now ready to restore life to that delicate brain that had lain dead for ten years. As my finger rested upon the little button that actuated the motor that was to send the revivifying liquid into those dormant veins, I experienced such a sensation as I imagined no mortal man has ever felt.

I had become master of life and death, and yet at this moment that I stood there upon the point of resurrecting the dead I felt more like a murderer than a saviour. I tried to view the procedure dispassionately through the cold eye of science, but I failed miserably. I could only see a stricken girl grieving for her lost beauties. With a muffled oath I turned away. I could not do it! And then, as though an outside force had seized upon me, my finger moved unerringly to the button and pressed it. I cannot explain it, unless upon the theory of dual mentality, which may explain many things. Perhaps my subjective mind directed the act. I do not know. Only I know that I did it, the motor started, the level of the blood in the container commenced gradually to lower.

Spell-bound, I stood watching. Presently the vessel was empty. I shut off the motor, removed the tubes, sealed the openings with tape. The red glow of life tinged the body, replacing the sallow, purplish hue of death. The breasts rose and fell regularly, the head turned slightly and the eyelids moved. A faint sigh issued from between the parting lips. For a long time there was no other sign of life, then, suddenly, the eyes opened. They were dull at first, but presently they commenced to fill with questioning wonderment. They rested on me and then passed on about that portion of the room that was visible from the position of the body. Then they came back to me and remained steadily fixed upon my countenance after having once surveyed me up and down. There was still the questioning in them, but there was no fear.

“Where am I?” she asked. The voice was that of an old woman—high and harsh. A startled expression filled her eyes. “What is the matter with me? What is wrong with my voice? What has happened?”

I laid a hand upon her forehead. “Don’t bother about it now,” I said, soothingly. “Wait until sometime when you are stronger. Then I will tell you.”

She sat up. “I am strong,” she said, and then her eyes swept her lower body and limbs and a look of utter horror crossed her face. “What has happened to me? In the name of my first ancestor, what has happened to me?”

The shrill, harsh voice grated upon me. It was the voice of Xaxa and Xaxa now must possess the sweet musical tones that alone would have harmonized with the beautiful face she had stolen. I tried to forget those strident notes and think only of the pulchritude of the envelope that had once graced the soul within this old and withered carcass.

She extended a hand and laid it gently upon mine. The act was beautiful, the movements graceful. The brain of the girl directed the muscles, but the old, rough vocal cords of Xaxa could give forth no sweeter notes. “Tell me, please!” she begged. There were tears in the old eyes, I’ll venture for the first time in many years. “Tell me! You do not seem unkind.”

And so I told her. She listened intently and when I was through she sighed. “After all,” she said, “it is not so dreadful, now that I really know. It is better than being dead.” That made me glad that I had pressed the button. She was glad to be alive, even draped in the hideous carcass of Xaxa. I told her as much.

“You were so beautiful,” I told her.

“And now I am so ugly?” I made no answer.

“After all, what difference does it make?” she inquired presently. “This old body cannot change me, or make me different from what I have always been. The good in me remains and whatever of sweetness and kindness, and I can be happy to be alive and perhaps to do some good. I was terrified at first, because I did not know what had happened to me. I thought that maybe I had contracted some terrible disease that had so altered me—that horrified me; but now that I know—pouf! what of it?”

“You are wonderful,” I said. “Most women would have gone mad with the horror and grief of it—to lose such wondrous beauty as was yours—and you do not care.”

“Oh, yes, I care, my friend,” she corrected me, “but I do not care enough to ruin my life in all other respects because of it, or to cast a shadow upon the lives of those around me. I have had my beauty and enjoyed it. It is not an unalloyed happiness I can assure you. Men killed one another because of it; two great nations went to war because of it; and perhaps my father lost his throne or his life—I do not know, for I was captured by the enemy while the war still raged. It may be raging yet and men dying because I was too beautiful. No one will fight for me now, though,” she added, with a rueful smile.

“Do you know how long you have been here?” I asked.

“Yes,” she replied. “It was the day before yesterday that they brought me hither.”

“It was ten years ago,” I told her.

“Ten years! Impossible.”

I pointed to the corpses around us. “You have lain like this for ten years,” I explained. “There are subjects here who have lain thus for fifty, Ras Thavas tells me.”

“Ten years! Ten years! What may not have happened in ten years! It is better thus. I should fear to go back now. I should not want to know that my father, my mother too, perhaps, were gone. It is better thus. Perhaps you will let me sleep again? May I not?”

“That remains with Ras Thavas,” I replied; “but for a while I am to observe you.”

“Observe me?”

“Study you—your reactions.”

“Ah! and what good will that do?”

“It may do some good in the world.”

“It may give this horrid Ras Thavas some new ideas for his torture chamber—some new scheme for coining money from the suffering of his victims,” she said, her harsh voice saddened.

“Some of his works are good,” I told her. “The money he makes permits him to maintain this wonderful establishment where he constantly carries on countless experiments. Many of his operations are beneficent. Yesterday a warrior was brought in whose arm was crushed beyond repair. Ras Thavas gave him a new arm. A demented child was brought. Ras Thavas gave her a new brain. The arm and the brain were taken from two who had met violent deaths. Through Ras Thavas they were permitted, after death, to give life and happiness to others.”

She thought for a moment. “I am content,” she said. “I only hope that you will always be the observer.”

Presently Ras Thavas came and examined her. “A good subject,” he said. He looked at the chart where I had made a very brief record following the other entries relative to the history of Case No. 4296-E-2631-H. Of course this is, naturally, a rather free translation of this particular identification number. The Barsoomians have no alphabet such as ours and their numbering system is quite different. The thirteen characters above were represented by four Toonolian characters, yet the meaning was quite the same—they represented, in contracted form, the case number, the room, the table and the building.

“The subject will be quartered near you where you may regularly observe it,” continued Ras Thavas. “There is a chamber adjoining yours. I will see that it is unlocked. Take the subject there. When not under your observation, lock it in.” It was only another case to him.

I took the girl, if I may so call her, to her quarters. On the way I asked her her name, for it seemed to me an unnecessary discourtesy always to address her and refer to her as 4296-E-2631-H, and this I explained to her.

“It is considerate of you to think of that,” she said, “but really that is all that I am here—just another subject for vivisection.”

“You are more than that to me,” I told her. “You are friendless and helpless. I want to be of service to you—to make your lot easier if I can.”

“Thank you again,” she said. “My name is Valla Dia, and yours?”

“Ras Thavas calls me Vad Varo,” I told her.

But that is not your name?”

“My name is Ulysses Paxton.”

“It is a strange name, unlike any that I have ever heard, but you are unlike any man I have ever seen—you do not seem Barsoomian. Your color is unlike that of any race.”

“I am not of Barsoom, but from Earth, the planet you sometimes call Jasoom. That is why I differ in appearance from any you have known before.”

“Jasoom! There is another Jasoomian here whose fame has reached to the remotest comers of Barsoom, but I never have seen him.”

“John Carter?” I asked.

“Yes, The War Lord. He was of Helium and my people were not friendly with those of Helium. I never could understand how he came here. And now there is another from Jasoom—how can it be? How did you cross the great void?”

I shook my head. “I cannot even guess,” I told her.

“Jasoom must be peopled with wonderful men,” she said. It was a pretty compliment.

“As Barsoom is with beautiful women,” I replied.

She glanced down ruefully at her old and wrinkled body.

“I have seen the real you,” I said gently.

“I hate to think of my face,” she said. “I know it is a frightful thing.”

“It is not you, remember that when you see it and do not feel too badly.”

“Is it as bad as that?” she asked.

I did not reply. “Never mind,” she said presently. “If I had not beauty of the soul, I was not beautiful, no matter how perfect my features may have been; but if I possessed beauty of soul then I have it now. So I can think beautiful thoughts and perform beautiful deeds and that, I think, is the real test of beauty, after all.”

“And there is hope,” I added, almost in a whisper.

“Hope? No, there is no hope, if what you mean to suggest is that I may some time regain my lost self. You have told me enough to convince me that that can never be.”

“We will not speak of it,” I said, “but we may think of it and sometimes thinking a great deal of a thing helps us to find a way to get it, if we want it badly enough.”

“I do not want to hope,” she said, “for it will but mean disappointment for me. I shall be happy as I am. Hoping, I should always be unhappy.”

I had ordered food for her and after it was brought Ras Thavas sent for me and I left her, locking the door of her chamber as the old surgeon had instructed. I found Ras Thavas in his office, a small room which adjoined a very large one in which were a score of clerks arranging and classifying reports from various departments of the great laboratory. He arose as I entered.

“Come with me, Vad Varo,” he directed. “We will have a look at the two cases in L-42-X, the two of which I spoke.”

“The man with half a simian brain and the ape with a half human brain?” I asked.

He nodded and preceded me towards the runway that led to the vaults beneath the building. As we descended, the corridors and passageways indicated long disuse. The floors were covered with an impalpable dust, long undisturbed; the tiny radium bulbs that faintly illuminated the sub-barsoomian depths were likewise coated. As we proceeded, we passed many doorways on either side, each marked with its descriptive hieroglyphic. Several of the openings had been tightly sealed with masonry. What gruesome secrets were hid within? At last we came to L-42-X. Here the bodies were arranged on shelves, several rows of which almost completely filled the room from floor to ceiling, except for a rectangular space in the center of the chamber, which accommodated an ersite topped operating table with its array of surgical instruments, its motor and other laboratory equipment.

Ras Thavas searched out the subjects of his strange experiment and together we carried the human body to the table. While Ras Thavas attached the tubes I returned for the vessel of blood which reposed upon the same shelf with the corpse. The now familiar method of revivification was soon accomplished and presently we were watching the return of consciousness to the subject.

The man sat up and looked at us, then he cast a quick glance about the chamber; there was a savage light in his eyes as they returned to us. Slowly he backed from the table to the floor, keeping the former between us.

“We will not harm you,” said Ras Thavas.

The man attempted to reply, but his words were unintelligible gibberish, then he shook his head and growled. Ras Thavas took a step towards him and the man dropped to all fours, his knuckles resting on the floor, and backed away, growling.

“Come!” cried Ras Thavas. “We will not harm you.” Again he attempted to approach the subject, but the man only backed quickly away, growling more fiercely; and then suddenly he wheeled and climbed quickly to the top of the highest shelf, where he squatted upon a corpse and gibbered at us.

“We shall have to have help,” said Ras Thavas and, going to the doorway, he blew a signal upon his whistle.

“What are you blowing that for?” demanded the man suddenly. “Who are you? What am I doing here? What has happened to me?”

“Come down,” said Ras Thavas. “We are friends.”

Slowly the man descended to the floor and came towards us, but he still moved with his knuckles to the pavement He looked about at the corpses and a new light entered his eyes.

“I am hungry!” he cried. “I will eat!” and with that he seized the nearest corpse and dragged it to the floor.

“Stop! Stop!” cried Ras Thavas, leaping forward. “You will ruin the subject,” but the man only backed away, dragging the corpse along the floor after him. It was then that the attendants came and with their help we subdued and bound the poor creature. Then Ras Thavas had the attendants bring the body of the ape and he told them to remain, as we might need them.

The subject was a large specimen of the Barsoomian white ape, one of the most savage and fearsome denizens of the Red Planet, and because of the creature’s great strength and ferocity Ras Thavas took the precaution to see that it was securely bound before resurgence.

It was a colossal creature about ten or fifteen feet tall, standing erect, and had an intermediary set of arms or legs midway between its upper and lower limbs. The eyes were close together and nonprotruding; the ears were high set, while its snout and teeth were strikingly like those of our African gorilla.

With returning consciousness the creature eyed us questioningly. Several times it seemed to essay to speak but only inarticulate sounds issued from its throat. Then it lay still for a period.

Ras Thavas spoke to it. “If you understand my words, nod your head.” The creature nodded.

“Would you like to be freed of your bonds?” asked the surgeon.

Again the creature nodded an affirmative.

“I fear that you will attempt to injure us, or escape,” said Ras Thavas.

The ape was apparently trying very hard to articulate and at last there issued from its lips a sound that could not be misunderstood. It was the single word no.

“You will not harm us or try to escape?” Ras Thavas repeated his question.

“No,” said the ape, and this time the word was clearly enunciated.

“We shall see,” said Ras Thavas. “But remember that with our weapons we may dispatch you quickly if you attack us.”

The ape nodded, and then, very laboriously: “I will not harm you.”

At a sign from Ras Thavas the attendants removed the bonds and the creature sat up. It stretched its limbs and slid easily to the floor, where it stood erect upon two feet, which was not surprising, since the white ape goes more often upon two feet than six; a fact of which I was not cognizant at the time, but which Ras Thavas explained to me later in commenting upon the fact that the human subject had gone upon all fours, which, to Ras Thavas, indicated a reversion to type in the fractional ape-brain transplanted to the human skull.

Ras Thavas examined the subject at considerable length and then resumed his examination of the human subject which continued to evince more simian characteristics than human, though it spoke more easily than the ape, because, undoubtedly, of its more perfect vocal organs. It was only by exerting the closest attention that the diction of the ape became understandable at all.

“There is nothing remarkable about these subjects,” said Ras Thavas, after devoting half a day to them. “They bear out what I had already determined years ago in the transplanting of entire brains; that the act of transplanting stimulates growth and activity of brain cells. You will note that in each subject the transplanted portions of the brains are more active—they, in a considerable measure, control. That is why we have the human subject displaying distinctly simian characteristics, while the ape behaves in a more human manner; though if longer and closer observation were desirable you would doubtless find that each reverted at times to his own nature—that is the ape would be more wholly an ape and the human more manlike—but it is not worth the time, of which I have already given too much to a rather unprofitable forenoon. I shall leave you now to restore the subjects to anaesthesia while I return to the laboratories above. The attendants will remain here to assist you, if required.”

The ape, who had been an interested listener, now stepped forward. “Oh, please, I pray you,” it mumbled, “do not again condemn me to these horrid shelves. I recall the day that I was brought here securely bound, and though I have no recollection of what has transpired since I can but guess from the appearance of my own skin and that of these dusty corpses that I have lain here long. I beg that you will permit me to live and either restore me to my fellows or allow me to serve in some capacity in this establishment, of which I saw something between the time of my capture and the day that I was carried into this laboratory, bound and helpless, to one of your cold, ersite slabs.”

Ras Thavas made a gesture of impatience. “Nonsense!” he cried. “You are better off here, where you can be preserved in the interests of science.”

“Accede to his request,” I begged, “and I will myself take over all responsibility for him while I profit by the study that he will afford me.”

“Do as you are directed,” snapped Ras Thavas as he quit the room.

I shrugged my shoulders. “There is nothing for it, then,” I said.

“I might dispatch you all and escape,” mused the ape, aloud, “but you would have helped me. I could not kill one who would have befriended me—yet I shrink from the thought of another death. How long have I lain here?”

I referred to the history of his case that had been brought and suspended at the head of the table. “Twelve years,” I told him.

“And yet, why not?” he demanded of himself. “This man would slay me—why should I not slay him first.”

“It would do you no good,” I assured him, “for you could never escape. Instead you would be really killed, dying a death from which Ras Thavas would probably think it not worth while ever to recall you, while I, who might find the opportunity at some later date and who have the inclination, would be dead at your hands and thus incapable of saving you.”

I had been speaking in a low voice, close to his ear, that the attendants might not overhear me. The ape listened intently.

“You will do as you suggest?” he asked.

“At the first opportunity that presents itself,” I assured him.

“Very well,” he said, “I will submit, trusting to you.”

A half hour later both subjects had been returned to their shelves.

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