A Fighting Man of Mars


The Flying Death

Edgar Rice Burroughs

PHOR TAK’S laboratory occupied an entire wing of the building and consisted of a single, immense room fully fifty feet in height. His benches, tables, instruments and cabinets, located in one corner, were lost in the great interior. Near the ceiling and encircling the room was a single track from which was suspended a miniature cruiser, painted the ghastly blue of Jahar. Upon one of the benches was a cylindrical object about as long as one’s hand. These were the only noticeable features of the laboratory other than its immense emptiness.

As Phor Tak ushered us within he closed the door behind him and I heard the ominous click of the ponderous lock. There was something depressing in the suggestiveness of the situation induced, perhaps, by our knowledge that Phor Tak was mad and accentuated by the eerie mystery of the vasty chamber.

Leading us to the bench upon which lay the cylindrical object which had attracted my attention, he lifted it carefully, almost caressingly, from its resting place. “This,” he said, “is a model of the device that will destroy Jahar. In it you behold the concentrated essence of scientific achievement. In appearance it is but a small metal cylinder, but within it is a mechanism as delicate and as sensitive as the human brain and you will perceive that it functions almost as though animated by a mind within itself, but it is purely mechanical and may be produced in quantities quickly and at low cost. Before I explain it further I shall demonstrate one phase of its possibilities. Watch!”

Still holding the cylinder in his hand, Phor Tak stepped to a shallow cabinet against the wall and opening it revealed an elaborate equipment of switches, levers and push buttons. “Now watch the miniature flier suspended from the track near the ceiling,” he directed, at the same time closing a switch. Immediately the flier commenced to travel along the track at considerable speed. Now Phor Tak pressed a button upon the top of the cylinder, which immediately sped from his extended palm, turned quickly in the air and rushed straight for the speeding flier. Slowly the distance between the two closed; the cylinder, curving gradually into the line of flight of the flier, was now trailing directly behind it, its pointed nose but a few feet from the stern of the miniature ship. Then Phor Tak pulled a tiny lever upon his switchboard and the flier leaped forward at accelerated speed. Instantly the speed of the cylinder increased and I could see that it was gaining in velocity much more rapidly than the flier. Half way around the room again its nose struck the stem of the fleeing craft with sufficient severity to cause the ship to tremble from stem to stern; then the cylinder fell away and floated gently toward the floor. Phor Tak opened a switch that stopped the flier in its flight and then, running forward, caught the descending cylinder in his hand.

“This model,” he explained, as he returned to where we stood, “is so constructed that when it makes contact with the flier it will float gently downward to the floor, but as you have doubtless fully realized ere this, the finished product in practical use will explode upon contact with the ship. Note these tiny buttons with which it is covered. When any one of these comes in contact with an object the model stops and descends, whereas the full-sized device, properly equipped, will explode, absolutely demolishing whatever it may have come in contact with. As you are aware every substance in the universe has its own fixed vibratory rate. This mechanism can be so attuned as to be attracted by the vibratory rate of any substance. The model, for example, is attracted by the blue protective paint with which the flier is covered. Imagine a fleet of Jaharian warship moving majestically through the air in battle formation. From an enemy ship or from the ground and at a distance so far as to be unobservable by the ships of Jahar, I release as many of these devices as there are ships in the fleet, allowing a few moments to elapse between launchings. The first torpedo rushes toward the fleet and destroys the nearest ship. All the torpedoes in the rear, strung out in line, are attracted by the combined masses of all the blue protecting coverings of the entire fleet. The first ship is falling to the ground and though all of its paint may not have been destroyed, it has not the power to deflect any of the succeeding torpedoes, which one by one destroy the nearest of the remaining ships until the fleet has been absolutely erased. I have destroyed a great fleet without risking the life of a single man of my own following.”

“But they will see the torpedoes coming,” suggested Nur An, “and they will devise some defense. Even gunfire might stop many of them.”

“Heigh-oo! But I have thought of that,” cackled Phor Tak. He laid the torpedo upon a bench and opened another cabinet.

In this cabinet were a number of receptacles, some tightly sealed and others opened, revealing their contents which appeared to be different colored paints. From a number of these receptacles protruded the handles of paint brushes. One such handle, however, appeared to hang in midair, a few inches above one of the shelves, while just beneath it was a section of the rim of a receptacle that also appeared to be resting upon nothing. Phor Tak placed his open hand directly beneath this floating rim and when he removed his hand from the cabinet, the rim of the receptacle and the portion of the handle of the paint brush, floating just above it, followed, hovering just over his extended fingers, which were cupped in the position that they might assume were they holding a glass jar, such as would ordinarily have belonged to a rim like that which I could see floating about an inch above his fingers.

Going to the bench where he had laid the cylinder, Phor Tak went through the motions of setting a jar upon it, and, though there was no jar visible other than the floating rim, I distinctly heard a noise that was identical with the sound which the bottom of a glass jar would have made in coming in contact with the bench.

I can assure you that I was greatly mystified, but still more so by the events immediately following. Phor Tak seized the handle of the paint brush and made a pass a few inches above the metal torpedo. Instantly a portion of the torpedo, about an inch wide and three or four inches long, disappeared. Pass after pass he made until finally the whole surface of the torpedo had disappeared. Where it had rested the bench was empty. Phor Tak returned the handle of the paint brush to its floating position just above the floating jar rim and then he turned to us with an expression of child-like pride upon his face, as much to say, “Well, what do you think of that? Am I not wonderful?” And I was certainly forced to concede that it was wonderful and that I was entirely baffled and mystified by what I had seen.

“There, Nur An,” exclaimed Phor Tak, “is the answer to your criticism of The Flying Death.”

“I do not understand,” said Nur An with a puzzled expression upon his face.

“Heigh-oo!” cried Phor Tak. “Have you not seen me render the device invisible?”

“But it is gone,” said Nur An.

Phor Tak laughed his high cackling laugh. “It is still there,” he said, “but you cannot see it. Here,” and he took Nur An’s hand and guided it toward the spot where the device had been.

I could see Nur An’s fingers apparently feeling over the surface of something several inches above the top of the table. “By my first ancestor, it is still there!” he exclaimed.

“It is wonderful,” I exclaimed. “You did not even touch it; you merely made passes above it with the handle of a paint brush and it disappeared.”

“But I did touch it,” insisted Phor Tak. “The brush was there, but you did not see it because it was covered by the substance which renders the Flying Death invisible. Notice this transparent glass receptacle in which I keep the compound of invisibility and all that you can see of it is that part of the rim which, by chance, has not been coated with the compound.”

“Marvelous!” I exclaimed. “Even now, although I have witnessed it with my own eyes I can scarce conceive of the possibility of such a miracle.”

“It is no miracle,” said Phor Tak. “It is merely the application of scientific principles well known to me for hundreds of years. Nothing moves in straight lines; light, vision, electromagnetic forces follow lines that curve. The compound of invisibility merely bows outward the reflected light, which, entering our eyes and impinging upon our optic nerves, results in the phenomenon which we call vision, so that they pass around any object which is coated with the compound. When I first started to apply the compound to The Flying Death, your line of vision was deflected around the small portions so coated, but when I coated the entire surface of the torpedo, the curve of your vision passed completely around it on both sides so that you could plainly see the bench upon which it was resting precisely as though the device had not been there.”

I was astounded at the apparent simplicity of the explanation, and, naturally, being a soldier, I saw the tremendous advantage that the possession of these two scientific secrets would impart to the nation which controlled them. For the safety; yes, for the very existence of Helium, I must possess them and if that were impossible, then Phor Tak must be destroyed before the secret of this infernal power could be passed on to any other nation. Perhaps I could so ingratiate myself with old Phor Tak as to be able to persuade him to turn these secrets over to Helium in return for Helium’s assistance in the work of wreaking his vengeance upon Tul Axtar.

“Phor Tak,” I said, “you hold here within your grasp two secrets which in the hands of a kindly and beneficent power would bring eternal peace to Barsoom.”

“Heigh-oo!” he cried. I do not want peace. I want war. War! War!”

“Very well,” I agreed, realizing that my suggestion had not been in line with the mad processes of his crazed brain. “Let us have war then, and what country upon Barsoom is better equipped to wage war than Helium? If you want war, form an alliance with Helium.”

“I do not need Helium,” he cried. “I do not need to form alliances. I shall make war—I shall make war alone. With the invisible Flying Death I can destroy whole navies, whole cities, entire nations. I shall start with Jahar. Tul Axtar shall be the first to feel the weight of my devastating powers. When the fleet of Jahar has tumbled upon the roofs of Jahar and the walls of Jahar have fallen about the ears of Tul Axtar, then shall I destroy Tjanath. Helium shall know me next. Proud and mighty Helium shall tremble and bow at the feet of Phor Tak. I shall be Jeddak of Jeddaks, ruler of a world.” As he spoke his voice rose to a piercing shriek and he trembled in the grip of the frenzy that held him.

He must be destroyed, not alone for the sake of Helium, but for the sake of all Barsoom; this mad mind must be removed if I found that it was impossible to direct or cajole it to my own ends. I determined, however, to omit no sacrifice that might tend to bring about a satisfactory conclusion to this strange adventure. I knew that mad minds were sometimes fickle minds and I hoped that in a moment of insane caprice Phor Tak might reveal to me the secret of the Flying Death and the compound of invisibility. This hope was his temporary reprieve from death; its fulfillment would be his pardon, but I knew that I must work warily—that at the slightest suggestion of duplicity, Phor Tak’s suspicions would be aroused and that I should then be the one to be destroyed.

I tossed long upon my sleeping silks and furs that night in troubled thought and planning. I felt that I must possess these secrets; yet how? That they existed within his brain alone, I knew, for he had told me that there were no written formulas, or plans or specifications for either of them. Somehow I must wheedle them out of him and the best way to start was to ingratiate myself with him. To this end I must further his plans insofar as I possibly could.

Just before I fell asleep my thoughts reverted to Sanoma Tora and to the urgent mission that had led me to enter upon what had developed into the strangest adventure of my career. I felt a twinge of self-reproach as I suddenly realized that Sanoma Tora had not been uppermost in my mind while I had lain there making plans for the future, but now with recollection of her a plan was suggested whereby I might not only succor her but also advance myself in the good graces of Phor Tak at the same time, and, thus relieved, I fell asleep.

It was late the following morning before I had an opportunity to speak with the old inventor when I immediately broached the subject that was uppermost in my mind. “Phor Tak,” I said, “you are handicapped by lack of knowledge of conditions existing in Jahar and the size and location of the fleet. Nur An and I will go to Jahar for you and obtain the information that you must have if your plans are to be successful. In this way, Nur An and I will also be striking a blow at Tul Axtar while we will be in a position to attend to those matters which require our presence in Jahar.”

“But how will you get to Jahar?” demanded Phor Tak.

“Could not you let us take a flier?” I asked.

“I have none,” replied Phor Tak. “I know nothing about them. I am not interested in them. I could not even build one.”

To say that I was both surprised and shocked would be putting it mildly, but if I had previously entertained any doubts that Phor Tak’s brain was abnormally developed, it would have vanished with his admission that he knew nothing about fliers, for it seemed to me that there was scarcely a man, woman or child in any of the flying nations of Barsoom but could have constructed some sort of a flier.

“But how without fliers did you expect to transport The Flying Death to the vicinity of the Jaharian fleet? How did you expect to demolish the palace of Tul Axtar, or reduce the city of Jahar to ruins?

“Now that you and Nur An are here to help me, I can set my slaves to work under you and easily turn out a dozen torpedoes a day. As these are completed they will immediately be launched and eventually they will find their way to Jahar and the fleet. Of that there is no doubt, even if it takes a year they will eventually find their prey.”

“If nothing chances to get in their way,” I suggested; “but even so what pleasure will you derive from your revenge if you are unable to witness any part of it?”

“Heigh-oo! I have thought of that,” replied Phor Tak, “but one may not have everything.”

“You may have that,” I told him.

“And how?” he demanded.

“By taking your torpedoes aboard a ship and flying to Jahar,” I replied.

“No,” he exclaimed stubbornly, “I shall do it my own way. What right have you to interfere with my plans?”

“I merely want to help you,” I said, attempting to mollify him by a conciliatory tone and attitude.

“And there is another thought,” said Nur An, “that suggests that it might be expedient to follow Hadron’s plans.”

“You are both against me,” said Phor Tak.

“By no means,” Nur An assured him. “It is our keen desire to aid you that prompts the suggestion.”

“Well, what is yours then?” asked the old man.

“Your plan contemplates the destruction of the navies of Tjanath and Helium following the fall of Jahar,” exclaimed Nur An. “This, at least in respect to the navy of Helium, you cannot possibly hope to accomplish at so great a distance and without any knowledge of the number of ships to be destroyed, nor will your torpedoes be similarly attracted to them as they are to the ships of Jahar because the ships of these other nations are not protected by the blue paint of Jahar. It will, therefore, be necessary for you to proceed to the vicinity of Tjanath and later to Helium and for your own protection you will use the blue paint of Jahar upon your ship, for you may never be certain unless you are on the ground at the time that you have destroyed all of the navy of Jahar, or all of their disintegrating ray rifles.”

“That is true,” said Phor Tak thoughtfully.

“And furthermore,” continued Nur An, “if you dispatch more than the necessary number of torpedoes, those that remain at large will certainly be attracted by the blue paint of your own ship and you will be destroyed by your own devices.”

“You ruin all my plans,” screamed Phor Tak. “Why did you think of this?”

“If I had not thought of it you would have been destroyed,” Nur An reminded him.

“Well, what am I to do about it? I have no ship. I cannot build a ship.”

“We can get you one,” I said.


The conversation between Nur An and Phor Tak had suggested a plan to me and this I now explained roughly to them. Nur An was enthusiastic over the idea, but Phor Tak was not particularly keen for it. I could not understand the grounds for his objection, nor, as a matter of fact, did they interest me greatly since he finally admitted that he would be compelled to act in accordance with my suggestion.

Immediately adjacent to Phor Tak’s laboratory was a well equipped machine shop and here Nur An and I labored for weeks utilizing the services of a dozen slaves until we had succeeded in constructing what I am sure was the most remarkable looking airship that it had ever fallen to my lot to behold. Briefly, it was a cylinder pointed at each end and closely resembled the model of The Flying Death. Within the outer shell was another smaller cylinder; between the walls of these two we placed the buoyancy tanks. The tanks and the sides of the two envelopes were pierced by observation ports along each side of the ship and at the bow and stern. These ports could be completely covered by shutters hinged upon the outside, but operated from within. There were two hatchways in the keel and two above which led to a narrow walkway along the top of the cylinder. In turrets, forward, and aft were mounted two disintegrating ray rifles. Above the controls was a periscope that transmitted an image of all that came within its range to a ground glass plate in front of the pilot. The entire outside of the ship was first painted the ghastly blue that would protect it from the disintegrating ray rifles of Jahar, while over this was spread a coating of the compound of invisibility. The shutters that covered the ports being similarly coated, the ship could attain practically total invisibility by closing them, the only point remaining visible being the tiny eye of the periscope.

Not possessing sufficient technical knowledge to enable me to build one of the new type motors, I had to content myself with one of the old types of much less efficiency.

At last the work was done. We had a ship that would accommodate four with ease and it was uncanny to realize this fact and yet, at the same time, be unable to see anything but the tiny eye of the periscope when the covers were lowered over the ports, and even the eye of the periscope was invisible unless it was turned in the direction of the observer.

As the work neared completion I had noticed that Phor Tak’s manner became more marked by nervousness and irritability. He found fault with everything and on several occasions he almost stopped the work upon the ship.

Now, at last, we were ready to sail. The ship was stocked with ammunition, water and provisions, and at the last minute I installed a destination control compass for which I was afterward to be devoutly thankful.

When I suggested immediate departure, however, Phor Tak demurred, but would give me no reason for his objection.

Presently, however, I lost patience and told the old man that we were going anyway whether he liked it or not.

He did not fly into a rage as I had expected, but laughed instead, and there was something in the laugh that seemed more terrible than anger.

“You think I am a fool,” he said, “and that I will let you go and carry my secrets to Tul Axtar, but you are mistaken.”

“So are you,” I snapped. “You are mistaken in thinking that we would betray you and you are also mistaken in thinking that you can prevent our departure.”

“Heigh-oo!” he cackled. “I do not need to prevent your departure, but I can prevent your arrival at Jahar or elsewhere. I have not been idle while you worked upon this ship. I have constructed a full-size Flying Death. It is attuned to search out this ship. If you depart against my wishes, it will follow and destroy you. Heigh-oo! What do you think of that?”

“I think that you are an old fool,” I cried in exasperation. “You have the opportunity to enlist the loyal aid of two honorable warriors and yet you choose to turn them into enemies.”

“Enemies who cannot harm me,” he reminded me. “I hold your lives in the hollow of my hand. Well have you concealed your thoughts from me, but not quite well enough. I have read enough of them to know that you think me mad and I have also received the impression that you would stop at nothing to prevent me from using my power against Helium. I have no doubt but that you will help me against Jahar, and against Tjanath, too, perhaps, but Helium, the mightiest and proudest empire of Barsoom, is my real goal. Helium shall proclaim me Jeddak of Jeddaks if I have to wreck a world to accomplish my design.”

“Then all our work has been for nothing?” I demanded. “We are not going to use the ship we have constructed?”

“We may use it,” he said, “but under my terms.”

“And what are they?” I asked.

“You may go alone to Jahar, but I shall keep Nur An here as hostage. If you betray me, he dies.”

There was no moving him; no amount of argument could alter his determination. I tried to convince him that one man could accomplish little, that, in fact, he might not be able to accomplish anything, but he was adamant—I should go alone or not at all.

A Fighting Man Of Mars - Contents    |     Eleven - “Let the Fire Be Hot!”

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