THORNE opened his eyes and looked up into a cloudless blue-gray sky that was like a vault of burnished steel. A diminutive sun blazed down upon him but oddly enough, with its heat and light seemingly unimpaired.
The heat, in fact, was so great that it made him draw back into the relatively cold shade of the scaly-trunked conifer that towered above him, its crown of needle-like foliage gathered into a bellshaped tuft. Then conviction came to him. He was really on Mars! Wide awake, now, he sat bolt upright and looked about him. The tree that sheltered him stood alone in a small depression, surrounded by a billowing sea of ochre-yellow sand.
He scrambled to his feet, and as he did so, something clanked at his side. Two straight-bladed weapons hung there, both sheathed in a gray metal that resembled aluminum. One, he judged, was a Martian dagger, and the other a sword. The hilt of the larger weapon was fashioned of a metal of the color of brass, the pommel representing a serpent’s head, the grip, its body, and the guard, the continuation of the body and tail coiled in the form of a figure eight. The hilt of the dagger was like that of the sword, but smaller.
Thorne drew the sword from its sheath. The steel blade was slender and two-edged, and tapered to a needlelike point. Both edges were armed with tiny razor-sharp teeth which he instantly saw would add greatly to its effectiveness as a cutting weapon. He tested its balance and found he could wield it as easily as any duelling sword he had ever had in his hand.
Replacing the sword in the sheath, he examined the dagger, and found it also edged with tiny teeth. The blade of this weapon was about ten inches in length.
Depending from the belt on the other side, and heavy enough to balance the weight of the sword and dagger, was a mace with a short brazen handle and a disk-shaped head of steel which was fastened fanwise on the haft, thick at the middle and tapering out at the edges to sawlike teeth, much coarser and longer than those on sword or dagger.
Thorne turned his attention to his apparel. He was wearing a breechclout of soft leather. Beneath this, and down to the center of his shins, his limbs were bare and considerably sunburned. Below this point were the rolled tops of a pair of long boots, made from fur and fitted with clasps which were obviously for the purpose of attaching them to the bottom of the breechclout when they were drawn up.
Above the waist his sun-tanned body was bare of clothing, but he wore a pair of broad metal armlets, a pair of bracelets with long bars attached, evidently to protect the forearm from sword cuts, and a jewelled medallion, suspended on his chest from a chain around his neck and inscribed with strange characters.
On his head was a bundle of silky material with a short, soft nap, rolled much like a turban and held in place by one brass-studded strap that passed around his forehead, and another that went beneath his chin.
Beyond a large sand dune, and not more than a quarter of a mile distant, he saw the waving bellshaped crowns of a small grove of trees similar to the one that sheltered him. He started toward the clump of conifers.
As soon as he stepped out into the blaze of the midday sun, Thorne began to feel uncomfortably warm. Soon he noted other signs of Martian life. Immense, gaudily tinted butterflies, some with wing spreads of more than six feet, flew up from the flower patches at his approach. A huge dragon fly zoomed past, looking much like a miniature airplane.
Suddenly he heard an angry hum beside him, and felt a searing pain in his left side. Seemingly out of nowhere a fly, yellow and red in color and about two feet in length, had darted down upon him and plunged its many-pointed proboscis into his flesh. Seizing the sharp bill of his assailant, he wrenched it from his side.
The insect buzzed violently but Thorne, still clinging to its bill, reached for his dagger with the other hand and cut off its head. Flinging the hideous thing at the body, he caught up a handful of sand to stanch the bleeding of his wound. Presently, he started forward once more.
He was nearing the top of the dune when he saw, coming over the ridge from the other side, a most singular figure. At first glance it looked much like a walking umbrella. Then it resolved itself into a man wearing a long loose-sleeved cloak which covered him from the crown of his head to his knees. Below the cloak the end of a scabbard was visible, as were a pair of rolled fur boots like those worn by Thorne. The face was covered with a mask of flexible transparent material.
Thorne stopped, and instinctively his hand went to his sword hilt.
The other halted, also, at a distance of about ten paces, and swept off his mask. His face was smooth shaven and his hair and eyebrows were white.
“I have the honor of being the first man to welcome you to Mars. Harry Thorne,” he said in English, and smilingly added: “I am Lal Vak.”
Thorne returned his smile. “Thank you, Lal Vak. You speak excellent English.”
“I learned your language from Dr. Morgan, just as he learned mine from me. Aural impressions are as readily transmitted by telepathy as visual impressions, you know.”
“So the doctor informed me,” said Thorne. “But where do we go from here? I’m beginning to feel uncomfortable in this sun.”
“I’ve been inexcusably thoughtless,” apologized Lal Vak. “Here, let me show you how to adjust your headcloak.” Reaching up to Thorne’s turban like headpiece, he loosened a strap. The silky material instantly fell down about the Earthman, reaching to his knees. A flexible, transparent mask also unrolled, and Lal Vak showed him how to draw it across his face.
“This material,” he said, “is made from the skin of a large moth. The people of Xancibar, the nation of which you are now a citizen, use these cloaks much for summer wear, particularly when traveling in the desert. They keep out the sun’s rays by day, and keep in considerable warmth at night. As you will learn, even our summer nights are quite cold. The mask is made from the same material, but is treated with oil and has the nap scraped off to make it transparent.”
“I feel better already,” said Thorne. “Now what?”
“Now we will get our mounts, and fly back to the military training school, which you, as Borgen Takkor, must continue to attend. At the school I am an instructor in tactics.”
As they approached the small clump of trees which Thorne had previously noticed, he saw that they surrounded a small pool of water. Splashing about in this pool were two immense winged creatures, and Thorne noted with astonishment that they were covered with brown fur instead of feathers. They had long, sturdy legs, covered with yellow scales. Their wings were membranous, and their bills were flat, much like those of ducks, except that they had sharp, down-curved hooks at the end. And when one opened its mouth, Thorne saw that it was furnished with sharp, triangular teeth, tilted backward. These immense beast-birds, whose backs were about seven feet above the ground, and whose heads reached to a height of about twelve feet, were saddled with seats of gray metal.
The tips of each creature’s wings were perforated, and tethered to the saddle by means of snap-hooks and short chains, evidently to prevent their taking to the air without their riders.
Lal Vak made a peculiar sound, a low quavering call. Instantly both of the grotesque mounts answered with hoarse honking sounds and came floundering up out of the water toward them. One of them, on coming up to Thorne, arched its neck then lowered its head and nuzzled him violently with its broad bill.
“Scratch his head,” said Lal Vak, with an amused smile. “Borgen made quite a pet of him, and you are now Borgen Takkor to him.”
After a second prod from the huge beak, Thorne hastily scratched the creature’s head, whereupon it held still, blinking contentedly, and making little guttural noises in its throat. He noticed that there was a light strand of twisted leather around its neck, fastened to the end of a flexible rod, which in turn was fastened to the ringshaped pommel of the saddle.
“Is that the steering gear?”
“You have guessed right, my friend,” replied Lal Vak. “Pull up on the rod, and the gawr will fly upward. Push down and he will descend. A pull to the right or left and he will fly, walk or swim in the direction indicated according to whether he is in the air, on the ground, or in the water. Pull straight backward, and he will stop or hover.”
“It is quite simple. But before we go, let me warn you to speak to no one, whether you are spoken to or not. Salute those who greet you, thus.” He raised his left hand to the level of his forehead, with the palm backward. “I must get you to your room as quickly as possible. There you will feign illness, and I will teach you our language before you venture out.”
“But how can I remember all the friends and acquaintances of Borg—Borgen Takkor. What a name! Suppose something should come up . . . ”
“I’ve provided against all that. Your illness will be blamed for your temporary loss of memory. This will give you time to find out things, and the right to ask questions rather than answer them. But, come, it grows late. Watch me carefully, and do as I do.”
Lal Vak tugged at a folded wing, and his mount knelt. Then he climbed into the saddle and unfastened the snap-hooks which tethered the wings, hooking them through two rings in his own belt. Thorne imitated his every movement, and was soon in the saddle.
“Now,” said Lal Vak, “slap your gawr on the neck and pull up on the rod. He’ll do the rest.”
Thorne did as directed, and his mount responded with alacrity. It ran swiftly forward for about fifty feet, then with a tremendous flapping of its huge, membranous wings, it took off, lurching violently at first, so that the Earthman was compelled to seize the saddle pommel in order to keep from falling off.
After he had reached a height of about two thousand feet, Lal Vak relaxed the lift on his guiding rod and settled down to a straightaway flight. Thorne kept close behind him.
When they had flown for what Thorne judged was a distance of about twenty-five miles, he noticed ahead of them a number of cylindrical buildings of various sizes, with perfectly flat roofs, built around a small lake, or lagoon. The oasis on which it was situated had a man-made look, as both it and the lagoon it encircled were perfectly square. The cylindrical buildings and the high wall surrounding the square enclosure shone in the sunlight like burnished metal.
Rising from and descending to the shores of the lagoon were a number of riders mounted on gawrs. And as they drew near, there flew up from the inclosure a mighty airship.
No passengers were visible, but a number of small round windows in the sides of the body indicated their positions.
Lal Vak’s mount now circled and then volplaned straight toward the margin of the lagoon. Thorne’s gawr followed. As it alighted with a scarcely perceptible jar, an attendant came running up, saluted Thorne by raising his hand, palm-inward, to the level of his forehead, and took charge of his mount, making it kneel by tugging at one wing.
Thorne returned the salute and seeing that Lal Vak had dismounted, followed his example. As he stood on his feet a sudden dizziness assailed him. He braced himself to walk away with Lal Vak as if there were nothing the matter.
The scientist led him toward one of the smaller buildings, which Thorne now saw were made of blocks of a translucent material like clouded amber, cemented together with some transparent product.
As they were about to enter the circular door of the building, two men came hurrying out, and one lunged heavily against Thorne. Harry suppressed a groan with difficulty, for the fellow’s elbow had come in violent contact with his wound.
Instantly the man who had jostled him, a huge fellow with a flat nose, beetling brows and a prognathous jaw, turned and spoke rapidly to him, his hand on his sword hilt.
Lal Vak whispered in Thorne’s ear. “This is regrettable. The fellow claims you purposely jostled him, and challenges you to a duel. You must fight, or be forever branded a coward.”
“Must I fight him here and now?”
“Here and now. Doctor Morgan told me you were a good swordsman. That is fortunate, for this fellow is a notorious killer.”
Both men drew their swords simultaneously. Thorne endeavored to raise his blade to engage that of his adversary, but found he was without strength. His sword dropped from nerveless fingers and clattered to the pavement.
A sardonic grin came to the face of his opponent. Then he contemptuously raised his weapon and slashed the Earthman’s cheek with the keen, saw-edged blade.
For an instant Thorne felt that searing pain. Then he pitched forward on his face and all went black.