The Swordsman of Mars

Chapter XIII

Otis Adelbert Kline

NO, no! Lurgo! Wait!”

It was Neva who had sprung from her couch, and now stood between the sad-faced headsman and the kneeling Thorne.

Lurgo stared sorrowfully down at her, his blade still poised in mid-air.

Irintz Tel ceased his pacing for the first time and looked up. “What’s this, daughter? Can it be that you care for this vile miscereant?”

“Care for him!” Neva stamped her foot angrily. “I hate him for the affront he has put upon me. For much less than this, you have caused minor offenders to suffer for days before death was finally granted them. Yet this seducer, this ravisher who has dared to lay hands on your own daughter is let off with a mere stroke of the headsman’s sword. Do you hold my honor so lightly as this?”

“By the wrath of Deza, you are right!” exclaimed Irintz Tel. “I have been too hasty. Let be, Lurgo.”

At this, the tall headsman sadly shouldered his sword and trudged away, the sleepy-eyed boy with the basket trailing in his wake.

“Does it not seem fair, my father,” said Neva, “that since the crime of this malefactor was against me, I should be the one to pronounce sentence upon him?”

“It does indeed, daughter. It does indeed,” agreed Irintz Tel. “Suppose you name his fate.”

“Why, then, I’ll sentence him to labor in the baridium mines,” she said. “I hear that men are long in dying there, and that they suffer much.”

“But,” interposed Sel Han, “there are tortures . . . ”

“Since when,” asked Neva, facing him haughtily, “has the Dixtar’s deputy acquired the right to question the mandates of the Dixtar’s daughter?”

“You are right, daughter, you are right,” interposed Irintz Tel. “You must not interfere, Sel Han. She has pronounced a fitting sentence, and we confirm it. Away with him, warriors.”

Thorne, still dazed by the blow on his head, dimly comprehended that he had been saved from the stroke of the sworder only to be condemned to a worse fate.

As he was dragged away by the warriors, he saw the face of Irintz Tel sneering, that of Sel Han grinning malevolently, and those of the warriors stern and pitiless. But at Neva he did not look.

After conducting him through numerous passageways, the soldiers led him into a small room at one end of which a hole about three feet in diameter was cut in the wall. Into this hole they thrust him feet first, attached a tag to his arm marked “Baridium Mines,” and gave him a violent push. With a speed that gave him a peculiar sensation in the pit of his stomach and caused a considerable pressure on his eardrums, he shot downward in a dark, slanting tube, the inner surface of which was as smooth as glass. Presently he glided over a series of rises which slowed his progress, then out into an open trough under a long, low shed. At the end of the trough two soldiers caught him and stood him erect.

To his surprise, Thorne now saw that he was in one of the large warehouses which lined the banks of the canal over which he had passed. After the soldiers had examined his tag he was herded with a group of other prisoners, similarly tagged, who were huddled around a large globe-heater on the dock. Here he stood, slowly turning like the others, for while the side toward the heater was comfortably warm, the one directly away from it was subjected to the freezing temperature of the early morning air.

Presently the sun, heralded only by a brief dawn-light in this tenuous atmosphere, popped above the horizon, its blue-white shafts instantly dissipating the cold, and swiftly melting the shell of ice which covered the canal. Moored at the dock was a low, narrow craft about two hundred feet in length. The hull was of brown metal, and the upper structure was roofed over with iridescent, amber colored crystal curved like the back of a whale.

Through one of the doors the prisoners were now driven. As he followed along with the others, Thorne noticed the strange propulsive devices used on these craft, which were shaped much like the webbed feet and legs of aquatic birds, and were fastened at intervals along the sides.

As soon as the prisoners had been herded on board, the metal door clanged shut behind them. Shortly thereafter the craft glided away from the dock, propelled smoothly and noiselessly by its artificial webbed feet.

Thorne presently tired of the sameness of the scenery and entered into a conversation with one of his fellow unfortunates—a man who had once been high in the councils of the Kamud, but who had dared to oppose Irintz Tel. Levri Thornel was a silver-haired man in the late autumn of life. He showed no rancor against the Dixtar, but took his sentence as the decree of fate.

“At most,” he told Thorne, “I would have only enjoyed a few short years of life. But you are a young man. Your case is sad, indeed, as you would have had much to live for.”

For a time silence fell between them. Then Thorne asked, “What are these baridium mines like? Have you any idea?”

“There are vast workings, which require much machinery and equipment, and the labor of many slaves. The baridium ore, after being brought up from deposits far underground, is crushed and cleaned of all impurities. Then it is distilled. The liquid which passes over in the still is mixed with phosphorus and several other chemicals, and used to fill the light globes with which you are familiar. The solid residue left in the stills is calcined until it becomes an impalpable powder, fearfully water-hungry. Then it is combined with several elements, the most important of which is metallic sodium, to make the fire-powder which instantly ignites when moistened.”

Thorne was about to ask him how all this affected the slaves, when the boat suddenly slowed down, then stopped beside a dock of black stone which jutted from the wall on the outer side of the canal. The metal door was thrown open, the prisoners were herded out and Thorne lost track of Levri Thornel.

They were marched through a high archway in the thick black wall, and thence into an immense building constructed of the same material. Here they formed in line, to be examined by an officer, who assigned them to various working groups. Thorne was pleased when he found that Levri Thornel was assigned to this group, which numbered about twenty men.

A guard marched them through a long corridor, lighted by small baridium globes, and thence into a broad courtyard which overlooked an immense pit, several miles in diameter, the rim of which was circled by a high black wall. As soon as they entered this court, the prisoners encountered air laden with fine dust and acrid fumes, which smarted their lungs and nostrils and set them to coughing and sneezing violently.

Meanwhile, the guard urged them onward to the edge of the pit, where he turned them over to another guard, whose face, head and body were protected by a breathing mask, helmet and air-tight suit.

This new guard spoke to them through a sound amplifier which projected from the top of his helmet.

“Down the stairway,” he ordered, “and step lively. I’ll make the first laggard regret his slothfulness.” The deeper they descended the more difficult breathing became, until, when they reached the bottom of the stairway, the fumes fairly seared their lungs, while the fine dust, settling on the skin, made them itch and burn. Merely being in the place without a protective suit was torment.

As these things came to Thorne’s attention, he thought again of Neva. More sharply than the baridium fumes seared his lungs, the thought of her perfidy seared his heart.

The Swordsman of Mars    |     Chapter XIV

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