It was one of those startlingly gorgeous Martian nights that fairly take one’s breath away. In the thin air of the dying planet, every star stands out in scintillant magnificence against the velvet blackness of the firmament in splendor inconceivable to an inhabitant of Earth.
As we rose above the great rift valley, both of Mars’ moons were visible, and Earth and Venus were in conjunction, affording us a spectacle of incomparable beauty. Cluros, the farther moon, moved in stately dignity across the vault of heaven but fourteen thousand miles away, while Thuria, but four thousand miles distant, hurtled through the night from horizon to horizon in less than four hours, casting ever changing shadows on the ground below us which produced the illusion of constant movement, as though the surface of Mars was covered by countless myriads of creeping, crawling things. I wish that I might convey to you some conception of the weird and startling strangeness of the scene and of its beauty; but, unfortunately, my powers of description are wholly inadequate.
But perhaps some day you, too, will visit Mars.
As we rose above the rim of the mighty escarpment which bounds the valley, I set our course for Gathol and opened the throttle wide, for I anticipated possible pursuit; but, knowing the possibilities for speed of this type of flier, I was confident that, with the start we had, nothing in Kamtol could overhaul us if we had no bad luck.
Gathol is supposed by many to be the oldest inhabited city on Mars, and is one of the few that has retained its freedom; and that despite the fact that its ancient diamond mines are the richest known and, unlike practically all the other diamond fields, are today apparently as inexhaustible as ever.
In ancient times the city was built upon an island in Throxeus, mightiest of the five oceans of old Barsoom. As the ocean receded, Gathol crept down the sides of the mountain, the summit of which was the island on which she had been built, until today she covers the slopes from summit to base, while the bowels of the great hill are honeycombed with the galleries of her mines.
Entirely surrounding Gathol is a great salt marsh, which protects it from invasion by land, while the rugged and ofttimes vertical topography of the mountain renders the landing of hostile airships a precarious undertaking.
Gahan, the father of Llana, is jed of Gathol, which is very much more than just a single city, comprising, as it does, some one hundred forty thousand square miles, much of which is fine grazing land where run their great herds of thoats and zitidars. It was to return Llana to her father and mother, Tara of Helium, that we had passed through so many harrowing adventures since we had left Horz.
And now Llana was almost home; and I should soon be on my way to Helium and my incomparable Dejah Thoris, who must long since have given me up for dead.
Jad-han sat beside me at the controls, Llana slept, and Pan Dan Chee moped.
Moping seems to be the natural state of all lovers. I felt sorry for Pan Dan Chee; and I could have relieved his depression by telling him that Llana’s first words after I had rescued her from the tower of Nastor’s palace had been of him—inquiring as to his welfare—but I didn’t. I wished the man who won Llana of Gathol to win her by himself. If he gave up in despair while they both lived and she remained unmated; then he did not deserve her; so I let poor Pan Dan Chee suffer from the latest rebuff that Llana had inflicted upon him.
We approached Gathol shortly before dawn. Neither moon was in the sky, and it was comparatively dark. The city was dark, too; I saw not a single light. That was strange, and might forebode ill; for Martian cities are not ordinarily darkened except in times of war when they may be threatened by an enemy.
Llana came out of the tiny cabin and crouched on the deck beside me. “That looks ominous,” she said.
“It does to me, too,” I agreed; “and I’m going to stand off until daylight. I want to see what’s going on before I attempt to land.”
“Look over there,” said Llana, pointing to the right of the black mass of the mountain; “see all those lights.”
“The camp fires of the herdsmen, possibly,” I suggested.
“There are too many of them,” said Llana.
“They might also be the camp fires of warriors,” said Jad-han.
“Here comes a flier,” said Pan Dan Chee; “they have discovered us.”
From below, a flier was approaching us rapidly. “A patrol flier doubtless,” I said, but I opened the throttle and turned the flier’s nose in the opposite direction. I didn’t like the looks of things, and I wasn’t going to let any ship approach until I could see its insigne. Then came a hail: “Who are you?”
“Who are you?” I demanded in return.
“Stop!” came the order, but I didn’t stop; I was pulling away from him rapidly, as my ship was much the faster.
He fired then, but the shot went wide. Jad-han was at the stern gun. “Shall I let him have it?” he asked.
“No,” I replied; “he may be Gatholian. Turn the searchlight on him, Pan Dan Chee; let’s see if we can see his insigne.”
Pan Dan Chee had never been on a ship before, nor ever seen a searchlight. The little remnant of the almost extinct race of Orovars, of which he was one, that hides away in ancient Horz, has neither ships nor searchlights; so Llana of Gathol came to his rescue, and presently the bow of the pursuing flier was brightly illuminated.
“I can’t make out the insigne,” said Llana, “but that is no ship of Gathol.”
Another shot went wide of us, and I told Jad-han that he might fire. He did and missed. The enemy fired again; and I felt the projectile strike us, but it didn’t explode. He had our range, so I started to zig zag, and his next two shots missed us. Jad-Han’s also missed, and then we were struck again.
“Take the controls,” I said to Llana, and I went back to the gun. “Hold her just as she is, Llana,” I called, as I took careful aim. I was firing an explosive shell detonated by impact. It struck her full in the bow entered the hull, and exploded. It tore open the whole front of the ship, which burst into flame and commenced to go down by the bow. At first she went slowly; and then she took the last long, swift dive—a flaming meteor that crashed into the salt marsh and was extinguished.
“That’s that,” said Llana of Gathol.
“I don’t think it’s all of that as far as we are concerned,” I retorted; “we are losing altitude rapidly; one of his shots must have ripped open a buoyancy tank.”
I took the controls and tried to keep her up; as, with throttle wide open, I sought to pass that ring of camp fires before we were finally forced down.