As I worked over my motor, I recalled Rapas’s sudden fear that he had revealed something to me in his drunken conversation; and I wondered idly what it might be. It had come following his statement that he had other plans. What plans?
Whatever they were, they were evidently nefarious, or he would not have been so concerned when he feared that he had revealed them.
My short acquaintance with Rapas had convinced me that my first appraisal of his character was correct and that his sobriquet of Rapas the Rat was well deserved.
I chafed under the enforced inactivity of the long day; but at last evening came, and Rapas the Ulsio and I left our quarters and made our way once more to the eating-place.
Rapas was sober now, nor did he take but a single drink with his meal. “You’ve got to have a clear head when you talk to old Fal Sivas,” he said. “By my first ancestor, no shrewder brain was ever hatched of a woman’s egg.”
After we had eaten, we went out into the night; and Rapas led me through broad avenues and down narrow alleyways until we came to a large building that stood near the eastern wall of Zodanga.
It was a dark and gloomy pile, and the avenue that ran before it was unlighted.
It stood in a district given over to warehouses, and at this time of night its surroundings were deserted.
Rapas approached a small doorway hidden in an angle of a buttress. I saw him groping with his hands at one side of the door, and presently he stepped back and waited.
“Not everyone can gain admission to old Fal Sivas’s Place,” he remarked, with a tinge of boastfulness. “You have to know the right signal, and that means that you have to be pretty well in the confidence of the old man.”
We waited in silence then for perhaps two or three minutes. No sound came from beyond the door; but presently a very small, round port in its surface opened; and in the dim light of the farther moon I saw an eye appraising us. Then a voice spoke.
“Ah, the noble Rapas!” The words were whispered; and following them, the door swung in.
The passage beyond was narrow, and the man who had opened the door flattened himself against the wall that we might pass. Then he closed the door behind us and followed us along a dark corridor, until we finally emerged into a small, dimly lighted room.
Here our guide halted. “The master did not say that you were bringing another with you,” he said to Rapas.
“He did not know it,” replied Rapas. “In fact, I did not know it myself until today; but it is all right. Your master will be glad to receive him when I have explained why I brought him.”
“That is a matter that Fal Sivas will have to decide for himself,” replied the slave. “Perhaps you had better go first and speak to him, leaving the stranger here with me.”
“Very well, then,” agreed my companion. “Remain here until I return, Vandor.”
The slave unlocked the door in the far side of the anteroom; and after Rapas had passed through, he followed him and closed it.
It occurred to me that his action was a little strange, as I had just heard him say that he would remain with me, but I would have thought nothing more of the matter had I not presently become impressed with the very definite sensation that I was being watched.
I cannot explain this feeling that I occasionally have. Earth men who should know say that this form of telepathy is scientifically impossible, yet upon many occasions I have definitely sensed this secret surveillance, later to discover that I really was being watched.
As my eyes wandered casually about the room, they came to rest again upon the door beyond which Rapas and the slave had disappeared. They were held momentarily by a small round hole in the paneling and the glint of something that might have been an eye shining in the darkness. I knew that it was an eye.
Just why I should be watched, I did not know; but if my observer hoped to discover anything suspicious about me, he was disappointed; for as soon as I realized that an eye was upon me, I walked to a bench at one side of the room and sat down, instantly determined not to reveal the slightest curiosity concerning my surroundings.
Such surveillance probably meant little in itself, but taken in connection with the gloomy and forbidding appearance of the building and the great stealth and secrecy with which we had been admitted, it crystallized a most unpleasant impression of the place and its master that had already started to form in my mind.
From beyond the walls of the room there came no sound, nor did any of the night noises of the city penetrate to the little anteroom. Thus I sat in utter silence for about ten minutes; then the door opened, and the same slave beckoned to me.
“Follow me,” he said. “The master will see you. I am to take you to him.”
I followed him along a gloomy corridor and up a winding ramp to the next higher level of the building. A moment later he ushered me into a softly lighted room furnished with Sybaritic luxury, where I saw Rapas standing before a couch on which a man reclined, or I should say, crouched. Somehow he reminded me of a great cat watching its prey, always ready to spring.
“This is Vandor, Fal Sivas,” said Rapas, by way of introduction.
I inclined my head in acknowledgment and stood before the man, waiting.
“Rapas has told me about you,” said Fal Sivas. “Where are you from?”
“Originally I was from Zodanga,” I replied, “but that was years ago before the sacking of the city.”
“And where have you been since?” he asked. “Whom have you served?”
“That,” I replied, “is a matter of no consequence to anyone but myself. It is sufficient that I have not been in Zodanga, and that I cannot return to the country that I have just fled.”
“You have no friends or acquaintances in Zodanga, then?” he asked.
“Of course, some of my acquaintances may still be living; that I do not know,” I replied, “but my people and most of my friends were killed at the time that the green hordes overran the city.”
“And you have had no intercourse with Zodanga since you left?” he asked.
“Perhaps you are just the man I need. Rapas is sure of it, but I am never sure. No man can be trusted.”
“Ah, but master,” interrupted Rapas, “have I not always served you well and faithfully?”
I thought I saw a slight sneer curl the lip of Fal Sivas.
“You are a paragon, Rapas,” he said, “the soul of honor.”
Rapas swelled with importance. He was too egotistical to note the flavor of sarcasm in Fal Sivas’s voice.
“And I may consider myself employed?” I asked.
“You understand that you may be called upon to use a dagger more often than a sword,” he asked, “and that poisons are sometimes preferred to pistols?”
He looked at me intently.
“There may come a time,” he continued, “when you may have to draw your long sword or your short sword in my defense. Are you a capable swordsman?”
“I am a panthan,” I replied; “and as panthans live by the sword, the very fact that I am here answers your question.”
“Not entirely. I must have a master swordsman. Rapas, here, is handy with the short sword. Let us see what you can do against him.”
“To the death?” I asked.
Rapas guffawed loudly. “I did not bring you here to kill you,” he said.
“No, not to the death, of course,” said Fal Sivas. “Just a short passage. Let us see which one can scratch the other first.”
I did not like the idea. I do not ordinarily draw my sword unless I intend to kill, but I realized that I was playing a part and that before I got through I might have to do many things of which I did not approve; so I nodded my assent and waited for Rapas to draw.
His short sword flashed from its scabbard. “I shall not hurt you badly, Vandor,” he said; “for I am very fond of you.”
I thanked him and drew my own weapon.
Rapas stepped forward to engage me, a confident smile upon his lips. The next instant his weapon was flying across the room. I had disarmed him, and he was at my mercy. He backed away, a sickly grin upon his face. Fal Sivas laughed.
“It was an accident,” said Rapas. “I was not ready.”
“I am sorry,” I told him; “go and recover your weapon.”
He got it and came back, and this time he lunged at me viciously. There would have been no mere scratch that time if his thrust had succeeded. He would have spitted me straight through the heart. I parried and stepped in, and again his sword hurtled through the air and clanked against the opposite wall.
Fal Sivas laughed uproariously. Rapas was furious. “That is enough,” said the former. “I am satisfied. Sheath your swords.”
I knew that I had made an enemy of Rapas; but that did not concern me greatly, since being forewarned I could always be watchful of him. Anyway, I had never trusted him.
“You are prepared to enter my service at once?” asked Fal Sivas.
“I am in your service now,” I replied.
He smiled. “I think you are going to make me a good man. Rapas wants to go away for a while to attend to business of his own. While he is away, you will remain here as my bodyguard. When he returns, I may still find use for you in one way or another. The fact that you are unknown in Zodanga may make you very valuable to me.” He turned to Rapas. “You may go now, Rapas,” he said, “and while you are away, you might take some lessons in swordsmanship.”
When Fal Sivas said that, he grinned; but Rapas did not. He looked very sour, and he did not say good-bye to me as he left the room.
“I am afraid that you offended his dignity,” said Fal Sivas after the door had closed behind the assassin.
“I shall lose no sleep over it,” I replied, “and anyway it was not my fault. It was his.”
“What do you mean?” demanded Fal Sivas.
“Rapas is not a good swordsman.”
“He is considered an excellent one,” Fal Sivas assured me.
“I imagine that as a killer he is more adept with the dagger and poison.”
“And how about you?” he asked.
“Naturally, as a fighting man, I prefer the sword,” I replied.
Fal Sivas shrugged. “That is a matter of small concern to me,” he said. “If you prefer to kill my enemies with a sword, use a sword. All I ask is that you kill them.”
“You have many enemies?” I asked.
“There are many who would like to see me put out of the way,” he replied. “I am an inventor, and there are those who would steal my inventions. Many of these I have had to destroy. Their people suspect me and seek revenge; but there is one who, above all others, seeks to destroy me. He also is an inventor, and he has employed an agent of the assassins’ guild to make away with me.
“This guild is headed by Ur Jan, and he personally has threatened my life because I have employed another than a member of his guild to do my killing.”
We talked for a short time, and then Fal Sivas summoned a slave to show me to my quarters. “They are below mine,” he said; “if I call, you are to come to me immediately. Good night.”
The slave led me to another room on the same level. In fact, to a little suite of three rooms. They were plainly but comfortably furnished.
“Is there anything that you require, master?” the slave inquired, as he turned to leave me.
“Nothing,” I replied.
“Tomorrow a slave will be assigned to serve you.” With that he left me, and I listened to see if he locked the door from the outside; but he did not, though I would not have been surprised had he done so, so sinister and secretive seemed everything connected with this gloomy pile.
I occupied myself for a few moments inspecting my quarters. They consisted of a living room, two small bedrooms, and a bath. A single door opened from the living room onto the corridor. There were no windows in any of the rooms. There were small ventilators in the floors and in the ceilings, and draughts of air entering the former indicated that the apartment was ventilated mechanically.
The rooms were lighted by radium bulbs similar to those generally used throughout Barsoom.
In the living room was a table, a bench, and several chairs, and a shelf upon which were a number of books. Glancing at some of these, I discovered that they were all scientific works. There were books on medicine, on surgery, chemistry, mechanics, and electricity.
From time to time, I heard what appeared to be stealthy noises in the corridor; but I did not investigate, as I wanted to establish myself in the confidence of Fal Sivas and his people before I ventured to take it upon myself to learn any more than they desired me to know. I did not even know that I wanted to know anything more about the household of Fal Sivas; for, after all, my business in Zodanga had nothing to do with him. I had come to undermine and, if possible, overthrow the strength of Ur Jan and his guild of assassins; and all I needed was a base from which to work. I was, in fact, a little disappointed to find that Fate had thrown me in with those opposed to Ur Jan. I would have preferred and, in fact, had hoped to be able to join Ur Jan’s organization, as I felt that I could accomplish much more from the inside than from the out.
If I could join the guild, I could soon learn the identity of its principal members; and that, above all other things, was what I wished to do, that I might either bring them to justice or put the cross upon their hearts with the point of my own sword.
Occupied with these thoughts, I was about to remove my harness and turn into my sleeping silks and furs when I heard sounds of what might have been a scuffle on the level above and then a thud, as of a body falling.
The former preternatural silence of the great house accentuated the significance of the sounds that I was hearing, imparting to them a mystery that I realized might be wholly out of proportion to their true importance. I smiled as I realized the effect that my surroundings seemed to be having upon my ordinarily steady nerves; and had resumed my preparations for the night when a shrill scream rang through the building.
I paused again and listened, and now I distinctly heard the sound of feet running rapidly. They seemed to be approaching, and I guessed that they were coming down the ramp from the level above to the corridor that ran before my quarters.
Perhaps what went on in the house of Fal Sivas was none of my affair, but I have never yet heard a woman scream without investigating; so now I stepped to the door of my living room and threw it open, and as I did so I saw a girl running rapidly toward me. Her hair was disheveled; and from her wide, frightened eyes she cast frequent glances backward over her shoulder.
She was almost upon me before she discovered me; and when she did she paused for a moment with a gasp of astonishment or fear, I could not tell which; then she darted past me through the open door into my living room.
“Close the door,” she whispered, her voice tense with suppressed emotion. “Don’t let him get me! Don’t let him find me!”
No one seemed to be pursuing her, but I closed the door as she had requested and turned toward her for an explanation.
“What is the matter?” I demanded. “From whom were you running?”
“From him.” She shuddered. “Oh, he is horrible. Hide me; don’t let him get me, please!”
“Whom do you mean? Who is horrible?”
She stood there trembling and wide-eyed, staring past me at the door, like one whom terror had demented.
“Him,” she whispered. “Who else could it be?”
She came close and started to speak; then she hesitated. “But why should I trust you? You are one of his creatures. You are all alike in this terrible place.”
She was standing very close to me now, trembling like a leaf. “I cannot stand it!” she cried. “I will not let him!” And then, so quickly that I could not prevent her, she snatched the dagger from my harness and turned it upon herself.
But there I was too quick for her, seizing her wrist before she could carry out her designs.
She was a delicate-looking creature, but her appearance belied her strength.
However, I had little difficulty in disarming her; and then I backed her toward the bench and forced her down upon it.
“Calm yourself,” I said; “you have nothing to fear from me—nothing to fear from anybody while I am with you. Tell me what has happened. Tell me whom you fear.”
She sat there staring into my eyes for a long moment, and presently she commenced to regain control of herself. “Yes,” she said presently, “perhaps I can trust you. You make me feel that way—your voice, your looks.”
I laid my hand upon her shoulder as one might who would quiet a frightened child. “Do not be afraid,” I said; “tell me something of yourself. What is your name?”
“Zanda,” she replied.
“You live here?”
“I am a slave, a prisoner,”
“What made you scream?” I asked.
“I did not scream,” she replied; “that was another. He tried to get me, but I eluded him, and so he took another. My turn will come. He will get me. He gets us all.”
“Who? Who will get you?”
She shuddered as she spoke the name. “Fal Sivas,” she said, and there was horror in her tone.
I sat down on the bench beside her and laid my hand on hers. “Quiet yourself,” I said; “tell me what all this means. I am a stranger here. I just entered the service of Fal Sivas tonight.”
“You know nothing, then, about Fal Sivas?” she demanded.
“Only that he is a wealthy inventor and fears for his life.”
“Yes, he is rich; and he is an inventor, but not so great an inventor as he is a murderer and a thief. He steals ideas from other inventors and then has them murdered in order to safeguard what he has stolen. Those who learn too much of his inventions die. They never leave this house. He always has an assassin ready to do his bidding; sometimes here, sometimes out in the city; and he is always afraid of his life.
“Rapas the Ulsio is his assassin now; but they are both afraid of Ur Jan, chief of the guild of assassins; for Ur Jan has learned that Rapas is killing for Fal Sivas for a price far lower than that charged by the guild.”
“But what are these wonderful inventions that Fal Sivas works upon?” I asked.
“I do not know all of the things that he does, but there is the ship. That would be wonderful, were it not born of blood and treachery.”
“What sort of a ship?” I asked.
“A ship that will travel safely through interplanetary space. He says that in a short time we shall be able to travel back and forth between the planets as easily as we travel now from one city to another.”
“Interesting,” I said, “and not so very horrible, that I can see.”
“But he does other things—horrible things. One of them is a mechanical brain.”
“A mechanical brain?”
“Yes, but of course I cannot explain it. I have so little learning. I have heard him speak of it often, but I do not understand.
“He says that all life, all matter, are the result of mechanical action, not primarily, chemical action. He holds that all chemical action is mechanical.
“Oh, I am probably not explaining it right. It is all so confusing to me, because I do not understand it; but anyway he is working on a mechanical brain, a brain that will think clearly and logically, absolutely uninfluenced by any of the extraneous media that affect human judgments.”
“It seems rather a weird idea,” I said, “but I can see nothing so horrible about it.”
“It is not the idea that is horrible,” she said; “it is the method that he employs to perfect his invention. In his effort to duplicate the human brain, he must examine it. For this reason he needs many slaves. A few he buys, but most of them are kidnaped for him.”
She commenced to tremble, and her voice came in little broken gasps. “I do not know; I have not really seen it; but they say that he straps his victims so that they cannot move and then removes the skull until he has exposed the brain; and so, by means of rays that penetrate the tissue, he watches the brain function.”
“But his victims cannot suffer long,” I said; “they would lose consciousness and die quickly.”
She shook her head. “No, he has perfected drugs that he injects into their veins so that they remain alive and are conscious for a long time. For long hours he applies various stimuli and watches the reaction of the brain. Imagine if you can, the suffering of his poor victims.
“Many slaves are brought here, but they do not remain long. There are only two doors leading from the building, and there are no windows in the outer walls.
“The slaves that disappear do not leave through either of the two doorways. I see them today; tomorrow they are gone, gone through the little doorway that leads into the room of horror next to Fal Sivas’s sleeping quarters.
“Tonight Fal Sivas sent for two of us, another girl and myself. He purposed using only one of us. He always examines a couple and then selects the one that he thinks is the best specimen, but his selection is not determined wholly by scientific requirements. He always selects the more attractive of the girls that are summoned.
“He examined us, and then finally he selected me. I was terrified. I tried to fight him off. He chased me about the room, and then he slipped and fell; and before he could regain his feet, I opened the door and escaped. Then I heard the other girl scream, and I knew that he had seized her, but I have won only a reprieve. He will get me; there is no escape. Neither you nor I will ever leave this place alive.”
“What makes you think that?” I inquired.
“No one ever does.”
“How about Rapas?” I asked. “He comes and goes apparently as he wishes.”
“Yes, Rapas comes and goes. He is Fal Sivas’s assassin. He also aids in the kidnaping of new victims. Under the circumstances he would have to be free to leave the building. Then there are a few others, old and trusted retainers, really partners in crime, whose lives Fal Sivas holds in the palm of his hand; but you may rest assured that none of these know too much about his inventions. The moment that one is taken into Fal Sivas’s confidence, his days are numbered.
“The man seems to have a mania for talking about his inventions. He must explain them to someone. I think that is because of his great egotism. He loves to boast. That is the reason he tells us who are doomed so much about his work. You may rest assured that Rapas knows nothing of importance. In fact, I have heard Fal Sivas say that one thing that endeared Rapas to him is the assassin’s utter stupidity. Fal Sivas says that if he explained every detail of an invention to him, Rapas wouldn’t have brains enough to understand it.”
By this time the girl had regained control of herself; and as she ceased speaking, she started toward the doorway. “Thank you so much,” she said, “for letting me come in here. I shall probably never see you again, but I should like to know who it is who has befriended me.”
“My name is Vandor,” I replied, “but what makes you think you will never see me again, and where are you going now?”
“I am going back to my quarters to wait for the next summons. It may come tomorrow.”
“You are going to stay right here,” I replied; “we may find a way of getting you out of this, yet.”
She looked at me in surprise and was about to reply when suddenly she cocked her head on one side and listened. “Someone is coming,” she said; “they are searching for me.”
I took her by the hand and drew her toward the doorway to my sleeping apartment.
“Come in here,” I said. “Let’s see if we can’t hide you.”
“No, no,” she demurred; “they would kill us both then, if they found me. You have been kind to me. I do not want them to kill you.”
“Don’t worry about me,” I replied; “I can take care of myself. Do as I tell you.”
I took her into my room and made her lie down on the little platform that serves in Barsoom. as a bed. Then I threw the sleeping silks and furs over her in a jumbled heap. Only by close examination could anyone have discovered that her little form lay hidden beneath them.
Stepping into the living room, I took a book at random from the shelf; and seating myself in a chair, opened it. I had scarcely done so, when I heard a scratching on the outside of the door leading to the corridor.
“Come in,” I called.
The door opened, and Fal Sivas stepped into the room.