“You are right on time,” he said. “Did you find anything to amuse you in the night life of Zodanga?”
“Yes,” I assured him. “I enjoyed myself immensely. And you?”
“I spent a most profitable evening. I made excellent connections; and, my dear Vandor, I did not forget you.”
“How nice of you,” I said.
“Yes, you shall have reason to remember this evening as long as you live,” he exclaimed, and then he burst into laughter.
“You must tell me about it,” I said.
“No, not now,” he replied, “It must remain a secret for a time. You will know all about it soon enough, and now let us eat. It is my treat tonight. I shall pay for everything.”
The miserable rat of a man seemed to have swelled with importance now that he felt himself almost a full-fledged member of Ur Jan’s guild of assassins.
“Very well,” I said, “this shall be your treat,” for I thought it would add to my enjoyment of the joke to let the poor fool foot the bill, and to make it still more amusing I ordered the most expensive dishes that I could find.
When I had entered the eating-place, Rapas had already seated himself facing the entrance; and he was continually glancing at it. Whenever anyone entered, I could see the look of expectation on his face change to one of disappointment.
We spoke of various unimportant things as we ate; and as the meal progressed, I could not but note his growing impatience and concern.
“What is the matter, Rapas?” I inquired after a while. “You seem suddenly nervous. You are always watching the entrance. Are you expecting someone?”
He got himself in hand then, very quickly; but he cast a single searching glance at me through narrowed lids. “No, no,” he said, “I was expecting no one; but I have enemies. It is always necessary for me to be watchful.”
His explanation was plausible enough, though I knew of course that it was not the right one. I could have told him that he was watching for someone who would never come, but I did not.
Rapas dragged the meal out as long as he could, and the later it grew, the more nervous he became and the more often his glance remained upon the entrance. At last I made a move to go, but he detained me. “Let us stop a little longer,” he said. “You are in no hurry, are you?”
“I should be getting back,” I replied. “Fal Sivas may require my services.”
“No,” he told me, “not before morning.”
“But I must have some sleep,” I insisted.
“You will get plenty of sleep,” he said; “don’t worry.”
“Well, if I am going to, I had better start for bed,” I said, and with that I arose.
He tried to detain me, but I had extracted about all the pleasure out of the evening that I thought it held for me, and so I insisted upon leaving.
Reluctantly he arose from the table. “I will walk a little way with you,” he said.
We were near the door leading to the avenue when two men entered. They were discussing something rather excitedly as they greeted the proprietor.
“The Warlord’s agents are at work again,” said one of them.
“How is that?” asked the proprietor.
“They have just found the body of one of Ur Jan’s assassins in the Avenue of the Green Throat—the cross of the Warlord was above his heart.”
“More power to the Warlord,” said the proprietor. “Zodanga would be better off if we were rid of all of them.”
“By what name was the dead man known?” asked Rapas, with considerable more concern, I imagine, than he would have cared to reveal.
“Why, some man in the crowd said that he believed his name was Uldak,” replied one of the two men who had brought the news.
“Was he a friend of yours, Rapas?” I asked.
The Ulsio started. “Oh, no,” he said. “I did not know him. Let us be going.”
Together we walked out into the avenue and started in the direction of the House of Fal Sivas. We walked shoulder to shoulder through the lighted district near the eating-place. Rapas was very quiet and seemed nervous. I watched him out of the comer of my eye and tried to read his mind, but he was on guard and had closed it against me.
Oftentimes I have an advantage over Martians in that I can read their minds, though they can never read mine. Why that is, I do not know. Mind reading is a very commonplace accomplishment on Mars, but to safeguard themselves against its dangers, all Martians have cultivated the ability to close their minds to others at will—a defense mechanism of such long standing as to have become almost a universal characteristic; so that only occasionally can one be caught off his guard.
As we entered the darker avenues, however, it became apparent that Rapas was trying to drop behind me; and then I did not have to read his mind to know what was in it—Uldak had failed, and now The Rat had an opportunity to cover himself with glory and win the esteem of Ur Jan by carrying out the assignment of Uldak.
If a man has a sense of humor, a situation such as this can be very enjoyable, as, indeed, it was to me. Here I was walking along a dark avenue with a man who intended to murder me at the first opportunity, and it was necessary for me to thwart his plans without letting him know that I suspected them; for I did not want to kill Rapas the Ulsio, at least not at present. I felt that I could make use of him in one way or another without his ever suspecting that he was aiding me.
“Come,” I said, at last, “why do you lag? Are you getting tired?” And I linked my left arm through his sword arm, and thus we continued on toward the house of Fal Sivas.
After a short distance, at the intersection of two avenues, Rapas disengaged himself. “I am leaving you here,” he said; “I am not going back to the house of Fal Sivas tonight.”
“Very well, my friend,” I said; “but I shall be seeing you soon again, I hope.”
“Yes,” he replied, “soon.”
“Tomorrow night, possibly,” I suggested, “or if not tomorrow night, the night after. Whenever I am at liberty, I shall come to the eating-house; and perhaps I shall find you there.”
“Very well,” he said; “I eat there every night.”
“May you sleep well, Rapas.”
“May you sleep well, Vandor.” Then he turned into the avenue at our left, and I proceeded on my way.
I thought that he might follow me, but he did not, and so I came at last to the house of Fal Sivas.
Hamas admitted me, and after passing a few words with him I went directly to my quarters where, in answer to my signal, Zanda admitted me.
The girl told me that the house had been very quiet during the night, and that no one had disturbed her or attempted to enter our quarters. She had prepared my sleeping silks and furs; and, as I was rather tired, I soon sought them.
Immediately after breakfast the next morning, I went on duty again at the door of Fal Sivas’s study. I had been there but a short time when he summoned me to his person.
“What of last night?” he asked. “What luck did you have? I see that you are here alive; so I take it that you did not succeed in reaching the meeting-place of the assassins.”
“On the contrary, I did,” I told him. “I was in the room next to them and saw them all.”
“What did you learn?”
“Not much. When the door was closed, I could hear nothing. It was open only a short time.”
“What did you hear while it was open?” he asked.
“They knew that you had employed me as your body guard.”
“What!” he demanded. “How could they have known that?”
I shook my head. “There must be a leak,” I told him.
“A traitor!” he exclaimed.
I did not tell him about Rapas. I was afraid that he would have him killed, and I did not want him killed while he might be of use to me.
“What else did you hear?” he demanded.
“Ur Jan ordered that I be killed.”
“You must be careful,” said Fal Sivas. “Perhaps you had better not go out again at night.”
“I can take care of myself,” I replied, “and I can be of more service if I can get about at night and talk to people on the outside than I can by remaining cooped up here when I am off duty.”
He nodded. “I guess you are right,” he said, and then for a moment he sat in deep thought. Finally he raised his head. “I have it!” he exclaimed. “I know who the traitor is.”
“Yes?” I asked politely.
“It is Rapas the Ulsio—Ulsio! He is well named.”
“You are sure?” I asked.
“It could be no one else,” replied Fal Sivas emphatically. “No one else has left the premises but you two since you came. But we will put an end to that as soon as he returns. When he comes back, you will destroy him. Do you understand?”
“It is a command,” he said; “see that it is obeyed.” For some time he sat in silence, and I could see that he was studying me intently. At last he spoke.
“You have a smattering of the sciences I judge from the fact of your interest in the books in your quarters.”
“Only a smattering,” I assured him.
“I need such a man as you,” he said, “if I could only find someone whom I might trust. But who can one trust?” He seemed to be thinking aloud. “I am seldom wrong,” he continued musingly. “I read Rapas like a book. I knew that he was mean and ignorant and at heart a traitor.”
He wheeled suddenly upon me. “But you are different. I believe that I can take a chance with you, but if you fail me—” he stood up and faced me, and I never saw such a malevolent expression upon a human face before. “If you fail me, Vandor, you shall die such a death as only the mind of Fal Sivas can conceive.”
I could not help but smile. “I can die but once,” I said.
“But you can be a long time at the dying, if it is done scientifically.” But now he had relaxed, and his tone was a little bantering. I could imagine that Fal Sivas might enjoy seeing an enemy die horribly.
“I am going to take you into my confidence—a little just a little,” he said.
“Remember that I have not asked it,” I replied, “that I have not sought to learn any of your secrets.”
“The risk will be mutual,” he said, “your life against my secrets. Come, I have something to show you.”
He led me from the room, along the corridor past my quarters, and up the ramp to the forbidden level above. Here we passed through a magnificently appointed suite of living quarters and then through a little door hidden behind hangings, and came at last into an enormous loft that extended upward to the roof of the building, evidently several levels above us.
Supported by scaffolding and occupying nearly the entire length of the enormous chamber, was the strangest looking craft that I have ever seen. The nose was ellipsoidal; and from the greatest diameter of the craft, which was just back of the nose, it sloped gradually to a point at the stem.
“There it is,” said Fal Sivas, proudly; “the work of a lifetime, and almost completed.”
“An entirely new type of ship,” I commented. “In what respect is it superior to present types?”
“It is built to achieve results that no other ship can achieve,” replied Fal Sivas. “It is designed to attain speed beyond the wildest imaginings of man. It will travel routes that no man or ship has ever traveled.
“In that craft, Vandor, I can visit Thuria and Cluros. I can travel the far reaches of space to other planets.”
“Marvellous,” I said.
“But that is not all. You see that it is built for speed. I can assure you that it is built to withstand the most terrific pressure, that it is insulated against the extremes of heat and cold. Perhaps, Vandor, other inventors could have accomplished the same end. In fact, I believe Gar Nal has already done so, but there is only one man upon Barsoom, doubtless there is only one brain in the entire Solar System, that could have done what Fal Sivas has done. I have given that seemingly insensate mechanism a brain with which to think. I have perfected my mechanical brain, Vandor, and with just a little more time, just a few refinements, I can send this ship out alone; and it will go where I wish it to go and come back again.
“Doubtless, you think that impossible. You think Fal Sivas is mad; but look! Watch closely.”
He centered his gaze upon the nose of the strange-looking craft, and presently I saw it rise slowly from its scaffolding for about ten feet and hang there poised in mid-air. Then it elevated its nose a few feet, and then its tail, and finally it settled again and rested evenly upon its scaffolding.
I was certainly astonished. Never in all my life had I seen anything so marvellous, nor did I seek to hide my admiration from Fal Sivas.
“You see,” he said, “I did not even have to speak to it. The mechanical mind that I have installed in the ship responds to thought waves. I merely have to impart to it the impulse of the thought that I wish it to act upon. The mechanical brain then functions precisely as my brain would, and directs the mechanism that operates the craft precisely as the brain of the pilot would direct his hand to move levers, press buttons, open or close throttles.
“Vandor, it has been a long and terrible battle that I have had to wage to perfect this marvellous mechanism. I have been compelled to do things which would revolt the finer sensibilities of mankind; but I believe that it has all been well worthwhile. I believe that my greatest achievement warrants all that it has cost in lives and suffering.
“I, too, have paid a price. It has taken something out of me that can never be replaced. I believe, Vandor, that it has robbed me of every human instinct. Except that I am mortal, I am as much a creature of cold insensate formulas as that thing which you see resting there before you. Sometimes, because of that, I hate it; and yet I would die for it. I would see others die for it, countless others, in the future, as I have in the past. It must live. It is the greatest achievement of the human mind.”