Swords of Mars

Chapter VII

The Face in the Doorway

Edgar Rice Burroughs


NONCHALANCE is a corollary of poise. I was thankful at that moment that the poise gene of some ancient forebear had been preserved in my line and handed down to me. Whether or not Fal Sivas had entered the room before the ship came to rest again upon its scaffolding, I did not know. If not, he had only missed the sight by a matter of a split second. My best momentary defense was to act on the assumption that he had not seen, and this I determined to do.

Standing there in the doorway, the old inventor was eyeing me sternly. “What are you doing in here?” he demanded.

“The invention fascinates me; it intrigues my imagination,” I replied. “I stepped in from the shop to have another look at it. You had not told me that I should not do so.”

He knitted his brows in thought. “Perhaps, I didn’t,” he said at last; “but I tell you now. No one is supposed to enter this room, unless by my express command.”

“I will bear that in mind,” I said.

“It will be well for you if you do, Vandor.”

I walked then toward the door where he stood, with the intention of returning to the shop; but Fal Sivas barred my way.

“Wait a moment,” he said, “perhaps you have been wondering if the brain would respond to your thought-impulses.”

“Frankly, I have,” I replied.

I wondered how much he knew, how much he had seen. Perhaps he was playing with me, secure in his own knowledge; or perhaps he was merely suspicious and was seeking confirmation of his suspicion. However that might be, I was determined not to be trapped out of my assumption that he had not seen and did not know.

“You were not, by any chance, attempting to see if it would respond?” he asked.

“Who, other than a stupid dolt, once having seen this invention, would not naturally harbor such a thought?” I asked.

“Quite right, quite right,” he admitted; “it would only be natural, but did you succeed?” The pupils of his eyes contracted; his lids narrowed to two ominous slits. He seemed to be trying to bore into my soul; and, unquestionably, he was attempting to read my mind; but that, I knew, he could not accomplish.

I waved my hand in the direction of the ship. “Has it moved?” I asked with a laugh.

I thought that I saw just a faint hint of relief in his expression, and I felt sure then that he had not seen.

“It would be interesting, however, to know whether the mind of another than myself could control the mechanism,” he said. “Suppose you try it.”

“It would be a most interesting experiment. I should be glad to do so. What shall I try to have it do?”

“It will have to be an original idea of your own,” he told me; “for if it is my idea, and I impart it to you, we cannot be definitely sure whether the impulse that actuates it originated in your brain or mine.”

“Is there no danger that I might unintentionally harm it?” I asked.

“I think not,” he replied. “It is probably difficult for you to realize that that ship sees and reasons. Of course, its vision and its mental functioning are purely mechanical but none the less accurate. In fact, I should rather say, because of that, more accurate. You might attempt to win the ship to leave the room. It cannot do so because the great doors through which it will eventually pass out of this building are closed and locked. It might approach the wall of the building, but the eyes would see that it could not pass through without damage; or, rather, the eyes would see the obstacle, transmit the impression to the brain, and the brain would reason to a logical conclusion. It would, therefore, stop the ship or, more likely, cause it to turn the nose about so that the eyes could seek a safe avenue of exit. But let us see what you can do.”

I had no intention of letting Fal Sivas know that I could operate his invention, if he did not already know it; and so I tried to keep my thoughts as far from it as possible. I recalled football games that I had seen, a five-ring circus, and the Congress of Beauties on the Midway of the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair. In fact, I tried to think of anything under the sun rather than Fal Sivas and his mechanical brain.

Finally, I turned to him with a gesture of resignation. “Nothing seems to happen,” I said.

He appeared vastly relieved. “You are a man of intelligence,” he said. “If it will not obey you, it is reasonably safe to assume that it will obey no one but me.”

For several moments he was lost in thought, and then he straightened up and looked at me, and his eyes burned with demoniac fire. “I can be master of a world,” he said; “perhaps I can even be master of the universe.”

“With that?” I asked, nodding toward the ship.

“With the idea that it symbolizes,” he replied; “with the idea of an inanimate object energized lay scientific means and motivated by a mechanical brain. If I but had the means to do so—the wealth—I could manufacture these brains in great quantities, and I could put them into small fliers weighing less than a man weighs. I could give them means of locomotion in the air or upon the ground. I could give them arms and hands. I could furnish them with weapons. I could send them out in great hordes to conquer the world. I could send them to other planets. They would know neither pain nor fear. They would have no hopes, no aspirations, no ambitions that might wean them from my service. They would be the creatures of my will alone, and the things that I sent them to do they would persist in until they were destroyed.

“But destroying them would serve my enemies no purpose; for faster than they could destroy them, my great factories would turn out more.”

“You see,” he said, “how it would work?” and he came close and spoke almost in a whisper. “The first of these mechanical men I would make with my own hands, and as I created them I would impel them to create others of their kind. They would become my mechanics, the workmen in my factories; and they would work day and night without rest, always turning out more and more of their kind. Think how rapidly they would multiply.”

I was thinking of this. The possibilities astounded and stunned me. “But it would take vast wealth,” I told him.

“Yes, vast wealth,” he repeated; “and it was for the purpose of obtaining this vast wealth that I built this ship.”

“You intend to raid the treasure houses of the great cities of Barsoom?” I asked, smiling.

“By no means,” he replied. “Treasures vastly richer lie at the disposal of the man who controls this ship. Do you not know what the spectroscope tells us of the riches of Thuria?”

“I have heard,” I said, “but I never took much stock in it. The story was too fabulous.”

“It is true, nevertheless,” he said. “There must be mountains of gold and platinum on Thuria, and vast plains carpeted with precious stones.”

It was a bold enterprise; but after having seen this craft, and knowing the remarkable genius of Fal Sivas, I had little doubt but that it was feasible.

Suddenly, as was his way, he seemed to regret that he had confided in me and brusquely directed me to return to my duties in the shop.

The old man had told me so much now that I naturally began to wonder if he would consider it safe to permit me to live, and I was constantly on my guard. It seemed highly improbable that he would consent to my leaving the premises, but I determined to settle this question immediately; for I wanted to see Rapas before he could visit the establishment of Fal Sivas again, thereby compelling me to destroy him. Day after day had passed and Fal Sivas had contrived to prevent my leaving the house, though he had accomplished it so adroitly that it was never actually apparent that he did not wish me to leave.

As he dismissed me that evening, I told him that I was going out to try to locate Rapas and attempt again to contact the assassins of Ur Jan.

He hesitated so long before he replied that I thought he was going to forbid me going out, but at last he nodded in acquiescence. “Perhaps it will be as well,” he said. “Rapas does not come here any more, and he knows too much to be at large, unless he is in my service and loyal to me. If I must trust one of you, I prefer that it be you, rather than Rapas.”

I did not go to the evening meal with the others, as I intended eating at the place that Rapas frequented and where we had planned to meet when I was at liberty.

It was necessary to acquaint Hamas with the fact that I was leaving, as only he could open the outer door for me. His manner toward me was not quite as surly as it had been the past few days. In fact, he was almost affable; and the change in his manner put me even more on my guard, for I felt that it boded me no good—there was no reason why Hamas should love me any more today than he had yesterday. If I induced pleasant anticipations in him, it must be because he visualized something unpleasant befalling me.

From the house of Fal Sivas, I went directly to the eating-place; and there I inquired of the proprietor regarding Rapas.

“He has been in every evening,” replied the man. “He usually comes about this time and again about half after the eighth zode, and he always asks me if you have been here.”

“I will wait for him,” I said, and I went to the table The Rat and I usually occupied.

I had scarcely seated myself before Rapas entered. He came directly to the table and seated himself opposite me.

“Where have you been keeping yourself?” he demanded. “I was commencing to think that old Fal Sivas had made away with you or that you were a prisoner in his house. I had about made up my mind to go there tonight and call on the old man, so that I could learn what had happened to you.”

“It is just as well that I got out tonight before you came,” I said.

“Why?” he demanded.

“Because it is not safe for you to go to the house of Fal Sivas,” I told him.

“If you value your life, you will never go there again.”

“What makes you think that?” he demanded.

“I can’t tell you,” I replied, “but just take my word for it, and keep away.” I did not want him to know that I had been commissioned to kill him. It might have made him so suspicious and fearful of me that he would be of no value to me in the future.

“Well, it is strange,” he said; “Fal Sivas was friendly enough before I took you there.”

I saw that he was harboring in his mind the thought that, for some reason, I was trying to keep him away from Fal Sivas; but I couldn’t help it, and so I changed the subject.

“Has everything been going well with you, Rapas, since I saw you?” I asked.

“Yes, quite well,” he replied.

“What is the news of the city? I have not been out since I saw you last, and of course we hear little or nothing in the house of Fal Sivas.”

“They say that the Warlord is in Zodanga,” he replied. “Uldak, one of Ur Jan’s men, was killed the last night I saw you, as you will recall. The mark of the Warlord’s agent was above his heart, but Ur Jan believes that no ordinary swordsman could have bested Uldak. Also he has learned from his agent in Helium that John Carter is not there; so, putting the two facts together, Ur Jan is convinced that he must be in Zodanga.”

“How interesting,” I commented. “And what is Ur Jan going to do about it?”

“Oh, he’ll get his revenge,” said The Rat; “if not in one way, then in another. He is already planning; and when he strikes, John Carter will wish that he had attended to his own affairs and left Ur Jan alone.”

Shortly before we finished our meal, a customer entered the place and took a seat alone at a table across the room. I could see him in a mirror in front of me. I saw him glance in our direction, and then I looked quickly at Rapas and saw his eyes flash a message as he nodded his head very slightly; but without that, I would have known why the man was there, for I recognized him as one of the assassins that had sat at the council with Ur Jan. I pretended not to notice anything; and my glance wandered idly to the doorway, attracted by two customers who were leaving the place at the time.

Then I saw something else of interest—of vital interest. As the door swung open, I saw a man outside looking in. It was Hamas.

The assassin at the table across the room ordered only a glass of wine; and when he had drunk it, he arose and left. Shortly after his departure, Rapas got up.

“I must be going,” he said; “I have an important engagement.”

“Shall I see you tomorrow night?” I asked.

I could see him attempt to suppress a grin. “I shall be here tomorrow night,” he said.

We went out then onto the avenue; and Rapas left me, while I turned my steps in the direction of the house of Fal Sivas. Through the lighted districts I did not have to be particularly on my guard; but when I entered the darker sections of the city, I was watchful; and presently I saw a figure lurking in a dark doorway. I knew it was the assassin waiting to kill me.


Swords of Mars - Contents    |     Chapter VIII - Suspicion


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