I knew that if we did not obey their command they would open fire on us, and a single hit might put an end to all my plans to reach Thuria and save Dejah Thoris.
While the armament of the ship, as described to me by Fal Sivas, would have given me an overwhelming advantage in an encounter with any patrol boat, I hesitated to stand and fight, because of the chance that a lucky shot from the enemy’s ship might disable us.
Fal Sivas had boasted of the high potential speed of his brain conception; and I decided that however much I might dislike to flee from an enemy, flight was the safest course to pursue.
Zanda had her face pressed to one of the numerous ports in the bull of the ship.
The wail of the patrol boat siren was now continuous—an eerie, menacing voice in the night, that pierced the air like sharp daggers.
“They are overhauling us, Vandor,” said Zanda; “and they are signalling other patrol boats to their aid.”
“They have probably noticed the strange lines of this craft; and not only their curiosity, but their suspicion has been aroused.”
“What are you going to do?” she asked.
“We are going to put the speed of Fal Sivas’s motor to a test,” I replied.
I glanced up at the insensate metal sphere above my head. “Speed up! Faster! Escape the pursuing patrol boat!” Such were the directing thoughts that I imparted to the silent thing above me; then I waited.
I did not, however, have long to wait. No sooner had my thoughts impinged upon the sensitive mechanism than the accelerated whirr of the almost noiseless motor told me that my directions had been obeyed.
“She is no longer gaining on us,” cried Zanda excitedly. “We have leaped ahead; we are outdistancing her.”
The swift staccato of rapid fire burst upon our ears. Our enemy had opened fire upon us, and almost simultaneously, intermingling with the shots, we heard in the distance the wail of other sirens apprising us of the fact that reinforcements were closing in upon us.
The swift rush of the thin air of Mars along the sides of our ship attested our terrific speed. The lights of the city faded swiftly behind us. The searchlights of the patrol boats were rapidly diminishing bands of light across the starlit sky.
I do not know how fast we were going but probably in the neighborhood of 1350 haads an hour.
We sped low above the ancient sea bottom that lies west of Zodanga; and then, in a matter of about five minutes—it could not have been much more—our speed slackened rapidly, and I saw a small flier floating idly in the still air just ahead of us.
I knew that it must be the flier upon which Jat Or awaited me, and I directed the brain to bring our ship alongside it and stop.
The response of the ship to my every thought direction was uncanny; and when we came alongside of Jat Or’s craft and seemingly ghostly hands opened the door in the side of our ship, I experienced a brief sensation of terror, as though I were in the power of some soulless Frankenstein; and this notwithstanding the fact that every move of the ship had been in response to my own direction.
Jat Or stood on the narrow deck of his small flier gazing in astonishment at the strange craft that had drawn alongside.
“Had I not been expecting this,” he said, “I should have been streaking it for Helium by now. It is a sinister-looking affair with those great eyes giving it the appearance of some unworldly monster.”
“You will find that impression intensified when you have been aboard her for a while,” I told him. “She is very ‘unworldly’ in many respects.”
“Do you want me to come aboard now?” he asked.
“Yes,” I replied, “after we make disposition of your flier.”
“What shall we do with it?” he asked. “Are you going to abandon it?”
“Set your destination compass on Helium, and open your throttle to half speed. When you are under way, we will come alongside again and take you aboard. One of the patrol boats at Helium will pick up the flier and return it to my hangar.”
He did as I had bid, and I directed the brain to take us alongside of him after he had gotten under way. A moment later he stepped into the cabin of Fal Sivas’s craft “Comfortable,” he commented; “the old boy must be something of a Sybarite.”
“He believed in being comfortable,” I replied, “but love of luxury has softened his fibre to such an extent that he was afraid to venture abroad in his ship after he had completed it.”
Jat Or turned to look about the cabin, and it chanced that his eyes fell upon the doors in the side of the ship just as I directed the brain to close them. He voiced an ejaculation of astonishment.
“In the name of my first ancestor,” he exclaimed, “who is closing those doors? I don’t see anyone, and you have not moved or touched any sort of operating device since I came aboard.”
“Come forward into the control room,” I said, “and you shall see the entire crew of this craft reposing in a metal case not much larger than your fist.”
As we entered the control room, Jat Or saw Zanda for the first time. I could see his surprise reflected in his eyes, but he was too well bred to offer any comment.
“This is Zanda, Jat Or,” I said. “Fal Sivas was about to remove her skull in the interests of science when I interrupted him this evening. The poor girl was forced to choose between the lesser of two evils; that is why she is with me.”
“That statement is a little misleading,” said Zanda. “Even if my life had not been in danger and I had been surrounded by every safeguard and luxury, I would still have chosen to go with Vandor, even to the end of the universe.”
“You see, Jat Or,” I remarked, with a smile, “the young lady does not know me very well; when she does, she will very probably change her mind.”
“Never,” said Zanda.
“Wait and see,” I cautioned her.
On our trip from Helium to Zodanga, I had explained to Jat Or the marvellous mechanism that Fal Sivas called a mechanical brain; and I could see the young padwar’s eyes searching the interior of the control room for this marvellous invention.
“There it is,” I said, pointing at the metal sphere slightly above his head in the nose of the craft.
“And that little thing drives the ship and opens the doors?” he asked.
“The motors drive the ship, Jat Or,” I told him, “and other motors operate the doors and perform various other mechanical duties aboard the craft. The mechanical brain merely operates them as our brains would direct our hands to certain duties.”
“That thing thinks?” he demanded.
“To all intents and purposes, it functions as would a human brain, the only difference being that it cannot originate thought.”
The padwar stood gazing at the thing in silence for several moments. “It gives me a strange feeling,” he said at last, “a helpless feeling, as though I were in the power of some creature that was omnipotent and yet could not reason.”
“I have much the same sensation,” I admitted, “and I cannot help but speculate upon what it might do if it could reason.”
“I, too, tremble to think of it,” said Zanda, “if Fal Sivas has imparted to it any of the heartless ruthlessness of his own mind.”
“It is his creature,” I reminded her.
“Then let us hope that it may never originate a thought.”
“That, of course, would be impossible,” said Jat Or.
“I do not know about that,” replied Zanda. “Such a thing was in Fal Sivas’s mind. He was, I know, working to that end; but whether he succeeded in imparting the power of original thought to this thing, I do not know. I know that he not only hoped to accomplish this miracle eventually, but that he was planning also to impart powers of speech to this horrible invention.”
“Why do you call it horrible?” asked Jat Or.
“Because it is inhuman and unnatural,” replied the girl. “Nothing good could come out of the mind of Fal Sivas. The thing you see there was conceived in hate and lust and greed, and it was contrived for the satisfaction of such characteristics in Fal Sivas. No ennobling or lofty thoughts went into its fabrication; and none could emanate from it, had it the power of original thought.”
“But our purpose is lofty and honorable,” I reminded her; “and if it serves us in the consummation of our hope, it will have accomplished good.”
“Nevertheless, I fear it,” replied Zanda. “I hate it because it reminds me of Fal Sivas.”
“I hope that it is not meditating upon these candid avowals,” remarked Jat Or.
Zanda slapped an open palm across her lips, her wide eyes reflecting a new terror. “I had not thought of that,” she whispered. “Perhaps this very minute it is planning its revenge.”
I could not but laugh at her fear. “If any harm befalls us through that brain, Zanda,” I said, “you may lay the blame at my door, for it is my mind that shall actuate it as long as the ship remains in my possession.”
“I hope you are right,” she said, “and that it will bear us safely wherever you wish to go.”
“And suppose we get to Thuria alive?” interjected Jat Or. “You know I have been wondering about that. I have been giving the matter considerable thought, naturally, since you said that that was to be our destination; and I am wondering how we will fare on that tiny satellite. We shall be so out of proportion in size to anything that we may find there.”
“Perhaps we shall not be,” I said, and then I explained to him the theory of compensatory adjustment of masses as Fal Sivas had expounded it to me.
“It sounds preposterous,” said Jat Or.
I shrugged. “It does to me, too,” I admitted; “but no matter how much we may abhor Fal Sivas’s character, we cannot deny the fact that he has a marvellous scientific brain; and I am going to hold my opinion in abeyance until we reach the surface of Thuria.”
“At least,” said Jat Or, “no matter what the conditions there may be, the abductors of the princess will have no advantage over us if we find them there.”
“Do you doubt that we shall find them?” I asked.
“It is merely a matter of conjecture, one way or another,” he replied; “but it does not seem within the realms of possibility that two inventors, working independently of one another, could each have conceived and built two identical ships capable of crossing the airless void between here and Thuria, under the guidance of mechanical brains.”
“But as far as I know,” I replied, “Gar Nal’s craft is not so operated. Fal Sivas does not believe that Gar Nal has produced such a brain. He does not believe that the man has even conceived the possibility of one, and so we may assume that Gar Nal’s craft is operated by Gar Nal, or at least wholly by human means.”
“Then which ship has the better chance to reach Thuria?” asked Jat Or.
“According to Fal Sivas,” I replied, “there can be no question about that. This mechanical brain of his cannot make mistakes.”
“If we accept that,” said Jat Or, “then we must also accept the possibility of Gar Nal’s human brain erring in some respects in its calculations.”
“What do you mean by that?” I asked.
“It just occurred to me that through some error in calculations Gar Nal might not reach Thuria; whereas, directed by an errorless brain, we are certain to.”
“I had not thought of that,” I said, “I was so obsessed by the thought that Gar Nal and Ur Jan were taking their victim to Thuria that I never gave a thought to the possibility that they might not be able to get there.”
The idea distressed me, for I realized how hopeless my quest must be if we reached Thuria only to find that Dejah Thoris was not there. Where could I look for her? Where could I hope to find her in the illimitable reaches of space? But I soon cast these thoughts from me, for worry is a destructive force that I have tried to eliminate from my philosophy of life.
Zanda looked at me with a puzzled expression. “We are really going to Thuria?” she asked. “I do not understand why anyone should want to go to Thuria; but I am content to go, if you go. When do we start, Vandor?”
“We are well on our way, now,” I replied. “The moment that Jat Or came aboard, I directed the brain to head for Thuria at full speed.”