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Chapter 20 The Air Battle

  • Two hours after leaving my palace at Helium, or about midnight, Kantos Kan, Xodar, and I arrived at Hastor. Carthoris, Tars Tarkas, and Hor Vastus ha_one directly to Thark upon another cruiser.
  • The transports were to get under way immediately and move slowly south. Th_leet of battleships would overtake them on the morning of the second day.
  • At Hastor we found all in readiness, and so perfectly had Kantos Kan planne_very detail of the campaign that within ten minutes of our arrival the firs_f the fleet had soared aloft from its dock, and thereafter, at the rate o_ne a second, the great ships floated gracefully out into the night to form _ong, thin line which stretched for miles toward the south.
  • It was not until after we had entered the cabin of Kantos Kan that I though_o ask the date, for up to now I was not positive how long I had lain in th_its of Zat Arras. When Kantos Kan told me, I realized with a pang of disma_hat I had misreckoned the time while I lay in the utter darkness of my cell.
  • Three hundred and sixty-five days had passed—it was too late to save Deja_horis.
  • The expedition was no longer one of rescue but of revenge. I did not remin_antos Kan of the terrible fact that ere we could hope to enter the Temple o_ssus, the Princess of Helium would be no more. In so far as I knew she migh_e already dead, for I did not know the exact date on which she first viewe_ssus.
  • What now the value of burdening my friends with my added personal sorrows—the_ad shared quite enough of them with me in the past. Hereafter I would keep m_rief to myself, and so I said nothing to any other of the fact that we wer_oo late. The expedition could yet do much if it could but teach the people o_arsoom the facts of the cruel deception that had been worked upon them fo_ountless ages, and thus save thousands each year from the horrid fate tha_waited them at the conclusion of the voluntary pilgrimage.
  • If it could open to the red men the fair Valley Dor it would have accomplishe_uch, and in the Land of Lost Souls between the Mountains of Otz and the ic_arrier were many broad acres that needed no irrigation to bear rich harvests.
  • Here at the bottom of a dying world was the only naturally productive are_pon its surface. Here alone were dews and rains, here alone was an open sea, here was water in plenty; and all this was but the stamping ground of fierc_rutes and from its beauteous and fertile expanse the wicked remnants of tw_nce mighty races barred all the other millions of Barsoom. Could I bu_ucceed in once breaking down the barrier of religious superstition which ha_ept the red races from this El Dorado it would be a fitting memorial to th_mmortal virtues of my Princess—I should have again served Barsoom and Deja_horis' martyrdom would not have been in vain.
  • On the morning of the second day we raised the great fleet of transports an_heir consorts at the first flood of dawn, and soon were near enough t_xchange signals. I may mention here that radio-aerograms are seldom if eve_sed in war time, or for the transmission of secret dispatches at any time, for as often as one nation discovers a new cipher, or invents a new instrumen_or wireless purposes its neighbours bend every effort until they are able t_ntercept and translate the messages. For so long a time has this gone on tha_ractically every possibility of wireless communication has been exhausted an_o nation dares transmit dispatches of importance in this way.
  • Tars Tarkas reported all well with the transports. The battleships passe_hrough to take an advanced position, and the combined fleets moved slowl_ver the ice cap, hugging the surface closely to prevent detection by th_herns whose land we were approaching.
  • Far in advance of all a thin line of one-man air scouts protected us fro_urprise, and on either side they flanked us, while a smaller number brough_p the rear some twenty miles behind the transports. In this formation we ha_rogressed toward the entrance to Omean for several hours when one of ou_couts returned from the front to report that the cone-like summit of th_ntrance was in sight. At almost the same instant another scout from the lef_lank came racing toward the flagship.
  • His very speed bespoke the importance of his information. Kantos Kan and _waited him upon the little forward deck which corresponds with the bridge o_arthly battleships. Scarcely had his tiny flier come to rest upon the broa_anding-deck of the flagship ere he was bounding up the stairway to the dec_here we stood.
  • "A great fleet of battleships south-south-east, my Prince," he cried. "Ther_ust be several thousands and they are bearing down directly upon us."
  • "The thern spies were not in the palace of John Carter for nothing," sai_antos Kan to me. "Your orders, Prince."
  • "Dispatch ten battleships to guard the entrance to Omean, with orders to le_o hostile enter or leave the shaft. That will bottle up the great fleet o_he First Born.
  • "Form the balance of the battleships into a great V with the apex pointin_irectly south-south-east. Order the transports, surrounded by their convoys, to follow closely in the wake of the battleships until the point of the V ha_ntered the enemies' line, then the V must open outward at the apex, th_attleships of each leg engage the enemy fiercely and drive him back to form _ane through his line into which the transports with their convoys must rac_t top speed that they may gain a position above the temples and gardens o_he therns.
  • "Here let them land and teach the Holy Therns such a lesson in ferociou_arfare as they will not forget for countless ages. It had not been m_ntention to be distracted from the main issue of the campaign, but we mus_ettle this attack with the therns once and for all, or there will be no peac_or us while our fleet remains near Dor, and our chances of ever returning t_he outer world will be greatly minimized."
  • Kantos Kan saluted and turned to deliver my instructions to his waiting aides.
  • In an incredibly short space of time the formation of the battleships change_n accordance with my commands, the ten that were to guard the way to Omea_ere speeding toward their destination, and the troopships and convoys wer_losing up in preparation for the spurt through the lane.
  • The order of full speed ahead was given, the fleet sprang through the air lik_oursing greyhounds, and in another moment the ships of the enemy were in ful_iew. They formed a ragged line as far as the eye could reach in eithe_irection and about three ships deep. So sudden was our onslaught that the_ad no time to prepare for it. It was as unexpected as lightning from a clea_ky.
  • Every phase of my plan worked splendidly. Our huge ships mowed their wa_ntirely through the line of thern battlecraft; then the V opened up and _road lane appeared through which the transports leaped toward the temples o_he therns which could now be plainly seen glistening in the sunlight. By th_ime the therns had rallied from the attack a hundred thousand green warrior_ere already pouring through their courts and gardens, while a hundred an_ifty thousand others leaned from low swinging transports to direct thei_lmost uncanny marksmanship upon the thern soldiery that manned the ramparts, or attempted to defend the temples.
  • Now the two great fleets closed in a titanic struggle far above the fiendis_in of battle in the gorgeous gardens of the therns. Slowly the two lines o_elium's battleships joined their ends, and then commenced the circling withi_he line of the enemy which is so marked a characteristic of Barsoomian nava_arfare.
  • Around and around in each other's tracks moved the ships under Kantos Kan, until at length they formed nearly a perfect circle. By this time they wer_oving at high speed so that they presented a difficult target for the enemy.
  • Broadside after broadside they delivered as each vessel came in line with th_hips of the therns. The latter attempted to rush in and break up th_ormation, but it was like stopping a buzz saw with the bare hand.
  • From my position on the deck beside Kantos Kan I saw ship after ship of th_nemy take the awful, sickening dive which proclaims its total destruction.
  • Slowly we manoeuvered our circle of death until we hung above the garden_here our green warriors were engaged. The order was passed down for them t_mbark. Then they rose slowly to a position within the centre of the circle.
  • In the meantime the therns' fire had practically ceased. They had had enoug_f us and were only too glad to let us go on our way in peace. But our escap_as not to be encompassed with such ease, for scarcely had we gotten under wa_nce more in the direction of the entrance to Omean than we saw far to th_orth a great black line topping the horizon. It could be nothing other than _leet of war.
  • Whose or whither bound, we could not even conjecture. When they had come clos_nough to make us out at all, Kantos Kan's operator received a radio-aerogram, which he immediately handed to my companion. He read the thing and handed i_o me.
  • "Kantos Kan:" it read. "Surrender, in the name of the Jeddak of Helium, fo_ou cannot escape," and it was signed, "Zat Arras."
  • The therns must have caught and translated the message almost as soon as di_e, for they immediately renewed hostilities when they realized that we wer_oon to be set upon by other enemies.
  • Before Zat Arras had approached near enough to fire a shot we were again hotl_ngaged with the thern fleet, and as soon as he drew near he too commenced t_our a terrific fusillade of heavy shot into us. Ship after ship reeled an_taggered into uselessness beneath the pitiless fire that we were undergoing.
  • The thing could not last much longer. I ordered the transports to descen_gain into the gardens of the therns.
  • "Wreak your vengeance to the utmost," was my message to the green allies, "fo_y night there will be none left to avenge your wrongs."
  • Presently I saw the ten battleships that had been ordered to hold the shaft o_mean. They were returning at full speed, firing their stern batteries almos_ontinuously. There could be but one explanation. They were being pursued b_nother hostile fleet. Well, the situation could be no worse. The expeditio_lready was doomed. No man that had embarked upon it would return across tha_reary ice cap. How I wished that I might face Zat Arras with my longsword fo_ust an instant before I died! It was he who had caused our failure.
  • As I watched the oncoming ten I saw their pursuers race swiftly into sight. I_as another great fleet; for a moment I could not believe my eyes, but finall_ was forced to admit that the most fatal calamity had overtaken th_xpedition, for the fleet I saw was none other than the fleet of the Firs_orn, that should have been safely bottled up in Omean. What a series o_isfortunes and disasters! What awful fate hovered over me, that I should hav_een so terribly thwarted at every angle of my search for my lost love! Coul_t be possible that the curse of Issus was upon me! That there was, indeed, some malign divinity in that hideous carcass! I would not believe it, and, throwing back my shoulders, I ran to the deck below to join my men i_epelling boarders from one of the thern craft that had grappled us broadside.
  • In the wild lust of hand-to-hand combat my old dauntless hopefulness returned.
  • And as thern after thern went down beneath my blade, I could almost feel tha_e should win success in the end, even from apparent failure.
  • My presence among the men so greatly inspirited them that they fell upon th_uckless whites with such terrible ferocity that within a few moments we ha_urned the tables upon them and a second later as we swarmed their own decks _ad the satisfaction of seeing their commander take the long leap from th_ows of his vessel in token of surrender and defeat.
  • Then I joined Kantos Kan. He had been watching what had taken place on th_eck below, and it seemed to have given him a new thought. Immediately h_assed an order to one of his officers, and presently the colours of th_rince of Helium broke from every point of the flagship. A great cheer aros_rom the men of our own ship, a cheer that was taken up by every other vesse_f our expedition as they in turn broke my colours from their upper works.
  • Then Kantos Kan sprang his coup. A signal legible to every sailor of all th_leets engaged in that fierce struggle was strung aloft upon the flagship.
  • "Men of Helium for the Prince of Helium against all his enemies," it read.
  • Presently my colours broke from one of Zat Arras' ships. Then from another an_nother. On some we could see fierce battles waging between the Zodanga_oldiery and the Heliumetic crews, but eventually the colours of the Prince o_elium floated above every ship that had followed Zat Arras upon ou_rail—only his flagship flew them not.
  • Zat Arras had brought five thousand ships. The sky was black with the thre_normous fleets. It was Helium against the field now, and the fight ha_ettled to countless individual duels. There could be little or n_anoeuvering of fleets in that crowded, fire-split sky.
  • Zat Arras' flagship was close to my own. I could see the thin features of th_an from where I stood. His Zodangan crew was pouring broadside afte_roadside into us and we were returning their fire with equal ferocity. Close_nd closer came the two vessels until but a few yards intervened. Grappler_nd boarders lined the contiguous rails of each. We were preparing for th_eath struggle with our hated enemy.
  • There was but a yard between the two mighty ships as the first grappling iron_ere hurled. I rushed to the deck to be with my men as they boarded. Just a_he vessels came together with a slight shock, I forced my way through th_ines and was the first to spring to the deck of Zat Arras' ship. After m_oured a yelling, cheering, cursing throng of Helium's best fighting-men.
  • Nothing could withstand them in the fever of battle lust which enthralle_hem.
  • Down went the Zodangans before that surging tide of war, and as my men cleare_he lower decks I sprang to the forward deck where stood Zat Arras.
  • "You are my prisoner, Zat Arras," I cried. "Yield and you shall have quarter."
  • For a moment I could not tell whether he contemplated acceding to my demand o_acing me with drawn sword. For an instant he stood hesitating, and the_hrowing down his arms he turned and rushed to the opposite side of the deck.
  • Before I could overtake him he had sprung to the rail and hurled himsel_eadforemost into the awful depths below.
  • And thus came Zat Arras, Jed of Zodanga, to his end.
  • On and on went that strange battle. The therns and blacks had not combine_gainst us. Wherever thern ship met ship of the First Born was a battle royal, and in this I thought I saw our salvation. Wherever messages could be passe_etween us that could not be intercepted by our enemies I passed the word tha_ll our vessels were to withdraw from the fight as rapidly as possible, takin_ position to the west and south of the combatants. I also sent an air scou_o the fighting green men in the gardens below to re-embark, and to th_ransports to join us.
  • My commanders were further instructed than when engaged with an enemy to dra_im as rapidly as possible toward a ship of his hereditary foeman, and b_areful manoeuvring to force the two to engage, thus leaving him-self free t_ithdraw. This stratagem worked to perfection, and just before the sun wen_own I had the satisfaction of seeing all that was left of my once might_leet gathered nearly twenty miles southwest of the still terrific battl_etween the blacks and whites.
  • I now transferred Xodar to another battleship and sent him with all th_ransports and five thousand battleships directly overhead to the Temple o_ssus. Carthoris and I, with Kantos Kan, took the remaining ships and heade_or the entrance to Omean.
  • Our plan now was to attempt to make a combined assault upon Issus at dawn o_he following day. Tars Tarkas with his green warriors and Hor Vastus with th_ed men, guided by Xodar, were to land within the garden of Issus or th_urrounding plains; while Carthoris, Kantos Kan, and I were to lead ou_maller force from the sea of Omean through the pits beneath the temple, whic_arthoris knew so well.
  • I now learned for the first time the cause of my ten ships' retreat from th_outh of the shaft. It seemed that when they had come upon the shaft the nav_f the First Born were already issuing from its mouth. Fully twenty vessel_ad emerged, and though they gave battle immediately in an effort to stem th_ide that rolled from the black pit, the odds against them were too great an_hey were forced to flee.
  • With great caution we approached the shaft, under cover of darkness. At _istance of several miles I caused the fleet to be halted, and from ther_arthoris went ahead alone upon a one-man flier to reconnoitre. In perhap_alf an hour he returned to report that there was no sign of a patrol boat o_f the enemy in any form, and so we moved swiftly and noiselessly forward onc_ore toward Omean.
  • At the mouth of the shaft we stopped again for a moment for all the vessels t_each their previously appointed stations, then with the flagship I droppe_uickly into the black depths, while one by one the other vessels followed m_n quick succession.
  • We had decided to stake all on the chance that we would be able to reach th_emple by the subterranean way and so we left no guard of vessels at th_haft's mouth. Nor would it have profited us any to have done so, for we di_ot have sufficient force all told to have withstood the vast navy of th_irst Born had they returned to engage us.
  • For the safety of our entrance upon Omean we depended largely upon the ver_oldness of it, believing that it would be some little time before the Firs_orn on guard there would realize that it was an enemy and not their ow_eturning fleet that was entering the vault of the buried sea.
  • And such proved to be the case. In fact, four hundred of my fleet of fiv_undred rested safely upon the bosom of Omean before the first shot was fired.
  • The battle was short and hot, but there could have been but one outcome, fo_he First Born in the carelessness of fancied security had left but a handfu_f ancient and obsolete hulks to guard their mighty harbour.
  • It was at Carthoris' suggestion that we landed our prisoners under guard upo_ couple of the larger islands, and then towed the ships of the First Born t_he shaft, where we managed to wedge a number of them securely in the interio_f the great well. Then we turned on the buoyance rays in the balance of the_nd let them rise by themselves to further block the passage to Omean as the_ame into contact with the vessels already lodged there.
  • We now felt that it would be some time at least before the returning Firs_orn could reach the surface of Omean, and that we would have ampl_pportunity to make for the subterranean passages which lead to Issus. One o_he first steps I took was to hasten personally with a good-sized force to th_sland of the submarine, which I took without resistance on the part of th_mall guard there.
  • I found the submarine in its pool, and at once placed a strong guard upon i_nd the island, where I remained to wait the coming of Carthoris and th_thers.
  • Among the prisoners was Yersted, commander of the submarine. He recognized m_rom the three trips that I had taken with him during my captivity among th_irst Born.
  • "How does it seem," I asked him, "to have the tables turned? To be prisoner o_our erstwhile captive?"
  • He smiled, a very grim smile pregnant with hidden meaning.
  • "It will not be for long, John Carter," he replied. "We have been expectin_ou and we are prepared."
  • "So it would appear," I answered, "for you were all ready to become m_risoners with scarce a blow struck on either side."
  • "The fleet must have missed you," he said, "but it will return to Omean, an_hen that will be a very different matter—for John Carter."
  • "I do not know that the fleet has missed me as yet," I said, but of course h_id not grasp my meaning, and only looked puzzled.
  • "Many prisoners travel to Issus in your grim craft, Yersted?" I asked.
  • "Very many," he assented.
  • "Might you remember one whom men called Dejah Thoris?"
  • "Well, indeed, for her great beauty, and then, too, for the fact that she wa_ife to the first mortal that ever escaped from Issus through all th_ountless ages of her godhood. And the way that Issus remembers her best a_he wife of one and the mother of another who raised their hands against th_oddess of Life Eternal."
  • I shuddered for fear of the cowardly revenge that I knew Issus might hav_aken upon the innocent Dejah Thoris for the sacrilege of her son and he_usband.
  • "And where is Dejah Thoris now?" I asked, knowing that he would say the word_ most dreaded, but yet I loved her so that I could not refrain from hearin_ven the worst about her fate so that it fell from the lips of one who ha_een her but recently. It was to me as though it brought her closer to me.
  • "Yesterday the monthly rites of Issus were held," replied Yersted, "and I sa_er then sitting in her accustomed place at the foot of Issus."
  • "What," I cried, "she is not dead, then?"
  • "Why, no," replied the black, "it has been no year since she gazed upon th_ivine glory of the radiant face of—"
  • "No year?" I interrupted.
  • "Why, no," insisted Yersted. "It cannot have been upward of three hundred an_eventy or eighty days."
  • A great light burst upon me. How stupid I had been! I could scarcely retain a_utward exhibition of my great joy. Why had I forgotten the great differenc_n the length of Martian and Earthly years! The ten Earth years I had spen_pon Barsoom had encompassed but five years and ninety-six days of Martia_ime, whose days are forty-one minutes longer than ours, and whose year_umber six hundred and eighty-seven days.
  • I am in time! I am in time! The words surged through my brain again and again, until at last I must have voiced them audibly, for Yersted shook his head.
  • "In time to save your Princess?" he asked, and then without waiting for m_eply, "No, John Carter, Issus will not give up her own. She knows that yo_re coming, and ere ever a vandal foot is set within the precincts of th_emple of Issus, if such a calamity should befall, Dejah Thoris will be pu_way for ever from the last faint hope of rescue."
  • "You mean that she will be killed merely to thwart me?" I asked.
  • "Not that, other than as a last resort," he replied. "Hast ever heard of th_emple of the Sun? It is there that they will put her. It lies far within th_nner court of the Temple of Issus, a little temple that raises a thin spir_ar above the spires and minarets of the great temple that surrounds it.
  • Beneath it, in the ground, there lies the main body of the temple consistin_n six hundred and eighty-seven circular chambers, one below another. To eac_hamber a single corridor leads through solid rock from the pits of Issus.
  • "As the entire Temple of the Sun revolves once with each revolution of Barsoo_bout the sun, but once each year does the entrance to each separate chambe_ome opposite the mouth of the corridor which forms its only link to the worl_ithout.
  • "Here Issus puts those who displease her, but whom she does not care t_xecute forthwith. Or to punish a noble of the First Born she may cause him t_e placed within a chamber of the Temple of the Sun for a year. Ofttimes sh_mprisons an executioner with the condemned, that death may come in a certai_orrible form upon a given day, or again but enough food is deposited in th_hamber to sustain life but the number of days that Issus has allotted fo_ental anguish.
  • "Thus will Dejah Thoris die, and her fate will be sealed by the first alie_oot that crosses the threshold of Issus."
  • So I was to be thwarted in the end, although I had performed the miraculou_nd come within a few short moments of my divine Princess, yet was I as fa_rom her as when I stood upon the banks of the Hudson forty-eight millio_iles away.