Monday, December 21, 2009

"Thia of the Drylands" by Harl Vincent, part 3

This is the third installment of Harl Vincent's "Thia of the Drylands", a science fiction story from the Gernsback Era that first appeared in the July 1932 issue of Amazing Stories. Its only other appearance in print was in the Summer 1967 issue of Science Fiction Classics.

The story so far:
Cliff Barron is a spaceship pilot who has been disabled by a Martian disease. His boss, Leonard Sykes, President of Interplanetary Lines, refuses to allow Barron to travel to Mars to consult with the brilliant Martian surgeon Lintarg of Risapar. Barron is then approached by businessman Carl Vetter, who proposes to send him to Mars using a new technique he is developing: an electromagnetic space gun. Barron reluctantly agrees.

On Mars, Barron finds himself among a group of semibarbaric drylanders. One, Maranu, insists that he be killed, while another, Durvil, wants him imprisoned until the drylanders' mysterious plans are complete. The final decision, however, rests with the drylanders' ruler, the beautiful, quick-tempered Thia . . .

* * *

Cliff was taken to the room where he had first opened his eyes after the swift passage from Earth. More accurately, he was dumped unceremoniously on the stone floor by the guards and left to meditate on his rashness. A key grated in the lock.

“Of all the triple-plated damn fools!” he muttered, crawling painfully to his feet, “I am the brightest.” He sat heavily on the edge of the cot.

For some time he addressed audible and uncomplimentary remarks to himself by way of such jumbled echoes as might rebound from the blank walls. And then he had calmed in mind sufficiently to take stock of the situation and to speculate on the causes behind it all.

Either Vetter was in league with a gang of dryland cut-throats in some shady undertaking, or he was being duped by those in charge of the operation at the Martian end of his space tube. Cliff was inclined to the latter view.

Certainly Vetter had been frank enough and fair enough in his arrangements for the dangerous trial trip. And generous. Cliff had seen the letter of credit that was safely buttoned in his inside vest pocket. He could feel the wadded lump against his ribs now. Fifty thousand zaks of Risapar exchange -- enough to cover Lintarg’s fee and still leave the young pilot independent. And a personal letter to the great surgeon addressed in Vetter’s bold flowing hand. There had been no hitch at the other end; everything was open and aboveboard. But here -- something was badly out of gear.

It was mighty queer that all those he had seen at this end were drylanders. Tough ones, too, most of them -- like Maranu. And led by a woman like Thia! But Cliff recalled tales of desert pirates who preyed upon the rich cities of the canals and mining settlements of the parched interior as well. Bands of ruthless murderers, these were, and well organized -- the greatest problem of the militias and the red police of the scattered Martian communities. No reason a woman might not be leader of such a band -- especially one with eyes like Thia’s. No reason, either, that they might not be reaching out for new worlds to prey upon. And with this thing of Vetter’s in their hands . . .

Cliff raised his head and stared directly into those magnetic orbs of the girl Thia. She had entered noiselessly, and as noiselessly closed the door. But he had sensed her presence somehow. His head had come up without conscious volition.

Automatically he rose to his feet. Involuntarily he caught his breath. Her beauty, in this soft light, was dazzling. The curves of her youthful body were revealed rather than hidden by the draperies of a black gown that shimmered as she moved. She had bared her head of the tiara Cliff had seen there before, and a glorious crown of golden bronze hair tumbled in soft profusion about the creamy oval of her face. The scarlet lips were parted in a half smile. And her eyes, magically, had softened from the glinting jet to a liquid brown. Friendly eyes, and understanding now.

Cliff, getting a grip on his emotions, husked: “Well?”

“Well!” Thia smiled, and, smiling, she was radiant.

* * *

His suspicions rising afresh, the disabled pilot hardened himself against the spell of her. “What do you want of me?” he growled.

The long lashes dropped, masking Thia’s eyes momentarily. “I want to help you,” she murmured. And the harsh syllables of the dryland tongue were silvery and musical on her lips.

But unreasoning resentment had come to Cliff with the dropping of her eyes. He looked down at his dangling arms. “So that’s it!” he rasped. “Pity! You’re sorry for a poor crippled Earthling, and you want to help him, do you? Well, listen to me, young woman -- I don’t like the looks of things here and I don’t believe in your pretended friendliness. You’re the leader of this gang of thieves and killers and you are planning --“

“Stop it!” Thia’s voice cut in, coldly furious. Black rage had replaced the softness of her level gaze. She threw back her proud head and drew herself stiffly erect. Then, as suddenly as the fury had come, it had passed. “It’s untrue,” she said calmly. “All of it is untrue. I have some control over my people, yes, but we are no buccaneers as you imply, nor are our plans of such nature as to merit your censure.”

“What then?” Cliff’s tone was gentler, though he stood his ground. And his own gray eyes looked steadily into those flashing ones of jet.

“I refuse to answer; it is my prerogative. And now that you have taken this attitude I am telling you -- nay, commanding you to leave this place at once and go to Lintarg.”

Miraculously, the stern gaze had softened as she talked, and Cliff felt the angry color drain from his cheeks. “You -- you mean,” he stammered, “that I am free to go.”

“You must go -- and quickly.” Thia was suddenly ill at ease; nervously apprehensive, it seemed. “But first,” she said in liquid, throaty tones, “I must exact from you a promise.”

“A promise!” Cliff stared foolishly. This woman was offering him his freedom; his chance to be made whole once more. And he had berated her! “Anything,” he agreed huskily.

“First of all you will ask me no more questions concerning myself or my people. Secondly, and of utmost importance, you will reveal not one detail as to our whereabouts here, or Vetter’s in Terra, or of the means by which you traversed the distance between the two bodies. For so long as you may remain on the planet Mars, you will not reveal these things. Is it agreed?”

Cliff regarded his disabled members through eyes that suddenly misted, smarting unbearably. “Good God, yes!” he husked.

“You swear it by the purple Deity of Henes,” tensely.

“Yes, and more solemnly than than.” He looked up earnestly now into the soft brown eyes that were so anxiously upon him. “I give you my word of honor as a man -- as an American.”

“It is more than sufficient. Quickly now, oh Cleef Barron.” Turning swiftly then, she opened the door a trifle, peered through the crack, and slipped through into the corridor.

* * *

They hurried then through endless passages, some smoothly walled and artificially lighted, others rough-hewn in the solid rock, dankly odorous and in Stygian darkness. Where there was light, Cliff was scarcely able to keep up with the scurrying footsteps of his guide; where darkness closed in about them he felt the gentle pressure of her hand on his shoulder, leading him more slowly but just as surely toward their destination. Thia knew every twist and turn of the maze of underground workings.

The way led steadily upward and they had progressed a distance of perhaps three Earth miles when Thia called a halt. A metal-studded door closed the passage ahead of them.

“We have arrived,” panted the girl, “just inside the city wall at the bank of Canal Pyramus. The public way above will take you to the central square, where is located the establishment of Lintarg. Henes speed you on your way, oh Cleef.”

“Wait!” Cliff experienced a sudden anxiety for her safety and an interest in her he would not have believed possible. “I must see you, Thia, once more; must learn when and how I may see you again. Please tell me.”

“You forget, there are to be no question,” firmly.

“True, I promised.”

There was the click of a withdrawn bolt and the creak of rusty hinges. The great door swung open and the first lurid light of a Martian false dawn filtered in. Above them the city of Risapar was oddly still; the day had not yet begun.

Thia came out with him to the open air and inhaled deeply of its rare though invigorating substance.

“It is good to be alive,” she breathed. “Good to be outside.”

Cliff had seen that they were almost at the level of the black waters of the canal and that its steep bank led up from where they stood. But these things made no impression on him at the moment for Thia’s gaze was starry in the swiftly improving light of dawn.

“Farewell,” she whispered with face upturned, “and Henes be with you always. Think of Thia sometimes --“

“Think of you -- Lord! I’ll always think of you -- and be wishing to see you. If these arms --“

Amazingly then her face drew near. Unbelievably, her lips brushed his. And then, as swiftly as it had happened, she was gone. The door of the hidden entrance clanged shut.

Madly, Cliff dashed his body against the thick moss which covered its outer surface and made it safe from prying eyes. But to no avail. Hardly knowing what he did, he clambered up the nearest stairs to the nickel/cobalt roadway that stretched along the canal. Dazedly he stood there gazing out over the minarets and spires toward the east. Somewhere in the drylands out there beyond the city wall, he knew, was the screened opening through which the space car passed, and beneath it the dome room where Thia soon would sit calmly awaiting whatever adventure it was her people were planning. Dire forebodings came to intensify the new ache which had been so suddenly and unexpectedly implanted in his breast.

* * *

A little later, one of the early morning ronsals drifted to a stop before him. The operator yelled sarcastically as he stood staring vacantly into space. Shamefacedly he entered the passenger compartment of the wheelless vehicle. Swiftly rising from the metal surface, propelled and supported a few feet above by the repulsion energies it contained, the ronsal sped toward the great central square of Risapar.

Cliff gave no heed to the kaleidoscopic beauty of shifting colors that played over the multitudinous spires of the city as they whizzed past in the shifting morning light. His thoughts were of Thia and of her association with the drylanders she called her people. He had spent time in the communities of the parched plains between the canals which gave him some knowledge of the inhabitants. Somehow, Thia did not fit in with the pictures he carried in his mind. She was too delicately formed for a woman of the drylands; her creamy skin not at all like the bleached complexion of the drylanders. She was more like the women of the canal cities in every respect -- even her speech held something of a slurring accent that was different from those whom she considered as her own.

And yet those in the cavern of the space car appeared to be her loyal subjects. She was a veritable princess among them. A woman who commanded their respect and obedience; one whom they loved. Still she was marked as apart from them. Aloof, superior, different.

Cliff’s throat constricted unaccountably as he envisioned her in his mind. The memory of her impulsive farewell would remain with him until the end of time. Even now it haunted him . . . and the thought that she was gone from his life . . .

“Pada-nar!” bawled the operator of the ronsal, glowering back through the glass partition.

Roused from his reverie, Cliff saw they had reached the central square of the city. The ronsal had stopped and other passengers were waiting impatiently. Risapar had come to life; the activity of the new day was in evidence all about him. Hastily the embarrassed terrestrial quitted his seat and flung himself from the compartment.

Before him towered the slender obelisk-like building that was known throughout Mars as Tib-Lintarg. A worthy monument to the skill of the great physician whose name it bore. Cliff’s heart missed a beat as he viewed it -- his hard-earned and much-desired goal.

* * *

And then he was sprinting toward the institution like a man possessed. A new urge was upon him; he’d go back to help Thia. Thia, once these crippled arms of his were good as new! He’d return to the secret entrance by the canal and batter down the door. He’d --

“You’re Cliff Barron, aren’t you?” A stocky terrestrial stood before him, blocking the entrance of the building, a man Cliff had never seen.

“Why -- why yes,” he stammered, halting his mad dash. “Why?”

“Just wanted to ask you a few questions, that’s all,” the fellow drawled.

“By what right?” Something warned the young pilot and he was on his guard instantly.

“I’m an operative, League of Terra Secret Service,” in low tones.

“You can’t question me here.”

“I know -- not without extradition and all the mess of Martian courts. But don’t get sore. I think you’ll answer, for patriotic reasons. How did you get here from Earth?” There was a veiled warning in the stocky one’s words.

“That’s my business.” Cliff tried to shove past him.

“Just a minute, young fellow.” A heavy hand was on his shoulder. “Ever hear of Carl Vetter?”

“That’s my business, too.” The young pilot jerked free and went into the building, knowing full well the other dared not go further. And yet he was distinctly alarmed by the occurrence. Someone, somehow, was on the track. And Thia was in danger. The words of his promise flashed across his mind as he entered the cage of the lift. He gritted his teeth. A dozen ronsals couldn’t drag that secret out of him.

But Cliff Barron was a sick man, sicker than he knew. The strain of the past few hours had been terrific for a man in his weakened condition and was telling on him now. He reeled as he left the cage at the floor of Lintarg’s private consulting room.

A man was there in the reception hall, sitting on one of the lounges, a terrestrial. He sprang to Cliff’s side, offering him assistance. Swaying a bit, the disabled pilot regarded the man with owlish suspicion through eyes that saw only a blurred image.

“You another League of Terra man?” Cliff demanded thickly.

“I am,” in a hushed voice.

This one was leading him to a seat, or trying to. “Well, I’m Cliff Barron all right,” he jabbered loudly, “and if you want --“

“Hush,” the other warned him.

But Cliff, in his present state, was not to be gainsaid. “--if you want to cross-examine me you’re crazy,” he babbled on. “I’m here to consult with Lintarg and I’m telling nothing to you or to anyone else. Do you get me? Nothing -- how I came here, or any other thing about me you may want to know . . . get me? . . . not a word . . . “

And then Cliff Barron was falling forward. He had a confused picture of white-clad figures moving toward him . . . of an alarmed face peering into his own . . . kindly bearded Martian with white coat . . . falling, Cliff was, down through the building . . . hundred and six floors . . . peace and rest at bottom . . .

Utter darkness swooped down upon him. Nothingness.

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