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Chapter 12 THE CLOAK OF INVISIBILITY

As Haj Osis, Jed of Tjanath, pronounced sentence of death upon me I knew whatever I might do to save myself must be done at once, for the instant that the guards laid hold upon me again my final hope would have vanished for it was evident that the torture and the death would take place immediately.

The warriors forming the guard that had escorted me from the pits were lined up several paces behind me. The dais upon which Haj Osis stood was raised but a little over three feet above the floor of the throne room. Between me and the Jed of Tjanath there was no one, for as he had sentenced me he had advanced from his throne to the very edge of the platform.

The action that I took was not delayed as long as it has taken me to tell it. Had it been, it could never have been taken for the guards would have been upon me. Instantly the last word fell from his mouth my plan was formulated and in that instant I leaped cat-like to the dais, full upon Haj Osis, Jed of Tjanath. So sudden, so unexpected was my attack that there was no defense. I seized him by the throat with one hand and with the other I snatched his dagger from its sheath and raising it above him I shouted my warning in a voice that all might hear.

"Stand back, or Haj Osis dies!" I cried.

They had started to rush me, but as the full import of my threat came home to them, they halted.

"It is my life, or yours, Haj Osis," I said, "unless you do what I tell you to do."

"What?" he asked, his face black with terror.

"Is there an anteroom behind the throne?" I asked.

"Yes," he replied. "What of it?"

"Take me there alone," I said. "Command your people to stand aside."

"And let you kill me when you get me there?" he demanded, trembling.

"I shall kill you now if you do not," I replied. "Listen, Haj Osis, I did not come here to kill you or your son. What I told the padwar of the guard was a lie. I came for another purpose, far transcending in importance to me the life of Haj Osis or that of his son. Do as I tell you and I promise that I shall not kill you. Tell your people that we are going into the anteroom and that I promise not to harm you if we are left alone there for five xats (about fifteen minutes)."

He hesitated. "Make haste," I said, "I have no time to waste," and I let the point of his own dagger touch his throat.

"Don't!" he screamed, shrinking back. "I will do whatever you say. Stand back all of you!" he shouted to his people. "I am going to the anteroom with this warrior and I command you upon pain of death not to enter there for five xats. At the end of that time, come; but not before."

I took a firm hold upon Haj Osis' harness between his shoulders and I kept the point of his dagger pressed against the flesh beneath his left shoulder blade as I followed him toward the anteroom, while those who had crowded the dais behind the throne fell back to make an aisle for us. At the doorway I halted and turned toward them.

"Remember," I said, "five full xats and not a tal before."

Entering the anteroom I closed and bolted the door, and then, still forcing Haj Osis ahead of me, I crossed the room and closed and bolted the only other door to the chamber. Then I pushed the Jed to one side of the room.

"Lie down here upon your face," I said.

"You promised not to kill me," he wailed.

"I shall not kill you unless they come before the five xats are up and you do otherwise than as I bid you so as not to delay me. I am going to bind you, but it will not hurt you."

With poor grace he lay down upon his belly and with his own harness I strapped his arms together behind his back. Then I blindfolded him and left him lying there.

As I had entered the room I had taken in its contents with a single, quick glance and I had seen there precisely the things that I most needed, and now that I had disposed of Haj Osis I crossed quickly to one of the windows and tore down a part of the silk hangings that covered it. It was a full length of fine, light silk and very wide, since it had been intended to hang in graceful folds as an under-drape with heavier hangings. At the ornate desk where the Jed of Tjanath signed his decrees, I went to work. First I took the vial from my pocket pouch and unstoppered it; then I wadded the silk into a ball and because of its wonderful fineness I could compress it within my two hands. Fastening the ball of silk into a loosely compressed mass with strips tom from another hanging, I slowly poured the contents of the vial over it, turning the ball with the point of Haj Osis' dagger. Remembering Phor Tak's warning, I was careful not to let any of the contents of the vial come in contact with my flesh and I could readily see why one had to be careful as I watched the ball of silk disappear before my eyes.

Knowing that the compound of invisibility would dry almost as rapidly as it impregnated the silk, I waited only a brief instant after emptying about half the contents of the vial upon the ball. Then, groping with my fingers, I found the strings that held it into its roughly spherical shape and cut them, after which I shook the silk out as best I could. For the most part it was invisible, but there were one or two spots that the compound had not reached. These I quickly daubed with some of the liquid remaining in my pocket pouch.

So much depended upon the success of my experiment that I almost feared to put it to the test, but it must be tested and there could be only a few xats remaining before the warriors of Haj Osis would burst into the antechamber.

By feel alone I draped the silk over my head so that it fell all about me. Through its thin and delicate meshes I could see objects at close range quite well enough to make my way about. I crossed to Haj Osis and took the blind from his eyes, at the same time stepping quickly back. He looked hurriedly and affrightedly about him.

"Who did that?" he demanded, and then half to himself, "he is gone." For a moment he was silent, rolling his eyes about in all directions, searching every nook and comer of the apartment. Then an expression that was part hope and part relief came to his eyes.

"Quick!" he shouted in a loud voice. "The guard! He has escaped!"

I breathed a sigh of relief—if Haj Osis could not see me, no one could—my plan had succeeded.

I dared not return to the throne room and make my escape that way along corridors with which I was familiar for I could already hear the rush of feet toward the anteroom door and I was well aware that, although they could not see me, they could feel me and that unquestionably in the rush my mantle of invisibility, or at least a portion of it, would be torn from me, which would indubitably spell my doom.

I ran quickly to the other doorway and unbolted it and as I opened it I looked back at Haj Osis. His eyes were upon the doorway and they were wide with incredulity and horror. For an instant I did not realize the cause and looked quickly behind me to see if I could see what had caused Haj Osis fright and then it dawned upon me and I smiled. He had seen and heard the bolt shot and the door open as though by ghostly hands.

He must have sensed a vague suspicion of the truth, for he turned quickly toward the other door and screamed a warning in a high falsetto voice. "Do not enter," he cried, "until the five xats are up. It is I who commands—Haj Osis, the Jed."

Closing the door after me and still smiling, I hastened along the corridor, searching for a ramp that would carry me to the upper levels of the palace from which I could easily locate the guard room and the hangar where I had left my ship.

The corridor I had entered led directly into the royal apartments.

At first it was difficult to accustom myself to my invisibility and as I suddenly entered an apartment in which there were several people, my first impulse was to turn and flee, but though I had stepped directly into the view of one of the occupants of the room and at a distance of little more than five or six feet without attracting his attention, although his eyes were apparently directly upon me, my confidence was quickly restored. I continued on across the room as nonchalantly as though I had been in my own quarters in Helium.

The royal apartment seemed interminable and though I was constantly seeking a way out of them into one of the main corridors of the palace, I was instead constantly stumbling into places where I did not care to be and where I had no business, sometimes with considerable embarrassment, as when I entered a cozy, private apartment in the women's quarters at a moment when I was convinced they were not expecting strange gentlemen.

I would not turn back, however, for I had no time to lose, and crossing the room I followed another short corridor only to leap from the frying pan into the fire—I had entered the forbidden apartment of the Jeddara herself. It is a good thing for the royal lady that it was I and not Haj Osis who came thus unexpectedly upon her, for her position was most compromising, and from his harness I judged that her good looking companion was a slave. In disgust I retreated, for there was no other exit from the apartment, and presently I stumbled, entirely by accident, upon one of the main corridors of the palace—a busy corridor filled with slaves, warriors and courtiers, with men, women and children passing to and fro upon whatever business called them, or perhaps seated upon the carved benches that lined the walls.

I was not yet accustomed to my new and surprising state of invisibility. I could see the people about me and it seemed inevitable that I must be seen. For a moment I had hesitated in the doorway that had led me to the corridor. A slave girl, approaching along the corridor, turned suddenly toward the doorway where I stood. She was looking directly at me, yet her gaze appeared to pass entirely through me. For an instant I was filled with consternation, and then, realizing that she was about to collide with me, I stepped quickly to one side. She passed by me, but it was evident that she sensed my presence for she paused and looked quickly about, an expression of surprise in her eyes. Then, to my immense relief, she passed through the doorway. She had not seen me, though doubtless she had heard me as I stepped aside. With a feeling of renewed confidence I now joined the throng in the corridor, threading my way in and out among the people to avoid contact with them and searching diligently all the while for the entrance to a ramp leading upward. This I presently discovered, and it was not long thereafter that I reached the upper level of the palace, where a short search brought me to the guard room at the foot of the ramp leading to the royal hangars.

Idling in the guard room, the warriors then off duty were engaged in various pursuits. Some where cleaning their harness and polishing their metal; two were playing at jetan, while others were rolling tiny numbered spheres at a group of numbered holes—a fascinating game of chance, called yano, which is, I presume, almost as old as Barsoomian civilization. The room was filled with the laughter and oaths of fighting men. How alike are warriors the world over! But for their harness and their metal they might have been a detachment of the palace guard at Helium.

Passing among them I ascended the ramp to the roof where the hangars stood. Two warriors on duty at the top of the ramp almost blocked my further progress. It would be a narrow squeeze to pass between them and I feared detection. As I paused I could not but overhear their conversation.

"I tell you that he was struck from behind," said one. "He never knew what killed him," and I knew that they were talking about the guardsman I had killed.

"But from whence came his assassin?" demanded the other.

"The padwar believes it may have been a fellow member of the guard. There will be an investigation and we shall all be questioned."

"It was not I," said the other. "He was my best friend."

"Nor was it I."

"He had a way with women. Perhaps-"

My attention was distracted and their conversation terminated by the footsteps of a warrior running rapidly up the ramp. My position was now most precarious. The ramp was narrow and the man coming from behind might easily bump into me. I must, therefore, pass the sentries immediately and make my way to the roof. There was just sufficient room between the warrior at my left and the sidewall of the ramp for me to pass through, if he did not step back, and with all the stealth that I could summon I edged myself slowly behind him and you may rest assured that I breathed a sigh of relief when I had passed him.

The warrior ascending the ramp had now reached the two men. "The assassin of the hangar sentry has been discovered," he said.

"He is none other than the spy from Jahar who called himself Hadron of Hastor and who, with the other spy, Nur An, was sentenced to die The Death. Through some miracle he escaped and has returned to the palace of Haj Osis. Besides the hangar sentry, he has slain Yo Seno, but he was captured after attacking the prince, Haj Alt. Again he has escaped and he is now at large in the palace. The padwar of the guard has sent me to direct you to redouble your watchfulness. Great will be the reward of him who captures Hadron of Hastor, dead or alive."

"By my metal, I'd like to see him try to escape this way," said one of the sentries.

"He'll never come here by daylight."

I smiled as I walked quickly toward the hangar. To reach the roof without disarranging my robe of invisibility was difficult, but I finally accomplished it. Before me lay the empty roof; no ship was in sight, but I smiled again to myself, knowing well that it was there. I looked about for the eye of the periscope that would reveal the craft's presence to me, but it was not visible. However, that did not concern me greatly since I realized that it might be turned in the opposite direction. It was only necessary for me to walk where I had left the ship, and this I did, feeling ahead of me with extended hands.

I crossed the roof from one side to the other, but found no ship. That I was perplexed goes without saying. I most certainly knew where I had left the ship, but it no longer was there. Perhaps a wind had moved it slightly, and with this thought in mind I searched another section of the roof, but with equal disappointment. By now I was truly apprehensive, and thereupon I set about a systematic search of the roof until I had covered every square foot of it and was convinced beyond doubt that the worst of disasters had befallen me—my ship was gone; but where? Indeed the compound of invisibility had its drawbacks. My ship might be and probably was at no great distance from me, yet I could not see it. A gentle wind was blowing from the southwest. If my ship had risen from the roof, it would drift in a northeasterly direction, but though I strained my eyes toward that point of the compass I could discern nothing of the tiny eye of the periscope.

I must admit that for a moment I was well-nigh discouraged. It seemed that always when success was about within my grasp some malign fate snatched it from me, but presently I shook this weak despondency from me and with squared shoulders faced the future and whatever it might bring.

For a few moments I considered my position in all its aspects and sought to discover the best solution of my problem. I must rescue Tavia, but I felt that it would be useless to attempt to do so without a ship, therefore I must have a ship, and I knew that ships were just beneath me in the royal hangars. At night these hangars would be closed and locked and watched over by sentries in the bargain. If I would have a ship I must take it now and depend upon the swiftness and boldness of my act for its success.

Royal fliers are usually fast fliers and if the ships of Haj Osis were no exception to this general Barsoomian rule, I might hope to outdistance pursuit could I but pass the hangar sentry.

Of one thing I was certain, I could not accomplish that by remaining upon the roof of the hangar and so I cautiously descended, choosing a moment when the attention of the sentries was directed elsewhere, for there was always danger that my robe might blow aside, revealing my limbs.

Once on the roof again I slipped quickly into the hangar and inspecting the ships I selected one that I was sure would carry four with case, and which, from its lines, gave token of considerable speed.

Clambering to the deck I took my place at the controls; very gradually I elevated the ship about a foot from the floor; then I opened the throttle wide.

Directly ahead of me, through the open doorways of the hangar, the sentries were standing upon the opposite side of the room. As the ship leaped into the sunlight they voiced simultaneously a cry of surprise and alarm. Like brave warriors they sprang forward with drawn long swords and I could see that they were going to try to board me before I could gain altitude, but presently one of them halted wide-eyed and stood aside.

"Blood of our first ancestors!" he cried. "There is no one at the controls."

The second man had evidently discovered this simultaneously, for he, too, shrank aside, and with whirling propeller I shot upward from the royal hangar of the Jed of Tjanath.

But only for an instant were the two sentries overwhelmed by astonishment. Immediately I heard the shriek of sirens and the clang of great gongs and then, glancing behind, I saw that already they had launched a flier in pursuit. It was a two-man flier and almost immediately I realized that it was far swifter than the one I had chosen, and then to make matters even worse for me I saw patrol boats arising from hangars located elsewhere upon the palace roof. That they all saw my ship and were converging upon it was evident; escape seemed impossible; each way I turned a patrol boat was approaching; already I had been driven into an ascending spiral, my eyes constantly alert for any avenue of escape that might open to me.

How hopeless it looked! My ship was too slow; my pursuers too many.

It would not be long now, I thought, and at that very instant I saw something off my port bow at a little greater altitude that gave me one of the greatest thrills I had ever experienced in my life. It was only a little round eye of glass, but to me it meant life and more than life, for it might mean also life and happiness for Tavia—and of course for Sanoma Tora.

A patrol boat coming diagonally from below was almost upon me as I drew my flier beneath that floating eye, judging the distance so nicely that I just had clearance for my head beneath the keel of my own ship. Locating one of the hatches, which were so constructed that they opened either from the inside or the out, I scrambled quickly into the interior of the Jhama, as Phor Tak had christened it.

Closing the hatch and springing to the controls, I rose quickly out of immediate danger. Then, standing to one side, I watched my former pursuers.

I could read the consternation in their faces as they came alongside the royal flier that I had stolen, and realized that it was unmanned. Not having seen either me or my ship, they must have been hard put to it to find any sort of an explanation for the phenomenon.

As I watched them I found it constantly necessary to change my position, owing to the number of patrol boats and other craft that congregating. I did not wish to leave the vicinity of the palace entirely for it was my intention to remain here until after dark when I should make an attempt to take Tavia and Phao aboard the Jhama. I also had it in my mind to reconnoiter the east tower during the day and try to get into communication with Tavia if possible. It was already the fifth zode. In fifty xats (three hours) the sun would set.

I wished to initiate my plan of rescue as soon after dark as possible, as experience had taught me that plans do not always develop as smoothly in execution as they do in contemplation.

A warrior from one of the patrol ships had boarded the royal craft that I had purloined and was returning it to the hangar. Some of the ships were following and others were returning to their stations. A single patrol boat remained cruising about and as I watched it I suddenly became aware that a young officer standing upon its deck had espied the eye of my periscope. I saw him pointing toward it and immediately thereafter the craft altered its course and came directly toward me. This was not so good and I lost no time in moving to one side, turning the eye of my periscope away from them so that they could not see it or follow me.

I moved a short distance out of their course and then swung my periscope toward them again. To my astonishment I discovered that they, too, had altered their course and were following me.

Now I rose swiftly and took a new direction, but when I looked again the craft was bearing down upon me and not only that, but she was training a gun on me.

What had happened? It was evident that something had gone wrong and that I was no longer clothed in total invisibility, but whatever it was, it was too late now to rectify it even if I could. I had but a single recourse and I prayed to my first ancestor that it might not now be too late to put it into execution. Should they fire upon me, I was lost.

I brought the Jhama to a full stop and sprang quickly aft to where the rear rifle was mounted on a platform just within the after turret.

In that instant I had occasion to rejoice in the foresight that had prompted me to rearrange the projectiles properly against the necessity for instant use in such an emergency as this. Selecting one, I jammed it into the chamber and closed the breech block. The turret, crudely and hastily constructed though it had been, responded to my touch and an instant later my sight covered the approaching patrol vessel, and through the tiny opening provided for the sight I witnessed the effect of my first shot with Phor Taks disintegrating ray rifle.

I had used a metal disintegrating projectile and the result was appalling.

I loved a ship and it tore my heart to see that staunch craft fall apart in midair as its metal parts disappeared before the disintegrating ray.

But that was not all, as wood and leather and fabric sank with increasing swiftness toward the ground, brave warriors hurtled to their doom. It was horrifying.

I am a true son of Barsoom; I joy in battle; armed conflict is my birthright, and war the goal of my ambition, but this was not war; it was murder.

I took no joy in my victory as I had when I laid Yo Seno low in mortal combat, and now, more than ever, was I determined that this frightful instrument of destruction must in some way be forever banned upon Barsoom. War with such a weapon completely hidden by the compound of invisibility would be too horrible to contemplate. Navies, cities, whole nations could be wiped out by a single battle thus equipped. The mad dream of Phor Tak might easily come true and a maniac yet rule all Barsoom.

But meditation and philosophizing were not for me at this time. I had work to do and though it necessitated wiping out all Tjanath, I purposed doing it.

Again the sirens and the gongs raised their wild alarm; again patrol boats gathered. I felt that I must depart until after nightfall, for I had no stomach to again be forced to turn that deadly rifle upon my fellow men while any alternative existed.

As I started to turn back the controls my eyes chanced to fall upon one of the stern ports and, to my surprise, I saw that the shutter was raised. How this occurred I do not know; it has always remained a mystery, but at least it explained how it had been possible for the patrol boat to follow me. That round port hole moving through the air must have filled them with wonder, but at the same time it was a clue to follow and though they did not understand it, they, like the brave warriors that they were, followed it in the line of their duty.

I quickly closed it, and, after examining the others and finding them all closed, I was now confident that, with the exception of the small eye of my periscope, I was entirely surrounded by invisibility and hence under no immediate necessity for leaving the vicinity of the palace, as I could easily maneuver the ship to keep out of the way of the patrol boats that were now again congregating near the royal hangar.

I think they were pretty much upset by what had happened and evidently there was no unanimity of opinion as to what should be done. The patrol ships hovered about, evidently waiting orders, and it was not until almost dark that they set out in a systematic search of the air above the city; nor had they been long at this before I understood their orders as well as though I had read them myself. The lower ships moved at an altitude of not over fifty feet above the higher buildings; two hundred feet above these moved the second line. The ships at each level cruised in a series of concentric circles and in opposite directions, thereby combing the air above the city so closely that no enemy ship could possibly approach. The air below was watched by a thousand eyes; at every point of vantage sentries were on watch and upon the roof of every public building guns appeared as if by magic.

I began to be quite apprehensive that even the small eye of my periscope might not go undetected and so I dropped my ship into a little opening among some lofty trees that grew within the palace garden, and here I waited some twenty feet above the ground, my periscope completely screened from view, unseen and, in consequence, myself unseeing, until the swift night of Barsoom descended upon Tjanath; then I rose slowly from my leafy retreat.

Above the trees I paused to have a look about me through the periscope. Far above me were the twinkling lights of the circling patrol boats and from a thousand windows of the palace shone other lights. Before me rose the dark outlines of the east tower silhouetted against the starry sky.

Rising slowly I circled the tower until I had brought the Jhama opposite Tavia's window.

My ship carried no lights, of course, and I had not switched on any of the lights within her cabin, so that I felt that I might with impunity raise one of the upper hatches, and this I did. The Jhama lay with her upper deck a foot or two beneath the sill of Tavia's window. Before venturing from below I replaced my cloak of invisibility about me.

There was no light in Tavia's room. I placed my ear close against the iron bars and listened. I could hear no sound. My heart sank within me. Could it be that they had removed her to some other part of the palace? Could it be that Haj Alt had come and taken her away? I shuddered at the mere suggestion and cursed the luck that had permitted him to escape my blade.

With all those eyes and ears straining through the darkness I feared to make the slightest sound, though I felt that there was little likelihood that the open hatch would be noticed in the surrounding darkness; yet I must ascertain whether or not Tavia was within that room. I leaned close against the bars and whispered her name. There was no response.

"Tavia!" I whispered, this time much louder, and it seemed to me that my voice went booming to high heaven in tones that the dead might hear.

This time I heard a response from the interior of the room. It sounded like a gasp and then I beard someone moving—approaching the window. It was so dark in the interior that I could see nothing, but presently I beard a voice close to me.

"Hadron! Where are you?"

She had recognized my voice. For some reason I thrilled to the thought of it. "Here at the window, Tavia," I said.

She came very close. "Where?" she asked. "I cannot see you."

I had forgotten my robe of invisibility. "Never mind," I said. "You cannot see me, but I will explain that later. Is Phao with you?"

"Yes."

"And no one else?"

"No."

"I am going to take you with me, Tavia—you and Phao. Stand aside well out of line of the window so that you will not be hurt while I remove the bars. Then be ready to board my ship immediately."

"Your ship!" she said. "Where is it?"

"Never mind now. There is a ship here. Do just as I tell you. Do you trust me?"

"With my life, Hadron, forever," she whispered.

Something within me sang. It was more than a mere thrill; I cannot explain it; nor did I understand it, but now there were other things to think of.

"Stand aside quickly, Tavia, and keep Phao away from the window until I call you again." Dimly I could see her figure for a moment and than I saw it withdraw from the window. Returning to the controls I brought the forward turret of the ship opposite the window, upon the bars of which I trained the rifle. I loaded it and pressed the button. Through the tiny sight aperture and because of the darkness I could see nothing of the result, but I knew perfectly well what had happened, and when I lowered the ship again and went on deck I found that the bars had vanished in thin air.

"Quick, Tavia," I said. "Come!"

With one foot upon the deck of the flier and the other upon the sill of the window, I held the ship close to the wall of the tower and as best I could I held the cloak of invisibility like a canopy to shield the girls from sight as they boarded the Jhama.

It was difficult and risky business. I wished I might have had grappling hooks, but I had none and so I must do the best I could, holding the cloak with one hand and assisting Tavia to the sill with the other.

"There is no ship," she said in slightly frightened tone.

"There is a ship, Tavia," I said. "Think only of your confidence in me and do as I bid." I grasped her firmly by the harness where the straps crossed upon her back. "Have no fear," I said and then I swung her out over the hatch and lowered her gently into the interior of the Jhama.

Phao was behind her and I must give her credit for being as courageous as Tavia. It must have been a terrifying experience to those two girls to feel that they were being lowered into thin air a hundred feet above the ground, for they could see no ship—only a darker hole within the darkness of the night.

As soon as they were both aboard, I followed them, closing the hatch after me.

They were huddled in the darkness on the floor of the cabin, weak and exhausted from the brief ordeal through which they had just passed, but I could not take the time then to answer the questions with which I knew their heads must be filled.

If we passed the watchers on the roofs and the patrol boats above, there would be plenty of time for questions and answers. If we did not, there would be no need for either.