Exciting Comics #53 (Jan) featuring The Black Terror and Miss Masque
A story many of us are familiar with: “As a distant planet was destroyed by old age, a scientist placed his infant son within a hastily devised space-ship, launching it toward Earth!” This is the first line in the Superman story found in Action Comics #1. The issue was cover dated June 1938 and sold for 10¢. That’s about $2.00 these days. It began the Golden Age of Comics. But that’s not how the whole comic book scene started.
Comic books first appeared in the modern form in 1933. These were printed on newspaper style paper, used either black ink or four colors of ink, were about 32 pages in length, and stapled along the center fold. The comic books started as collections of existing comic strips from newspapers. Comics proved to be popular among young men and publishers aimed their books at that audience.
In February 1935, National Allied Publications (later DC Comics) published New Fun #1. The magazine was an anthology. The first issue included a set of humorous stories, on using animals and the other college students. It also had a western and an adventure story set in Asia. All the stories were original instead of reprints.
Acton Comics #1, in 1938, marked a change. It included a backup story of a cape and tights wearing hero named Superman. The character proved so popular it prompted the creation of several other superheroes. Within a few years, comics began including Batman, Captain Marvel, the Sub-Mariner, the Human Torch, Wonder Woman, and Captain America. These titles heralded the beginning of the first superhero boom. These stories also began using the cliff-hanger ending popularized by pulp stories.
Television and paperback books had been the death knell for the post-war pulps. People were tuning into the pulp-style stories of various genres, including westerns, crime, drama, and science fiction shows. At the same time, authors were publishing their completed stories as single paperback books rather than spreading them across multiple issues of magazines. The artists, seeing the writing on the wall, began contracting with larger publishing houses to produce eye-catching cover art for the same paperback books.
However, younger people were still interested in shorter forms of fiction. Over 90% of girls and boys from ages seven to seventeen read comic books. Post World War II, many teenagers were working after school and on weekends. They had money to spend and a willingness to spend it. Comic publishers saw the growing markets and began branching out. They cut back on the less popular superheroes and focused on other areas. New genre comics were born. The most popular of these were horror, crime, science fiction, and romance. The romance titles were very popular among young women.
The Comics Code Authority was formed in 1954 after the Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency held hearings claiming that horror and superhero comic books were a major cause of juvenile issues. Comic sales declined and would stay down until the end of the 1950s.
The publication of The Fantastic Four #1 was a turning point for superhero comics. Over the next two decades, superhero comics would grow in popularity, eclipsing nearly every other style of comics until the early 1980s.
The history of serialized novels, pulp stories, and the cliffhanger ending is an important one. It can be hard to enjoy an older work of fiction when we don’t know the reasons for stylistic choices. If a work of fiction was originally designed to be read only a few chapters at a time, the pacing can feel odd when it’s read in its totality. The lack of forced break time makes the cliffhangers feel tacked on.
So the next time there are complaints about how poorly written a story from over a hundred years ago is, think about the way it was meant to be consumed. A person might find silent films more enjoyable if watched with the accompanying music they originally had. A pulp novel might lend itself to only reading one or two chapters in a night, rather than attempting to finish the full book in a single sitting. Hopefully, this look into the history of pulp writings and serialized stories has given you a new perspective on those writings.
Pirates of Venus
Edgar Rice Burroughs
I got little sleep that night. My officers were constantly coming to me with reports. From these I learned, what was of the greatest importance to me, the temper of the crew. None was averse to taking the Sovong, but there was a divergence of opinion as to what we should do thereafter. A few wanted to be landed on Thoran soil, so that they could make their way back to their homes; the majority was enthusiastic about plundering merchant ships; the idea of exploring the unknown waters of Amtor filled most of them with fear; some were averse to restoring the Vepajan prisoners to their own country; and there was an active and extremely vocal minority that insisted that the command of the vessel should be placed in the hands of Thorans. In this I could see the hand of Kodj even before they told me that the suggestion had come from the coterie that formed his following.
“But there are fully a hundred,” said Gamfor, “upon whose loyalty you may depend. These have accepted you as their leader, and they will follow you and obey your commands.”
“Arm these,” I directed, “and place all others below deck until after we have taken the Sovong. How about the klangan? They took no part in the mutiny. Are they for us or against us?”
Kiron laughed. “They received no orders one way or the other,” he explained. “They have no initiative. Unless they are motivated by such primitive instincts as hunger, love, or hate, they do nothing without orders from a superior.”
“And they don’t care who their master is,” interjected Zog. “They serve loyally enough until their master dies, or sells them, or gives them away, or is overthrown; then they transfer the same loyalty to a new master.”
“They have been told that you are their new master,” said Kamlot, “and they will obey you.”
As there were only five of the birdmen aboard the Sofal, I had not been greatly exercised about their stand; but I was glad to learn that they would not be antagonistic.
At the twentieth hour I ordered the hundred upon whom we could depend assembled and held in the lower deck house, the others having all been confined below earlier in the night, in the accomplishment of which a second mutiny was averted only by the fact that all the men had been previously disarmed except the loyal Soldiers of Liberty.
All during the night we had been gradually gaining upon the unsuspecting Sovong until now we were scarcely a hundred yards astern of her, slightly aport. Across our starboard bow I could see her looming darkly in the mysterious nocturnal glow of the moonless Amtorian night, her lanterns white and colored points of light, her watch dimly visible upon her decks.
Closer and closer the Sofal crept toward her prey. A Soldier of Liberty, who had once been an officer in the Thoran navy, was at the wheel; no one was on deck but the members of the watch; in the lower deck house a hundred men were huddled waiting for the command to board; I stood beside Honan in the chart room (he was to command the Sofal while I led the boarding party), my eyes upon the strange Amtorian chronometer. I spoke a word to him and he moved a lever. The Sofal crept a little closer to the Sovong. Then Honan whispered an order to the helmsman and we closed in upon our prey.
I hastened down the companionway to the main deck and gave the signal to Kamlot standing in the doorway of the deck house. The two ships were close now and almost abreast. The sea was calm; only a gentle swell raised and lowered the softly gliding ships. Now we were so close that a man could step across the intervening space from the deck of one ship to that of the other.
The officer of the watch aboard the Sovong hailed us. “What are you about?” he demanded. “Sheer off, there!”
For answer I ran across the deck of the Sofal and leaped aboard the other ship, a hundred silent men following in my wake. There was no shouting and little noise—only the shuffling of sandalled feet and the subdued clank of arms.
Behind us the grappling hooks were thrown over the rail of the Sovong. Every man had been instructed as to the part he was to play. Leaving Kamlot in command on the main deck, I ran to the tower deck with a dozen men, while Kiron led a score of fighting men to the second deck where most of the officers were quartered.
Before the officer of the watch could gather his scattered wits, I had him covered with a pistol. “Keep quiet,” I whispered, “and you will not be harmed.” My plan was to take as many of them as possible before a general alarm could be sounded and thus minimize the necessity for bloodshed; therefore, the need for silence. I turned him over to one of my men after disarming him; and then I sought the captain, while two of my detachment attended to the helmsman.
I found the officer for whom I sought reaching for his weapons. He had been awakened by the unavoidable noise of the boarding party, and, suspecting that something was amiss, had seized his weapons as he arose and uncovered the lights in his cabin.
I was upon him as he raised his pistol, and struck it from his hand before he could fire; but he stepped back with his sword on guard, and thus we stood facing one another for a moment.
“Surrender,” I told him, “and you will not be harmed.”
“Who are you?” he demanded, “and where did you come from?”
“I was a prisoner on board the Sofal,” I replied, “but now I command her. If you wish to avoid bloodshed, come out on deck with me and give the command to surrender.”
“And then what?” he demanded. “Why have you boarded us if not to kill?”
“To take off provisions, weapons, and the Vepajan prisoners,” I explained.
Suddenly the hissing staccato of pistol fire came up to us from the deck below.
“I thought there was to be no killing!” he snapped.
“If you want to stop it, get out there and give the command to surrender,” I replied.
“I don’t believe you,” he cried. “It’s a trick,” and he came at me with his sword.
I did not wish to shoot him down in cold blood, and so I met his attack with my own blade. The advantage was on his side in the matter of skill, for I had not yet fully accustomed myself to the use of the Amtorian sword; but I had an advantage in strength and reach and in some tricks of German swordplay that I had learned while I was in Germany.
The Amtorian sword is primarily a cutting weapon, its weight near the tip making it particularly effective for this method of attack, though it lessens its effectiveness in parrying thrusts, rendering it a rather sluggish defensive weapon. I therefore found myself facing a savage cutting attack against which I had difficulty in defending myself. The officer was an active man and skillful with the sword. Being experienced, it did not take him long to discover I was a novice, with the result that he pressed his advantage viciously, so that I soon regretted my magnanimity in not resorting to my pistol before the encounter began; but it was too late now—the fellow kept me so busy that I had no opportunity to draw the weapon.
He forced me back and around the room until he stood between me and the doorway, and then, having me where no chance for escape remained, he set to work to finish me with dispatch. The duel, as far as I was concerned, was fought wholly on the defensive. So swift and persistent was his attack that I could only defend myself, and not once in the first two minutes of the encounter did I aim a single blow at him.
I wondered what had become of the men who had accompanied me; but pride would not permit me to call upon them for help nor did I learn until later that it would have availed me nothing, since they were having all that they could attend to in repelling the attack of several officers who had run up from below immediately behind them.
The teeth of my antagonist were bared in a grim and ferocious smile, as he battered relentlessly at my guard, as though he already sensed victory and was gloating in anticipation. The clanging of steel on steel now drowned all sounds from beyond the four walls of the cabin where we fought; I could not tell if fighting were continuing in other parts of the ship, nor, if it were, whether it were going in our favor or against us. I realized that I must know these things, that I was responsible for whatever took place aboard the Sovong, and that I must get out of that cabin and lead my men either in victory or defeat.
Such thoughts made my position even more impossible than as though only my life were at stake and drove me to attempt heroic measures for releasing myself from my predicament and my peril. I must destroy my adversary, and I must do so at once!
He had me now with my back almost against the wall. Already his point had touched me upon the cheek once and twice upon the body, and though the wounds were but scratches, I was covered with blood. Now he leaped upon me in a frenzy of determination to have done with me instantly, but this time I did not fall back. I parried his cut, so that his sword passed to the right of my body which was now close to his; and then I drew back my point, and, before he could recover himself, drove it through his heart.
As he sagged to the floor, I jerked my sword from his body and ran from his cabin. The entire episode had required but a few minutes, though it had seemed much longer to me, yet in that brief time much had occurred on the decks and in the cabins of the Sovong. The upper decks were cleared of living enemies; one of my own men was at the wheel, another at the controls; there was still fighting on the main deck where some of the Sovong’s officers were making a desperate last stand with a handful of their men. But by the time I reached the scene of the battle, it was over; the officers, assured by Kamlot that their lives would be spared, had surrendered—the Sovong was ours. The Sofal had taken her first prize!
As I sprang into the midst of the excited warriors on the main deck, I must have presented a sorry spectacle, bleeding, as I was, from my three wounds; but my men greeted me with loud cheers. I learned later that my absence from the fighting on the main deck had been noticed and had made a poor impression on my men, but when they saw me return bearing the scars of combat, my place in their esteem was secured. Those three little scratches proved of great value to me, but they were as nothing in comparison with the psychological effect produced by the wholly disproportionate amount of blood they had spilled upon my naked hide.
We now quickly rounded up our prisoners and disarmed them. Kamlot took a detachment of men and released the Vepajan captives whom he transferred at once to the Sofal. They were nearly all women, but I did not see them as they were taken from the ship, being engaged with other matters. I could imagine, though, the joy in the hearts of Kamlot and Duare at this reunion, which the latter at least had probably never even dared to hope for.
Rapidly we transferred all of the small arms of the Sovong to the Sofal, leaving only sufficient to equip the officers of the ill-starred vessel. This work was intrusted to Kiron and was carried out by our own men, while Gamfor, with a contingent of our new-made prisoners, carried all of the Sovong’s surplus provisions aboard our own ship. This done, I ordered all the Sovong’s guns thrown overboard—by that much at least I would cripple the power of Thora. The last act in this drama of the sea was to march our one hundred imprisoned malcontents from the Sofal to the Sovong and present them to the latters’ new commander with my compliments. He did not seem greatly pleased, however, nor could I blame him. Neither were the prisoners pleased. Many of them begged me to take them back aboard the Sofal; but I already had more men than I felt were needed to navigate and defend the ship; and each of the prisoners had been reported as having expressed disapproval of some part or all of our plan; so that I, who must have absolute loyalty and coöperation, considered them valueless to me.
Kodj, strange to say, was the most persistent. He almost went on his knees as he pleaded with me to permit him to remain with the Sofal, and he promised me such loyalty as man had never known before; but I had had enough of Kodj and told him so. Then, when he found that I could not be moved, he turned upon me, swearing by all his ancestors that he would get even with me yet, even though it took a thousand years.
Returning to the deck of the Sofal, I ordered the grappling hooks cast off; and presently the two ships were under way again, the Sovong proceeding toward the Thoran port that was her destination, the Sofal back toward Vepaja. Now, for the first time, I had opportunity to inquire into our losses and found that we had suffered four killed and twenty-one wounded, the casualties among the crew of the Sovong having been much higher.
For the greater part of the remainder of the day I was busy with my officers organizing the personnel of the Sofal and systematizing the activities of this new and unfamiliar venture, in which work Kiron and Gamfor were of inestimable value; and it was not until late in the afternoon that I had an opportunity to inquire into the welfare of the rescued Vepajan captives. When I asked Kamlot about them, he said that they were none the worse for their captivity aboard the Sovong.
“You see, these raiding parties have orders to bring the women to Thora unharmed and in good condition,” he explained. “They are destined for more important persons than ships’ officers, and that is their safeguard
“However, Duare said that notwithstanding this, the captain made advances to her. I wish I might have known it while I was still aboard the Sovong, that I might have killed him for his presumption.” Kamlot’s tone was bitter and he showed signs of unusual excitement.
“Let your mind rest at ease,” I begged him; “Duare has been avenged.”
“What do you mean?”
“I killed the captain myself,” I explained.
He clapped a hand upon my shoulder, his eyes alight with pleasure. “Again you have won the undying gratitude of Vepaja,” he cried. “I wish that it might have been my good fortune to have killed the beast and thus wiped out the insult upon Vepaja, but if I could not be the one, then I am glad that it was you, Carson, rather than another.”
I thought that he took the matter rather seriously and was placing too much importance upon the action of the Sovong’s captain, since it had resulted in no harm to the girl; but then, of course, I realized that love plays strange tricks upon a man’s mental processes, so that an affront to a mistress might be magnified to the proportions of a national calamity.
“Well, it is all over now,” I said, “and your sweetheart has been returned to you safe and sound.”
At that he looked horrified. “My sweetheart!” he exclaimed. “In the name of the ancestors of all the jongs! Do you mean to tell me that you do not know who Duare is?”
“I thought of course that she was the girl you loved,” I confessed. “Who is she?”
“Of course I love her,” he explained; “all Vepaja loves her—she is the virgin daughter of a Vepajan jong!”
Had he been announcing the presence of a goddess on shipboard, his tone could have been no more reverential and awed. I endeavored to appear more impressed than I was, lest I offend him.
“Had she been the woman of your choice,” I said, “I should have been even more pleased to have had a part in her rescue than had she been the daughter of a dozen jongs.”
“That is nice of you,” he replied, “but do not let other Vepajans hear you say such things. You have told me of the divinities of that strange world from which you come; the persons of the jong and his children are similarly sacred to us.”
“Then, of course, they shall be sacred to me,” I assured him.
“By the way, I have word for you that should please you—a Vepajan would consider it a high honor. Duare desires to see you, that she may thank you personally. It is irregular, of course; but then circumstances have rendered strict adherence to the etiquette and customs of our country impracticable, if not impossible. Several hundred men already have looked upon her, many have spoken to her, and nearly all of them were enemies; so it can do no harm if she sees and speaks with her defenders and her friends.”
I did not understand what he was driving at, but I assented to what he had said and told him that I would pay my respects to the princess before the day was over.
I was very busy; and, if the truth must be told, I was not particularly excited about visiting the princess. In fact, I rather dreaded it, for I am not particularly keen about fawning and kotowing to royalty or anything else; but I decided that out of respect for Kamlot’s feelings I must get the thing over as soon as possible, and after he had left to attend to some duty, I made my way to the quarters allotted to Duare on the second deck.
The Amtorians do not knock on a door—they whistle. It is rather an improvement, I think, upon our custom. One has one’s own distinctive whistle. Some of them are quite elaborate airs. One soon learns to recognize the signals of one’s friends. A knock merely informs you that some one wishes to enter; a whistle tells you the same thing and also reveals the identity of your caller.
My signal, which is very simple, consists of two short low notes followed by a higher longer note; and as I stood before the door of Duare and sounded this, my mind was not upon the princess within but upon another girl far away in the tree city of Kooaad, in Vepaja. She was often in my mind—the girl whom I had glimpsed but twice, to whom I had spoken but once and that time to avow a love that had enveloped me as completely, spontaneously, and irrevocably as would death upon some future day.
In response to my signal a soft, feminine voice bade me enter. I stepped into the room and faced Duare. At sight of me her eyes went wide and a quick flush mounted her cheeks. “You!” she exclaimed.
I was equally dumfounded—she was the girl from the garden of the jong!
What a strange contretemps! Its suddenness left me temporarily speechless; the embarrassment of Duare was only too obvious. Yet it was that unusual paradox, a happy contretemps—for me at least.
I advanced toward her, and there must have been a great deal more in my eyes than I realized, for she shrank back, flushing even more deeply than before.
“Don’t touch me!” she whispered. “Don’t dare!”
“Have I ever harmed you?” I asked.
That question seemed to bring her confidence. She shook her head. “No,” she admitted, “you never have—physically. I sent for you to thank you for the service you have already rendered me; but I did not know it was you. I did not know that the Carson they spoke of was the man who—” She stopped there and looked at me appealingly.
“The man who told you in the garden of the jong that he loved you,” I prompted her.
“Don’t!” she cried. “Can it be that you do not realize the offensiveness, the criminality of such a declaration?”
“Is it a crime to love you?” I asked.
“It is a crime to tell me so,” she replied with something of haughtiness.
“Then I am a confirmed criminal,” I replied, “for I cannot help telling you that I love you, whenever I see you.”
“If that is the case, you must not see me again, for you must never again speak those words to me,” she said decisively. “Because of the service you have rendered me, I forgive you your past offenses; but do not repeat them.”
“What if I can’t help it?” I inquired.
“You must help it,” she stated seriously; “it is a matter of life and death to you.”
Her words puzzled me. “I do not understand what you mean,” I admitted.
“Kamlot, Honan, any of the Vepajans aboard this ship would kill you if they knew,” she replied. “The jong, my father, would have you destroyed upon our return to Vepaja—it would all depend upon whom I told first.”
I came a little closer to her and looked straight into her eyes. “You would never tell,” I whispered.
“Why not? What makes you think that?” she demanded, but her voice quavered a little.
“Because you want me to love you,” I challenged her.
She stamped her foot angrily. “You are beyond reason or forbearance or decency!” she exclaimed. “Leave my cabin at once; I do not wish ever to see you again.”
Her bosom was heaving, her beautiful eyes were flashing, she was very close to me, and an impulse seized me to take her in my arms. I wanted to crush her body to mine, I wanted to cover her lips with kisses; but more than all else I wanted her love, and so I restrained myself, for fear that I might go too far and lose the chance to win the love that I felt was hovering just below the threshold of her consciousness. I do not know why I was so sure of that, but I was. I could not have brought myself to force my attentions upon a woman to whom they were repugnant, but from the first moment that I had seen this girl watching me from the garden in Vepaja, I had been impressed by an inner consciousness of her interest in me, her more than simple interest. It was just one of those things that are the children of old Chand Kabi’s training, a training that has made me infinitely more intuitive than a woman.
“I am sorry that you are sending me away into virtual exile,” I said. “I do not feel that I deserve that, but of course the standards of your world are not the standards of mine. There, a woman is not dishonored by the love of a man, or by its avowal, unless she is already married to another,” and then of a sudden a thought occurred to me that should have occurred before. “Do you already belong to some man?” I demanded, chilled by the thought.
“Of course not!” she snapped. “I am not yet nineteen.” I wondered that it had never before occurred to me that the girl in the garden of the jong might be already married.
I did not know what that had to do with it, but I was glad to learn that she was not seven hundred years old. I had often wondered about her age, though after all it could have made no difference, since on Venus, if anywhere in the universe, people are really no older than they look—I mean, as far as their attractiveness is concerned.
“Are you going?” she demanded, “or shall I have to call one of the Vepajans and tell them that you have affronted me?”
“And have me killed?” I asked. “No, you cannot make me believe that you would ever do that.”
“Then I shall leave,” she stated, “and remember that you are never to see me or speak to me again.”
With that parting and far from cheering ultimatum she quit the room, going into another of her suite. That appeared to end the interview; I could not very well follow her, and so I turned and made my way disconsolately to the captain’s cabin in the tower.
As I thought the matter over, it became obvious to me that I not only had not made much progress in my suit, but that there was little likelihood that I ever should. There seemed to be some insuperable barrier between us, though what it was I could not imagine. I could not believe that she was entirely indifferent to me; but perhaps that was just a reflection of my egotism, for I had to admit that she had certainly made it plain enough both by words and acts that she wished to have nothing to do with me. I was unquestionably persona non grata.
Notwithstanding all this, or maybe because of it, I realized that this second and longer interview had but served to raise my passion to still greater heat, leaving me in a fine state of despair. Her near presence on board the Sofal was constantly provocative, while her interdiction of any relations between us only tended to make me more anxious to be with her. I was most unhappy, and the monotony of the now uneventful voyage back toward Vepaja offered no means of distraction. I wished that we might sight another vessel, for any ship that we sighted would be an enemy ship. We were outlaws, we of the Sofal—pirates, buccaneers, privateers. I rather leaned toward the last and most polite definition of our status. Of course we had not as yet been commissioned by Mintep to raid shipping for Vepaja, but we were striking at Vepaja’s enemies, and so I felt that we had some claim upon the dubious respectability of privateerism. However, either of the other two titles would not have greatly depressed me. Buccaneer has a devil-may-care ring to it that appeals to my fancy; it has a trifle more haut ton than pirate.
There is much in a name. I had liked the name of the Sofal from the first. Perhaps it was the psychology of that name that suggested the career upon which I was now launched. It means killer. The verb meaning kill is fal. The prefix so has the same value as the suffix er in English; so sofal means killer. Vong is the Amtorian word for defend; therefore, Sovong, the name of our first prize, means defender; but the Sovong had not lived up to her name.
I was still meditating on names in an effort to forget Duare, when Kamlot joined me, and I decided to take the opportunity to ask him some questions concerning certain Amtorian customs that regulated the social intercourse between men and maids. He opened a way to the subject by asking me if I had seen Duare since she sent for me.
“I saw her,” I replied, “but I do not understand her attitude, which suggested that it was almost a crime for me to look at her.”
“It would be under ordinary circumstances,” he told me, “but of course, as I explained to you before, what she and we have passed through has temporarily at least minimized the importance of certain time-honored Vepajan laws and customs.
“Vepajan girls attain their majority at the age of twenty; prior to that they may not form a union with a man. The custom, which has almost the force of a law, places even greater restrictions upon the daughters of a jong. They may not even see or speak to any man other than their blood relatives and a few well-chosen retainers until after they have reached their twentieth birthday. Should they transgress, it would mean disgrace for them and death for the man.”
“What a fool law!” I ejaculated, but I realized at last how heinous my transgression must have appeared in the eyes of Duare.
Kamlot shrugged. “It may be a fool law,” he said, “but it is still the law; and in the case of Duare its enforcement means much to Vepaja, for she is the hope of Vepaja.”
I had heard that title conferred upon her before, but it was meaningless to me. “Just what do you mean by saying that she is the hope of Vepaja?” I asked.
“She is Mintep’s only child. He has never had a son, though a hundred women have sought to bear him one. The life of the dynasty ends if Duare bears no son; and if she is to bear a son, then it is essential that the father of that son be one fitted to be the father of a jong.”
“Have they selected the father of her children yet?” I asked.
“Of course not,” replied Kamlot. “The matter will not even be broached until after Duare has passed her twentieth birthday.”
“And she is not even nineteen yet,” I remarked with a sigh.
“No,” agreed Kamlot, eyeing me closely, “but you act as though that fact were of importance to you.”
“It is,” I admitted.
“What do you mean?” he demanded.
“I intend to marry Duare!”
Kamlot leaped to his feet and whipped out his sword. It was the first time that I had ever seen him show marked excitement. I thought he was going to kill me on the spot.
“Defend yourself!” he cried. “I cannot kill you until you draw.”
“Just why do you wish to kill me at all?” I demanded. “Have you gone crazy?”
The point of Kamlot’s sword dropped slowly toward the floor. “I do not wish to kill you,” he said rather sadly, all the nervous excitement gone from his manner. “You are my friend, you have saved my life—no, I would rather die myself than kill you, but the thing you have just said demands it.”
I shrugged my shoulders; the thing was inexplicable to me. “What did I say that demands death?” I demanded.
“That you intend to marry Duare.”
“In my world,” I told him, “men are killed for saying that they do not intend marrying some girl.” I had been sitting at the desk in my cabin at the time that Kamlot had threatened me, and I had not arisen; now I stood up and faced him. “You had better kill me, Kamlot,” I said, “for I spoke the truth.”
He hesitated for a moment, standing there looking at me; then he returned his sword to its scabbard. “I cannot,” he said huskily. “May my ancestors forgive me! I cannot kill my friend.
“Perhaps,” he added, seeking some extenuating circumstance, “you should not be held accountable to customs of which you had no knowledge. I often forget that you are of another world than ours. But tell me, now that I have made myself a party to your crime by excusing it, what leads you to believe that you will marry Duare? I can incriminate myself no more by listening to you further.”
“I intend to marry her, because I know that I love her and believe that she already half loves me.”
At this Kamlot appeared shocked and horrified again. “That is impossible,” he cried. “She never saw you before; she cannot dream what is in your heart or your mad brain.”
“On the contrary, she has seen me before; and she knows quite well what is in my ‘mad brain,’” I assured him. “I told her in Kooaad; I told her again today.”
“And she listened?”
“She was shocked,” I admitted, “but she listened; then she upbraided me and ordered me from her presence.”
Kamlot breathed a sigh of relief. “At least she has not gone mad. I cannot understand on what you base your belief that she may return your love.”
“Her eyes betrayed her; and, what may be more convincing, she did not expose my perfidy and thus send me to my death.”
He pondered that and shook his head. “It is all madness,” he said; “I can make nothing of it. You say that you talked with her in Kooaad, but that would have been impossible. But if you had ever even seen her before, why did you show so little interest in her fate when you knew that she was a prisoner aboard the Sovong? Why did you say that you thought that she was my sweetheart?”
“I did not know until a few minutes ago,” I explained, “that the girl I saw and talked with in the garden at Kooaad was Duare, the daughter of the jong.”
A few days later I was again talking with Kamlot in my cabin when we were interrupted by a whistle at the door; and when I bade him do so, one of the Vepajan prisoners that we had rescued from the Sovong entered. He was not from Kooaad but from another city of Vepaja, and therefore none of the other Vepajans aboard knew anything concerning him. His name was Vilor, and he appeared to be a decent sort of fellow, though rather inclined to taciturnity. He had manifested considerable interest in the klangans and was with them often, but had explained this idiosyncrasy on the grounds that he was a scholar and wished to study the birdmen, specimens of which he had never before seen.
“I have come,” he explained in response to my inquiry, “to ask you to appoint me an officer. I should like to join your company and share in the work and responsibilities of the expedition.”
“We are well officered now,” I explained, “and have all the men we need. Furthermore,” I added frankly, “I do not know you well enough to be sure of your qualifications. By the time we reach Vepaja, we shall be better acquainted; and if I need you then, I will tell you.”
“Well, I should like to do something,” he insisted. “May I guard the janjong until we reach Vepaja?”
He referred to Duare, whose title, compounded of the two words daughter and king, is synonymous to princess. I thought that I noticed just a trace of excitement in his voice as he made the request.
“She is well guarded now,” I explained.
“But I should like to do it,” he insisted. “It would be a service of love and loyalty for my jong. I could stand the night guard; no one likes that detail ordinarily.”
“It will not be necessary,” I said shortly; “the guard is already sufficient.”
“She is in the after cabins of the second deck house, is she not?” he asked.
I told him that she was.
“And she has a special guard?”
“A man is always before her door at night,” I assured him.
“Only one?” he demanded, as though he thought the guard insufficient.
“In addition to the regular watch, we consider one man enough; she has no enemies aboard the Sofal.” These people were certainly solicitous of the welfare and safety of their royalty, I thought; and, it seemed to me, unnecessarily so. But finally Vilor gave up and departed, after begging me to give his request further thought.
“He seems even more concerned about the welfare of Duare than you,” I remarked to Kamlot after Vilor had gone.
“Yes, I noticed that,” replied my lieutenant thoughtfully.
“There is no one more concerned about her than I,” I said, “but I cannot see that any further precautions are necessary.”
“Nor I,” agreed Kamlot; “she is quite well protected now.”
We had dropped Vilor from our minds and were discussing other matters, when we heard the voice of the lookout in the crow’s nest shouting, “Voo notar!” (“A ship!”) Running to the tower deck, we got the bearings of the stranger as the lookout announced them the second time, and, sure enough, almost directly abeam on the starboard side we discerned the superstructure of a ship on the horizon.
For some reason which I do not clearly understand, the visibility on Venus is usually exceptionally good. Low fogs and haze are rare, notwithstanding the humidity of the atmosphere. This condition may be due to the mysterious radiation from that strange element in the planet’s structure which illuminates her moonless nights; I do not know.
At any rate, we could see a ship, and almost immediately all was excitement aboard the Sofal. Here was another prize, and the men were eager to be at her. As we changed our course and headed for our victim, a cheer rose from the men on deck. Weapons were issued, the bow gun and the two tower guns were elevated to firing positions. The Sofal forged ahead at full speed.
As we approached our quarry, we saw that it was a ship of about the same size as the Sofal and bearing the insignia of Thora. Closer inspection revealed it to be an armed merchantman.
I now ordered all but the gunners into the lower deck house, as I planned on boarding this vessel as I had the Sovong and did not wish her to see our deck filled with armed men before we came alongside. As before, explicit orders were issued; every man knew what was expected of him; all were cautioned against needless killing. If I were to be a pirate, I was going to be as humane a pirate as possible. I would not spill blood needlessly.
I had questioned Kiron, Gamfor, and many another Thoran in my company relative to the customs and practices of Thoran ships of war until I felt reasonably familiar with them. I knew for instance that a warship might search a merchantman. It was upon this that I based my hope of getting our grappling hooks over the side of our victim before he could suspect our true design.
When we were within hailing distance of the ship, I directed Kiron to order her to shut down her engines, as we wished to board and search her; and right then we ran into our first obstacle. It came in the form of a pennant suddenly hoisted at the bow of our intended victim. It meant nothing to me, but it did to Kiron and the other Thorans aboard the Sofal.
“We’ll not board her so easily after all,” said Kiron. “She has an ongyan on board, and that exempts her from search. It probably also indicates that she carries a larger complement of soldiers than a merchantman ordinarily does.”
“Whose friend?” I asked, “Yours?” for ongyan means great friend, in the sense of eminent or exalted.
Kiron smiled. “It is a title. There are a hundred klongyan in the oligarchy; one of them is aboard that ship. They are great friends unquestionably, great friends of themselves; they rule Thora more tyrannically than any jong and for themselves alone.”
“How will the men feel about attacking a ship bearing so exalted a personage?” I inquired.
“They will fight among themselves to be the first aboard and to run a sword through him.”
“They must not kill him,” I replied. “I have a better plan.”
“They will be hard to control once they are in the thick of a fight,” Kiron assured me; “I have yet to see the officer who can do it. In the old days, in the days of the jongs, there were order and discipline; but not now.”
“There will be aboard the Sofal,” I averred. “Come with me; I am going to speak to the men.”
Together we entered the lower deck house where the majority of the ship’s company was massed, waiting for the command to attack. There were nearly a hundred rough and burly fighting men, nearly all of whom were ignorant and brutal. We had been together as commander and crew for too short a time for me to gauge their sentiments toward me; but I realized that there must be no question in any mind as to who was captain of the ship, no matter what they thought of me.
Kiron had called them to attention as we entered, and now every eye was on me as I started to speak. “We are about to take another ship,” I began, “on board which is one whom Kiron tells me you will want to kill. He is an ongyan. I have come here to tell you that he must not be killed.” Growls of disapproval greeted this statement, but, ignoring them, I continued, “I have come here to tell you something else, because I have been informed that no officer can control you after you enter battle. There are reasons why it will be better for us to hold this man prisoner than to kill him, but these have nothing to do with the question; what you must understand is that my orders and the orders of your other officers must be obeyed.
“We are embarked upon an enterprise that can succeed only if discipline be enforced. I expect the enterprise to succeed. I will enforce discipline. Insubordination or disobedience will be punishable by death. That is all.”
As I left the room, I left behind me nearly a hundred silent men. There was nothing to indicate what their reaction had been. Purposely, I took Kiron out with me; I wanted the men to have an opportunity to discuss the matter among themselves without interference by an officer. I knew that I had no real authority over them, and that eventually they must decide for themselves whether they would obey me; the sooner that decision was reached the better for all of us.
Amtorian ships employ only the most primitive means of intercommunication. There is a crude and cumbersome hand signalling system in which flags are employed; then there is a standardized system of trumpet calls which covers a fairly wide range of conventional messages, but the most satisfactory medium and the one most used is the human voice.
Since our quarry had displayed the pennant of the ongyan, we had held a course parallel to hers and a little distance astern. On her main deck a company of armed men was congregated. She mounted four guns, which had been elevated into firing position. She was ready, but I think that as yet she suspected nothing wrong in our intentions.
Now I gave orders that caused the Sofal to close in upon the other ship, and as the distance between them lessened I saw indications of increasing excitement on the decks of our intended victim.
“What are you about?” shouted an officer from her tower deck. “Stand off there! There is an ongyan aboard us.”
As no reply was made him, and as the Sofal continued to draw nearer, his excitement waxed. He gesticulated rapidly as he conversed with a fat man standing at his side; then he screamed, “Stand off! or some one will suffer for this”; but the Sofal only moved steadily closer. “Stand off, or I’ll fire!” shouted the captain.
For answer I caused all our starboard guns to be elevated into firing position. I knew he would not dare fire now, for a single broadside from the Sofal would have sunk him in less than a minute, a contingency which I wished to avoid as much as he.
“What do you want of us?” he demanded.
“We want to board you,” I replied, “without bloodshed if possible.”
“This is revolution! This is treason!” shouted the fat man at the captain’s side. “I order you to stand off and leave us alone. I am the ongyan, Moosko,” and then to the soldiers on the main deck he screamed, “Repel them! Kill any man who sets foot upon that deck!”