Monday, May 25, 2009

Memorial Day

On September 16, 1943, my father turned 18. Shortly after that, he was drafted into the U.S. Army and accepted into the Army Specialized Training Program (ASTP).

The ASTP is one of the lesser known programs from World War II. Its goal was to produce highly trained specialists to fill vital technical roles within the army. My father was to receive training as a meteorologist. Entrance requirements for the ASTP were more stringent than those required for Officer Candidate School. ASTP candidates took the same test as officer candidates -- essentially an IQ test -- but were required to score higher; a minimum IQ of 120 for the ASTP versus a minimum IQ of 110 for OCS. Soldiers in the ASTP would spend 13 weeks in basic training then be sent to a college campus for accelerated training in their assigned field.

My grandparents were very relieved when Dad ended up in the ASTP. What parents wouldn't be relieved to know their child was safe on an American university campus rather than fighting in France? Their relief was short-lived. By late 1943, the army had a severe shortage of infantry men. With over 250,000 men enrolled in the ASTP, all of whom had taken basic training, the solution was obvious. By February, 1944, the ASTP was officially cancelled. America's best and brightest, including my father, were off to war.

Dad spoke very little about his time in combat, even in his later years when he started attending reunions for his army company and battalion. When I was young, he told me of the time his platoon found themselves in a mine field. They discovered it when the three men directly in front of him were killed by a mine. The platoon very carefully turned around and walked back out of the field by stepping exactly where they had stepped coming in.

Another time, he and two other members of his platoon got separated from the rest of the platoon after a German ambush. They wandered for two days, trying to find their way back to allied lines. Finally, they spotted three soldiers in the distance. Overjoyed to finally be safe, they waved and shouted and walked towards the other soldiers. The other soldiers looked just as happy to see my father and his buddies, waving and shouting back. It was only when the two groups were closer to each other that both groups realized the truth. Those other soldiers were German. Afraid they were close to German lines, Dad and his buddies turned and ran. The German soldiers ran, also. No shots were fired. Later, Dad figured the three German soldiers were probably just as lost as he was and ran for the same reason.

My favorite story, which Dad didn't tell me until sometime in the late 1990s, was about the liberation of the French town of Bitche. Approaching the city, the American soldiers speculated that the town's name must have a French sound to it. Most figured it was pronounced "beech." It wasn't. The name is pronounced "bitch," as in a female dog. Yes, the pronunciation is important to the story.

The 100th Infantry Division attacked German forces holed up within a citadel overlooking Bitche. Built in the 17th century, the stone citadel had never been fallen to any attack or seige, not even during the German blitzkrieg of France. The 100th Infantry Division broke the streak, taking it after a three month seige. In appreciation, the town immediately adopted the 100th, naming them the "Sons of Bitche," a title the 100th Infantry Division flag carries to this day. From that point on, the 100th had a great time telling everyone who would listen that they were the meanest Sons of Bitche in Europe. I could see why Dad didn't mention that while I was growing up. He also somehow failed to mention it in his letters home to his parents, either. My grandfather kept every single letter sent by my father and I've read them all. Not once does he refer to himself as a Son of Bitche!

On April 20, around 5:30 PM -- only 18 days before the end of the war in Europe -- a German howitzer shell exploded near my father. Later, Dad said he never heard the explosion, just remembered finding himself in a ditch and trying to raise himself up on his knees. A German soldier who had just surrendered knelt and offered his first aid kit. That was the last thing he remembered until he woke up in an army hospital.

On May 5, the telegram arrived at my grandparents' house in Greenville, SC. My grandfather was at work and my grandmother was out shopping. Only my father's grandmother, who died years before my birth, was at home. Understandably, she was terrified about what news the telegram contained. She dithered for almost half and hour before finally opening the telegram. The telegram was terse, only informing them that my father had been "seriously wounded" on April 20. Through my uncle, who was in a military clerical position in Greenville, they learned that "seriously wounded" meant wounds that would require hospitalization for at least one week.

On the same day my grandparents received the telegram, a second telegram was dispatched to them. It arrived nine days later, on May 14. This one informed them Dad was "making normal improvement" from his "wound of right thigh." While the telegram was terse, my grandparents considered its words more beautiful than anything they'd ever read. My grandmother carried the telegram with her so she could show it to anyone and everyone who even remotely knew my father had been wounded.

The stated "wound of right thigh" was only the most serious of Dad's wounds. Two pieces of shrapnel went right through his right thigh. More shrapnel deeply slashed his back, right buttocks and chest. Another piece of shrapnel cut off the upper half of his left middle finger. The slashes on his back and buttocks required skin grafts to heal properly. The skin for the grafts was taken from his left thigh and unwounded areas of his right thigh. Removing the skin for grafting left large scars; in reality more like indentations in his thighs. The scars were five to six inches long, about two inches wide and maybe a quarter of an inch deep. They were only visible when Dad wore a bathing suit. His left middle finger was the only wound always visible.

Dad's been gone for nearly four years as I post this. It's Memorial Day, a day that seems to have lost its original meaning in this overly-commercialized culture of ours. Memorial Day means many things to me, none of them having anything to do with "big sales events" at the mall.

On Memorial Day, I remember the missing half of my father's left middle finger. I remember the scars on my father's legs. I remember the Purple Heart he was so proud of. I remember his surprise when, at the age of 66 he found out he had been awarded the Bronze Star 46 years earlier and never known it. I remember his pride at having performed the toughest, most dangerous job in the army -- infantryman -- to the best of his ability. I remember crying as Taps was played at his funeral.

On Memorial Day, I remember the Son of Bitche who taught me to be the man I am today.

On Memorial Day, I remember visiting Arlington National Cemetery and looking upon row after row after row of simple, white headstones, overcome by awe and wonder at the enormous sacrifices they represent.

On Memorial Day, I remember those who died so I could live free.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Writer's Day: The Petition Drive For a New Holiday

"Hello," I said to the man on the street. "Would you like to sign a petition in favor of the creation of a new holiday, Writer's Day?"

"Righter's Day?" the man asked. "No, I'm left handed. You righties have it easy enough without getting a holiday, too! I'm part of a persecuted minority-"

"No, no, I don't mean 'right' as in the opposite of 'left,'" I said. "I mean 'write' as in to use words to convey a message or story, such as writing a novel."

"Oh. That's different," the man said. "Still, why do we need a special holiday just for writers?"

"An excellent question!" I said. "On Writer's Day we would remember the wonder and joy we receive from the written word and celebrate those who bring the written word to us! And we'd mail cards to our favorite writers, wishing them a happy Writer's Day."

"Ugh. You mean I'd have to celebrate Lenny, the CFO, who keeps sending us long-winded memos about using pens until they run out of ink, tells us ten paper clips a week should be a gracious plenty or says we should print out our emails and read them with the computer off to save power?" the man asked.

"Um, no. Lenny isn't the kind of writer I had in mind," I answered. "I meant to celebrate the giants of literature such as William Shakespeare, Mark Twain, Edgar Rice Burroughs and Bruce Bethke."

"Aren't those guys all dead?" the man asked.

"Bethke's not," I answered.

"But I've never read anything by him," the man said, "so why would I send him a card?"

"It doesn't have to be just one of those writers," I said. "You can send cards to any writer whose work you enjoy!"

"Maybe, but I don't read novels," the man said. "I don't see what I'd have to celebrate."

"Do you read comic strips?" I asked.

"Sure! That's my favorite part of reading the paper on the subway," the man said.

"Then send a card to writer of your favorite comic strip," I said.

"Wait, someone actually writes those things?" he asked.

"The words have to come from somewhere," I answered.

"Imagine that," the man said.

"Or you could send cards to the writers of your favorite TV shows or movies," I suggested.

"You're telling me someone writes those, too?" the man asked. "I thought the actors made it all up!"

"Have you ever read anything written by an actor?" I asked.

"Yeah... It was kind of stupid," the man said.

"I rest my case," I said. "So, how about signing the petition?"

"I'm still not sure," the man said. "What kinds of cards would people send to their favorite writers?"

"Ah! I have a couple of samples with me right here!" I said.

"Here's another one," I said.

"Those don't seem very friendly," the man said.

"Friendly? No, you've got the wrong idea! They're funny!" I said. "See, we give our favorite writers a chuckle. Just like the chuckle they give unpublished geniuses every time we ask them to critique our work. Yes, exactly like that! Now the ingrates will get a chance to see just what it's like to have no-talent hacks telling them their work sucks! Oh, yes, I can see it- Hey, where are you going?"

"I'm, uh... I'm late for a meeting. Or something. Got to run!" the man said, all the while backing slowly away from me.

"Don't you want to sign the petition?" I asked.

"Maybe some other time," the man said before turning and scurrying away.

"Some people..." I said before turning to another passerby. "Ma'am? Would you sign a petition?"

Thursday, May 7, 2009

John Carter and the Bronze Men in Mars

This is an homage to Edgar Rice Burroughs's greatest character, John Carter of Mars. It's not a novel, despite the chapters.
Chapter 1

Were it not for the potency of Baroomian wine, none of what I tell you now would have happened. Yet even then, Tars Tarkas and I almost foiled the kidnapping.

Though it seems as if it were just yesterday, these events began over one Barsoomian year ago. Tar Tarkas took advantage of my standing invitation to visit Dejah Thoris and me, bringing barrels of wine he purchased along the way. Great was the feasting and many were the tales of braves deeds. As the evening wore on, those of lesser constitution succumbed to the wine and left for their sleeping furs. Last to depart was my incomparable Dejah Thoris.

"Hail, Tars Tarkas, and good night," she spoke formally, as befitted our guest's noble rank. Turning to me, she smiled, "I shall leave you two old warriors to your wine and your stories. Join me in our sleeping furs when you grow tired, my chieftain."

Left to ourselves, the six-limbed Jeddak of Thark and the Warlord of Barsoom returned to our reminiscing. Greatest among our regrets was that there was nothing new to discover on Barsoom; no forgotten civilizations, no ancient enmities. There was still great call for men of action such as ourselves, for war is like a religion to all races of Barsoom. Yet the sense of discovery, that fine spice that adds so much to the flavor of adventure, was gone. Little did we know how quickly we would be proven wrong!

Tars Tarkas and I were spending a final few minutes silently enjoying the wine and the pleasure of the other's company, when an unusual sound intruded upon the silence. It was not loud and lesser men might have put it to wind or some other natural source. Yet the giant green warrior and I recognized the sound for what it was; the gentle rasp of a sword being drawn!

In a bound I was across the room and through the door, where I beheld the only sight which can instill fear within my breast. Across the hall, a bronze colored man wearing harnesses I did not recognize carried the limp form of my love, Dejah Thoris, into an unused section of our house. Before me, blocking my path, stood three unkempt men, also colored of bronze. They wore no harnesses but all wielded a long sword. By their stances, it was obvious they knew how to use the weapons. Only the height of the ceiling kept me from using my earthly muscles to leap over the three men and pursue the abductor.

I observed all of this in the blink of eye. Then, never one to shy from action, attacked the three swordsmen before me. You may think me rash to take on three armed men and, in truth, I was sorely pressed. Yet such is my love for the incomparable Dejah Thoris that I will face such odds and worse to return her to my side!

As I wove a web of steel between myself and my unknown opponents, I studied them. I had never seen such bronze coloring on any man of Barsoom. Despite their unkempt appearance, the men were all well formed, lean and strong. Within their eyes burned such haughty pride that I knew they felt themselves superior to me in all ways. As the seconds passed and the three of them failed to land a blow upon me, that pride faded, replaced by growing respect for my fighting prowess.

"Stand aside," I told them. "There is no shame in recognizing and giving way to the better man. Allow me to pass and you have my word you will suffer no harm!"

In answer, the three men redoubled their efforts. I was forced back one step, two steps. Then I drew upon the indomitable will that sustains me and stood fast, refusing to retreat further. Though I longed to be off in pursuit of Dejah Thoris, I gloried in the thrill I always get from fighting and felt my old, familiar smile play across my lips.

Suddenly, Tars Tarkas joined in the fray. Unable to cross a room in a single bound, he had spent precious seconds running across the banquet hall to join me. With my friend battling at my side, we pressed the attack. The three bronze men gave way by a step, then two, then they were moving steadily backward under our relentless attack. A faltered step left a small opening in their combined defense. My blade flashed and one bronze man dropped lifeless to the floor. Fighting one on one against two of Barsoom's mightiest warriors, the remaining two bronze men soon joined their companion.

Before the last man had dropped to the floor, I was racing across it after the abductor and my beloved Dejah Thoris. I dashed through one unused room, then another. In the third room, I found a something unexpected; a hole in the floor! As I have always preferred action to deliberation, I immediately leaped into the hole. Within I discovered a tunnel sloping down into darkness. Somehow, there was light coming from the other end of the tunnel, far away though it was. I saw small shapes moving against the light. Knowing this to be the abductor, I set off in pursuit.

As I ran, I called over my shoulder, "Tars Tarkas! The hole is but the end of a tunnel. I fear the height of the tunnel is too low for you, my friend!"

"Where goes John Carter," came the mighty Thark's reply, "so also goes Tars Tarkas!"

Casting a quick glance over my shoulder, I saw my friend enter the tunnel using his mid limbs as legs. He ran forward as quickly as I, easily fitting within the tunnel. It gladdened my heart to know my fierce friend would be at my side as I faced what lay before me.

Our pursuit wore on and on, the tunnel turning out to be far longer than I would have imagined. Minute piled on passing minute and still the tunnel stretched out before us. In spite of the distance run, my pace did not slacken for she who was more important than life itself was counting on me. Tars Tarkas flagged not in his pursuit, either. Slowly we gained on those ahead of us. Too slowly, for I saw they would escape the tunnel before we would catch them. Mere minutes later, they did just that.

Two minutes that seemed more like two years passed before Tars Tarkas and I ran from the mouth of the tunnel. Half blinded by sunlight brighter than any I had ever seen on Barsoom, I could barely see the abductor carry my beloved Dejah Thoris into a waiting flyer. As the flyer began to rise into the air, I gathered all of my strength for a mighty leap; a leap which would have carried me onto the rising flyer!

Just as I was about to spring, a weighted net came down on top of Tars Tarkas and me. Men piled on top of us from all sides, pummelling us with the flats of their blades. I had just time to watch the flyer begin to sail off into the distance before all went black.

Chapter 2

I came to with the suddenness known to all men of action. Straining my senses, I attempted to learn all I could of my surroundings without opening my eyes. The sounds of harsh laughter and vulgar conversation came to my ears. The smell of unwashed bodies invaded my nose. I felt oppressive heat upon my skin and coarse rope around my wrists and ankles.

"Keep your eyes closes for now," a voice murmured from nearby. "Kroulk does not yet know you are awake. When you speak, try to keep your lips still."

"Who are you?" I asked as quietly and carefully as possible.

"The closest thing you have to a friend in this camp," came the reply.

"What of my friend, Tars Tarkas?"

"If you speak of the giant green man, he lies not three feet from you, trussed more thoroughly than you," said the unknown man. "It took many men to subdue him. Kroulk is taking no chances that the green warrior will get free."

"Where on Barsoom are we?"

A soft laugh, then, "You are not on Barsoom, you are in it!"

There are some things no man can hear without a reaction. Such was the stranger's response. With a start, I opened my eyes. Despite what I had just heard, my mind almost refused to accept what I saw. I looked toward the horizon only to discover there was no horizon! Instead, the world before me curved up toward the distant sky.

I put aside contemplation of this strange world for now. It has always been thus for me. The call for decisive action overrides all else, even the wonder of a world within a world! My gaze swept the crude camp and its brutish men, coming to rest on a man sitting near to me. He was unlike the other men I had seen. An old campaigner such as myself could easily recognize a man who strove to present as neat an appearance as possible under difficult conditions. Where the harnesses of the other men were grimy, his gleamed. Where their hair fell in greasy tangles , his was clean and combed. Where their bodies were covered in dirt, his was well scrubbed. The strangely bronze colored skin was the only similarity between my friend and the other men in the camp.

My open eyes had attracted attention. A large, hulking man whose eyes shone with cruelty and contempt was swaggering toward us. The contrast in appearance between this brute and my new friend could not have been greater. A single glance told me this man took pride in his disgusting appearance and felt only contempt for one who did not follow his example.

"So, Shom Kerr," the brute growled, "the prisoner is awake. Did I not give orders to be told as soon as he awoke?"

"He has only just done so, Kroulk," Shom Kerr told him.

Kroulk's foot lashed out, catching Shom Kerr on the side of the head.

"Jeddak Kroulk!" he bellowed.

The claim was so ridiculous, I could not help but to laugh, "Jeddak? Of what? This excuse for a camp?"

Kroulk's face screwed up in rage and his foot lashed out at my head. Tied though I was, I rolled just out of range of the blow. As his foot sailed past me, I spun just enough so I could kick Kroulk's foot from beneath. With a satisfying thump, Kroulk landed on his back. Laughter, harsh and unsympathetic, rose from the men behind Kroulk. Jumping quickly to his feet, Kroulk eyed me with open hatred.

"For that, surface scum, you die!" Kroulk proclaimed to the cheers of the men behind him.

I returned Kroulk's gaze levelly, "Give me a sword, Kroulk, and we will see which of us dies this day!"

As I was looking him straight in the eye, only I saw the fear that flashed in Kroulk's eyes. I knew then that he would take the coward's way.

"A warrior's death?" Kroulk sneered. "The likes of you do not deserve such a death!"

Murmuring arose from the men behind Kroulk and he knew his position, probably his very life, hung on his next action. Kroulk did as all tyrants do when their bullying ways fail them; he offered his followers blood as entertainment.

"Shom Kerr," Kroulk said loudly, "take your knife and slit this man's throat. Then slit the throat of his green friend!"

This declaration was met with raucous cheers from the rest of the camp. Eyes downcast, Shom Kerr moved in front of me, drawing his dagger.

"I have no choice of action, my friend," Shom Kerr said, his eyes rising to meet mine. A smile played across his lips -- the smile of warrior born, ready for battle to begin. With a quick slash, Shom Kerr's dagger parted the rope binding my wrists.

Placing the dagger in my hand, Shom Kerr said, "Free yourself and your friend. I will hold these brutes off while you escape!"

Drawing his sword, Shom Kerr rose to face a stunned Kroulk. I wasted no time cutting through the rope around my ankles then turned to help Tars Tarkas. I found his eyes open and the same warrior's smile played out across his lipless mouth. It was the work of but a second to part the cords binding the great Thark's upper hands. As Shom Kerr had done, I placed the dagger in Tars Tarkas's hand. Rising, I looked for our weapons. I spied them leaning against a rock on the far side of the camp. Too far away for a Barsoomian to reach, the weapons were but a single bound away for a man born in earth's greater gravity!

My leap stunned all in the camp save Tars Tarkas. No one moved as I grabbed our weapons and bounded back to my now-freed companion. Swords drawn, we took our place on either side of Shom Kerr, who was pressing Kroulk sorely.

"To me!" Kroulk called to his men, fear evident in his voice. "Your Jeddak commands you! To me!"

A handful of the coarser men rushed to join Kroulk. Tars Tarkas and I laid into them and soon their bodies lay upon the ground. At sight of this, the other men backed away fearfully, none reaching for a sword.

"Come, you cowards!" Kroulk tried again, the fear now evident on his face. "They are but three! If you all attack we can overwhelm them!"

"Enough of this," Shom Kerr declared. "You do not deserve a warrior's death but I tire of your cowardly, bullying ways!"

At that, Shom Kerr's blade flashed with such speed and skill as I have seen but a few times in my long life. In seconds, Kroulk lay on the ground, Shom Kerr's sword impaled in his heart.

Turning his back on the rest of the men, Shom Kerr said to me, "You have reminded me of a warrior's honor, my friend. To whom do I owe thanks?"

Tars Tarkas spoke then, "Know you not the greatest warrior ever to stride the sands of Barsoom? Know you not he whom all have proclaimed the Warlord of Barsoom? Know you not John Carter, Prince of Helium?"

"Even here, within Barsoom, we have heard tales of John Carter," Shom Kerr said. "Given the deeds ascribed to you, I expected you to be much taller!"

I laughed, "I am sure the tales are greatly exaggerated, Shom Kerr."

Shom Kerr's eye measured the distance I had leaped to retrieve the weapons and said, "I am not so sure of that, John Carter."

With the dry laugh of his people, Tars Tarkas said, "If anything, the tales fail to do justice to John Carter's exploits!"

Putting aside this talk of my great deeds, which no true warrior dwells upon, I gestured toward the rest of men, "What of these men, Shom Kerr? This is your land. We will defer to your ways."

Shom Kerr's eyes swept across the men, "They are not bad men, John Carter, only poorly led. Allow me to speak with them."

Shom Kerr walked over to the men and began speaking in low, reasonable tones. While he did so, Tars Tarkas and I cleaned our weapons. Moments later, Shom Kerr returned. Behind him, the men were slowly drifting into the forest around the clearing.

"Where are they going?" I asked.

"To bathe, to clean their harnesses, to make themselves presentable as men of Mordon, our country, should be," Shom Kerr told me. "But what of you, John Carter? I assume you were chasing those who took the woman from the surface world?"

"You are correct, Shom Kerr," I told him. "The woman is my wife, Dejah Thoris, and I shall not rest until she is returned to my side! Perhaps one of your men can take a message from me through the tunnel to Tardos Mors, Jeddak of Helium and grandfather of Dejah Thoris. He can have an army of Heliumites here within a day!"

"That is not possible, John Carter," Shom Kerr told me, "for the tunnel is no longer there."

"How can the tunnel be gone?" I asked, astounded. "Surely Tars Tarkas and I were not unconscious long enough for the entire tunnel to be filled in!"

"No tunnel was dug," Shom Kerr told me. "It was created with a device controlled by Jorn Sook, tyrant Jeddak of Mordon! The device isolates the second ray from the core of Barsoom, creating a tunnel where none existed before and where none exists after the device is switched off. It is that device that has allowed rulers of Mordon to take slaves from the surface world without giving away our presence. It is that device which has trapped you here for all time!"

"If you think that," Tars Tarkas said, "you do not know John Carter!"

"While I yet live, there is hope!" I said.

A sad smiled crossed Shom Kerr's lips and he whispered, "Oh, Bel Ahn, you would like this John Carter. Indeed you would."

"Who is Bel Ahn?" I asked.

"My love and the reason I am here," Shom Kerr told me. "Jorn Sook coveted Bel Ahn but she only had eyes for me. Her scorn enraged Jorn Sook and he issued false charges of treason against me. I would have stayed and fought, but Bel Ahn discovered Jorn Sook planned to have me killed. She convinced me to flee into exile, saying while I lived she would still have hope. In exile, I fell to brooding and cared not what became of me. It was thus that Kroulk found me from thus you have roused me."

I gripped Shom Kerr's shoulder in the universal sign of friendship, "Come with Tars Tarkas and me, Shom Kerr, to the palace of Jorn Sook. There we will face this tyrant and win back the women we love!"

Shom Kerr's face came alive with fierce determination. As he gripped my shoulder in return, he said, "Yes, John Carter, I will join you! Even should we die in the attempt, we three will give Jorn Sook nightmares to last a lifetime!"

A voice rose from behind Shom Kerr, "You have more than three, Shom Kerr!"

Turning, we beheld forty men, as clean and neat as the conditions allowed, return to the clearing. The man who had spoken stepped forward, "I was a guard in Jorn Sook's palace. I was exiled for helping a servant hide after she had caught Jorn Sook's eye. The palace has many secret passages and entrances, many of which I know. I will cast my lot with you if you will have me, Shom Kerr!"

"Gladly, Trom Jir!" Shom Kerr exclaimed.

Trom Jir turned to his fellows, "Who is with me? Who else will follow where Shom Kerr leads?"

Forty blades flashed into the air as one as every man in the camp cast his lot with Shom Kerr!

Chapter 3

In a land of perpetual light, we could not count on the cover of darkness to hide our movement into the city. This presented little problem to Shom Kerr and his fellow bronze warriors. Slipping me, a white man, into the city unnoticed would be hard enough. Slipping Tars Tarkas in would be impossible. Fortune smiled upon us, though.

One of Shom Kerr's men had helped build and maintain Mordon's network of sewers. He volunteered to lead the mighty Thark and me as close to the Jeddak's palace as possible within the sewers. Our guide led us swiftly and safely through the sewers and to within one hundred feet of the palace. The guide climbed out of the sewers and took up a position lounging against a nearby pillar. His presence would let Shom Kerr know Tars Tarkas and I were in position and waiting. We had not long to wait.

Trom Jir approached the palace and slipped into an alcove in the palace wall. A minute later, he emerged from the alcove and gave a signal. On Trom Jir's signal, five men at the far end of the street began a loud argument that swiftly escalated into a fight. As all attention turned toward the disturbance, Tars Tarkas and I dashed from the sewer toward the alcove. We were in the alcove and through the hidden entrance Trom Jir had opened before anyone noticed us. Over the next few minutes, Shom Kerr and the rest of his men joined us.

Shom Kerr looked toward Trom Jir, "It's up to you to get us as close to the throne room as possible. I know you will not fail us!"

Trom Jir brought his right fist up and across his chest in salute then turned to the rest of us. "Not far from here are the lower kitchens. There are only two guards. The rest are slaves captured from the surface. The slaves will not give us away, but guards must be silenced quickly."

We followed Trom Jir until we began to hear the sounds of kitchen work ahead. Motioning everyone else to stay back, Shom Kerr and I moved forward for a look into the kitchen. The kitchen was vast and very hot. Perhaps one hundred red Barsoomians slaved in the kitchen, chained to their posts. Two guards lounged lazily on the far side of the kitchen. An alarm switch was on the wall directly behind them.

"I see only one way silence the guards, John Carter," Shom Kerr whispered. "The ceiling is high. Can you reach the guards in a single leap?"

In answer, my legs bent and then I sprang into the room. I had judged my leap perfectly, landing directly before the astonished guards. Grabbing one guard by his harness, I threw him over my shoulder as far as my earthly muscles would allow. The second guard tried for the alarm but my sword thrust made him pull up short. With no other alternative, the guard drew his sword and crossed blades with me.

Apparently, Jorn Sook did not believe kitchen guard duty to be difficult as the guard would have been no match for many children in Helium. As he dropped to the floor, lifeless, I looked for the second guard. I need not have bothered. My toss had dropped him at the feet of several red men. Using their chains as weapons, they had dispatched the guard quickly and quietly.

"Kaor, John Carter!" one of the men called out quietly. "I served under your command at-"

"Kaor, Dar Zaan! How could I fail to remember a brave and resourceful warrior such as you?" Taking the guard keys from a hook, I tossed them to Dar Zaan. "There will be time to talk later. For now, free everyone, arm yourselves as best you can and follow us to the throne room. Today shall mark the end of the Jorn Sook's tyrannical reign in Mordon!"

Trom Jir led us onward. He stopped three times, each time touching a hidden release which opened hidden doorways within the wall. Each time, Shom Kerr sent ten men through each passage, ordering them to reach the throne room and wait for our arrival. Only when Shom Kerr raised his sword were they to attack. Then it was our turn to take a hidden passage. We moved swiftly through the narrow, dusty passage until our way was blocked by another door.

"This door opens into the entry chamber to Jorn Sook's throne room," Trom Jir said. "Few dare to petition the Jeddak, so we may reach the seneschal without being noticed."

Shom Kerr stepped forward, "You have done well, Trom Jir. From here on, it is my duty to lead."

So saying, he opened the door and stepped out into the chamber. As Trom Jir had suspected, the room was empty. Shom Kerr quickly advanced to the curtains separating this chamber from the throne room. With a quick movement, his hand darted through the curtain and returned clapped over the mouth of a very surprised seneschal! As the rest of us moved to join him, Shom Kerr spoke quietly to the seneschal.

Gaping at him, the seneschal said, "But... But, my lord-"

Placing the point of his sword against the seneschal's back, Shom Kerr said, "Do as I instructed or the Jeddak will be in need of a new seneschal!"

Face pale and sword at his back, the seneschal stepped back through the curtains. With a loud clap of his hands, the seneschal drew attention to himself yet said nothing.

A lazy voice from within the throne room said, "Well, seneschal? I believe this is where you announce those who come to petition me."

Mocking laughter rose from the nobles within the throne room.

"Y-yes, my J-Jeddak," the seneschal stammered. "Jorn Sook, J-Jeddak of M-Mordon, ruler of Barsoom both above and below, v-visitors beg audience with you!"

"More fool them!" the same lazy voice said, causing more laughter to ripple through the throne room.

This time the seneschal managed to control his fear. Speaking in a loud, clear voice, he said, "May it please the court, I announce Shom Kerr, noble of Mordon, Tars Tarkas, Jeddak of Thark and John Carter, Prince of Helium and Warlord of Barsoom!"

The mocking laughter cut off as Shom Kerr, Tars Tarkas and I swept into the throne room, ten of our men at our heels. As we passed in, the seneschal turned and ran out. All around the entry to the throne room, nobles and sycophants were backing away from us. Across the room was a dais on which sat the throne. The man sitting upon the throne stared at us as if we were spirits returned from the dead. At his feet, chains around their necks, sat two women. The beautiful woman on the left only had eyes for Shom Kerr. Knowing this must be Bel Ahn, I looked to the other woman and gazed right into the eyes of my incomparable Dejah Thoris!

Even as both women reached toward Shom Kerr and me, Jorn Sook called out, "Guards! Take those men into custody!"

Dozens of guards ran out from all corners, surrounding our small band. Swords leveled, they advanced warily upon us. Then Shom Kerr raised his sword. Three hidden doors were thrown open and, with savage cries, the rest of our men poured into the room! The court sycophants cowered and hid. The few nobles present drew their swords but were unsure whom to fight.

As Tars Tarkas and I fought back to back, my sword weaving a net of steel before me, I called out over the din of battle, "Nobles of Mordon, if you would have a tyrant for jeddak, join the attack against us. But if you would have a fair and just jeddak, if you would be free men, join us and we will bring down the tyrant Jorn Sook!"

All doubt fled from the eyes of the nobles. As one they joined the fray, calling, "Death to Jorn Sook! Death to the tyrant!"

The battle ranged across the throne room with neither side gaining the upper hand. In disgust, I noticed Jorn Sook never once drew the sword he wore at his side. Instead, he stayed on his throne, watching the battle. Then the red men from the kitchen charged into the throne room and the tide of the battle turned swiftly toward us!

Seeing this, Jorn Sook quailed. He touched a panel on his throne and yet another hidden door opened, this one behind his throne. Grasping the chain around Dejah Thoris's neck, Jorn Sook began pulling my beloved toward the door. Immediately, Bel Ahn leaped to her aid, pulling back on the chain so it was no longer choking her. Jorn Sook backhanded Bel Ahn hard, sending her tumbling down the dais. No longer burdened by the weight of both women, Jorn Sook began slowly dragging Dejas Thoris toward the hidden door!

Even as I watched this, my blade flashed before me. Chance brought the moment I was waiting for. My blade flashed at a wrist holding a raised sword. The sword, with the guard's hand still gripping it, dropped neatly into my left hand. With a flick of my wrist, I sent the sword spinning over the battle and towards the dais.

"Bel Ahn! Dejah Thoris!" I called. "The sword! Get the sword!"

Both women heard me, as did Jorn Sook. As the sword landed on the floor and slid toward the dais, Dejas Thoris lunged toward the blade. At the same moment, Jorn Sook hauled viciously on the chain and the sword slid just beyond her reach! But it slid right into the hands of Bel Ahn. Showing herself a true daughter of Barsoom, Bel Ahn ignored the severed hand as she swung the blade around toward Jorn Sook. With a cry of feminine fury, she drove the sword straight through the Jeddak of Mordon!

Wrenching the it free, Bel Ahn held the bloody blade above her head and called out, "Behold! Jorn Sook, tyrant of Mordon, is dead!"

All fighting stopped as all heads turned toward the dais. They saw Bel Ahn, sword still held triumphant, help Dejah Thoris to her feet. Taking advantage of the moment, I leaped over all to land next to the two women.

"Men of Mordon," I said, "your jeddak lies dead, slain while attempting to flee the battle! Is this the kind of man you want as your jeddak?"

Shom Kerr and his men all shouted, "No!"

"Would you have a jeddak who is brave and noble?" I asked. "A jeddak who will guarantee freedom, not oppression?"

"Yes!" our men shouted, this time joined by the nobles and a few of the guards.

"The man you want is here!" I said. "He is Shom Kerr! What say you, men of Mordon? What say you to Shom Kerr, Jeddak of Mordon?"

The blades of Shom Kerr's men flashed aloft, followed almost immediately by those of the nobles and many of the guards. Over the next few seconds, all the swords were raised.

"All hail Shom Kerr, Jeddak of Mordon!" rang one hundred voices.

In the days that followed, the temporary tunnel connected Mordon and Helium yet again. Diplomatic courtesies were exchanged and plans begun to build permanent tunnels linking the Mordon with the surface of Barsoom. But these are not tasks for a man of action. Dejah Thoris and I stayed for Shom Kerr's coronation and his marriage to Bel Ahn. Then, my arm around the incomparable Dejah Thoris, we traversed the long tunnel home.