Carson of Venus by Edgar Rice Burroughs
11. The Net Draws Closer
The next day, as I was making my rounds of the prison, I took it upon myself to inquire of a number of the prisoners as to the nature of the offenses that had resulted in such drastic punishment, for to be imprisoned in Gap kum Rov was, indeed, real punishment. I found that many of them had expressed their opinons of Mephis and the Zanis too freely, and that supposed friends had informed upon them. Many did not know what the charges against them were, and quite a few were there because of old grudges held against them by members of the Zani Guard. One man was there because an offlcer of the Zani Guard desired his woman; another because he had sneezed while, standing upon his head, he should have been shouting Maltu Mephis. The only hope any of them had of release was through bribery or the influence of some member of the Zani Party, but this latter was difficult to obtain because of the fear the Zanis themselves felt of directing suspicion upon themselves. These inquiries I had made were of the prisoners in the big tanks on the main floor. My interest lay in the dim corridors below ground, where I thought that Mintep might be confined. I had not dared reveal any interest in these prisoners for fear of directing suspicion upon myself, for I knew that there were constantly informers among the prisoners, who won favors and sometimes freedom by informing upon their fellow prisoners. Torko had told me that I was not even to know the names of the prisoners on that lower level; but I was determined to learn if Mintep was among them, and finally I hit upon a plan that I hoped would serve nay purpose. With difficulty, I wrote some very bad verse in Amtorian, which I sang to a tune that had been popular in America when I left the Earth. In two of the verses was the message I wished to use to elicit a sign from Mintep that he was a prisoner there, and thus to locate his cell.
To allay suspicion, I formed the habit of singing my song as I went about my daily duties; but I sang it at first only on the upper floors. My kordogan and some of the other members of the guard showed an interest in my song, and asked me questions about it. I told them that I didn't know the origin or significance of it, that the words meant nothing to me, and that I only sang it because I was fond of the tune.
In addition to my essay at poetry, I had been busy along another line of endeavor. The cell and door locks of the prison were not all alike, but there was a master key which opened any of them. In Torko's absence, I carried this master key; and one of the first things I did after it came into my possession was to take it into the city and have two duplicates made. I had no definite plan in mind at the time wherein they might figure; but, though I took considerable risk in having them made, I felt that eventually they must be of the utmost value in releasing Mintep, if it developed that he was a prisoner in Gap kum Rov.
You can scarcely realize the caution I was forced to observe in everything that I did, in order not to arouse suspicion, to incur enmities, or engender envy, for every citizen of Amlot was a spy or a potential informer. Yet I had to make haste, for I knew that over my head hung constantly that Damoclean message from Muso. Who had it? Why had they not struck?
I was accustomed to wandering around the prison alone, inspecting the cells, the guardroom, the kitchen; so it would arouse no comment were I discovered anywhere; and the fact that I was almost constantly humming or singing my foolish song was, I felt, evidence that there was nothing irregular or surreptitious about my activities.
It was the day before Torko's return that I determined to try to ascertain definitely if Mintep were imprisoned at the lower level. With this idea in mind, I went singing through the prison, feeling, as usual, like a loony. Down to the basement I went, through the courtroom, and into the dim precincts of the forbidden cells. I went to the furnace and passed along the corridor where the cells were, and there I sang the two verses that I had written to arouse Mintep's interest and, perhaps, beguile an acknowledgement, if he were there. These are the verses to which I refer, roughly translated into English:
"Mourned by a nation,
I kept right on singing other verses, or humming the air, as I passed along the cells; but there was no response. Clear to the end of the corridor I went, and then turned back. Once more I sang those two verses, and as I approached the last cells, I saw a man pressing close to the bars of one of them. In the dim light, I could not see his features plainly; but as I passed close to him, he whispered the single word, "Here." I noted the location of his cell and continued on my way.
With Torko, I occupied my office next to the guardroom: and when I arrived there, I found my kordogan waiting with some new prisoners. One of my duties was to receive all prisoners, question them, and assign them to cells. A clerk kept a record of all such matters. All I was supposed to do, according to Torko, was to insult and browbeat the prisoners.
There were three of them, and they lined them up in front of my desk. As I looked up at them, I immediately recognized one of them as Horjan, the brother of Lodas; and, to my horror, I saw recognition slowly dawn in his eyes, or at least I thought I did.
"What is your name?" I asked.
"Horjan," he replied.
"Why are you here?"
"Some time ago I reported a stranger hiding in my home," he replied. "When the guard came, they found no one--the man had escaped. They were very angry with me. A neighbor, whom I had told of my discovery of the man, became angry with me; and today he went to the Zani Guard and told them that he had seen the man and that I had been hiding him, and that I only reported the matter because I knew that he would. He told them that the man was a spy from Sanara and that he was still in the city."
"How does he know the man is still in the city?" I demanded.
"He says that he has seen him--that he could never forget his face or his eyes-- he says that the man was wearing the uniform of an officer of the Zani Guard."
I knew that Horjan's friend had not seen me, and that this was merely Horjan's way of communicating to me the fact that he had recognized me.
"It would be too bad if your friend bore false witness against an officer of the Zani Guard," I said. "If anyone did that, it would be necessary to torture him before killing him. But perhaps it would be well to question your friend to learn if he ever did see this man in your house, and have him describe him."
Horjan paled. He realized that he had committed an error; and he was terrified, for he knew that his friend had never seen me and could not describe me.
"I hope it does not get him in trouble," I continued. "It is deplorable that there should be so much loose talking in Amlot. It would be better if some people held their tongues.'
"Yes," said Horjan, meekly, "there is too much loose talk; but you may rest assured that I shall never talk."
I hoped that he meant it, but I was very much concerned. Now, indeed, must I take immediate steps to escape from Amlot. But how? My problem was now further complicated by my discovery of Mintep.
On the following day Torko returned, and I was sent to make an arrest in the quarter occupied by scholars and scientists. There were many Atorians living in this quarter, for their minds incline toward scholarly pursuits and scientific investigation. Here the few who had not been killed were segregated, not being allowed to leave the quarter, which, because of them, was in bad repute with the Zanis, who wreaked mean little persecutions on the slightest pretext. The Zanis hated scholars and scientists, as they hated all who were superior to them in any way.
On my way to the quarter, I passed a field where hundreds of boys were being drilled by kordogans of the Zani Guard. There were little fellows of five and six and many older boys. This same thing was gomg on all over Arnlot--this was the only schooling the Zani boys received. The only toys they were allowed to have were weapons. Babes in arms were given blunt daggers upon which to cut their teeth. I said that was all the schooling they received. I was wrong. They were taught to shout "Maltu Mephis!" upon any pretext or upon none, and a chapter from The Life of Our Beloved Mephis, written by himself, was read to them daily. It was quite a comprehensive education--for a Zani.
The quarter where I was to make the arrest had formerly been a prosperous one, as, during the regime of the jongs, scholars and scientists were held in high esteem; but now it was run down, and the few people I saw on the streets looked shabby and half starved. Arrived at the home of my victim (I can think of nothing more suitable to call him) I walked in with a couple of my men, leaving the others outside. As I entered the main room, which might be called the living room, I saw a woman step hurriedly between some hangings at the opposite side of the room; but not so quickly but that I recognized her. It was Zerka.
A man and woman sitting in the room rose and faced me. They both looked surprised; the woman, frightened. They were exceptionally fine looking, intelligent appearing people.
"You are Narvon?" I asked of the man.
He nodded. "I am Narvon. What do you want of me?"
"I have orders to place you under arrest," I said. "You will come with me."
"What is the charge against mew he asked.
"I do not know," I told him. "I have orders to arrest you--that is all I know."
He turned sadly to say goodby to the woman; and as he took her in his arms and kissed her, she broke down. He choked a little as he tried to comfort her.
The kardogan who accompanied me stepped forward and seized him roughly by the arm. "Come on!" he shouted gruffly. "Do you think we are going to stand here all day while you two dirty traitors blubber?"
"Leave them alone!" I ordered. "They may say goodbye."
He shot me an angry look, and stepped back. He was not my own kardogan, who, while bad enough, had learned from me to temper his fanaticism a little with tolerance if not compassion.
"Well," he said, "while they're doing that, I'll search the house."
"You'll do nothing of the kind," I said. "You'll stay here and keep still and take your orders from me."
"Didn't you see that woman sneak into the back room when we entered he demanded.
"Of course I did," I replied.
"Ain't you going to go after her?"
"No," I told him. "My orders were to arrest this man. I had no orders to search the house or question anyone else. I obey orders, and I advise you to do the same."
He gave me a nasty look, and grumbled something I did not catch; then he sulked for the remainder of the day. On the way back to the prison I walked beside Narvon; and when I saw that the kardogan was out of earshot, I asked him a question in a whisper.
"Was the woman I saw in your house, the one who ran out of the room as I came in, a good friend of yours?"
He looked just a bit startled, and he hesitated a fraction of a second too long before he replied. "No," he said. "I never saw her before. I do not know what she wanted. She came in just ahead of you. I think she must have made a mistake in the house, and been embarrassed and confused when you came in. you know it is often dangerous, nowadays, to make mistakes, however innocent they may be."
He could have been tortured and executed for a statement such as that, and he should have known it. I cautioned him.
"You are a strange Zani," he said. "You act almost as though you were my friend."
"Forget it," I warned him.
"I shall," he promised.
At the prison I took him at once to Torko's office.
"So you are the great scholar, Narvon," snarled Torko. "You should have stuck to your books instead of trying to foment a rebellion. Who were your accomplices?"
"I have done nothing wrong," said Narvon; "and so I had no accomplices in anything that was wrong."
"Tomorrow your memory will be better," snapped Torko. "Our Beloved Mephis himself will conduct your trial, and you will find that we have ways in which to make traitors tell the truth. Take him to the lower level, Vodo; and then report back here to me."
As I passed through the courtroom with Narvon, I saw him pale as his eyes took in the instruments of torture there.
"You will not name your accomplices, will you?" I asked.
He shuddered and seemed to shrink suddenly. "I do not know," he admitted. "I have never been able to endure pain. I do not know what I shall do. I only know that I am afraid--oh, so terribly afraid. Why can they not kill me without torturing me!"
I was very much afraid, myself--afraid for Zerka. I don't know why I should have been--she was supposed to be such a good Zani. Perhaps it was the fact that she had run away from men in the uniform of the Zani Guard that aroused my suspicions. Perhaps it was because I had never been able to reconcile my belief in her with the knowledge that she was a Zani. Quite a little, too, because Narvon had so palpably tried to protect her.
When I returned to Torko's office, the kardogan who had been with me when I made the arrest was just leaving. Torko was scowling ominously.
"I have heard bad reports of your conduct during my absence," he said.
"That is strange," I said--"unless I have made an enemy here; then you might hear almost anything, as you know."
"The information has come from different sources. I am told that you were very soft and lenient with the prisoners."
"I was not cruel, if that is what is meant," I replied. "I had no orders to be cruel."
"And today you did not search a house where you knew a woman to be hiding--the home of a traitor, too."
"I had no orders to search the house or question anybody," I retorted. "I did not know the man was a traitor; I was not told what his offense had been."
"Technically, you are right," he admitted; "but you must learn to have more initiative. We arrest no one who is not a menace to the state. Such people deserve no mercy. Then you whispered with the prisoner all the way to the prison."
I laughed outright. "The kardogan doesn't like me because I put him in his place. He became a little insubordinate. I will not stand for that. Of course I talked with the prisoner. Was there anything wrong in that?"
"The less one talks with anyone, the safer he is," he said.
He dismissed me then; but I realized that suspicions were aroused; and there was that brother of Lodas just full of them, and of real knowledge concerning me, too; and primed to spill everything he knew or suspected at the first opportunity. Whatever I was going to do, I must do quickly if I were ever going to escape. There were too many fingers ready to point at me, and there was still the message from Muso. I asked permission to go fishing the next day, and as Torko loved fresh fish, he granted it.
"You'd better stay around until after Our Beloved Mephis has left the prison," he said. "We may want your help."
The next day Narvon was tried before Mephis, and I was there with a detail of the guard--just ornamentally. We lined up at attention at each end of the bench where Mephis, Spehon, and Torko sat. The benches at the sides of the room were filled with other Zani bigwigs. When Narvon was brought in, Mephis asked him just one question.
"Who were your accomplices?"
"I have done nothing, and I had no accomplices," said Narvon. He looked haggard and his voice was weak. Every time he looked at an instrument of torture he winced. I saw that he was in a state of absolute funk. I couldn't blame him.
Then they commenced to torture him. What I witnessed, I would not describe if I could. It beggars description. There are no words in any language to depict the fiendishly bestial cruelties and indignities they inflicted on his poor, quivering flesh. When he fainted, they resuscitated him; and went at it again. I think his screams might have been heard a mile away. At last he gave in.
"I'll tell! I'll tell!" he shrieked.
"Well?" demanded Mephis. "Who are they?"
"There was only one," whispered Narvon, in a weak voice that could scarcely be heard.
"Louder!" cried Mephis. "Give him another turn of the screw! Then maybe he'll speak up."
"It was the Toganja Z--" Then he fainted as they gave the screw another turn. They tried to revive him again, but it was too late--Narvon was dead.