CHAPTER 44: "WATERY TOMB"
Novelization of the JCB strip by Dale R. Broadhurst
John Carter's head and shoulders broke the surface and
he floated upright in the blackness. In a career of soldiering that reached
back past his earliest recollections he had several times defended himself
with a sword while treading water, but always before he had known where
he was and what enemies he faced. Several times the Earthman was aware
of large moving things coming near him in the dark. From below the water's
surface they gave off a faint luminescence, passing him by like fast flying
ghosts, with shapes and sizes blurred beyond recognition. Each time one
of the hazy shapes came too near he slashed out with his long-sword. When
he made a lucky hit in the dark, the water came alive with thrashing forms
and jarring currents.
"Sharks!" he thought. "Or something very much like sharks.
If I survive five minutes longer it will be a miracle!"
The endangered swordsman perceived a brownness above the
blackness. At first it made no sense to him, but then he realized that
to his left side, at some unknown distance, the darkness was mitigated
ever so slightly by some unknown illumination. Having no better options
before him, John Carter turned to the left and with powerful strokes swam
toward the light. Treading water with a long-sword in one hand had been
difficult , but swimming while holding onto the life-saving weapon was
even more arduous. He was making very slow progress, if indeed he was making
any progress at all. The swimmer experienced the odd perception that the
indistinct boundary between the brown horizon and the black water was rising
in a bulging swell directly in front of him.
A pair of glowing orbs appeared out of nowhere. The sable
separation between the two huge eyes grew ever wider and the dim brown
light disappeared altogether. Like some hellish thing come to life an unending
nightmare a cavernous mouth opened around the swimmer, engulfing him. In
that perilous instant, the horror of his situation flashed upon John Carter's
confused and disoriented perception. He was heading directly into the maw
of a titanic carnivorous thing -- a dragon of the watery depths -- and
he could do nothing to stop his mad rush into a hot, throbbing doom!
The dragon-fish tossed back its hirsute head and Carter
was washed inside the thing, feet first. He stretched out his free hand
to grab onto something -- anything -- but his clutching fingers merely
slipped over one side of a hairy bulge and after that he lost all contact
with the great mouth's exterior. The man was tossed and twisted in the
tortuous blackness of a tight enveloping passage; then he shot through
its far end and found himself within a place that glowed with strange phosphorescence.
Now the startling truth dawned on the Earthman -- he was deep inside the
creature's gigantic belly!
The thick layers of Dejah Thoris' cloak protected her
from the hard jolts of the runner's bony shoulders. Wrapped within its
confining cover the unconscious girl had a temporary sense of warmth and
safety. Her blissful oblivion came to an abrupt end when Cro-Yat halted
his long jaunt and threw down the bundle he had been carrying upon his
back. From an opening in the soft dark folds, the face of the girl emerged,
stunned and dismayed in the bright Martian sunlight. Hot tears of frustration
and anguish streaked her flushed copper cheeks when the Heliumite princess
realized where she was -- and what her inevitable fate among these savage
bird-like men was to be.
The Thark girl looked across the many dials, gauges and
lights of what Oman called the "monitoring station" in the tower laboratory.
She concluded that a vast amount of information regarding Dejah Thoris
and John Carter was being brought together and assembled into meaningful
knowledge, but what the results might be were beyond her comprehension.
"You say that you can see what is happening in their dream?"
the maiden asked.
"I cannot see that in the same way my ocular receptors
see you, Sola," the mechanical man responded, "but I can reasonably guess
what the two dreamers are experiencing. Vovo had telepathic powers that
allowed him to enter into the delusions he created. One part of his mind
conducted and observed his experiment, while another part interacted directly
with the dreamer. I watched him do that with the Jasoomian right after
the wizard cured his paralyzed hands. In fact, it was my witnessing Vovo's
vile manipulations of the man's thoughts that first stimulated me to try
and stop the green wizard. But I myself have no such mental powers. I can
only influence the sleepers with subtle suggestions and sensations. For
the most part, I simply watch and wait."
"And what do all these instruments now tell you, Oman?"
"They tell me that the princess and the swordsman are
losing contact with each other and moving into a pair of loosely connected,
individual dreams. They tell me that as that personal separation increases,
both dreamers slip more deeply into Vovo's carefully scripted delusion.
I believe that the only chance of a successful outcome lies in their reuniting
and finding a shared reality within the fantasy. If that can begin to happen,
they may yet find their way out of the mental maze."
Sola thought long and hard. She now trusted that the mechanical
man was doing all he possibly could to save her friends, but the prospects
still looked bleak. There must be a way to do more for the dreamers --
a way to help them, even the midst of their tangled misperceptions and
personal nightmares. There simply must be!
"Oman, you said that you do not have the telepathic capability
to enter into the dream to help my friends directly. With the death of
Vovo, is there any being left in Eo who has such an ability?"
Hissing in satisfaction, the monster dragon-fish made
its way through the black water to the lair where it was wont to relax
and digest its meals in solitude. In the monster's gut, its most recent
feast was giving the creature a touch of indigestion. It was time for the
dragon-fish to rest in the shallows of the underground lake and there allow
its powerful gastric juices to do their job.
John Carter was suffocating. He found his head and shoulders
enclosed within a gas bubble in the dragon's belly but the gas pocket contained
precious little oxygen. No matter how rapidly his gasps took in the fetid
vapors, the Earthman's lungs ached and his head spun. The digestive acids
he now floundered in burned his skin and stung his eyes. Carter knew that
the powerful chemicals would soon eat the flesh from his bones. His only
shred of satisfaction came in the thought that his brain would die from
lack of air long before the acid consumed his lifeless body.
Meanwhile, Cro-Yat, and his giant chicken-men resumed
their march through the dismal forest. The leader carried the princess
in his arms, since the distance to their destination was now quite short.
Dejah Thoris could easily read their lustful, rapacious thoughts and she
knew that her final moments would come to pass at the creatures' nearby
village -- under a butcher's knife and in a roasting fire.