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A Writing Man of Mars

by Bruce Bethke

What impressed me most was the clutter. Incredible clutter, and the stale scent of dust and mildew, as if a thousand musty attics and estate sales were concentrated in that one room. I carefully edged between a peeling Victorian bureau and an ugly Moderne vanity, amazed that any place in Chicago could so well convey the feeling of an ancient tomb. The antique dealer—a surprisingly young fellow, given the state of his shop—followed me, rubbing his hands.

"Well? Whadaya think?"

In truth, the rolltop desk was exactly what I'd been looking for: a massive oak behemoth with a century of cigarette scars and character built in. Still...

"I don't know," I said at last. "It seems a bit pricey."

"Hey, we're talking a quality piece here," he said, laying knobby hands on the dark, cracked varnish. "No Masonite or particle board in this baby. Here's a piece you can pass on to your grandchildren!"

"But twelve hundred dollars?" I protested.

He shrugged, and turned. "Okay, you're looking for cheap. I got this maple secretary over here—"

"Sorry," I said. "It's got to be an oak rolltop."

He stopped, fixed me with a stare—he knew he had me hooked—and casually asked, "Why?"

"I need a good, solid, working desk," I said, mustering my confidence for the Big Lie. "I'm a writer."

"Really?" The antique dealer smiled as if genuinely impressed. "What kinda stuff?"

"Oh, this and that," I said, trying to sound offhand and jaded. "Magazine pieces, short stories." Actually, my greatest editorial success to date was the comment Read something written after 1950! hand-scrawled across the bottom of a form rejection slip. "Science fiction," I added, softly.

"No kidding!" He broke into a wide grin. "Hey, I used to read lots of that sci-fi stuff when I was a kid! Especially Edgar Rice Burroughs: Carson of Venus, Pelucidar, all those John Carter books. Why, I even had this idea for a story once—"

He stopped, and frowned. "Naw, you'd just think it was stupid." Before I could mumble the usual encouraging phrases, a new thought occurred to him, and I could tell by the look in his eyes that he was preparing to ask The Dreaded Question. "Say! There's a bookstore just around the corner that carries lots of sci-fi. What are the titles of your books?"

"The reason I'm looking for an old desk," I said loudly, hoping to torpedo the question with a dramatic non sequitur, "is that I've found my writing style reflects the tools I use. I have a computer, but I feel it makes my prose blunt and choppy, so I'd like to try working in pen and ink for a while. I want to develop more of a Golden Age style. Yes, like Burroughs."

His jaw dropped, and his eyes went wide. "Really? That settles it; you have got to have this desk. C'mere." He gestured for me to come closer, and tapped a corner of the desk. "Burroughs lived in Chicago before he got rich and famous and moved to California. You knew that, right?" I nodded.

"Well, the old lady I bought this desk from claimed that Burroughs rented her mother's house. Now, it's not like I can really prove anything, but—look here. Tell me what you see."

I looked at the scratches and gashes in the desktop. "Something's carved there?" I hazarded.

"Look closer," he said. I took off my glasses, cleaned them, put them back on, and looked again. "Don't those look like initials?" he suggested.

"You're right," I said. "That's an E."

"And I'm pretty sure that one's an R," he said. Yes, once he'd pointed it out, I could clearly discern it. "But that last letter, I'm not sure. What's it look like to you?"

"B?" I whispered, feeling an unnatural presence creep up my spine. "E. R. B. Edgar Rice Burroughs?"

He shrugged. "Doesn't prove anything, of course. But just think...."

My voice was a hoarse whisper. "This could be the desk on which he wrote A Princess of Mars!" I looked again. By God, it did say E R B. As plain as day!

The antique dealer scratched his head, and smiled in an awkward way. "Look, I know this isn't good business, but what the hell. I've already made my profit for the month. I could sit on this thing a few more weeks and sell it for the asking price, but I can see it means a lot to you. And to tell the truth, it'd mean a lot to me, to see it go to a writer again.

"So tell you what: if you promise to keep it between you, me, and the ghost of Edgar Rice, I can let you have it for nine-fifty. Hell, I'll even throw in free delivery."

I wanted to shout, $950? A mere nine hundred and fifty dollars for Edgar Rice Burroughs' writing desk? Instead, I whipped out my checkbook. "Who do I make this payable to?"

There are significant advantages in being a part-time writer and full-time systems analyst.


"You paid nine hundred and fifty dollars for a desk that might have belonged to Burroughs?" my wife said, in something other than her usual dulcet voice. "You nitwit! I did a paper on him. Burroughs was a financial failure! He screwed off on the job and wrote at his office, or wrote on the kitchen table. He had to sell his furniture to pay the bills!"

I have learned not to quibble biographical points with my wife, as she took a magna cum laude in American Lit before embarking on advanced studies in diaper management. Instead, I said, "Honey, it was bargain. Remember Mike Hoffman? I hear he paid over two thousand dollars for Jack Kerouac's typewriter."

"Ha!" she exclaimed, and I knew I'd lost that point.

"Don't worry," I said, trying another tack. "In two stories it will have paid for itself."

"That's what you said about the computer," she noted. "And the office furniture, and the Clarion workshop, and the—"

"Aruba," I said. "Club Med. Windjammer Cruises. A Volvo station wagon." Faced with this gentle reminder that I was not the only one in the family with a taste for expensive toys, she quieted down. Boy, there are lots of advantages in being a part-time writer and full-time systems analyst!


Later that evening, after my wife and children were in bed, I retreated to my study to try out the new desk. Gently, I opened the roll top, savoring the feel of real wood under my fingers and caressing the dark, romantic varnish. The desk was a wonderful, mysterious thing, simply throbbing with possibilities. What wonders I would create upon it!

I turned on the brass accountant's lamp, fiddled with the green glass shade until I was satisfied, laid fingers upon the blotter and adjusted it until it was just so, then opened the side drawer and counted out exactly ten sheets of vellum paper, which I arranged in a neat stack in the precise center of the blotter. At last, when I was absolutely and completely ready, I opened the center drawer, pulled out the Parker Duofold Deluxe fountain pen (a gift from a great aunt), dipped it into the bottle of blue-black Skrip, set pen-point to paper....

And stared at the blank sheet of paper.

And stared, and stared, and stared, until beads of sweat broke out on my forehead. Still the words would not come. Pushing my chair away from the desk, I got up and stalked around my den, hoping perhaps I would have better luck by sneaking up on the paper and taking the words unaware.

I came back to the desk, picked up the pen, scratched out three words:

Call me Ishmael.

No, that didn't look right. I changed the subject and the verb tense.

They called me Ishmael.

Nope, still not right. Maybe it would look better if I added a comma.

Ishmael, that's what they called me.

I crumpled up the sheet of paper, threw it at the wastebasket, and missed. As I stooped to pick it up, I wondered if that nice woven brass wastebasket I saw at Nelson's Office Supply would help my writing any.

The door creaked open behind me, and small feet padded into the room. "Daddy?" three-year-old Jennifer asked in a tiny voice, as if disturbing a sleeping dragon. "I need a drink of water."

"Okay, sweetheart." Maybe a little distance would help me focus the words. Taking Jennifer's hand, I walked her back upstairs, got her a Dixie cup of water, and tucked her back into bed. Then I took a quick tour of the other bedrooms: Six-year-old Lisa had her doll in a hammerlock and was snoring like a crosscut saw, baby Scott had kicked off all the covers but was sleeping like an angel, and my wife had nodded off over the latest Hollywood exposé again. Gently taking the book from her hand, I put it on the nightstand and turned out her reading light. I was certain she was asleep.

Which made it all the more puzzling when I got back to my study and found the large red envelope tucked into the rightmost cubby in the desk.

I picked up the envelope. It was large, about five by eleven inches, and made of an odd sort of paper with a distinctly metallic sheen. There was no name or address on the front. Turning it over, I found a queer, embossed seal featuring a neo-Grecian building surrounded by words in—Arabic? Hebrew? I couldn't tell.

The flap wasn't gummed. I split the back of the envelope with my hand-carved Kenyan ebony letterknife and a dozen or so sheets of extremely fine onionskin paper fluttered out. Picking them up, I found them to be covered with large but neatly hand-printed English, and this is what they said:


"My Dearest Nephew Edgar,

"My apologies for not answering your letter sooner. When one has the thousand-year lifespan of a Barsoomian, one tends to forget the urgency you Jasoomians feel about answering correspondence. Dejah is well, thank you, and Carthoris is off conquering something, as usual.

"Now, as to your request for a new story: while I sympathize with your urgent need for funds, I really have no more stories to tell you. I have told you nearly every detail of every adventure that has befallen me since I first came to Barsoom, and to be frank, I grow weary of the telling. As you know, I am a man of deeds, not words.

"You, however, are a man of words. To excess. Which leads to my reason for writing: while I have not had any great adventures as of late, I did have this...episode. It does not make much sense to me, but perhaps, between your gift for words and your tendency to truth-inflation, you can both find a meaning in it for me and pad it out to a marketable length for you.

"Enclosed you will find the notes I wrote immediately after the events in question took place. The details are few, so for Issus' sake get them right this time."


I stopped. Did I want to read on? This had all the earmarks of one of my wife's practical jokes; her entirely tactless way of telling me I was an idiot for buying the desk. After ten years of marriage, I've learned that the way to cope with her critical jabs is to smile and shrug them off.

Then I looked at the next page. It was written in a much shakier hand than the cover letter, but it was definitely not my wife's handwriting. I resumed reading.


"The events of which I write began, innocently enough, in the bedchamber of my own palace. Helium has been quiet lately, as it so often is between wars, and this led my incomparable Dejah to suggest one evening that we leave the children with the grandparents and take that little "second honeymoon" we'd been promising ourselves for the last decade or so.

"After brief discussion I agreed. We got out of bed and, while I busied myself with plotting a tour of the northern reaches, my inestimable Dejah packed up the kids' metal and sent word to her father that his grandchildren were coming over for breakfast. She neglected to add that they'd be staying for four days; with the true cunning I treasure so much in her she'd figured we could be in the air and gone before the Jeddak realized his grandchildren had brought their sleeping silks.

"As this was to be a pleasure trip, we decided to leave our retinue behind and take a small flyer just large enough for the two of us, our supplies, and the usual assortment of cutlery so necessary on Barsoom. We packed the flyer that night. Bright and early the next morning we trundled the kids over to the Jeddak's palace, said our kaors, and took off running.

"The morning's flight was quiet, peaceful... tedious, even. I prefer to fly on manual controls, but my inconsonant Dejah claims that when I steer there's no telling where we'll end up, so I used the directional compass to lock us on course for the fabulous city of Ptooey. Then I sat, twiddling my thumbs, as our craft sailed across the parched and desolate landscape of Barsoom. Occasionally we passed over knots of variously colored men who were hacking each other to bits—as you know, the global pastime on Barsoom—but none of the fights looked particularly promising, so I refrained from joining in.

"Shortly after noon, however, and out of a clear sky, we suddenly found ourselves caught in the midst of the most violent sandstorm I have ever seen! Within seconds it was obvious the propellors and rudder were useless in the cyclonic winds, and while we could attempt a landing, it would be difficult to tell such a landing from a crash. Thus our only hope lay in staying aloft and waiting until the storm blew itself out; I disengaged the motors, released the directional compass, and my inamorata Dejah suggested that, since our fate was in the gnarled and ancient hands of Issus, this was an excellent opportunity to try out the flyer's sleeping silks.

"How long we were in the storm, I do not know. Dejah tells me that I sleep like an anesthetized banth after we reconsummate our marriage. She also tells me I snore like a warhoon, and I think that may someday make a rousing story for you, Edgar, if I can ever get her to tell me how she has come to know what a snoring warhoon sounds like.

"When I awoke it was daylight and the storm was breaking up. I made my way to the controls, only to discover that the radium clock had exhausted its energy and we had no way of knowing the true time. Worse, the compass was spinning like a mad zitidar, so I could not begin to guess how far, or in what direction, we'd been blown. We were, in a word, lost!

"Cautiously, I started the engines and tried out the rudder. At first glance the running gear appeared intact, but a closer examination of the dials revealed that one of the buoyancy tanks had developed a slow leak. We would not remain aloft another zode unless it was patched. This made it impterative that we land for repairs, and it was at this time I finally looked at the terrain over which we flew.

"Words cannot express my despair at what I saw! Even for Barsoom, the land below was a trackless, dessicated waste. So far as my eyes could see there was nothing but sand, sand, and more sand, shaped into great dunes by the twisting, capricious winds!

"Still, there was some comfort in seeing barren desert. Dejah and I have a long history of being kidnapped and imprisoned when we travel, and in the midst of this awesome desolation I felt confident we could at least avoid that. Picking one of the more stable-looking dunes, I set us down.

"The moment the flyer came to rest, my indefatigable Dejah leapt out and began fussing over the leaky tank. I have learned to let her do so; I have never fully understood the mechanical aspects of Barsoomian flyers and have often made things worse trying to fix them. To be honest, any transportation more complex than a horse baffles me, and I have spent hours trying to figure out how thoats gallop with all those extra legs.

"Much as I adore my Dejah, watching her stern quarters while she bent over her work quickly grew tiresome, so I strapped on my weapons and began scouting the area for something to fight. I spotted a small, barrel-shaped creature pushing a copper-colored wheelbarrow along the crest of a nearby dune, but it was moving far faster than I could in the loose sand and was soon lost to sight. A little while later I thought I heard a faint voice calling out "Tweel!," but it may have been just the wind.

"Turning my gaze to the west, I was almost certain I saw an enormous tripod-like machine firing some kind of heat ray at a small fleet of lateen-rigged sailboats—er, sandboats, sandsailers, whatever—but that clearly was a mirage, for it disappeared when I rubbed my eyes and blinked.

"Other than that, I saw nothing.  Disgusted, I rejoined Dejah by the flyer-side and stuck my sword into the sand. The moment I did so, a sound like distant thunder greeted my ears—but it does not rain on Barsoom! My fighting smile fixed tautly upon my face, I leapt to my feet, snatched my sword out of the sand, and spotted, off to the east....

"A great dust cloud, such as might be raised by the entire Warhoon horde riding to battle! "Look, my Princess!" I cried, and pointed it out to Dejah with my sword.

""Oh, calot spoor," she hissed, and doubled her efforts.

"Although the authors of the dust were a great distance off and as yet imptossible to see, they did appear to be closing on us at an astounding pace. Fretfully I paced back and forth across the sand, hefting my sword, testing its edge, waiting for the old familiar glow of battle-euphoria to warm my veins. "What will it be this time?" I wondered aloud. For indeed, I have faced a remarkable number of menaces in my time on Barsoom, and this has led me to call her, among other things, the Planet of a Remarkable Number of Menaces. "Is this truly a battle force of the fierce green warhoon, or their cousins, the tharks?" The more I reflected on this, the less likely it seemed. We were far from the normal paths of the nomadic green men, and there wasn't vegetation enough here to support a leafhopper, much less a herd of saddle-thoats. Besides, Tal Hajus, Jeddak of Thark, who had lusted so greatly for my inculpable Dejah, was long since dead.

""Can another thark with similar desires have risen in his place?" The possibility was not worthy of further thought. Considered from the viewpoint of a fifteen-foot-tall olive-green egg-laying hexaped, lusting after Dejah must constitute a remarkable perversion.

"So I paced, and caressed by throbbing sword, and tried to think of all the many enemies I have made in my time on Barsoom. The yellow men, called Okarians, prefer the polar climates. The black First Born never ride when they can fly. The white Haunkese hide in their decaying suburbs and hope their daughters don't marry black or yellow men. Red men, then? I doubted even Zodangans were stupid enough to make thoats gallop in that heat.

"The dust cloud grew yet nearer, the clamor louder, and still I could not make out its source. Therefore I continued to limber up my sword arm and wonder what new surprise Barsoom might have in store for me. Ghoulish blue plant men, such as I fought in the Valley Dor? No, they'd wilt in this arid sandpit. Cruel and heartless Holy Therns, with Issus herself at their head? Hard to say; Therns are an unpredictable lot, as you might expect from a civilization based on blonde wigs and cannibalism.

"Only a few sand dunes now separated us from the onrushing menace; the very ground trembled at the sound. I transferred my sword to my right hand, drew my dagger with my left, squared my shoulders, and tensed my jaw muscles. At that moment something cold and clammy touched my arm; I spun around and very nearly took my incautious Dejah's head off. (Iss! When is she going to learn to stop sneaking up behind me?!)

""My Chieftain," Dejah shouted, "the flyer's fixed! If they want to come through here, why don't we let them?"

""Never!" I cried, "the Prince of Helium yields to no one!"

""Of course, dear," she replied as, smiling deferentially, she climbed into the flyer and started the engines.

"Then the dunes before us exploded in a great cataclysm of sand and dust, and I at last stood face-to-face with my foe! And I must confess that at that moment, I, who have lived a seemingly endless life of eternal battle and laughed in the face of Death even while fighting the gibbering apts amid their putrefying larder of corpses in the Carrion Caves, came very near to soiling my metal in fear.

"Imagine, if you will, a worm, an enormous worm, easily the length of an earthly coal train, with thousands of glittering crystalline teeth edging a great cavern of a mouth large enough to swallow a hundred men! I did not need to imagine it; a worm of that description was rearing up before me, its enormous mouth gaping and puckering like my spastic sphincter.

"Still, a monster worm beats no monster at all, so I raised my blade high, uttered a defiant cry of "For Helium!," but before I could strike the worm was—incredibly!—reined to a stop by the man sitting astride its back! (I had not noticed the riders before, so intent was I on that mouth and all those teeth.) As the worm halted, a party of a half-dozen strangely garbed people slid down its sides to alight on the sand and begin climbing the dune towards me. The wormsman was the last to dismount; to my disappointment the beast did not viciously attack the moment he released it, but simply buried its nose in the sand and sulked.

"I say the people were strangely garbed; this may need some clarification. As you know, most of the populace of Barsoom goes naked, except for jewelry and weapons. (It makes banking more interesting.) The worm riders, however, were covered from head to toe with heavy robes festooned with tubes. Even their noses and mouths were plugged and fitted with tubes; I suspect this was some retentive fetish taken to extremes. They must have felt like roasting soraks in those outfits.

"When they were close enough, I said, "Kaor," the traditional Martian greeting.

""Achlan, wasachlan," one of them replied. At that moment I sensed I was in deeper trouble than I had ever known before. The strange teleptathic power I had conveniently acquired upon my first arrival on Barsoom had deserted me; they may as well have been speaking Arabic for all the sense I could make of it.

"But then I am a well-traveled gentleman of Virginia, so I did what my countrymen have always found to work well in dealing with strange peoples: Repeated myself, loudly, in my native tongue. "Hello!" I bellowed. "Where are we?"

""On dune," one of them replied in broken English.

"Well, yes, I could see it was a dune. But I bit back the sarcastic retort that sprang to my tongue and said instead, "Me not make self clear. What land be this?"

""This is dune," another insisted, whereupon I gave up that question and tried a different tack. "Who be your heap-big boss man?"

""You have the honor of being in the domain of the Immortal God/Emperor," the first speaker intoned. While outwardly I marveled at his now-perfect diction, inwardly, I sighed. Not another immortal god/emperor! I have, in my time, resided in far more sanctified imperial dungeons than I care to think about.

"Still I was grimly determined to maintain a peaceable mien, so I said, "We are lost travelers and have been wandering long. Could you tell me the time of day?" If I could learn that much, I knew that Dejah could compute our position by observing the two hurtling Martian moons.

"The strangers consulted amongst themselves a few moments, and then one of them addressed me. "Time," he said, "is a convention shaped by the collective mind of all sentience. It has no objective meaning outside the vision."

"Smiling as if that made sense, I responded, "I'm sorry, but I left my sentience in my other loincloth."

"They conferred amongst themselves again, and then another stepped forward. "The many threads of the making are woven together in a great tapestry. You dance to the music, even though you can only taste the merest shadow of the accumulated lives."

""You can lead a shai-halud to water," another added sagely, "but you can't make him drink." This set all the others nodding like a bunch of Barsoomian flyer dashboard-dolls.

"While the above statements were flying gracefully over my head, I noticed that two in the back were not taking part in my instruction, but rather spoke to each other in hushed Voices. Listening closely, I discovered to my surprise that they were women. "Look at the muscles on him," the younger woman was saying. "What an addition he'd make to the breeding program, eh, Reverend Mother?" I realize a gentleman should blush at hearing such talk, but I have long since grown accustomed to hearing strange women express their lust for me. They can't help it.

""I don't know," the one called Reverend Mother was replying. "He's otnay ootay ightbray."

""And how about that sunburnt tart with him?" the first woman continued. I surmised she meant my incoherent Dejah, who was in the flyer, fuming with impatience.

""We can always use another oversexed vixen. Take her to the sietch."

"Take her? All my confusion fled as smoke before a strong wind; they were plotting to kidnap Dejah! This was something I knew how to deal with! Before the men could react my sword leapt into my hand, my foot caught the fellow nearest me square in the groin, and like an unbridled Fury I was amongst them, plying my vengeful steel, my fighting smile taut upon my face! Thus has it always been: I do not feel whole unless I have a blade in my hand and am upon my enemies, thrusting, charging, CHOPPING! SLICING! SLASHING! HACKING! HEWING! PERFECT!  JULIENNE! FRIES! IN!

"John?" I heard Dejah's voice calling, faint and trembling. "They're dead." But still I could not halt my thirsty blade! "John, stop it! You're making me sick!"

"I stood amidst the slaughter, dazed, sword and dagger clenched tightly in my twitching fists. Despite the rather lethal-looking sharpened ptothdrivers they'd carried in their belts, the worm riders had not mounted much of a defense against my onslaught.  None of them now stirred; their strange, mad lives were spilled upon the sand. And as I stood there viewing what my blind anger had wrought I must confess that, much as my mind hates the idiotic waste of war and my senses recoil from the spilling of brave young blood, I do enjoy a good wallow every now and then.

""John?" Dejah said, trembling. "Let's get out of here before someone sees us."

"Warily, I nudged a fallen body with my toe. They were indeed, so to speak, dead. Turning at last to Dejah, I said, "No."

""For Issus' sake," she implored. "John!"

""There is still the matter of the worm," I admonished her. Whereupon I marched resolutely down to the base of the dune and struck the worm will all my legendary Jasoomian strength. It didn't notice. After hacking at it awhile, I went back to the flyer, broke out a radium rifle, and peppered the monster with bullets. It ignored me.

""JOHN!" Dejah called out, at once both petulant and pleading. I tossed the rifle back to her, thrust my blades into the sand to clean them, then used a water bag I'd found on one of the corpses to scrub off the blood before it became sticky. At last, to Dejah's relief, I boarded the flyer, where I learned she'd found a spare compass in the tool locker and finished repairs. Ten minutes later we were en route back to Helium."


Here, the manuscript ended. There was, however, a brief postscript penned in on the last page. It read:


"P.S.: In looking over these notes, I am again stricken by the inconclusiveness of this narrative. Many hours have I spent in the great library of Helium, and in the even greater library of Horz (before we burned it), and I have yet to find a mention of the worm riders in all the written history of Barsoom. They remain as much of an enigma today as when I first met them.

"I realize now, though, that they have come to prey much on my mind. Even my insouciant Dejah remains troubled; she no longer shrieks when she sees my sword, but she does still start and shudder if I touch her by surprise.

"Therefore, my dear Edgar, I have recently begun the work of organizing an expedition against the worm riders. With Dejah's help—insistence, even—I have secured the use of the Jeddak's finest air battleship. I am now recruiting the best soldiers I can find to man it, and it pleases me to see that, though the campaign may take years, Dejah is one hundred percent in favor of my going.

"However long it takes, however great the bloodshed, I am confident that we will triumph. And I promise you, Edgar, that on my return from annihilating these mysterious desert dwellers and their false divine emperor, I will have the most marvelous stories yet for you!"


A week has ptassed—er, passed, and still I have the mystery. How did my wife manage to slip this story onto my desk? She denies having anything to do with it, of course. For one thing, it's not in her handwriting. For another, I was certain she was asleep. After ten years of marriage and three children I can tell when she's really out for the night, and when she's faking it because she doesn't feel romantic. She couldn't have slipped the envelope onto my desk.

Yet it arrived.

In truth, this has all the earmarks of one of her little, pointed, overly academic jokes. But I'll get the last laugh, I think, because she has given me a great idea for a story.

No, not rehashed Burroughs. Even if Heinlein were to return from the dead, I doubt if even he could sell another story about John and Dejah. But that giant sandworm business; now that's an idea that shows some promise.

I wonder if anyone's used it lately?


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