This next bit sounds kind of freaky, I admit. The trouble is that something must have happened, but thanks to the hydrogen poisoning I have no real idea what. All I can do is go on the images I have stored in my mind, even though I know they can't be true.

So here goes. After I'd told them some more about my trip through the tunnels with John Carter and his buddy Tars Tarkas, they cut me down from that gallows thing. Just as well, too - my wrists were almost dislocated already , and those two other girls didn't look exactly healthy (I found out afterwards that they use the bodies of spies to feed those eight-legged things they ride. I don't know if they were already dead. For their sake, I hope so).

One of the mounted warriors caught me up. With a start I saw it was Dejah Thoris herself. As we galloped along she pointed out the sights: the great canals stretching right and left all around us, the pyramids looming in the far distance, and – coming ever closer – the great stone face.

It was a little like Giza, really. Or the pictures that you see of it. The great pyramid, the sphinx, and all that sand.

But it wasn’t the pyramids we were aiming for. An immense semi-circular flying machine was hovering ahead of us, and that was what Dejah Thoris and her troop of soldiers were riding towards.

It landed in a cloud of dust in front of us, the rear doors opened, and a tongue of steel shot out. Without even dismounting we pounded straight into the interior of the machine. After that all I remember is a mass of steel corridors and staircases until we finally reached her state rooms at the top of the ... flying saucer, I guess you’d have to call it.

The room was huge, and hung with billowy draperies. The couches were soft; servants fussed around us. After a while, when everything was disposed to her satisfaction, the Queen simply clapped her hands, once, and everyone disappeared.

She clapped them again and the shutters rolled up. And there before us was the whole expanse of Mars.

We must have already taken off (though I hadn’t heard anything – no screaming engines, no whirr of flying dust), because the view was breathtaking. I know we were at least as high as Olympus Mons, because the curve of the planet was already visible, with the blue-black hardness of space encroaching on every side.

It took my breath away. I mean that literally. I just sat there, almost forgetting to breathe, in awe, unable to speak, let alone think what to do next.

A voice came from the back of the room.

“You see the realm of Helium, girl. Now it is time for you to speak in full. The hangmen are still finishing with your friends.”

I hadn’t noticed that the white-bearded man had stayed when everyone else left. He was sitting at a little shaded desk at the back of the room. As he spoke, he gestured to the wall behind him, and lo and behold, I saw the platform again. And the two poor girls being cut down from their bonds.

“Wha ... What do you want to know?”

I knew it might be fatal to show weakness, but fuck, I
am only a kid – and not that brave at the best of times, for all I can talk the talk. I started to cry.

At this Dejah Thoris came over and started to cluck over me. In a strangely clumsy, unpractised way, as if she wasn’t used to such emotional displays. At least she was
trying, though, and so, at last, with a lot of sobbing and sniffing, I told her my story. I mean the whole thing, from beginning to end. Dad and Mum’s divorce, and moving to the outer rings, and our next-door neighbour and his schemes, and all the ups and downs and ins and outs and plots and counterplots and lies and carefully calculated truths ... I just can’t go through all that again.

They listened solemnly to all of it. It must have been incomprehensible to them, in their medieval world of jousts and horse-back fighting, but they gave no sign of that.

What interested them most, apparently, because they questioned me most closely about it, was the story of the lost explorers. They wanted
all the detail I could dredge up on that.

At length, when I was done – it seemed to take hours, but maybe it was only a few minutes, really: who can say? –the flying machine didn’t seem to have moved at all. With a shock, I realised that the view out of the window was fixed and static, as if it had been painted. Looking round, I saw how threadbare the carpets and couches actually were. And Dejah Thoris and her counsellor. How shabby they looked! More like refugees from a costume party than Martian gods ... like Pat and the private eye in crude Barsoomian disguises.

Something of my feelings must have shown in my face, because she spoke to me:

“You’ve spotted us, I see. I’m afraid we had to trick you to find out all you knew (which isn’t all that much, luckily for you. Your mother’s still missing, I’m afraid. That’s where we
will still need your help. Her life’s in terrible danger right now. She’s in the hands of a madman, though she may not know it. She wouldn’t be the first he’s tried to kill, but we’re damned determined she’ll be the last.”

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