John Norman

Tarnsman of Gor

(Chronicles of Counter-Earth-1)

Chapter 1

A Handful of Earth

MY NAME Is TARL CABOT. The name is supposed to have been shortened in the fifteenth century from the Italian surname Caboto. As far as I know, however, I have no connection with the Venetian explorer who carried the banner of Henry VII to the New World. Such a connection seems unlikely for a number of reasons, among them the fact that my people were simple tradesmen of Bristol, and uniformly fair — complexioned and topped with a blaze of the most outrageous red hair. Nonetheless, such coincidences, even if they are only geographical, linger in family memory — our small challenge to the ledgers and arithmetic of an existence measured in bolts of cloth sold. I like to think there may have been a Cabot in Bristol, one of us, who watched our Italian namesake weigh anchor in the early morning of that second of May, 1497.

You may remark my first name, and I assure you that it gave me quite as much trouble as it might you, particularly during my early school years, when it occasioned almost as many contests of physical skill as my red hair. Let us say simply that it is not a common name, not common on this world of ours. It was given to me by my father, who disappeared when I was quite young. I thought him dead until I received his strange message, more than twenty years after he had vanished. My mother, whom he inquired after, had died when I was about six, somewhere about the time I entered school. Biographical details are tedious, so suffice it to say that I was a bright child, fairly large for my age, and was given a creditable upbringing by an aunt who furnished everything that a child might need, with the possible exception of love.

Surprisingly enough, I managed to gain entrance to the University of Oxford, but I shall not choose to embarrass my college by entering its somewhat too revered name in this narrative. I graduated decently, having failed to astound either myself or my tutors. Like a large number of young men, I found myself passably educated, able to parse a sentence or so in Greek, and familiar enough with the abstractions of philosophy and economics to know that I would not be likely to fit into that world to which they claimed to bear some obscure relation. I was not, however, reconciled to ending up on the shelves of my aunt's shop, along with the cloth and ribbon, and so I embarked upon a wild, but not too wild, adventure, all things considered.

Being literate and not too dull, and having read enough history to tell the Renaissance from the industrial Revolution, I applied to several small American colleges for an instructorship in history — English history, of course. I told them I was somewhat more advanced academically than I was, and they believed me, and my tutors, in their letters of recommendation, being good fellows, were kind enough not to disabuse them of this illusion. I believe my tutors thoroughly enjoyed the situation, which they, naturally, did not officially allow me to know they understood. It was the Revolutionary War all over again. One of the colleges to which I applied, one perhaps somewhat less perceptive than the rest, a small liberal arts college for men in New Hampshire, entered into negotiations, and I had soon received what was to be my first and, I suppose, my last appointment in the academic world.

In tune I assumed I would be found out, but meanwhile I had my passage to America paid and a position for at least one year. This outcome struck me as being a pleasant if perplexing state of affairs. I admit I was annoyed by the suspicion that I had been given the appointment largely on the grounds that I would be faculty exotica. Surely I had no publications, and I am confident there must have been several candidates from American universities whose credentials and capacities would have far outshone my own, except for the desiderated British accent. Yes, there would be the round of teas and the cocktail and supper invitations.

I liked America very much, though I was quite busy the first semester, smashing through numerous texts in an undignified manner, attempting to commit enough English history to memory to keep at least a reign or so ahead of my students. I discovered, to my dismay, that being English does not automatically qualify one as an authority on English history. Fortunately, my departmental chairman, a gentle, bespectacled man, whose speciality was American economic history, knew even less than I did, or, at least, was considerate enough to allow me to believe so.

The Christmas vacation helped greatly. I was especially counting on the time between the semesters to catch up, or, better, to lengthen my lead on the students. But after the term papers, the tests, and the grading of the first semester, I was afflicted with a rather irresistible desire to chuck the British Empire and go for a long, long walk indeed, even a camping trip in the nearby White Mountains.

I borrowed some camp gear, mostly a knapsack and a sleeping bag, from one of the few friends I had made on the faculty — an instructor also, but in the deplorable subject of physical education. He and I had fenced occasionally and had gone for infrequent walks. I sometimes wonder if he is curious about what happened to his camp gear or to Tarl Cabot. Surely the administration of the college was curious, and angry at the inconvenience of having to replace an instructor in the middle of the year, for Tarl Cabot was never heard of again on the campus of that college.

My friend in the physical education department drove me a few miles into the mountains and dropped me off. We agreed to meet again in three days at the same place. The first thing I did was check my compass, as if I knew what I was up to, and then proceeded to leave the highway well behind me. More quickly than I realized, I was alone and in the woods, climbing. Bristol, as you know, is a heavily urbanized area, and I was not well prepared for my first encounter with nature. Surely the college, though somewhat rural, was at least one of the outworks of, say, material civilization. I was not frightened, being confident that walking steadily in any given direction would be sure to bring me to one highway or another, or some stream or another, and that it would be impossible to become lost, or at least for long. Primarily, I was exhilarated, being alone, with myself and the green pines and patches of snow.

I trudged along for the better part of two hours before I finally yielded to the weight of the pack. I ate a cold lunch and was on my way again, getting deeper into the mountains. I was pleased that I had regularly taken a turn or two around the college track.

That evening I dropped my pack near a rock platform and set about gathering some wood for a fire. I had gone a bit from my makeshift camp when I stopped, startled for a moment. Something in the darkness, to the left, lying on the ground, seemed to be glowing. It held a calm, hazy blue radiance. I put down the wood I had gathered and approached the object, more curious than anything else. It appeared to be a rectangular metal envelope, rather thin, not much larger than the normal envelope one customarily uses for correspondence. I touched it; it seemed to be hot. My hair rose on the back of my head; my eyes widened. I read, in a rather archaic English script inscribed on the envelope, two: words — my name, Tarl Cabot.

It was a joke. Somehow my friend had followed me, must be hiding somewhere in the darkness: I called his name, laughing. There was no answer. I raced about in the woods a moment, shaking bushes, batting the snow from the low-hanging branches of pines. I then walked more slowly, more carefully, being quiet. I would find him!

Some fifteen minutes passed, and I was growing cold, angry. I shouted to him. I widened my search, keeping that strange metal envelope with its blue ambience the center of my movements. At last I realized he must have planted the odd object, left it for me to discover, and, was probably on his way home by now or was perhaps camping somewhere nearby. I was confident he was not within earshot or he would have eventually responded. It was no longer funny, not if he was near.

I returned to the object and picked it up. It seemed to be cooler now, though I still had the distinct impression… of warmth. It was a strange object. I brought it back to my camp and built my fire, against the darkness and cold. I was shivering in spite of my heavy clothing. I was sweating. My heart was beating. My breath was short. I was frightened.

Accordingly, slowly and calmly, I set about tending the fire, opened a can of chili, and set up sticks to hold the tiny cooking pot over the fire. These domestic activities slowed my pulse and succeeded in convincing me that I could be patient and was even not too much interested in the contents of the metal envelope. When the chili was heating, and not before, I turned my attention to the puzzling object.

I turned it over and over in my hands and studied it by the light of the campfire. It was about twelve inches long and four inches high. It weighed, I guessed, about four ounces. The color of the metal was blue, and something of its ambience continued to characterize it, but the glow was fading. Also, the envelope no longer seemed warm to the touch. How long had it lain waiting for me in the woods? How long ago had it been placed there?

While I considered this, the glow faded abruptly. If it had faded earlier, I never would have discovered it in the woods. It was almost as if the glow had been connected with the intent of the sender, as if the glow, no longer needed, had been allowed to fade. 'The message has been delivered,' I said to myself, feeling a bit silly as I said it. I did not find my private joke very funny.

I looked the lettering. It resembled some now outdated English script, but I knew too little about such things to hazard much of a guess at the date. Something about the lettering reminded me of that on a colonial charter, a page of which had been photocopied for an illustration in one of my books. Seventeenth century perhaps? The lettering itself seemed to be inset in the envelope, bonded in its metallic structure. I could find no seam or flap in the envelope. I tried to crease the envelope with my thumbnail, but failed.

Feeling rather foolish, I took out the can opener I had used on the chili can and attempted to force the metal point through the envelope. Light as the envelope seemed to be, it resisted the point as if I were trying to open an anvil. I leaned on the can opener with both arms, pressing down with all my weight. The point of the can opener bent into a right angle, but the envelope had not: been scratched.

I handled the envelope carefully, puzzled, trying to determine if it might be opened. There was a small circle on the back of the envelope, and in the circle seemed to be the print of a thumb. I wiped it on my sleeve, but it did not disappear. The other prints on the envelope, from my fingers, wiped away immediately. As well as I could, I scrutinized the print in the circle. It, too, like the lettering, seemed a part of the metal, yet its ridges and. lineaments were exceedingly delicate.

At last I was confident that it was a part of the envelope. I pressed it with my finger; nothing happened. Tired of this strange business, I set the envelope aside and; turned my attention to the chili, which was now bubbling over the small campfire. After I had eaten, I removed my boots and coat and crawled into the sleeping bag.

I lay there beside the dying fire, looking up at the branch-lined sky and the mineral glory of the unconscious universe. I lay awake for a long time, feeling alone, yet not alone, as one sometimes does in the wilderness, feeling as if one were the only living object on the planet and as if the closest things to one — one's fate and destiny perhaps — lay outside our small world, somewhere in theremote, alien pastures of the stars.

A thought struck me with sudden swiftness, and I was… afraid, but I knew what I must do. The matter of the envelope was not a hoax, not a trick. Somewhere, deep in.whatever I am, I knew that and had known it from the beginning. Almost as if dreaming, yet with vivid clarity, I inched partly out of my sleeping bag. I rolled over, and threw some wood on the fire and reached for the envelope. Sitting in the sleeping bag, I waited for the fire to rise a bit. Then I carefully placed my right thumb on the impression in the envelope, pressing down firmly. It answered to my touch, as I had expected it to, as I.

had feared it would. Perhaps only one man could open that envelope — he whose print fitted the strange lock, he whose name was Tarl Cabot. The apparently

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