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Fiction Excerpt: “Tumithak of the Towers of Fire”

By Charles R. Tanner

Illustrated by Denis Rodier
from Black Gate 7, originally published in Super Science Stories, November 1941. Copyright 1941 by Fictioneers Inc.
“Tumithak of the Towers of Fire” is the sequel to “Tumithak of the Corridors” (Black Gate 5) and “Tumithak in Shawm” (Black Gate 6).

CHAPTER I
Incredible Rescue

The room in which the workers toiled was about a hundred feet square, and windowless. The fact that the floor, walls and high ceiling were all of the same glassy brown composition suggested that the room was underground, as indeed it was. And on the far right, a flight of stairs running up the side of the wall, a broad flight with an ornate, carved balustrade, added any necessary proof to the fact.

There must have been thirty of the machines at which the workers busied themselves. On the side of the machines nearest the workers, a complicated series of thermometer-like tubes appeared, a half-dozen levers, and a small hopper. Each worker was engaged in slowly pouring into the hopper a substance that had the appearance of powdered iron, meanwhile watching carefully the gauges, his free hand hovering over the levers.

Most of the workers were old men, weak old men with looks of hopeless despair on their faces. Others, a few, were younger looking, but the same look of almost resigned hopelessness covered their faces. Indeed, there were but four in the entire company whose faces showed any signs of vigor or of hope. And these four sat close to the platform and the bottom of the steps, where their masters might keep a sharp eye on them and be ready at a moment’s notice to whip back any signs of rebellion.

Their masters! There were two of them, standing on untiring limbs on the low dais-like platform at the foot of the stairs, with their assistants squatting at their feet. Strange as those assistants would seem to men of today, their strangeness was nothing compared to that of their masters.

For their masters were not men at all, but shelks, savage but intelligent beasts from another world, who had ruled over the Surface from time immemorial. They were crustacean-like creatures; indeed, they might have been mistaken for gigantic lobsters at a distance. They had ten limbs, hairless and not at all unlike greatly elongated fingers.

Their bodies, reddish in hue, were shaped a good deal like a wasp’s abdomen, and seated directly upon that body, with no sign of a neck, was a head that was startling in its resemblance to a human one. Save for the fact that it was hairless and had a grim thinness to the lips that no man had ever had, a shelk’s head might have been that of a man.

Their assistants were men. At least, they had the form of men. But none of the toiling slaves considered them as such. To them they were mogs — fawning, dog-like descendants of the men who had surrendered to the shelks in that ancient day when the beasts of Venus had conquered earth and driven most of the race into the pits and corridors where they still lived.

Time and breeding had changed the mogs considerably. Few of them were less than six and a half feet tall, and most of them were closer to seven. Their hair was black and they wore full black beards, and all were as lean and supple as greyhounds. And like greyhounds, their chests were developed out of all proportions to the rest of their bodies, which were bony and gaunt.

So the workers toiled at their machines, and the shelks and mogs sat and watched, drowsily; and the mogs even dozed. For they knew well that no man would dare to raise his hand against their masters. Besides, the masters were armed with the terrible fire-hoses, curious weapons consisting of a small box which was strapped on each shelk’s back, from which emerged a hose that ended in a long tube thrust in a scabbard. Deadly weapons these were indeed, for they could throw a searing beam of heat that, even at a hundred yards, was fatal.

Of the four younger toilers, the mightiest was Otaro. He had been a slave of the shelks but a few weeks. Before that he had been the chief of the Kraylings, a powerful tribe of pit dwellers who lived in a man-pit many miles from where he now toiled. Like all the Kraylings — indeed, like all the toilers in this room, who had once been Kraylings, too — he was black-skinned and woolly-haired. Unlike the others, however, the look of nobility on his face had not yet been erased by the knowledge of his servitude.

His mind was dwelling on the events of the past as he worked, and on the probabilities of the present. All of his life he had dwelled with the fear of the shelks upon him, for ever and anon, as long as the records of his tribe told of, the shelks had made periodic raids on his pit and carried off living prisoners to some unknown destiny. He and his people had always looked upon these raids as inevitable, and had come to accept them as part of the scheme of things. When it came Otaro’s turn, there had been a fight. Yet the end was the same — when the battle was over, a living but unconscious Otaro had been picked up by the shelks and taken from his pit, to live and learn what the shelks required of living Krayling prisoners.

He was wondering now what might be going on back in the pit of the Kraylings. Had his brother Mutassa acceded to the chieftainship? If so, he might almost be content, for Mutassa would certainly make a great chief. But there was one Koudok —

Otaro gasped suddenly, his hand half raised to his mouth in an uncontrollable gesture of surprise. Then, instantly, a mask of immobility swept across his face and he turned to face his machine again. But his heart was pounding, and ever and anon he stole a look, out of the corner of his eye, at the doorway high up at the top of the stairs.

For a man had appeared there, and Otaro had been looking straight at the doorway when he appeared. The man had withdrawn immediately, but not before Otaro had seen him plainly. Never had Otaro seen such a man — indeed, it was only in the oldest legends of his tribe that such a man had even been told of. He was a white man, tall and well-built, clad in a loose-sleeved tunic with a wide-pocketed belt. Around his head was a simple gold band such as the governors of shelk cities wore, and in his hand was a fire-hose, the weapon of the shelks!

In the legends of the Kraylings were stories of the miztas, mighty men of old who had once battled with the shelks and ruled over the Kraylings. And legend said that the miztas had gone away, long ago, promising some day to return and set free the Kraylings from their fear of the savage beasts that ruled the Surface! So Otaro the Krayling bent to his work, trembling a little, and stole glances out of the corner of his eye at the doorway above.

And presently the man appeared again, stooping, cautious, so that the shelks would not see him. He moved toward the steps. Behind him another man appeared. Otaro’s heart skipped a beat, for this second man was a mog! And the mog stepped forward cautiously and spoke softly to the first man. Quite certainly these two were friends, but what could a mizta, a free man, have in common with a mog? Otaro had no time to answer this question, however, for just then a third man appeared, and his identity caused Otaro to lose all control of himself and to gasp audibly.

He hastily turned the gasp into a cough as one of the shelks raised his head, and bent to his work more busily than ever. For several moments he dared not look up again; yet every fiber of his being shrieked with curiosity.

For the third man had been his brother Mutassa, whom he had believed to be back in the Krayling pit, ruling in his place!

Thoughts sped through Otaro’s brain like the shadows of dancers about a fire. Who was this white man, so like the miztas of legend? Why was the mog seemingly his friend? What, above all, was Mutassa doing with them? And what — he stole a look at the stairs again — what were they about to do, as they stole silently down toward the shelks? Was it possible that they meant to attack them?

Yes, it must be that, for the foremost man, the mizta, had raised his fire-hose —

At just that moment one of the mogs raised his eyes. He saw the three, and, giving a startled yelp, flung himself at them. The fire-hose in the hand of the mizta spat flame and fury, and the mog, smoking and screeching, flung himself, dying, in front of the man.

The white one stumbled, almost fell, and to save himself, dropped his fire-hose nozzle and flung himself back. He was on his feet instantly, but before he could recover his hose, he saw that the shelks, aroused by the mog’s cry, had leaped up and were raising their own hoses to burn the white one down.

And then Otaro saw a sight that in his wildest dreams he had never conceived. The mizta screamed, a disconcerting scream that seemed almost a madman’s yelp of panic. Leaping from his place, some six steps from the bottom of the flight, he flung himself directly upon the shelks, legs kicking and arms flailing, a very embodiment of a whirlwind. The mog and Mutassa, who seemed a little uncertain what to do, waited but the slightest part of a second and then followed the white man’s example. By this time the shelks’ second mog had joined the fray, and Mutassa and the strange mog devoted their attention to him.

For the mizta was handling the two shelks alone, and a very good job he was making of it. With a god-like consistency, he had paid no attention to the shelks themselves when he landed among them. It was their fire-hoses that were dangerous and it was their fire-hoses to which he directed his attention. He grasped the nozzle of one even as he kicked viciously at the box on the back of the other. His foot missed the box, but landed on the jaw of the shelk who wore it, and as he wrenched the nozzle from the hose in the first shelk’s hand, he flung himself at the other and crashed a foot into its face.

The second shelk, almost blinded by the vicious kick, staggered back and raised his fire-hose again. The white mizta abandoned his attack on the first shelk, whose weapon was now useless, and leaped at the other. In a moment, his weapon, too, was useless and the two shelks, unable to conceive a man who could be victorious in a battle with shelks, rushed in to the attack unarmed.

And then, unarmed as he was, the shelks learned what ensuing generations of their kind were to face from aroused and infuriated mankind. With feet and hands and even teeth, the white man tore at them, ignoring claws and snapping fangs, gouging and tearing at their limbs until he literally tore them apart. One attempted at last to flee, but the strange mizta seized him by a dragging limb and pulled him back even as, with the other hand, he choked that shelk’s companion into black insensibility.


The Saga of Tumithak

“Tumithak of the Corridors” was popular when it first appeared, and reader response almost guaranteed a sequel. “Tumithak in Shawm,” in which Tumithak leads a human war party to the surface to confront the shelks — discovering both an ancient cache of powerful human weapons and new shelk horrors — appeared in June 1933. Fans had to wait nearly a decade for the third tale, in which Tumithak led his rag-tag band of human warriors to victory in “Tumithak of the Towers of Fire” (Super Science Stories, Nov 1941).

While researching this story we stumbled across this intriguing reference in Magic Dragon’s Ultimate Science Fiction Web Guide entry on Charles Tanner:

By an amazing coincidence, I had Charles R. Tanner’s son as a student in one of the classes I taught, and he gave me a copy of a manuscript of an unpublished 4th story in the Tumithak series. I have, to date, failed to have it published…

We contacted Tanner’s son, Jim Tanner, in early 2003 and he confirmed the story, adding:

The Tumithak stories… are to be printed in book form, the three already printed ones plus an unpublished fourth one. My father would be pleased, knowing there is still an interest in his stories after so many years. Publisher’s name is North Star Press of St. Cloud… Work on the book is progressing and [it] should be published in the latter part of this year.

The Stories:

  • “Tumithak of the Corridors” (Amazing Stories, Jan 1932)
  • “Tumithak in Shawm” (Amazing Stories, June 1933)
  • “Tumithak of the Towers of Fire” (Super Science Stories, Nov 1941)
  • “Tumithak and the Ancient Word” (unpublished)

The complete version of “Tumithak of the Towers of Fire” appears in Black Gate 7.
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