Ero Shan and I were now alone on the ship. We discussed our situation and what we might do under the circumstances.
“Now that we have complete possession of the 975,” I said, “we might as well take advantage of it and go out and search for Duare.”
“We stand about one chance in a million of finding her,” he replied, “but I’m for that millionth chance if you are.”
“Well, we certainly can’t find her in the City of Hor,” I said; “so we might as well go out and scour the country in the vicinity of the place where she disappeared.”
“You realize, of course, what the penalty will be for stealing a ship and deserting when we are finally picked up.”
“Oh, we’re not deserting,” I said, “we’re looking for our squadron commander.”
Ero Shan laughed. “It’s all right if you can get away with it,” he said.
I headed the 975 back along the avenue down which we had come from the gate at which we had entered the city. Along the entire route we encountered crowds of drunken warriors, singing and dancing with Pangan girls.
“The Pangans seem to be a most hospitable people,” remarked Ero Shan.
“The Falsans say that they are fools,” I said, “but I should say that it is the Falsans who are the fools right now.”
When we reached the gate, which still lay where the great gantor had thrown it, we found it heavily guarded by Falsan warriors, who halted us. There were no girls here, and these men had not been drinking. An officer approached and asked where we thought we were going.
“l am looking for my squadron commander,” I replied. “I can’t find him in the city and I thought possibly the squadron might have formed outside of Hor.”
“You will probably find him up around the central plaza,” said the officer. “Most of the fleet is there and none of our fleet is outside the city.”
Disappointed, I turned back and took the main avenue which led toward the center of the city and the jong’s palace; and as we proceeded, evidence of the hospitality of the Pangans multiplied, the visible effects of which had degenerated into nothing less than a drunken orgy. One thing that was particularly noticeable was the absence of Pangan men from the avenues, and the fact that few, if any, of the Pangan girls appeared to be under the influence of liquor.
In the central plaza, before the jong’s palace, pandemonium reigned. A great many ships of our fleet were there, packed in without military order, their decks filled with Pangan girls and drunken Falsan warriors.
For the purpose of carrying out the fiction that I was looking for my squadron commander, I made inquiries from a warrior attached to the flagship, a man whom I knew would recognize and remember me.
“Squadron commander,” he repeated. “He is probably in the palace. The jong is giving a banquet for the officers of our fleet.” He handed me a jug. “Have a drink,” he invited. “It is good liquor, the best I ever tasted. These Pangans are really wonderful people, treating us this way now that, after ten years, we have won the war and conquered Hor. Have a drink.”
“No, thanks,” I said. “I have got to get into the palace and find my squadron commander.” And we moved off in the direction of the great gates of the jong’s palace.
“Do you really mean that you want to get in there?” asked Ero Shan.
“I certainly do,” I said. “I think Danlot should know that his entire force is drunk. You come with me, Ero Shan. Whatever happens, we will stick together.”
The guard at the palace gate halted us. “I have an important message for the lotokor Danlot,” I said.
The man sized us up. Except for our helmets, we wore no regulation article of the Falsan uniform. The fellow hesitated and then he called an officer, to whom I repeated my statement.
“Certainly,” he said; “come right in. You will find your commanding officer in the banquet hall.”
The corridors of the palace, and the apartments into which we could see as we made our way toward the banquet hall, were filled with drunken Falsan officers and sober Pangans. At the entrance to the banquet hall we were halted again, and once again I repeated the statement that I had a message for Danlot. While we were waiting for an officer whom the sentry had summoned, we had an opportunity to take in the scenes in the banquet hall. Long tables filled the room, at which were seated all the higher officers of the Falsan navy, practically all of whom were obviously under the influence of liquor; and beside each drunken Falsan sat a sober Pangan. On a raised platform at the far end of the room, at a smaller table, sat Jahan, jong of Panga, with the highest officers of his realm and the ranking officers of the Falsan navy. Danlot sat on the jong’s right. He was slumped in his chair, his chin resting on his breast. He seemed to be asleep.
“I don’t like the looks of this,” I said to Ero Shan in a whisper.
“Neither do I,” he replied. “I think we should get out of here. It would be a waste of time delivering your message to Danlot.”
“I’m afraid it’s too late anyway,” I said. I had scarcely ceased speaking, and we still stood looking into the banquet hall, when Hajan the jong rose and drew his sword. It was evidently a prearranged signal, for simultaneously every Pangan officer in the banquet hall followed the example of his jong, and every Pangan sword was pointed at the breast of a Falsan. Trumpets sounded, and other trumpets carried the call to arms down every corridor of the palace and out into the city.
I snatched off Ero Shan’s helmet and my own and tossed them on the floor. He looked at me in sudden surprise and then smiled, for he realized that now no one could identify us as Falsans, and that for the time being we might be overlooked, possibly long enough to permit us to escape.
A few of the Falsan officers resisted and were killed, but most of them were disarmed and made prisoners. In the confusion we made our way out of the palace and through the gates with a number of Pangan officers.
As we reached the plaza we saw Pangan troops pouring in from every avenue, while Pangan girls were pouring from every ship and fleeing to safety.
The fighting in the plaza was soon over, as it was in other parts of the city, for the drunken, disorganized Falsans could put up little or no resistance since most of them had been surreptitiously disarmed by the Pangan girls.
Within an hour the Falsans had been herded into the plaza before the barracks, and were being held there under guard. Most of them lay asleep on the sward in drunken stupors. A few of those who had been on guard at the gates escaped on foot out into the night. The Pangans had taken thousands of prisoners and the entire Falsan land fleet. It looked to me as though the ten-year-old war was over.
“The Pangans were not such fools after all,” I said to Ero Shan.
We were standing near the 975, looking at it longingly and wondering how we could get out of the city with it, when an officer came up behind me and tapped me on the shoulder.
“Who are you two?” he demanded as I turned around to face him.
“We were prisoners of the Falsans, “ I replied, “but after the men who were guarding us got drunk, we escaped.” Then I had an inspiration. “We are both gunners,” I said, “and I am a pilot. We would like to enlist in the service of your jong.”
The officer scratched his head. “You don’t look like Falsans,” he admitted, “But you’re not Pangans; so I’ll put you under arrest until morning, and then the proper authorities can decide what is to be done to you.” He summoned some soldiers then and told them to lock us up until morning and then to bring us to his headquarters. From his insignia I saw that he held a rank similar to that of colonel. Nowhere that I have been on Venus have I found any differentiation between Army and Navy, and the ranks that I have translated into military titles a Navy man would probably have translated into Navy titles. I like the system, for it certainly simplifies matters of precedence and rank, and makes for a unified fighting force comprising all branches of every service.
Ero Shan and I were taken to a guardhouse and locked up and there ended a day of action, excitement, successes, and reversals; and with it the blasting of my hopes to steal the 975 and prosecute my search for Duare.