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1. Disaster

Everyone who has ever flown will recall the thrill of his first flight over familiar terrain, viewing the old scenes from a new angle that imparted a strangeness and a mystery to them as of a new world; but always there was the comforting knowledge that the airport was not too far away and that even in the event of a forced landing one would know pretty well where he was and how to get home.

But that dawn that Duare and I took off from Havatoo to the accompaniment of the staccato hum of Amtorian rifles, I was actually flying over an unknown world; and there was no landing field and no home. I believe that this was the happiest and most thrilling moment of my life. The woman I love had just told me that she loved me, I was once again at the controls of a ship, I was free, I was flying in safety above the innumerable menaces that haunt the Amtorian scene. Undoubtedly, other dangers lay ahead of us in our seemingly hopeless quest for Vepaja, but for the moment there was nothing to mar our happiness or arouse forebodings. At least, not in me. With Duare it may have been a little different. She may have had forebodings of disaster. It would not be strange if she had, for up until the very instant that we rose to top the walls of Havatoo she had had no conception that there might exist any contrivance in which man might leave the ground and fly through the air. It was naturally something of a shock to her; but she was very brave, and content, too, to accept my word that we were safe.

The ship was a model of perfection, such a ship as will one day be common along the airways of old Earth when science has progressed there as far as it has in Havatoo. Synthetic materials of extreme strength and lightness entered into her construction. The scientists of Havatoo assured me that she would have a life of at least fifty years without overhaul or repairs other than what might be required because of accident. The engine was noiseless and efficient beyond the dreams of Earth men. Fuel for the life of the ship was aboard; and it took up very little space, for it could all be held in the palm of one hand. This apparent miracle is scientifically simple of explanation. Our own scientists are aware of the fact that the energy released by combustion is only an infinitesimal fraction of that which might be generated by the total annihilation of a substance. In the case of coal it is as eighteen thousand millions are to one. The fuel for my engine consists of a substance known as lor, which contains an element called yor-san, as yet unknown to Earth men, and another element, vik-ro, the action of which upon yor-san results in absolute annihilation of the lor. Insofar as the operation of the ship was concerned, we might have flown on for fifty years, barring adverse weather conditions; but our weakness lay in the fact that we had no provisions. The precipitancy of our departure had precluded any possibility of provisioning the ship. We had escaped with our lives and what we had on, and that was all; but we were very happy. I didn't want to spoil it by questioning the future. But, really, we had a great many questions to ask of the future; and Duare presently raised one quite innocently enough.

"Where are we going?" she asked.

"To look for Vepaja," I told her. "I am going to try to take you home."

She shook her head. "No, we can't go there."

"But that is the one place you have been longing to go ever since you were kidnaped by the klangan," I reminded her.

"But not now, Carson. My father, the jong, would have you destroyed. We have spoken of love to one another, and no man may speak of love to the daughter of the jong of Vepaja before she is twenty. You know that well enough."

"I certainly should," I teased her; "you have told me often enough."

"I did it for your own safety, but nevertheless I always liked to hear you say it," she admitted.

"From the first?" I asked.

"From the first. I have loved you from the first, Carson."

"You are an adept at dissimulation. I thought you hated me; and yet, sometimes I wondered."

"And because I love you, you must never fall into the hands of my father."

"But where can we go, Duare? Do you know a single spot in all this world where we should be safe? There is none; and in Vepaja you, at least, will be safe. I shall have to take the chance of winning your father over."

"It could never be done," she declared. "The unwritten law that decrees this thing is as old as the ancient empire of Vepaja. You have told me of the gods and goddesses of the religions of your world. In Vepaja the royal family occupies a similar position in the minds and hearts of the people, and this is especially true of the virgin daughter of a jong--she is absolutely sacrosanct. To look at her is an offense; to speak to her is a crime punishable by death."

"It's a crazy law," I snapped. "Where would you be now, had I abided by its dictates?--dead. I should think your father would feel some obligation toward me."

"As a father, he would; but not as a jong."

"And I suppose he is a jong first," I said, a little bitterly.

"Yes, he is a jong first; and so we may not return to Vepaja," she said with finality.

What an ironical trick Fate had played upon me. With many opportunities in two worlds to pick a girl for me to fall in love with, she had ended up by choosing a goddess. It was tough, yet I wouldn't have had it otherwise. To have loved Duare, and to know that she loved me, was better than a lifetime with any other woman.

Duare's decision that we must not return to Vepaja had left me in something of a quandary. Of course I didn't know that I could have found Vepaja anyway, but at least it was something to aim at. Now I had nothing. Havatoo was the grandest city I had ever seen; but the unbelievable decision of the judges who had examined Duare after I had rescued her from the City of the Dead, and our escape, made it impossible for us ever to return. To hunt for a hospitable city in this strange world seemed useless and hopeless. Venus is a world of contradictions, anomalies, and paradoxes. In the midst of scenes of peace and beauty, one meets the most fearsome beasts; among a friendly, cultured people exist senseless and barbarous customs; in a city peopled by men and women of super-intelligence and sweetness the quality of mercy is utterly unknown to its tribunals. What hope had I, then, of finding a safe retreat for Duare and myself? I determined then to return Duare to Vepaja, that she, at least, might be saved.

We were flying south along the course of Gerlat kum Rov, The River of Death, toward the sea to which I knew the waters must eventually guide me. I was flying low, as both Duare and I wished to see the country rolling majestically beneath us. There were forests and hills and plains and, in the distance, mountains; while over all, like the roof of a colassal tent, stretched the inner cloud envelope that entirely surrounds the planet; and which, with the outer cloud bank, tempers the heat of the sun and makes life possible on Venus. We saw herds of animals grazing on the plains, but we saw no cities and no men. It was a vast wilderness that stretched below us, beautiful but deadly--typically Amtorian.

Our course was due south, and I believed that when we reached the sea we would but have to continue on across it to find Vepaja. Knowing that Vepaja was an island, and always having in mind that some day I might wish to return to it, I had designed my ship with retractable pontoons as well as ordinary landing gear.

The sight of the herds below us suggested food and stimulated my appetite. I asked Duare if she were hungry. She said she was--very--but asked what good it would do her.

"There's our dinner down there," I said, pointing.

"Yes, but by the time we get down there it will be gone," she said. "Wait till they catch a glimpse of this thing. There won't be one of them within miles by the time you get this thing on the ground--unless it scares some of them to death."

She didn't say miles, of course; she said klookob, kob being a unit of distance equivalent to 2.5 earth miles, the prefix kloo denoting the plural. But she did say 'this thing' in Amtorian.

"Please don't call my beautiful ship 'this thing,'" I begged.

"But it is not a ship," she demurred. "A ship goes on water. I have a name for it, Carson--it is an anotar."

"Splendid!" I applauded. "Anotar it shall be."

It was a good name, too; for notar means ship, and an is the Amtorian word for bird--birdship. I thought this better than airship, possibly because Duare had coined it.

I had an elevation of about a thousand feet; but as my motor was absolutely noiseless, none of the animals beneath us was yet aware of the strange thing hovering above them. As I started to spiral downward, Duare gave a little gasp and touched my arm. She didn't seize it, as some women might have; she just touched it, as though the contact gave her assurance. It must have been rather a terrifying experience for one who had never even seen an airship before that morning.

"What are you going to do?" she asked.

"I'm going down after our dinner. Don't be frightened"

She said no more, but she still kept her hand on my arm. We were dropping rapidly when suddenly one of the grazing animals looked up; and, at sight of us, gave a loud snort of warning and went careening off across the plain. Then they all stampeded. I straightened out and went after them, dropping down until I was just above their backs. At the altitude at which we had been flying, the ground speed had probably seemed slow to her; so that now that we were but a few feet above ground it surprised her to find that we could easily outdistance the fleetest of the racing beasts.

I do not consider that it is very sporting to shoot animals from an airplane, but I was not indulging in sport--I was after food, and this was about the only way that I could get it without endangering our lives by stalking on foot; so it was without compunction that I drew my pistol and brought down a fat young yearling of some strange herbivorous species unknown to our world; at least, I guess it was a yearling--it looked as though it should be. The chase had brought us quite close to a fringe of forest that grew along the banks of a tributary of the River of Death; so that I had to bank quite sharply to avoid piling up among the trees. When I glanced at Duare she was quite white, but she was keeping a stiff upper lip. By the time I landed beside my kill, the plain was deserted.

Leaving Duare in the cockpit, I got out to bleed and butcher the animal. It was my intention to cut off as much meat as I thought would remain fresh until we could use it and then take off and fly to a more suitable temporary campsite.

I was working close beside the plane, and neither Duare nor I faced the forest which lay but a short distance behind us. Of course, we were careless in not maintaining a better watch; but I suppose we were both intent on my butchering operations, which, I must admit, were doubtless strange and wonderful to behold.

The first intimation I had of impending danger was a frightened cry of "Carsonl" from Duare. As I wheeled toward her, I saw fully a dozen warriors coming for me. Three of them were right on top of me with raised swords. I saw no chance of defending myself; and went down beneath those swords like a felled ox, but not before the brief glimpse I had of my attackers revealed the astonishing fact that they were all women.

I must have lain there unconscious for more than an hour, and when I regained consciousness I found myself alone--the warriors and Duare were gone.

Edgar Rice Burroughs