Due to the sad demise of Samhain who were the original publishers of my FIFTH PLANET heroic fantasy trilogy I have now republished SWORD EMPIRE with Create Space.THE SWORD LORD is already republished and with SWORD DESTINY soon to follow all three books will again be available. The first chapter of SWORD EMPIRE is offered as a free read below.



The first Gheddan mission to control the Third Planet has failed. The Sword Lord Raven has been driven out of the ancient Hindu Kingdom of Karakhor and forced to return to Dooma. He takes with him Maryam, princess of Karakhor, who sees him as her lover, and a possible savior in the coming battle against the might of Maghalla.


          They are pursued by Kananda, First Prince of Karakhor, drawn by his love for Zela, and his determination to find the sister he believes has been taken by force.


          On the Fifth Planet they are all hurled into the terrible arms race between the warring continents of Alpha and Geddha. A planetary cataclysm looms as Kananda and Zela undertake a desperate mission into the heart of the Sword Empire. For Zela it is a race against time to save her world. For Kananda it is a matter of love and honor to find Maryam. And both of them are seeking vengeance against the Sword Lord.









          The flight from Earth to Dooma, the fifth planet of the solar system, took eight long weeks. The launch sequence and the breakout from Earth’s orbit were the nearest Kananda had ever come to experiencing pure terror, but after that had come the awesome fascination of seeing the universe in all its starry glory. The ship’s telescopic view screens could probe into the very heart of the distant galaxies, as well as providing stunning close-up images of every moon and planet in the solar system. His initial fears and uncertainty gave way to pure wonder as he watched the Earth rotate like a gorgeous jewel in the heavens, and witnessed the gigantic, leaping solar flares of the sun.


          After a week the novelty faded somewhat and the voyage began to dip into frustration and boredom. The crew quarters were cramped and privacy and movement were limited. There was an extensive computerized library on board, but staring at a video screen and absorbing knowledge for hours on end soon began to lose its fascination. Zela was able to show him all of Alphan and Gheddan history, but after the first few weeks Kananda would almost have given his soul for a horse to ride, a river to swim, or even a flower to simply hold and inhale.


          Zela completed his education in the Alphan and Gheddan languages, and taught him as much as possible on the differences of the two cultures. Kyle and Laurya added as much as they were able and soon Kananda counted all three as good friends. Only Cadel, the taciturn engineer, seemed a little aloof. But he was the only one with a definite job to do during the long haul between planets, and made almost a religion out of the constant checking and double-checking of the smooth and silent running of the ship.


          When the time came to strap themselves into the body-contoured landing seats for the second time Kananda felt the same thrill of fear, but this time it was tempered by a new-found trust in his companions. Kyle now occupied the First Officer’s seat beside Zela that had been Blair’s, and over the Alphan’s silver-suited shoulder Kananda watched as the planet below loomed large in the view screen. Like Earth, Dooma was cloud-covered with a breathable atmosphere, with great land masses of red-brown earth, white ice-caps and green forests, with vast grey green oceans between. Their pre-landing orbit picked its path between three moons, two of them dead grey, crater-mottled by meteor impacts, and the third flashing silver in the sunlight.


          “The third moon has a thin atmosphere,” Zela told him as she deftly fingered the keyboard pilot controls under her hand. “But it is enclosed in ice. The iron core is heavily magnetic, which causes most of the violent tides and storms in our oceans.”


          Kananda nodded in answer, oblivious of the fact that she could not see him without turning her head. He was mesmerized by the planet below. During the launch from Earth he had kept his eyes firmly closed, but now that he was more familiar with the ship he was determined to miss nothing. He no longer thought of the Tri-Thruster as a Temple of Steel.


          A wave of white vapor washed over the view screen as the ship dipped into the atmosphere, and Kananda felt cheated and disappointed. A few minutes passed and suddenly they were below the upper cloud level, racing over a vast expanse of glittering ocean where islands of white cloud hung between the sea and the sky.


          A continent reared up on the horizon, appearing to Kananda like some huge, grey-headed green elephant. The green shoulders were lush forest slopes, the grey head a blunt crag of cap rock, and two great white streams pouring downwards were its mighty tusks. Zela banked, and the elephant mountain slipped swiftly away behind them. Ahead of them stretched more rugged forest, followed by a patchwork of green and gold fields, split and silvered by streams and irrigation channels. Then came a great city of sun-kissed, golden-tinted pinnacles of glass and steel that put the red sand-stone turrets of mighty Karakhor to shame. From the images he had been shown during the long flight Kananda knew without doubt that this was the capital city of the Alphan civilization, the City of Singing Spires.


          Zela landed the Tri-Thruster at the large space port to the south of the city and within minutes they were descending from the ship to meet a welcoming committee of two.  One was a tall man with a neatly clipped golden beard, directly gazing blue eyes, and a military bearing and uniform that reminded Kananda immediately of the old Warmaster Jahan. The physical and facial differences were unimportant, for Kananda instinctively knew that this man and his fierce uncle and teacher were two of a kind. The second man was older, his hair and beard almost white, wearing a loose, tunic-collared, white flowing robe.


          The older man smiled warmly and Zela ran into his arms where they hugged with undisguised affection. She kissed his cheek and the old man had to blink a tear from his eye. When they broke apart Zela faced the second man for a moment, holding up her hand with the palm outward in salute. The tall man returned the gesture smartly, and then he too smiled. They embraced briefly and more formally before Zela turned to make the introductions.


          “Kananda, this is my father, Laton, Prime Member of the High Assembly of Alpha. And this is Supreme Commander Antar of the Alphan Space Corps.”


          Kananda stared for a second longer. He had never seen neatly trimmed facial hair before, in Hindu India older men always wore their whiskers in a fierce, bristling bush. Then he remembered protocol and bowed slightly, the form of respect he would have afforded his father and his uncles, before copying the palm-raised Alphan salute.


          “I am Kananda, First Prince of Karakhor,” he announced quietly.


          “Commander Zela has spoken of you in her reports,” Antar acknowledged. “But as our inter-space communications may be monitored by the Gheddans I am sure there is much more to tell.”


          “Tomorrow,” Laton said firmly. “You can debrief Laurya and the others in the meantime, but I am taking my daughter and her guest straight home.”


          “Our time may be short,” Antar said seriously. But then he shrugged. “After eight weeks in space they all need some time to re-adapt. Tomorrow will be fine.”


          Laton linked one arm with Zela and the other with Kananda. “Welcome to Alpha,” he said cheerfully as he led them away. “I’m sure you can both use a real bath, a real meal, and the chance to breathe in some real air.”




          Laton led them directly to his sky-car which was parked in one corner of the space port. To Kananda the vehicle had the shape of a flattened spear head, but there was just enough room inside for the three of them, and within minutes it had risen vertically and was flying north at the speed of a fast chariot. Kananda’s concentrated period of learning meant that there were no real surprises, but he found it all a thrilling experience.


          They circled the city, giving Kananda a closer look at its soaring skyline of spires and towers. The buildings were of honey-colored stone, while its broad dissecting avenues were shaded with vivid green-leafed trees and paved with slabs of white marble. More sky-cars buzzed like orderly bees along the avenues, keeping strictly to three separate flight levels. The higher spires were carved with niches and honey-combed with openings which amplified the soft winds as they sighed and resonated sweetly through the tunnels and hollows, giving the city its name.


          Laton talked non-stop, exchanging news with Zela, but never forgetting to point out the passing sites of interest for Kananda. He was obviously delighted to see his daughter, and she was equally pleased to be home. After an hour’s flight to the north Laton put the craft down beside a small white-domed dwelling in an oasis of palm-like trees and neat flower gardens. The oasis was on the edge of a small blue lake, and Kananda knew without asking that this was the lake where Zela’s two brothers had drowned.


          The house proved larger than it had first appeared from the air, with a central hall under the dome and a series of rooms leading off on three sides. Laton led them through to a large sleeping room at the rear of the house that overlooked a shaded garden with a fountain trickling into a water feature made up of different colored, striated rocks.


          “This was my son Lorin’s room.” Laton said simply. “It is yours now, Kananda, for as long as you wish to stay with us.”


          Kananda thanked him and Laton turned to his daughter. “I am an old man and I talk too much. I will go to arrange a meal and we will eat in two hours. In the meantime I will leave you two young people alone. You can show Kananda anything he needs -- take time to bathe and rest, a walk in the garden -- do anything you wish.”


          Zela kissed him and he withdrew, closing the doors carefully behind him. Zela turned to Kananda and smiled. For the first time in eight weeks they were alone together.


          “My father says I can show you anything you need,” she said softly. “And we can do anything you wish.”


          Kananda was uncertain how a guest should behave on this planet. He said slowly, “Perhaps your honorable father did not intend that we should take him too literally.”


          Zela’s smile broadened, becoming almost wicked. “My father knows that I am a woman now, and that I make my own decisions.”


          She came closer and rested her hands on his shoulders. Kananda looked into her teasing eyes and smiled. He enfolded her in his arms and pulled her closer against his chest. Their mouths met and melted in a long, sweet-tasting kiss. Kananda felt his blood pulse and his heart begin to pound, and knew that she was similarly affected. They had been so close and so frustrated for so long, that now was the time for complete abandonment.


          “You know what I wish,” he said huskily, when they at last paused to breathe.


          “Then do it,” Zela whispered against his cheek.


          They kissed again, the kiss becoming open-mouthed and passionate as they tongue-caressed together. Kananda explored her body with his hands, feeling her hands moving gently over his own chest and shoulders. After a moment she leaned back while he held her easily with one arm. He saw only encouragement in her eyes and pulled down the frontal zipper of her silver suit, drawing it slowly from just under her throat to its full length just below her navel. Her gloriously voluptuous golden breasts burst eagerly free, her nipples standing ripe and firm and sensitive.  She groaned joyously as Kananda transferred his tongue attentions to those up thrust sentinels. He too wore one of the silver spacesuits, borrowed because it was the most comfortable garment to wear in space, and she quickly began to unzip him in turn.


          Moments later they were rolling naked on the large soft bed. Their enforced celibacy meant that both of them were more desperate for sexual relief than they had ever been before. Kananda’s erection was huge and painful, Zela’s loins were quivering and melting with a swiftly unleashed inner heat, and neither of them could wait. They exploded together in a white-hot intensity of emotion and release that left both of them weak, sweating and gasping.


          Their second coupling, some ten minutes later was almost as violently volcanic, but the third, after another hour or so, was more loving and gentle. By then they both knew that their passion was not just the natural outcome of a long abstinence, but something deeper, infinitely more binding, and promising permanence. They had not only joined bodies, but somehow on a far more magical and spiritual plane, they had joined souls.


          “You are my woman now,” Kananda told her as they kissed for the thousandth time. It was something he had known from the first moment he had looked into her eyes. “From now on I shall want no other. You must be my Queen and we will rule Karakhor together.”


          “I am your woman,” Zela agreed softly. But she was aware that there were many harsh realities between them and their final happiness, and she finished more cautiously, “Perhaps one day we will rule Karakhor together.”




          The next morning they returned to the City Of Singing Spires, summoned to an urgent meeting of the High Assembly. Laton piloted them again in his sky-car, dropping down on to a mid-level landing port that served the majestic Palace of Assemblies that dominated the center of the city. The vast, many-spired complex hosted a score of separate assemblies dedicated to the different aspects of government, all in horseshoe shaped rooms where tiered ranks of seats sloped down to a central dais. The Supreme High Assembly Hall was the largest of all with elegant gold pillars and a high ceiling that was a marvel of painted stars, planets and galaxies. Its position on the highest level of the complex meant that it had many tall, encircling windows open to the sky, but across many of these the heavy red and gold drapes were drawn. Inside the light seemed to sparkle from the ceiling stars and for a moment Kananda could only gape upwards.


          The huge hall was almost empty, only the first semi-circular row of seats was partially occupied. About a score of elderly men sat there in plain gold robes, similar to that worn by Laton. Kyle, Laurya and Cadel sat stiffly at one end of the row, looking self-conscious in their best silver uniforms. Beside them was a young, black-haired woman who looked definitely out of place. She wore a leather tunic and leggings, and Kananda was startled to see that her skin was blue.


          Antar stood at the central dais, awaiting their arrival, and nodded for them to take the places that had been left vacant between Zela’s crew and the elders of the assembly. Kananda was aware of the curious but not unfriendly glances that followed him as he took his seat. He wore a  blue shirt with white waistcoat and leggings, supplied by Laton, and with his borrowed clothes and smooth brown face he knew that he was a much a stranger here as the blue-skinned woman among all these uniforms and formal robes.


          Antar coughed briefly to gain attention, and then spoke directly.


          “I believe all of us know of the Prince Kananda, who has accompanied Commander Zela on her return trip from the Third Planet. Because his home world will be prominent in our business today, and because I deem it right that he should understand our situation before we ask for the help of his people, I have asked Prime Member Laton to bring him here today. Does any member of the assembly have any objection to this?”


          Most of the faces that turned toward Kananda were still gravely curious, but there was no voice of dissent.


          “Then may I welcome you to our High Assembly, Prince Kananda,” Antar gave a formal bow.


          Kananda was not sure whether he should rise again and bow in return, but Antar was moving briskly on:


          “It is rare for an emergency assembly such as this to be called, so most of you have guessed that I have some disturbing news to impart. For many years now we have countered the threat of full scale Gheddan invasion of Alpha with an array of nuclear and solar-pulse missiles capable of crossing the Great Storm Ocean and destroying all their major cities and war-base centers. The Gheddans have also succeeded in building up a similar array of rocket-launched weapons that could virtually wipe our continent of Alpha from the face of this planet.”


          There were a few solemn nods, but most of his listeners remained impassive, and Kananda realized that this background detail was mainly for his own benefit.


          “The balance of power was always a dangerous concept,” one of the assembly delegates said softly. “So now you are going to tell us that the balance has shifted.”


          Antar nodded briefly. Whatever emotions he felt on the matter were masked behind his grim, lean face. “Yes, Prime Member Allor, the balance has shifted. We have known for several years that the Gheddans have been trying to build a lazer battle station which they can maintain in stationary orbit above the planet’s surface. They believe that with such an orbital battle station they can use lazer pulses to destroy our missiles between launch and impact. Thus we will be defenseless to a first strike attack from their missiles.”


          The tall Space Corps Commander paused again, and Kananda heard a muffled choking sound from Laton who sat beside him. Zela’s father was swallowing hard and his face had turned pale. Beyond him the semi-circle of faces of his colleagues were also registering varying levels of distress and anguish.


          “They have succeeded,” Laton said at last.


          “Twelve hours ago,” Antar confirmed. “Our warning systems detected the rocket launch which placed a major satellite in fixed orbit above the City Of Swords. Our other intelligence sources, and the position of the satellite, tell us that this is the lazer battle station they have planned.”


          There was a cold, shroud-like silence. Kananda felt their fear, and could almost taste it, like a thick dark incense filling the vast assembly hall. Then the delegate Allor spoke again.


          “So when can we expect their attack?”


          “Not yet.” Antar’s lips almost cracked a smile, although Kananda guessed that it was forced to help relieve some of the palpable tension that was stretched almost to breaking point. “Our intelligence suggests two other factors that may save us for a few more weeks. First the Gheddans plan to launch two more similar battle stations. The first one alone would not be sufficient to stop all of our war missiles.


           It protects The City of Swords, and it protects Steel City at the mouth of the Lesser Steel River, and the war bases in between those two cities. However, it cannot also protect their other cities, or the war bases in the Great Gar and Stone deserts. The second and third battle stations need to be in place before their defense against the possibility of an attack by our weapons is complete.”


          “How long do we have before all three of those battle stations are in their appointed positions?” A delegate at the end of the row raised his head from his hand for a moment to ask the faltering question.


          “A few weeks,” Antar shrugged helplessly, “A few months. My intelligence is not complete.”


          The man who had asked the question groaned audibly and let his head fall back into the support of his hand again.


          “You said there was a second factor that might be in our favor,” Allor probed hopefully.


          Antar nodded. “The Council of Twelve in the City of Swords is divided. We have made it plain to them that an exchange of these huge war weapons from both sides may well destroy this world for all of us. We made the initial mistake of siting our first missiles in the natural caverns along the foothills of the Greenwall Mountains. We now know that they are too close to a major volcanic fault line, and that Gheddan missiles aimed to destroy them would almost certainly penetrate the planet’s crust. If that happens then Alpha would be ripped apart, possibly the whole planet would explode, and the continent of Ghedda would also be destroyed. Dooma would no longer exist, except as a orbiting belt of radioactive asteroids and rubble. Some members of the Gheddan Council of Twelve have accepted that in this we are telling the truth.”


          “How many,” Allor asked.


          “Four.” Antar said quietly.


          “Four out of twelve,” Laton threw up his hands in anguish.


          “For a military decision as vital as a major war their code demands a nine to three vote in favor,” Antar reminded them.


          “So the fate of our world depends upon one Gheddan vote,” Laton said bitterly. “What madness have we brought upon ourselves?”


          No one answered him, and Kananda guessed that this breast-beating debate had already been held many times to the point of exhaustion. Now the nemesis they had forged was imminent and there was nothing more to be said in self reproach. They could only face the inevitable.


          Allor spoke again. “How long before our escape ships can be ready?


          “Ten weeks,” Laton answered him, “Perhaps more. Perhaps less if we simply launch them untested.”


          Antar looked directly to Kananda. “Now you know our situation. I know Commander Zela has explained much to you, and we are being as honest as we can. We are building six escape ships that will be able to carry some of our people to your planet.”


          “There is no other refuge for us,” Allor was also looking directly at Kananda now and his voice was almost beseeching. “The third planet is the only other inhabitable planet in this solar system.”


          “I have seen my planet from space,” Kananda said quietly. “I think there must be many good places where your people could settle.”


          “Our ships will contain mostly children,” Laton explained. “There will only be enough adults to guide and teach them. Children are smaller and weigh less. The smaller they are, the more we can send. They will need a place of safety and protection.”


          “Then they will be welcome in Karakhor,” Kananda assured them. “I can speak in this for my father, Kara-Rashna, King of mighty Karakhor. But I must also be honest with you. My country also has its enemies. Your children will be safe with us, but only if we survive our war with Maghalla.”


          “We understand your situation,” Antar acknowledged. He looked to Zela and added. “I did spend several hours yesterday de-briefing your crew. I know that Karakhor is threatened by an alliance of enemies, and also that you encountered and drove off a Gheddan expedition from that city.”


          Kananda saw the opportunity to bring up the matter most urgent in his heart and said quickly, “The Gheddan ship that escaped from Karakhor carried off my sister, the Princess Maryam, First Princess of Karakhor. I am here to find her, and to take her home.” He paused, and then finished as forcefully as courtesy to his hosts would allow, “I can assure you that our father, Kara-Rashna, King of Karakhor, will prove more than grateful for the safe return of his beloved daughter. All of Karakhor will be the eternal friends of the people of Alpha.”


          Antar nodded slowly. “We detected the return of the Gheddan ship seven days before your own ship landed. The Gheddan vessel was a Mark Five Solar Cruiser. It landed at the Kaz-ar Spaceport near the City Of Swords.”


          “The Gheddan ship we flushed from Karakhor was a Mark Five,” Zela confirmed.


          Laton put a hand gently on Kananda’s shoulder. “I am sorry,” he said with genuine regret. “If your sister is still alive and with the Gheddans, then she too will be in the City of Swords.”


          “Then I must go there,” Kananda said simply.


          “Ghedda is on another continent. We are divided by the Great Storm Ocean. It is not possible.”


          “I came here to find my sister,” Kananda repeated firmly. “I will find a way.”


          “But how,”  Laton demanded.


          “I do not know,” Kananda conceded. “I hoped that the people of Alpha would help me. But even if I must do this alone, somehow I will find a way.”


          There was a moment of uncomfortable silence, and then Zela said calmly, “You will not be alone, Kananda. I will help you.”


          “And I,” Kyle spoke up impulsively.


          Laurya smiled at her lover and gripped his hand. “That means that I must come too.”


          There was another second of uncertain silence, and then Cadel sighed. “However you intend to get to Ghedda, you will need some kind of vehicle. So you’ll need an engineer.”


          “This is madness,” Laton stared at them all aghast, but mostly at his daughter. “Zela, you cannot do this. What hope have any of you to even survive on that barbaric continent for more than a few hours? You will all be killed long before you can hope to find Kananda’s sister.”


          Zela faced her father squarely. “Kananda’s sister was taken by the Sword Lord Raven,” she told him bluntly. “The same Raven who killed Lorin, the sword-butcher who slew my brother, your son! In helping Kananda I may get the opportunity to kill Raven. If we can rescue his sister we can ensure the safe welcome of our children in Karakhor. That gives me two very good reasons to go to Ghedda.”


          “It also gives me one very good reason to deny you any involvement in any rescue mission to Ghedda,” Antar cut in sharply. He moved toward her, no longer addressing the full assembly, and his gaze locked with her own. “Commander, would you allow your personal desire for vengeance to come before the execution of your duty to Alpha?”


          Zela glared at him. Her eyes were angry and slowly she rose to her feet. She hesitated, and then just as slowly raised her palm in the Alphan salute. “You know that I would not.”


          Antar nodded, and slightly relaxed. “I know, Zela. But I had to be sure.”


          He turned then to look at her three crew members. “I must commend all of you for your loyalty to your Commander, and for your willingness to follow her, even to Ghedda. But for what I have in mind your presence would not be helpful.”


          “What do you have in mind?” Laton was on his feet looking anxious. “Antar, you cannot allow these young people to go alone into Ghedda.”


           Antar sighed, he had expected this opposition, and he both understood and sympathized. He placed a hand on Laton’s shoulder. “Old friend, you know that I had two agents working in the City of Swords. Our long range sensory technology does have its limitations. It cannot tell us what is in the hearts and minds of the Council of Twelve. For that I need eyes and ears in the city itself.”


          Laton turned slowly, taking full notice of the blue-skinned woman who had so far sat cross-legged and silent at the end of the row of occupied seats. “You are Jayna?” he asked.


          The blue-skinned woman nodded in acknowledgement.


          “And the second agent,” Laton searched his memory unsuccessfully for a name.


          “My husband Blane was killed in the City Of Swords,” Jayna said flatly. Any emotion she had over the matter was spent and her tone was matter-of-fact and cold.


          “I am sorry,” was all that Laton could think of to say, and he knew it was ineffectual.


          “It is thanks to Jayna that we have up-to-date information on the mood and the talk in the City of Swords,” Antar favored the woman with a grateful smile. “We still need that continuing information, and Jayna is willing to return. However, she cannot go alone. Her route into the City of Swords is long and dangerous and requires the use of a river craft. Her cover role also requires a protector. Blane was both a ground pilot and a good tavern fighter.”


          “I can pilot a river craft,” Zela said calmly.


          Antar nodded. “That will be one of your roles.”  He looked to Kananda. “I am told that you are a useful swordsman. You will have two women to protect, and on Ghedda that means you will almost certainly have to prove your skill with a sword, perhaps also with your fists.”


          Kananda smiled briefly. “I was instructed by Jahan, Warmaster General of Karakhor. Many of my lessons were long and painful. You will not find my tuition lacking.”


          “Then you must both understand your priorities. The first is to report back any information you can gather on the military intentions of Ghedda, and especially on any change in the power balance in the Council of Twelve. The second is to keep Jayna alive -- she is more valuable than either of you. Third you are to find the Princess Maryam, and if possible bring her back to Alpha when you return.”


          Kananda nodded grim acceptance, although in his mind he knew that whatever happened Maryam would always be his first priority.


          Antar locked eyes with Zela again. “If the Sword Lord named Raven gets in the way of any of these three objectives, then you may kill him. But you will not seek him out in preference to your prime duties.”


          Zela scowled a little, but then she too nodded in acceptance of his conditions.


          Laton looked as though he was ready to argue further, but he was forestalled when Allor rose to his feet and asked pointedly:


          “Antar, how can you be so sure that we can trust this Gheddan woman?”


          Antar looked startled, and then surprised, and then he laughed.


          “You think Jayna is Gheddan?”


          Allor looked confused. “She wears Gheddan clothes -- she has blue skin?”


          “Jayna is as Alphan as you and I,” Antar reassured him. “Leather clothes can be bought in many of our own more rural markets, and if we give her a few weeks then the black hair dye and the blue body dye will begin to fade. How do you think I can send Zela and Kananda into Ghedda if I cannot temporarily change the pigmentation of their skin?”


          Allor raised his hands in a gesture of defeat and sat down again. “I apologize,” he said graciously, addressing himself to Jayna.


          “This whole thing is still madness,” Laton insisted. “What good can fresh intelligence do for us? Ghedda will strike when they are ready. The exact timing is only academic.”


          “Good intelligence is never academic,” Antar countered. “We must live in hope, not ignorance.”


          Laton appealed to his daughter. “Zela, you do not have to do this.”


          “But I do, father,” she answered him gently. “Kananda has come all the way from his home planet to find his sister. I know that he would still accompany Jayna without me, and I cannot let him do that. I must go with them. Besides, Antar has said that they need someone who can pilot a river craft.”


          “We must have hundreds of pilots who can handle a river craft.” Laton said in exasperation. He saw from the set of Zela’s jaw that he was getting nowhere and switched his efforts to Jayna. “You said that your husband was killed on your last mission to Ghedda. Surely you can see that it is madness to go back? Do you want to be killed also?”


          Jayna stood up slowly. She was taller than the old man by a few inches, and she had the lean, hungry look of someone who knew what it meant to be hunted. In her eyes there was suddenly a dark sadness.


          She moved out from the row of seats until she faced the full assembly. She spoke to them all.


          “I return to Ghedda for one reason only. It is right that you should understand this. I have a child, a small daughter. She is only five years old. I believe our planet does face destruction, but Antar has promised me that in return for my continued service then my daughter will have a place on one of the escape ships.”


          There was silence. A few feet shuffled uncomfortably. Then Allor reassured her. “You have my word also, and I know I can speak for us all. Whatever happens, Antar’s promise will be honored. Your child will be on the first ship to escape from Dooma.”


          The matter seemed settled. Even Laton nodded in support of his colleague’s word. Then the old man looked again to Antar.


          “You hinted that my daughter must play two roles. What is the other?”


          Antar looked at Zela, and then said mysteriously, “Commander, can you dance?”


          Zela looked suddenly suspicious. “Yes,” she admitted cautiously. “I can dance.”


          At that point Jayna laughed, an unexpectedly merry sound.


          “I am sure you have all the usual social skills, Commander -- but can you perform like a dancing tree bear?”