All three books of my FIFTH PLANET series, originally published by Samhain, are now available again from Amazon and create Space. I have re-published SWORD DESTINY and the first chapter is offered as a free read
On the Third Planet the Great War with Maghalla has begun. The ancient Hindu Kingdom of Karakhor is under siege and facing its darkest hour. On the Fifth Planet the insane arms race between the continents of Alpha and Ghedda has come to its catastrophic conclusion. Earth is now the only inhabitable planet in the solar system.
For Kananda, First Prince of Karakhor, and his sister the Princess Maryam, their homecomings are a mixture of pain and grief. For their lovers, Zela, Space Commander of Alpha, and Raven, the last Sword Lord of Ghedda, this final refuge is where they at last come face to face. Here, on the blood-soaked battlefield is where Zela demands her vengeance, and where Kananda must challenge Sardar the Merciless, the dread King of Maghalla.
A brief review of THE FIFTH PLANET
The story so far.
THE SWORD LORD: In the time between the last two earth ice ages Dooma was the Fifth Planet in the solar system. On two massive land continents, divided by the fearsome Sea of Storms there developed two rival powers, the Enlightened Civilization of Alpha and the barbaric Gheddan Empire. As they embarked on a catastrophic arms race with both sides building up huge arsenals of nuclear and lazer weapons they also created the means of destroying the entire planet. This prompted expeditions from both sides to visit Earth, the Third Planet and the only other inhabitable planet in the solar system, in search of possible allies or a refuge.
They came at the dawn of earth’s history when the first embryo civilizations had begun to form. They discovered the ancient Hindu city of Karakhor, which was then being threatened by the advancing hordes of Maghalla. A marriage had been arranged between Sardar of Maghalla and Maryam, the first princess of Golden Karakhor. It was a marriage that Maryam refused when she saw the bestial face of her intended husband. Such an insult could only be answered with war and Sardar the Merciless swore a bloody revenge.
As Sardar gatheres his forces the space ships from Dooma arrive. The first contact with the Alphans is made by a hunting party led by Kananda, the First Prince of Karakhor. Kananda and Zela, the Commander of the Alphan ship, find themselves unexpected allies in a savage battle with a sabre-tooth tiger that has been flushed by the hunt. Kananda finds himself immediately in love with this golden-haired goddess from the skies.
The Sword lord Raven, the commander of the Gheddan expedition, boldly lands his ship on the open plain at the very gates of Karakhor. A demonstration of their awesome battle lazer powers and the fact that they are blue-skinned leads the confused Hindus to believe that these men from the heavens are their gods. Maryam is smitten by Raven and sees him as a potential saviour for her people in the face of the coming assault from Maghalla.
Both Kananda and Maryam are unaware that the alien visitors with whom they have fallen in love are mortal enemies. Raven is the murderer of Zela’s brother Laton and Zela has sworn vengeance against the Sword Lord.
Kasseem, the High Priest of Karahor is tormented by the soft green eyes of Laurya, the second female member of Zela’s crew. It is only when he discovers his latent astral powers that he realizes that she is also Liane, his astral-travelling lover with whom he has shared many previous lives.
One of the younger princes of Karakhor tries to kill Raven by sending three assassins to attack him in the back alleys of the city. Raven cuts them down and then extracts more vengeance by executing the House Lord he believes is responsible in the great audience hall of the king’s palace.
Kananda and the Alphans return to Karakhor. Forewarned of the Gheddan presence they swim the encircling river and approach the royal palace through the back alleys. Kananda learns that Thorn, Raven’s second in command, has raped and killed his half sister, the princess Namita. He challenges Thorn to a sword duel, forestalling Zela’s intention to challenge Raven. A sword challenge is something no Gheddan can refuse. Their honor also demands that no one else can interfere.
Raven has to let the sword challenge take place. Kananda kills Thorn. The Alphans appear behind him and in the battle of lazer hand weapons that follows Raven is forced to retreat from the city.
In the confusion Maryam joins the fleeing Gheddans and boards their space ship. Raven has no time to throw her off and not knowing where the Alphan space ship might be lurking hurls his craft out of Earth orbit to return to Ghedda.
Kanada believes that his sister has been taken against her will and is determined to follow and rescue her. One of Zela’s crew has been killed in the lazer crossfire and there is a spare seat on her ship.
SWORD EMPIRE: On his return to Ghedda Raven is immediately plunged into the political intrigues of the Council of Twelve in the City of swords. His mentor Karn is a latent astral traveler who has learned the truth. The Alphans are not lying from weakness and a full scale war between their empires will destroy the planet. This sets Karn against the ruling council as he votes against the coming war. Raven is forced into a duel to protect his mentor.
Zela returns to Alpha and is immediately assigned another mission: to penetrate the Gheddan Empire and send warning when its final lazer battle station is launched into orbit. Her guide is Jayna, an experienced spy who needs a new protector to complete her cover. The two women will pose as dancers with Kananda as their guardian. Kananda accompanies them, hoping that somehow he will find Maryam.
Their skimmer craft is flown into the mouth of the Black swamp River and they make the dangerous journey inland until the river narrows in trackless forest. There they leave the craft and trek to the source of the Great Steel River that will take them down into the City of Swords.
Raven has to leave the city and travel north to where his home stronghold is under siege by two rival sword lords. Maryam goes with him and the harsh rules of this barbaric new world force her to quickly grow up. The sword games she had once played with her brothers become a grim new reality and she finds that she too has some skill with the blade.
On Earth the young lords Gujar and Kasim hunt through the drink dens of Karakhor, searching for whoever hired the three assassains who tried to kill Raven. The man responsible covered his tracks by making them wear the colors of House Gandhar and so caused Raven to execute Gujar’s father. Gujar learns that it was one of Karakhor’s princes, but his desire for vengeance is frustrated because he cannot identify which one.
In Alpha Laurya is reunited with another astral adept, Antar/Allan who is also the Commander of the Alphan Space Corps. Together they search Ghedda on the astral plane, watching the construction of the Gheddan battle stations and searching in vain for the astral form of the Sword lord Karn.
Raven returns to the City of Swords to find that Karn is dead. The ageing Sword Lord was a sick man and his death has been attributed to natural causes, but in the circumstances Raven suspects otherwise. However, he is immediately given another mission: to take a flight of six ships back to Earth and secure Karakhor for Ghedda. The war with Alpha is imminent and Alpha must be totally destroyed with no refuge anywhere in the solar system.
Zela and Jayna have also discovered that the war is about to be launched. They escape from the City of Swords in a stolen sky-car but are pursued by a three ship Gheddan patrol. By feigning surrender and then twisting into a surprise dog fight Zela’s supreme flying skills bring down all three of the enemy craft, but she cannot avoid taking a killing hit. Their sky-car crashes into the great Gar Desert.
The hosts of Maghalla filled the plain, swarming down from the hills and out from the forests like a vast plague of locusts, staining the grass black with a heaving mass of bodies, all bristling and bright steel flashing from all the arms and weapons of war. The smoke of their thousands of camp fires stained the dawn sky a sultry, dark-veined red. The stench and sound of their horses, elephants and men carried clearly to the very walls of golden Karakhor.
For weeks the vast conglomeration of Sardar’s armies had been on the march, slowly creeping down from the north, killing and devouring all that lay in their path, while the mobile forces of Karakhor had contested every inch of the way.
Kasim, the undisputed Master of the Bow, had taken a force of hand-picked archers and attacked the enemy at every river crossing, every narrow ravine, and every possible bottleneck where an ambush could be launched. They had killed hundreds with volleys of swift arrows before melting away to reform at their next chosen battle line.
Gujar, the young Lord of Gandhar, with a swift force of speeding chariots had harassed the enemy repeatedly on the open plains, cutting off sections of the far-flung horde with merciless hit-and-run attacks, slaughtering with javelins and swords. Like lightning bolts they came storming out of the sun, struck, killed, and were gone in a brilliant, blinding whirl of hooves and wheels, and blood and dust.
The Princes Ranjit and Salim of the House of Bulsar had circled to the rear of the enemy host with a group of their father’s horsemen to savage Sardar’s supply columns and slow his advance. They had left fire and terror in their wake, burning food stocks and destroying the supply camps. They had also succeeded in scattering and driving off large sections of the cattle herds that had been destined as meat for the monstrous horde.
Hamir, the head huntsman had infiltrated into the intervening forests with a handful of his best trackers, all of them skilled in wood lore and masters of stealth and cunning. They had poisoned the rivers and drinking places, and set a multitude of traps and snares that had broken enemy ankles, legs and spines, or pierced their feet with sharpened, poison-tipped spikes of bamboo. They had filled large straw baskets with trapped cobras and hurled them spitting into the circles of enemy firelight. Once they had captured a live leopard, starved it for a week, and then loosed it into a narrow valley where the Black Monkey Clan had made one of their overnight camps.
Kaseem had flown the astral heavens, night after night, reporting back to the uncertain and puzzled Jahan the latest advances of the enemy positions. Always he was alert for his astral enemies, but Sardar and Nazik were either both exhausted by the massive and complex task they were undertaking in the physical world, or else they were complacent and feared no threat or observation from the higher plane. Kaseem even wondered whether they might perhaps be afraid of him. In the physical world they were surrounded and protected by hundreds of mailed guards and champions. In the astral they were only two against one, and that one was Kharga, swordsman of Ghedda, now fully restored in his spiritual form with all his ancient skills and memories. It might even be that they believed him to be still in the company of Laurya/Liane, in which case they would fear that they were more than evenly matched. Whatever the reason, he did not fully trust their absence, and maintained his guard.
The awesome advance of the forces of Sardar and Maghalla had been frustrated and harried with every mile, but it could not be stopped. Every delay was only a brief postponement and never a reversal. Sardar had lost several thousand of his men, a thousand head of cattle, and scores of his food carts and wagons, and yet when his forces pitched their camps within sight of Karakhor, it looked as though every King and fighting man between the East and Western oceans had all aligned themselves beneath his unfurled banners.
Jahan, Warmaster of Karakhor, stood upon the ramparts of the white walls and watched them gather. He wore golden mail and the great ruby-hilted sword was belted at his side. His hair was tied back at the nape of his neck and he was bare-headed. His golden helmet, decorated with a snarling tiger on each cheek guard and with a high plume of purple horsehair, rested on the wall before him. Immediately below him lay the river which circled the city, and beyond the ranks of his own forces, the foot-soldiers, chariots and elephants. They were a formidable army in their own right, but they were outnumbered by the huge sprawl of Sardar’s ranks on the far side of the open plain.
Jahan turned, squinting his eyes against the sun-dazzle from the golden roofs and white walls of the palaces and temples within the city walls. That blinding glare was behind them, and gleaming in the eyes of Sardar’s warriors. Until noon that small advantage was theirs. His best archers lined the walls, bows in hand, with piles of sharpened arrows at their feet.
Kara-Rashna stood behind him, leaning against Kaseem. The two old men, King and priest, almost seemed to be holding each other up, they were both now so frail. On either side of them stood the Princes Sanjay and Devan, grim-faced but rock-solid. The younger Princes and House Lords were ranged in a half circle, all of them silent and subdued. Kasim and Gujar stood side by side, now battle-hardened young men who had proved themselves again and again. Kasim had been offered the command of the archers on the walls, but had chosen to drive his father’s house flag and chariot into battle. The brothers Ranjit and Salim had returned during the cover of darkness with the last of their surviving horsemen and were still stained with dust and blood. Ramesh and Nirad were both pale-faced boys who were still hardly trained. Both had begged to take part in one of the raiding parties and both had been refused. Rajar too was pale-faced, although most of his pallor was hidden by the black beard he had recently grown for that purpose. Rajar had not yet sought to place himself in danger.
“It begins,” Jahan said, and his voice was a somber growl. “Noble King and Noble Princes, we must take up our chariots and take our places.”
He reached for his helmet and led the way. The others followed. Sanjay and Devan stayed closed by Kara-Rashna, but the defiant King waved them aside. He dragged his left leg slightly, but descended unaided to his waiting chariot, where his sun-burst banner fluttered bravely in the breeze.
“May the Gods go with you,” Kaseem called after them. All through the night he had led the prayers and sacrifices, but now it all seemed pointless and his words rang hollow. Outwardly he was still High Priest and Brahmin, but inwardly all his senses raged against the looming horrors of the war. His faith in the Gods and in all the calm philosophies had ebbed and drained. He pulled his white robe around the dry husk of his numbed and useless body, and wished that he was Kharga again, and that he could go with them.
Slowly he turned to take the place Jahan had vacated at the wall, and looked down despairing at the coming battle. His ancient eyes failed him and the bitter tears squeezed through.
The bridge that Raven had destroyed had been rebuilt, and the cavalcade of battle chariots drove swiftly across the river to take up their positions in the vanguard of the Karakhoran lines. Jahan and Kara-Rashna formed the center, side by side. On either side of them Devan and Sanjay reined their chariots into place. Rajar placed his chariot beside his most powerful uncle, staking his claim to be a Prince of senior rank. Devan glanced at him doubtfully, and then gave an approving smile. Rajar smiled bravely in return. He had trained hard with his sword, and he knew that now it would be impossible to run away from the daily battles that faced them all. So he had decided that somehow he must swallow his fear, and fight as ferociously as he was able in order to survive.
Gujar, Kasim, Ramesh, Nirad, and the Bulsar Princes lined their chariots up in a second row, and looked for the banners of the younger princes in the opposing ranks. They all had strict orders from Jahan and their fathers to leave the older champions of Sardar’s forces to their own seasoned fighters.
Kara-Rashna peered forward through dim and blinking eyes. His heart was also beating painfully in his chest, as though at any moment it might betray him with the final stab of death. He searched the far, fluttering battle banners for the bright Golden Bear of the King of Khanju, and finally saw it flying proudly, close to the Black Leopard of Sardar of Maghalla. Kara-Rashna needed one hand to hold on to the brawny shoulder of his charioteer, but with the other he drew his sword.
On the far side of the plain Sardar of Maghalla straightened his squat bulk, squared his shoulders under his coat of steel mail, and raised a javelin in a glittering spear thrust to the sky. At the given signal trumpets blasted and the massed war drums began their beat. Horns blared and conch shells sounded, the great mass of men roared in one voice and smashed their sword hilts against their shields.
Jahan raised his sword and from the walls of Karakhor came a return blast of more trumpets and war drums. The two waves of sound met in one mighty thunderclap in the center of the still empty field, and then the ranks of Maghalla began to advance, and the massed chariots of the Maghallans charged.
Jahan let them come and cover half of the open field before he roared his own command, slashed his sword down in signal, and whipped up the reins of his horses. The sky overhead was suddenly black with the mighty thundercloud of arrows fired from the walls, sailing over their heads as Jahan led the counter-charge with the chariots of Karakhor thundering beside him. On the flanks of both armies the war elephants screamed and trumpeted as they began their own lumbering advance, urged on by their drivers with kicks and screaming cries. The warriors and foot-soldiers on either side hurled their own curses and challenges and ran in the wake of the chariots and tuskers.
The merciless rain of arrows hit the leading ranks of Maghalla seconds before the main clash of battle struck. The descending shafts bounced off the mailed coats and steel helmets of the leading princes and chieftains, but skewered the less protected flesh of the rank and file who fell screaming to be trampled by the mob behind. The front ranks of chariots swerved at the last moment to avoid headlong collisions, and then all was confusion as the two forces met. The champions of either side had each tried to swing alongside a worthy opponent, but most of them had been foiled almost immediately by the instant, swirling melee of the battle. Ranjit of the House of Bulsar had crashed his chariot with Tuluq, the son of Sardar. Both chariots overturned and the proud standards of the Blue Raven and the Coiled Cobra were trampled together in the dust. Ranjit was first on his feet, sword in hand, seeking his marked enemy, but already Tuluq had been hauled back to safety behind a dozen Maghallan warriors. Ranjit might have died then under those Maghallan swords, but the Black Raven of Bulsar crashed through the field as Salim forced his own chariot to his brother’s rescue. Ranjit swung up behind his brother and the two fought together for the rest of that hot and bloody day.
Sanjay had halted his chariot on a small knoll of raised ground and his personal guards had formed a ring of steel around him. His dead fingers could not grip the reins and so he had lashed them to his withered wrist. Now, with his sound left hand and arm, he began hurling the great bundle of javelins at his feet with deadly accuracy. Heavier than an arrow, the razor-bladed javelins could smash through chain mail, and Sangay’s eye sought out the Maghallan chiefs and captains who dared to come within his range. Kasim, more mobile in his fast flying chariot, was doing equally dreadful work with his bow.
Amid the fearful noise and bloody slaughter Kara-Rashna was still searching for Kumar-Rao, the King of Khanju, with the chariots of Jahan and Devan stoutly blocking him in and protecting him on either side. Foot soldiers flew aside before them or were crushed or trampled beneath their pounding hooves and flying wheels. Prince and Warmaster deflected the hails of arrows aimed at their King with their shields, and with their swords cut down any challenger who tried to stop their path. The earth shook beneath the heaving tumult, and the blood flowed all around them in gory streams.
Suddenly the proud banner of the Golden Bear rose before them, sharp and clear to Jahan and Devan, but swimming as though in a darkened mist to the smarting eyes of Kara-Rashna. On its left side flew the Black Mailed Fist of the Prince Zarin, and on its right the Red Fist of Bharat. Khanju’s monarch also had his protectors.
The two old Kings halted their chariots to face each. Their champions also reined in their horses and reluctantly held back. The warriors of both sides withdrew around them, yielding to the signs of single combat. A circle formed, an oasis of sudden deathly hush and stillness in the raging battle all around.
Kumar-Rao wore a mail coat of gold over his blue tunic, but he wore no helmet, favoring instead his white turban with a Golden Bear clasp above his forehead. His beard was equally white and his eyes were sad and rheumy. In his right hand he gripped a sword, but held it as though it were too heavy for him, pulling at his aching arm, even though the point rested on the floorboards of his chariot. His jowls drooped, and it seemed he had no words to say.
Kara-Rashna was not sure whether it was tears or dust that stung the back of his own eyelids. Slowly he removed his own helmet, revealing hair as white as Kumar-Rao’s beard. When he spoke his voice faltered.
“Kumar-Rao, King of Khanju, oldest friend of Karakhor, once we were brothers, united in Peace. Many times have I come to Khanju as your honored guest. Many times I have welcomed you in Karakhor. When you were young I came to celebrate your wedding, and you came to celebrate mine. Noble King of Khanju, oft-honored guest, beloved friend -- why are you here now, among the ranks of my enemies?”
Kumar-Rao flinched with every word, as though each one stung his heart. But he was a King, and answered with an almost steady voice.
“Prince Zarin, my beloved son, is now a Prince of Maghalla. He stands with his new father, and my duty binds me with my son.”
“Withdraw from the field,” Kara-Rashna begged him. “Take your unstained banner home, and so will I. Let younger men settle this battle. We are grandfathers and have no place here.”
“I cannot.” Kumar-Rao lifted his bearded chin with struggling pride. “I am here, and I must stay. You cannot ask me to turn like a jackal and slink away with my tail between my legs.”
“Not like a Jackal, you were never that. Go like a lion, old friend, proud and regal. Hold your head and standard high. I yield my honor to beg it of you.”
“A lion does not leave the field of battle. I cannot go.”
At last a tear trickled slowly down Kara-Rashna’s cheek. He raised his sword, slowly as though it were heavy lead instead of burnished steel. “Then one of us must die,” he said sadly. “Old friend, I salute you.”
“May the Gods be with you,” Kumar-Rao acknowledged.
Both monarchs touched the shoulders of their charioteers. The drivers whipped up their horses and the two chariots surged forward, skidding alongside each other with a scraping crash. Both old kings almost fell, recovered themselves feebly, and then began to hew ineffectively at each other with their swords.
It was a half-hearted contest, as though each willed the other to make the killing blow. Jahan and Devan glared at Zarin and Bharat, and those two stalwarts glared balefully back, but there was a code of conduct to be obeyed. Battles between champions were to be decided by the champions alone. They were subject to the will of the Gods.
Finally Kumar-Rao made one last despairing swing, as though at last he had decided to try and end it. His blade missed and cut deep into the side of Kara-Rashna’s chariot. For a moment there it was wedged. Kara-Rashna swung his own blade at his opponent’s head, but either he was still aiming to miss or his arm was now too weak and unsteady to take advantage of the opportunity. He succeeded only in knocking Kumar-Rao’s turban from his head, and then the still wildly swinging blade chopped into the bare shoulder of Kumar-Rao-s charioteer. The unfortunate man howled with pain, swung away from the blow, and inadvertently hauled hard on his reins. Both of Kumar-Rao’s horses reared high in sudden panic, the chariot was tilted backwards, and Kumar Rao tumbled out to land sprawling on the grass. Somehow he had retained his grip upon his sword and pulled it clear as he fell.
There was silence, except for the panting and scuffling of the horses as the wounded driver tried to control them. Kumar-Rao pulled himself to his knees, and then crawled painfully away from his grinding chariot wheels. After a few yards he stopped and looked up pitifully at Kara-Rashna.
Slowly Kara-Rashna dismounted from his own chariot, using a spear from the rack beside him as a crutch to steady himself. Sword in hand he limped toward his fallen opponent, and then stopped and leaned on his makeshift staff. He was breathing heavily and had to gasp his final pleas.
“Kumar-Rao, friend and brother, again I beg you -- leave the field.”
“You know I cannot.”
Kumar-Rao used his sword to push himself upright. In doing so he pressed the point deep into the earth and then had to struggle to free it. Kara-Rashna waited, still in hope, until Khanju’s panting monarch was again erect with his sword upraised. Then Kumar-Rao charged blindly forward. He made no more attempt to swing his sword, simply holding it aloft like a banner standard. He deliberately impaled himself on Kara-Rashna’s out-held, unmoving blade. The links of golden chain mail parted and the blue tunic and the soft flesh below the heart yielded just as easily. The blade plunged deep and Kara-Rashna stared in horror into Kumar-Rao’s dying eyes.
Kara-Rashna pulled back his sword, staggering as he did so, and then like something foul and distasteful he threw it aside. He knelt beside his fallen opponent and cradled Kumar-Rao’s head against his chest. The tears welled in his eyes and he could not see whether Kumar-Rao was still alive or dead.
“Why, old friend?” He asked bitterly. “Why did we have to come to this?”
“I had no heart for it,” Kumar-Rao croaked weakly. “But perhaps now Khanju’s honor is saved. I give Zarin and Bharat my leave to withdraw.” He coughed up blood and his last gasp was almost inaudible. “Let them take Khanju’s warriors home.”
Bharat had urged his chariot forward. He was a large man, black-bearded and black-hearted. The wide grin on his face was one of triumph and satisfaction. He had overheard the last words of his elder brother, but they meant nothing to him.
“Prince Zarin is ruler of Khanju now,” he flung out a mailed hand to grandly indicate his younger, grim-faced companion. “Khanju has a new monarch and will be stronger under his leadership. Khanju will not leave the field. Not until Karakhor has fallen. Then the spoils of war are ours when we share the victory with Maghalla.”
“And you are the King-maker,” Jahan snarled contemptuously.
The old Warmaster turned his gaze toward Zarin, although he knew that any appeal to any filial sense of love or duty in that direction would be an empty formality. However, Bharat was in no mood to permit any further discourse.
“King-maker and King-slayer,” he roared, mainly for the benefit of the watching warriors of Khanju. “Kumar-Rao will be avenged.” He snatched a javelin from his rack and hurled it at Kara-Rashna, and in the same moment charged his chariot forward.
Devan heaved his horses round, thrusting out his arm and shield to deflect the speeding javelin. The weapon tore through the hard, stretched leather, almost wrenching Devan’s arm from its socket, but Kara-Rashna was unharmed. In the same second Jahan leaped his horses forward, speeding between his King and the on-coming Bharat. Their chariots crashed and buckled, and their swords clashed in a fast and furious ring of steel.
For a moment the rules of single combat again prevailed, but the horses on both sides were rearing and plunging out of control. Bharat’s team suddenly bolted, dragging his chariot behind them, and then the tide of battle closed in behind him as Zarin too backed away, shouting for his warriors to kill them all.
Jahan found himself besieged by the men of Khanju, like some savage old lion of the forest trapped by jackals. His great sword whirled and cleaved around him, cutting back the pressing ranks of his enemies. He cleared a breathing space and then looked again for Zarin or Bharat. Both had fled, but then he heard a warning shout from one of his own captains.
He turned to see that Devan had jumped down from his own chariot. Now he was standing over the slumped bodies of the two old kings in the center of another savage fight, defending them both with his sword. Jahan turned his chariot and charged his horses into the fray, sweeping past the spot where Devan stood, and smashing the biggest knot of his opponents aside.
Kara-Rashna still held the lifeless form of Khanju’s King, held him as in a lover’s embrace, or as a drowning man might cling to his last slipping grip upon the shore. He was only vaguely aware of Devan fighting above him, and of the mighty battle raging all around. There was a red mist before his eyes and a fierce, stabbing pain in his broken heart. He felt as though he had been pierced by a spear or sword, but when his hand clasped at his chest there was no cold steel and no warm blood. There was no wound. The pain was all inside his chest, and it was slowly quenched by an all consuming darkness.
On Ghedda Kananda and his companions had survived two nights and two days in the desert. They had waited long minutes for their crashed patrol ship to explode, but nothing more had happened. Finally, when the frantic beating of their hearts had slowed and their shattered senses had regained some equilibrium, they dared to raise their faces from the sand. They could see glows of light where the remains of the three enemy ships still burned fiercely, but their own craft lay still and black against the dark slope of the dune.
“We need water,” Zela said grimly, her mind already racing ahead to the problems of survival. She stood up and Kananda moved to join her, but she pushed him back. “Wait here, I know where to look.”
She ran quickly to the wreckage and climbed back into the broken cabin. There were overhead racks for maps and documents and side pockets inside the doors where the crews usually stuffed any personal belongings. In the latter she found two half-filled water bottles and a few cakes and oddments of snack food. These she swiftly gathered up and then made another hasty exit.
They had already lingered as long as they dared and immediately began the long trek north, knowing that it was imperative to cover as much ground as possible under the blanket of darkness. Once the sun rose they would be more easily seen, and they would roast in the merciless heat. Zela led, half supporting Jayna who was now in considerable pain. There was massive bruising around the left side of Jayna’s rib cage, and she had been either more badly hurt than she had wanted to admit, or else she had suffered more damage from being thrown about in the crash. Jayna’s lips were pursed tight and bloodless and her face poured sweat, and Zela suspected that she now had at least one cracked rib.
Kananda brought up the rear, and with his bare hands carefully smoothed out their footprints from the sand behind them. The palls of smoke from the three Kaz-ar fliers gradually faded from the black horizons, but they all knew that eventually there must be more pursuit and that from the air the crash sites would be easily found. Zela guessed that they were now no more than an hour’s flight from Kaz-ar, and they would not get far in that time. Their only hope was to leave no clue as to the direction they had taken.
Mercifully, high clouds were filtering out much of the starlight, and only one of Dooma’s three moons was aloft, a stark, black-swirled grey satellite low on the eastern horizon which threw long dark shadows from the high dunes. Zela was using the stars to navigate, and fortunately her knowledge of the star patterns and the constellations was good enough for even partial glimpses of them to give her their direction. Kananda too knew most of the constellations, they were the same stars that he had so often seen from Earth, but here he had no way of relating them to the unfamiliar terrain. With only half the picture he could only trust to Zela’s skills and instincts.
Eventually they heard the first sounds of the second wave of pursuit from Kaz-ar, the faint, distant drone of more fliers circling the crash site behind them. They kept going until one of the drones became louder, and then dropped flat and lay motionless in the sand. Far to their left they saw a distant beam of white light weaving a zigzag pathway across the dunes. Above it hovered the searching flier, like some great black, hostile insect combing the sky. The flier and its searchlight beam passed several hundred yards behind them and flew on its way.
“They are circling out from the crash site,” Zela explained, her voice calm and matter of fact. “But the Great Gar is a huge desert and they have missed us on the first sweep. The further away we get the more they have to search and the better our chances. We must keep moving.”
Jayna nodded and tried to push herself upright. Her face contorted in pain and she collapsed again. Zela and Kananda helped her to stand and they continued as before. The soft sand pulled at their feet as though trying to suck them under the desert surface and their progress was slow. A strengthening wind was now beginning to blow, and although it flung fine sand to sting their bodies and faces, it was also helping to clear their tracks. Kananda decided that it was now safe to leave that task wholly to the wind and concentrated on helping Zela to support the near-fainting Jayna.
Twice more they heard the searching Gheddan ships and cowered down in the sand, but each time the ships passed at a distance and only once did they see the far glimmer of a searching light. They were tiring, and when the dawn began to bleed its pale light across the eastern rim of their harsh and barren world they were all beginning to stagger.
They paused for a brief rest and Zela allowed them each a mouthful from one of the water bottles. Then they began walking again. The sun became Zela’s only navigational aid as the stars and the low moon disappeared, but she was still confident that they were heading due north. It was not the direct route back to the swamp and the skimmer, but it was their shortest route out of the desert, and she knew that if they did not find tree-shelter and more water as soon as possible, then they would surely die.
The dunes at last gave way to a more hard and stony landscape, all brown and yellow with a few rust-red hills. It was a blistering world of heat and glare and dust devils, growing more cruel and deadly with every step as the sun rose higher. Zela pushed them on until they found a pile of rocks that afforded a few square feet of shade, and there they dug themselves into the hard sand and lay up for the rest of the day. Their bodies craved the rest, but the heat hammered them in savage waves and they lay exhausted. Their mouths were parched dry and Zela was sparing with the water. Even so, by noon one of their precious water bottles was empty.
Shortly after noon another Gheddan rotary flier appeared and flew almost directly overhead. All three of them lay still as death in their holes among the rocks, scarcely daring to breathe. The sound of the circling blades battered the stillness with waves of scorching heat and flying dust, but the craft did not land. Eventually it flew on to look for more patches of possible shade, and Kananda relaxed his vice-like grip on the hilt of his sword with a slow exhalation of relief.
“They know we have escaped the crash because they have found no bodies,” Zela croaked through cracking lips. “They also know that if we were still in the dunes we would by now be dead. So they are now sweeping the edge of the foothills beyond the dunes. After this they may give up.”
Jayna looked doubtful, but Kananda merely nodded. He had neither the energy nor the knowledge to argue with her line of reasoning.
For the rest of that awful day they lay up in their pitifully small shelter, and it seemed as though the killing white ball of the sun would never set. At last it began to redden and sink toward the western horizon. As the shadows lengthened Zela roused them and allowed them to share the few scraps of food and drink half of their remaining water. A little of their strength returned, the cooler air of evening revived them slightly, and again they marched toward the north.
The barren lands continued bleak and lifeless and a uniform grey in the clear starlight. The cloud that had partially covered their escape the night before had vanished, and the brilliance of the stars against the velvet blackness of space gave them some consolation. The moon of the previous night was higher now, and a second moon trailed it half hidden behind the horizon. They no longer had the soft sand sucking at their boots, but there were stones and small rocks underfoot that tripped their feet and constantly threatened to twist a knee or ankle.
After four hours they rested again, and each wetted their lips and throats with another mouthful of water. Then they moved on again, their bodies aching in every bone and muscle, and with Jayna now needing both Zela and Kananda on either side to support her. Sometimes her feet dragged and she was barely conscious.
Dawn found them struggling almost drunkenly in the low, bare foothills, but still there was no glimpse of green in the unrelenting desert landscape. Zela had hoped to get clear of the desert before the sun rose for another day, and now she began to fear that they would not survive. As the sun rose higher and lashed them again with its burning rays they found another patch of shade beside a sand-scoured hill and collapsed into a sprawling heap.
They dozed fitfully, and their half-waking moments were delirious with hopeless dreams and haunting nightmares. Their bodies were dehydrated and their tongues began to swell. Zela finally shared out the last of their water. She threw the empty bottle away, but Kananda crawled out into the merciless sun to retrieve it. His head was swimming, but he was not yet ready to die. He said nothing, but clung on to the hope that somewhere, somehow, they might be able to find more water and fill the bottle again.
When the sun dropped out of sight again they were still alive. Kananda struggled to his knees and crawled closer to Zela. He pulled at her shoulder and she opened her eyes and stared at him blankly. He couldn’t speak but tugged again at her shoulder, insistently, until at last she roused herself. Together they turned to Jayna who lay as though dead. Kananda slapped her face. Zela croaked her name, and finally Jayna too opened her eyes.
Somehow they got Jayna up between them, and in the cooler night air they began to move on. Kananda started them off blindly in the direction from which they had come, back toward the dunes and a certain death in the sands, but then Zela blinked her eyes and focused on the first stars appearing above. She recognized one of the constellations and with an effort pulled Kananda around to start them walking north again.
To Kananda all that mattered now was to put one foot in front of the other, to keep going forward, and to somehow drag Jayna and Zela along with him. He was light-headed and could feel his tongue growing larger in his mouth. Soon it would choke him and that would be the end, but until then he would not give up. More dead than alive they continued doggedly northward, step by tortured step.
Kananda closed his eyes and closed his mind, concentrating every effort of his will into the one task of moving forward. Jayna became a dead weight, her right arm curled around his shoulder and neck, gradually slipping back. And then slowly there came the realization that she was not just slipping away from him, but actually trying to pull him to a stop. She groaned aloud, and when he turned to look at her face he saw that her bloated lips were moving and she was trying to speak.
He stopped and stared at her. On her other side, Zela too stumbled to a halt. Jayna moved her arm from Zela’s shoulders and pointed unsteadily forward. They were in a hollow between two hills, and a few paces in front of them there grew a living bush, a plant of green, bulbous stems, protected by a fierce array of spiked thorns.
Jayna gave up her attempt to speak. She had their attention and slowly she disentangled herself from Kananda. She swayed on her feet and pulled at the hilt of his sword. Kananda understood. He pulled the blade free of the scabbard and gave it to her. Jayna tottered forward and sliced through one of the fat green stems of the plant. The sharp thorns gashed her hand and drew blood as she held the severed limb, but she was unfeeling to any pain. With two more cuts she sliced off some of the hard, outer rind, and then pushed the soft inner plant flesh into her mouth. She chewed with difficulty, but after a few minutes green juices were running down her chin and her eyes shone with delight. Deftly she cut another thick slice of the plant limb, halved it and gave them half each. With no questions asked Kananda and Zela crammed the soft centers into their mouths and sucked at the bitter juice.
“Not too much,” Jayna managed at last. “Too much will make us sick, but a little will keep us going.”
They sat down beside the strange plant of bloated, silver green stumps and shining thorns, and ate and chewed as much as Jayna deemed wise. The taste was not pleasant, but their mouths were refreshed and their spirits revived. Where their lips had started to crack the juices stung, but that was a small price to pay.
“The Cacti plant stores moisture,” Jayna told them. “But to find it we must be on higher ground, and we must be near to the tree line. I think we are going to live.”
After half an hour of rest they moved on again. They soon began to see more of the strange cacti plants, growing larger and making weird and grotesque silhouettes against the darkness. They moved out of the low, barren hills, and suddenly they were encountering tufts of sparse scrub bushes. When dawn broke they could see the first of the distant clumps of low woodland.
“Trees,” Zela tried to laugh but the sound came out as a hoarse cackle, “Shelter, water. We have won. We have crossed the Great Gar Desert.”
She clung to Kananda and kissed him, and then they included Jayna in their embrace. They had found the treeline, and now had to only turn east under the tree canopy and hope to strike the Great Swamp River. There, if they did not drown in the murky marshes, or fall foul of the giant crocodiles and lizards, they had only to follow the river upstream to find their hidden river and landing craft.
Despite their pains, exhaustion and hunger, hope flared again in all their hearts.