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I could see flames in the night sky; and fear for those I loved burned in my soul.
I had been riding for five days and five nights through the red and lonely desert. My throat was parched, and my skin was like ash. And I had been dreaming, vividly, of the pleasures I would soon enjoy: a lazy bath in warm and perfumed waters; a slow massage of my angry muscles; a richly sensual copulation with my beloved wife Malisha; a long draught of rich wine; and, finally, a deep, soul-enriching sleep on a mattress filled with shara feathers.
All these dreams ended when I saw the glow in the sky. The clouds above and beyond the gnarled escarpment of grey rocks were bloodied by red flame; white floating pillows now transformed into ghastly red carcasses.
And I knew that my village had been torched.
I dismounted my cathary and knelt, and put my ear to the soft sound-conducting sand. And I waited, until my mind and ears were in tune with the planet and its hidden truths. And then I heard:
A faint humming noise, like the murmur of blood running along a warrior’s veins, and I guessed that it was the sound of a skyplane hovering.
Shrill receding cries, remote, celebratory, in a language I did not recognise.
The hooves of riderless mounts, aimlessly pit-pattering.
The low moans of warriors and wives and husbands and children; sad cries of dying grief that mingled agony with impotent rage.
I heard also, faintly but unmistakably: the soft, hoarse death gasps of throats scorched by sun-fire blasts; the pants and grunts of those enduring brutal wounds; the wretched sobs of wounded children; the despairing howls of mothers cradling their lost beloved.
I took out a shovel from my saddle-pack and dug a deep hole in the sand. Then I took my cathary by the reins and led her down into the hole, and coaxed her to lie down. The beast whinnied and kicked, but I stroked her mane and whispered in her neck-ear and calmed her. Then I lay beside her, still whispering, and the winds swept sand over us, and before long we were buried deep and invisible.
After four days buried in the sand I crawled my way out. The cathary was in a coma by now, and I gently massaged the creature’s heart until her eyes flickered. I drank from my canteen and spat the water into her moisture holes. And then slowly the cathary got to her feet, and shook her head, and whinnied, and was ready to ride once more.
It took two hours for me to ride through the teeth and gaping jaws of the rocky escarpment and reach my village. The flames had died down by now. The bodies that had burned so fiercely as to light the evening sky were now but charred corpses. The shrubs and trees whose blazing leaves and bark had sent daggers of flame to falsely dawn the sky were now no more than patches of ash. The tents were still intact—no fire could ever harm them—but the mountains and foothills of the dead stretched before me, like the remnants of a bonfire in an abattoir. Too many to count, too blackened to recognise.
And all were dead now. No moans, cries, whimpers, sobs. This was a village of the dead, and all those I had known and loved were gone.
I was sure beyond doubt that my wife Malisha was trapped somewhere in the decaying mass of suppurating flesh. And I supposed too that my daughter Sharil must be one among the many black and silently howling tiny bodies I witnessed inside the tents, whose impregnable walls had kept out the flames though not, tragically, the heat. This was a systematic slaughter. There would be no survivors; only those wounded beyond hope of recovery would have been left behind.
I could see plainly that the warriors had all died in combat, and I counted more than a hundred of them. Their bare faces were frozen in screams, and their swords were gripped in hands, or had fallen close to their bodies; but no traces of gore could be seen on their sharp and fearsome blades. No glorious battle this, but a long-distance act of butchery.
My friends, all. All but a few were wearing body armour, and this puzzled me. For I knew that only a long and sustained burst of sun-fire rays could burn the hard-weave plate in such a way. And the warriors of my tribe were too swift and agile to be trapped in the path of such deadly beams for that long. But all were dead anyway, sundered into pieces by a fast-moving beam of power that could incinerate bodies encased in armour in an instant. And dead, too, were the husbands and wives of warriors, and the daughters and sons of warriors. And dead too were the Philosophers, forty and more or them, small and helpless and beautiful as they were, caught up in a battle they were unable by temperament to participate in and slain like ignorant beasts.
Which tribe could have done this thing? The Kax? Or the Dierils? Or the Harona? All had sworn peace in the days after the Great Truce. But truces could be broken, and there was no underestimating the guile and malice of these island tribes.
Or could this be an act of revenge by the exiled Southern Tribes, who long had hated our peoples of Madagorian for expelling their vile nation from our planet? I had lately spent six months in the decadent and perfumed city of Sabol, on a mission that almost cost me my life and the future freedom of our entire race (and yet, let it be known: Sharrock was not defeated!) And so I knew only too well how hated we were by these fat and effete Southerners, with their technology and their “mechanoids” and their passion for ceaseless expansion through space.
Could they have done this? Did they send their sleek and powerful space vessels to wage war upon their former home? Surely they would know that such an act of barbarity would incur our deepest wrath, and their own inevitable destruction?
I realised I was weeping. Not for my dead wife or my murdered child, for that grief lay deep in my heart and would torment me until my dying day. No, I wept from shame, that I had not taken my place with my fellow warriors and died in glory. Instead, I had buried myself in sand and lay there like a corpse until all those who were slowly dying had agonisingly perished, and their attackers were long gone.
The shame ate at me like a double-edged knife carving a path through my innards; but I knew I had done the right thing. Sometimes, a warrior must be a coward.
I filmed the carnage carefully with the camera in my eye and then inspected the sands where the battle had taken place for forensic evidence; for the performance of this vital task was my purpose in surviving. I found no enemy bodies, even though some of our warriors had clearly fired their projectile weapons and sun-fire guns in the course of the bitter conflict. In places, the red sands themselves had been burned by the crossfire; and the rock escarpment and the grey mountain ridges were pitted with bullet holes and heat scars.
I surmised from all I had witnessed that the village had been attacked by stealth fighters of some kind, armed with weapons more powerful than any I had ever encountered, and with armoured hulls that were impervious to the rifles of our warriors and our anti-skycraft cannons. Our warriors would have had only minutes to prepare for battle; that would explain why they had not taken to the air in their own fighter jets.
I knelt before the body of one of the dead warriors who had been killed but not burned, and recognised him as Baramos, a noble warrior indeed. Baramos’s guts had spilled from his body and sandworms were eating them. I ignored that and took out my thinnest dagger and thrust it into Baramos’s skull, and split the bone open. Then I used the tip of the blade to root inside Baramos’s inner ear until I retrieved the dead warrior’s pakla.
This would provide the scientists and Philosophers in the city with all the information they needed; every word uttered between the warriors in the course of the battle would be recorded here.
Baramos had been, I recalled, as I gouged the pakla out of his brain, a magnificent fighter and a fine scientist and (so his wife had often bragged) an astonishing lover and also (as I knew from my own experience) an inventive and poetic story-teller.
I spoke a prayer for the dead, and then I called my loyal cathary over to me, and I stroked the creature’s mane and kissed its snout with genuine fondness.
Then I took out my second largest dagger and slit the beast’s throat, and stood back as blood spouted from her slit artery. Her knees buckled, and she sank to the ground, staring at me; and then she died.
I regretted the death. But I dared not leave the creature here, where it would, as hunger assailed it, be bound to feed upon the corpses of the dead. That would be a sacrilege; the carrion birds could and would do their worst, but no cathary should ever eat the flesh of a Maxolu.
The ground shook beneath me.
I was startled, and almost lost my balance. I looked up, and saw the skies were black.
A distance-missile and skycraft battle was in progress, I deduced, above and inside the city, which I estimated was 234,333 paces away from my current position. The missiles that were being dropped on the city must be enormous, because they were sending shudders along the planet’s crust. And clouds of black smoke were now billowing in the sky to the northeast of me, a clear indication that high toxicity weapons of some kind were being employed.
I muttered a subvocal prayer to release the hidden doors of the skycraft hangar; and stood back as the sands shuddered, and parted, and the skycraft deck was exposed.
But at that moment a sandstorm sprang up, with an abruptness that shocked even me, and I was flung upwards and backwards, and battered with sharp grains of red sand. I rolled over, letting my body go loose to avoid injury, then clambered to my feet and ducked down low with my back arched and my hands clutching my knees; and tried to walk towards the hangar. But the blasts of the gale were too strong, and I was once again snatched up by the teeth of the snarling wind and sent tumbling like a broken shrub-branch along the desert dunes.
Finally, I managed to hook my wrist-grapple to a deeply buried rock, and my flight was halted. I turned over and lay face up as if I had been staked to the sand to die. A streak of lightning shot across the sky above me, like a three-pronged spear. The clouds were bright silver moons now, as countless missiles exploded in mid-air and seared their softness with angry flares. The ground shook again.
Was this, I wondered, the end of me? Was Sharrock finally, after all his many adventures and countless terrifying brushes with angry death, to be defeated?
No, I thought.
I waited until there was a brief lull in the battering gale, then I detached my grapple and crawled on my belly over the sand, my eyes shut tight as the wind ripped at me with dagger-stabs of blinding pain. I felt as if I were climbing up a high mountain made of turbulent seas, as the soft sand moved beneath me and the wind tried to tear the skin off my body.
The world above was red whirled sand; and the ground below was treacherous liquid-softness; and thunder roared; and my veins could feel the pulse of electricity in the air as the lightning flared.
And I dug deep into my soul, until I touched that part of me that will never ever be defeated; and I crawled, and crawled, into the sharp teeth of the savage spitting storm.
Eventually, I reached the dip in the sand that marked the hangar deck’s opening, and I tipped myself over and fell downwards into the sand mountain, and slowly slid to the bottom. I was now entirely buried in sand, with grains in my nostrils and ears and eyes and no way to see. But the sand was slitheringly soft, and I was able to slide my way through it, not breathing, and not opening my mouth or nostrils for fear of suffocating on sand-grains. It took me thirty minutes, almost to the limit of my lungs’ capacity, before I reached the side of the hangar bay, guided throughout by my infallible sense of direction and mental map of the hangar area that allowed me to “see” precisely where I was without the use of eyes.
Once I had touched the wall, I fumbled with my hand until I found the clicker that turned on the hangar’s fans; and then I clicked it.
And I was now inside a sandstorm, clinging on to a rail like a cathary-breaker clutching his mount’s silky mane as a tornado of red sand grains rose up and around me and then flew upwards into the sky like a comet.
And when the world was clear again, I coughed like a dying beast, and tried to spit but my mouth was too dry. The fans continued to whirr, creating a single oasis of calm air within the swirling sand all around. And I opened the store cupboard and clad myself in armour, slipping into the soft but impregnable bodyweave that yielded to my body’s every muscled contour, and fitting the black mask tightly on my face so that I became a shadow with no visible eyes. Then I chose the fastest of the fighter jets that were parked on the deck inside invisible-wall overcoats; shut down the invisible-wall with a signal from my pakla; and clambered in.
I sat in the cockpit, buckled up, and spoke the silent prayer that would tell any friendly pilots or skycraft controllers nearby that my craft should be accorded urgent passage.
Then I started up the skycraft’s engines and it bucked instantly upwards, then soared effortlessly into the air like a stone hurled by a warrior up at the moon. I flew over the massacre site, hovering above the mounds of the dead below me, and wondered if I should use a missile or an energy-beam to burn the rest of the flesh off the corpses’ bones.
But that might, it occurred to me, attract the attention of the enemy. I did not even dare to send a message from my pakla to the city with news of the massacre, for fear it would be intercepted and used to home in on my position. No, I would have to deliver my message in person.
I switched my engines on to full and the skycraft ceased hovering and leaped forward through the air like a wild maral pouncing and snatching a bannet from the sky before swiftly fleeing its victim’s brutal mates.
The speed-weight crushed me to my seat. And as I flew, I had a moment of reflection on what I had lost; my friends, my village, and my two deep and abiding true loves: Malisha, my wife, so truthful, so funny, and so passionately loving. And Sharil, my daughter, three years old, sweet, and mischievous, cursed with my own dark roguish features, yet blessed—nay thrice-blessed!—with her mother’s beauty and wit, and radiant smile.
For a moment, I recalled these two and I felt their presences.
And for a longer moment still I was appalled at their evermore absences.
But then I had no more time to mourn.
I took the plane up high, out of the atmosphere, until I could see the cratered pockmarks of our purple moon and the unmistakable towers of our lunar city. But I realised that the towers had all fallen, and the moon was pock-marked a thousand times more than usual. Then I banked and ripped downwards through the sky of Madagorian, and proceeded at a fast diagonal towards the capital city, Kubala.
Then I saw it.
It was one of the enemy’s skycraft, without a doubt. A vessel larger than a battle-plane, and bizarrely coloured in varying hues, and shaped, extraordinarily, like the stem of a harasi tree. It was invisible to my matter-sensors, and the dazzling sunlight on the hull made it opaque to ordinary vision too. But the faint heat emanating from the craft was clearly visible to me through my enhanced-vision mask-eyes.
I smiled, in anticipation of vengeful victory, and launched my missiles.
Then my craft kinked, in a savagely fast manoeuvre that was designed to avoid any return missile fire.
The Philosophers had dreamed the single-seat skycraft to be winged creatures that embodied air and speed and grace; they were to be supple beautiful flying-machines that merged with the minds of their pilot, so that flesh and machinery beat with a single heart. And our warrior-scientists had followed the Philosophers’ dreams precisely and with unmatchable skill.
And so my craft, a tiny dot in the air, was now as much sky as sky-plane; it was a bird and a cloud and a raindrop; and yet it was also a killing machine with near unquenchable reserves of bombs and missiles and devastatingly powerful fast-fire guns.
And my sky-craft had another eerie power; it was able to change direction abruptly and swiftly without the effects being felt by the Maxolu warrior in the cockpit. So that when I piloted the plane, I could fly faster and more unpredictably than any bird that had ever lived.
I and the plane-that-was-part-of-me skidded across the sky, and reversed and looped, and plunged towards the ground, and recovered from the plunge, and accelerated at a speed so near to light that time itself, as measured by the skycraft’s clock, very near stood still.
All the missiles achieved direct hits, for my aim was unerring; but the enemy vessel clearly had some kind of protective invisible-wall, so the explosions splashed harmlessly off its hull.
Then I flew beneath the enemy ship and extended my craft’s nose spike and I flew directly into the other craft. The spike penetrated the hull, and I fired a fusillade of delayed action missiles into the vessel, then snapped the spike, and flew like the heel of a skate upon ice across the blue sky and watched.
The enemy battle-ship jerked out of control as the bombs exploded inside it. It veered wildly from side to side, then started to fall from the sky.
Then it vanished.
And reappeared behind me and I saw it through my all-around mask-eyes and I fired a hail of burning gas through the rear of my craft and saw flames burn the enemy’s hull, and was once more dancing around the sky.
The enemy ship was billowing steam from side vents now, a clear sign that there were fires within and its hull was compromised. It fired a battery of projectiles and energy streams towards me, but my dancing pinprick of a fighter craft eluded them all.
The enemy’s huge battle ship was faced with a single-Maxolu skycraft, and it was losing. I felt a surge of triumph.
And then I saw that the enemy vessel was descending, and landing. It burned the grass in a field and touched down with no jolt, and the side of the craft opened up and I saw far below me—in the image magnified by my mask-eyes—a single figure step out.
I increased the magnification on my eyes still further; and was surprised to see that the figure emerging from the ship was a female warrior carrying a sword. Was this a challenge?
The enemy battleship lifted into the air once more and flew off. The warrior remained, alone, on the ground. The message was clear: a one-on-one combat was being proposed.
I plunged downwards, with a jolt of joy that was like falling off a cliff, and landed my craft on the seared grass. I knew this might be an ambush, but I had to take the risk. For according to the laws of my world, any battle and war can be decided by single combat, no matter what the sizes of the respective armies. But now I wondered: would these enemy warriors hold to such values?
For I had, of course, realised by now these were no ordinary warriors; they came from elsewhere, from some other planet around some other star that existed far away in the universe of stars that encircled us at night.
My enemy were aliens, and they had invaded my world.
I stepped out of my craft. I removed my mask, so I could taste the cold morning air on my cheeks, and shook my long hair. Then I took my sword and scabbard out of the cockpit-pouch, strapped it over my back, and walked calmly towards the alien warrior.
The warrior was female, as I had already seen. But, close up, she looked like no female I had ever before beheld. She had fangs, like an animal, which protruded from her mouth; and no ear-flaps. In the centre of her forehead was a third eye. She was large—twice as large as myself—and powerfully muscled. And she wore no body armour but was clad in tight bright yellow animal-hides that left her legs and stomach and arms bare. Her hair was bright scarlet and streaked with silver and blew in the wind. And her skin was pale, more white than red, and entirely lacking in soft ridges.
The contrast in our sizes was almost comical; I was a dwarf beside this giant. She was without doubt a magnificent specimen of her species, warily graceful, with bulging shoulders and arms and stocky legs. And there was a steely look in her eyes that assured me she knew well the bitterness and the joy of combat.
I stared up at her appraisingly and without hate; for hate will slow the warrior’s hand and eye. “What tribe are you?” I asked.
“You do not know my tribe,” the warrior replied, in a husky low voice that made my flesh tingle with the eerie unfamiliarity of its tone.
“What is your name?” I continued, patiently.
“Zala,” said the warrior. “And yours?”
And she stared at me impassively, unafraid to meet my eyes.
“I am,” I said proudly, “Sharrock.”
She stared at me, unimpressed.
Hiding my disappointment at her lack of response to my, by all objective criteria, legendary name, I added: “You are, I take it, not from our lands.”
“I am not.”
“Tell me then, whence do you come?”
She was still staring into my eyes; shamelessly, and in my view arrogantly. I felt a flash of rage and stifled it.
I would kill her first; and then I would savour my wrath.
“Far away,” she said, in what sounded to me like sad tones. “Another planet, around another star.”
“As I had suspected,” I told her, formally. “For your ship is like nothing I have ever seen. Your appearance is hideous and strange. You are an alien.”
“In your terms, I am.”
“Why do you wage war upon us, you whore-fucking, turd-eating monster from afar?” I asked her, with ritual invective.
“Answer my question, o withered-hole!” I insisted, and she laughed again.
“We come,” she said with open mockery, “o pathetic-male-with-a-tiny-prick-that-I-will-eat-and-feed-in-morsels-to-my-female-lover in order to conquer and destroy you.”
“Why?” I said, stung at her unfamiliar insult.
“Why not?” said Zala the female warrior, tauntingly.
Once again I had to bite back my rage; for I truly despised this warrior’s lack of respect for tradition. Her people’s war with my people should not have been fought like this! A formal declaration should have been made, and hence due warning given; poems should have been spoken, songs composed, regrets expressed. All this should have been done, to create a war that would have been ennobling for all concerned.
Instead, they had simply ambushed our valiant warriors, massacred our defenceless families and Philosophers, and left them all to rot.
“Which planet do you come from, you tainted-by-vulgarity-and-laughed-at-by-small-children shit-covered harlot?” I said.
She grinned, clearly amused by our social ritual of rhetorical abuse. “It has a name,” she said casually. “You will not know it. It is far away. Your astronomers will never have seen it. All you need to know is I am a warrior of a once great world. Will you fight me?”
“If I kill you, your world is forfeit,” the alien warrior said arrogantly.
“Very well,” I said calmly. “And if I kill you?”
“That won’t happen,” said the alien warrior Zala and she lunged forward with her long curved sword, the hilt clutched in both her hands.
I dodged easily and drew my sword from its scabbard on my back with one hand and swung it fast at her and she recoiled and barely dodged it, then I wove forwards to the left and then to the right, ducking and rising in a single flow, then thrust the tip of the sword towards her bare midriff. But she leaped in the air and danced on the flat of my blade and kicked my head and somersaulted over me then plunged her sword back and over her own head at me, without turning around.
I was awed at her speed, but evaded the blow and swept my own blade a thousand times in the air in a series of continuous movements. Zala countered each sword-strike with a speed that impressed me, for we were both fighting faster than the beatings of a baro bird’s wings.
But I was stronger, and the next time she leaped in the air I leaped high too and clutched at her face with my fingers and plucked out one of her eyes.
We both landed, swords held upright and clashed steel once again. Blood dribbled out of her empty eye-hole. Her face was a cold mask of hate. I felt a surge of joy; this was glorious combat.
Then her blade went through my heart and I exulted, and with my dagger I sliced off her hand at the wrist and stepped back. I grunted in pain, and also in delight. For her severed hand and blade were now trapped in my chest, with the tip of her sword protruding from my back. But my second heart was easily able to sustain my body. And now the alien was fighting swordless and one handed, with scarlet blood gushing from the bloody stump of her right arm.
But Zala just laughed and drew her second sword, and I lunged again and she dodged and stabbed my leg and so I butted her face and swung my own weapon in a rolling pattern of cuts that shook sparks from her blade. Then with my left hand I stabbed once more with my dagger and slashed at her throat so powerfully it severed her head, and the head fell off her body and bounced on to the sands.
And I paused, and for a moment allowed myself to relax; but her head continued to laugh.
I was shocked at this; then I realised that the head must have its own blood supply. And, too, the headless torso was still holding its sword and was undeterred by the loss of its head; with speed and bravado it leaped at me and carried on fighting, blind yet unerringly accurate in its sword strikes.
I was on the defensive now; the headless torso had renewed strength and was able to somehow perceive where my body was and even anticipate my moves in ways I could not fathom. And all the while the head on the sand laughed, as its body fought me; and I forced myself to ignore the absurdity of it all and lost myself in battle-lust until my blade swept down and rent the warrior’s body in two.
The two halves of the alien warrior’s torso twitched on the sand, blood gushing, organs spilling out. The battle was over; or so I thought.
But then the right half of the warrior lifted its sword again, and tried to stand up. And the left half of the warrior drew a knife and rolled in the sands, trying to get upright with only one foot.
The warrior was still not dead. Still not dead!
I brought my sword down and split the head into two halves. Blood splashed, and I could see the grey folds of the creature’s brain. Her tongue was split in two, but her two separated eyes were staring at me and still she was laughing, even though it was a gurgle and not a real laugh.
“Die you devilish fucker-of-evil monster!” I screamed.
The two halves of the head spluttered with delight.
I lowered my sword. I was defeated; no matter what I did, I could never kill this creature.
“What will happen now?” I asked. But the sundered head could no longer speak. And there was, I felt, sadness in her remaining eyes.
And at that point, Zala’s head started to shimmer before me, and I realised I could see through her face and sundered smile to the sands behind. Then her head slowly vanished, and her body too, like mist dissipating in the morning heat.
I marvelled at this magic. What powers did these creatures have? And what utter, taunting, disgusting malice. This was not war, it was mockery.
I looked around.
The alien battle ship had not returned. And in the distance, a false bright red dawn on the horizon revealed that the city itself was ablaze.
And I saw that the sky above me was now black with single-Maxolu fighting craft; but they weren’t fighting, they were just spiralling aimlessly. There was no battle being fought, merely the sad savouring of abject defeat. I had a sinking feeling of despair.
The ground below me shook again. But these weren’t bombs exploding in the distance; this was an earthquake.
And I realised that the sand beneath me was hot; my feet were seared with heat through my boots. I cleaned the blood off my sword and dagger, then sheathed them.
The ground shook again. I braced myself.
Then the ground erupted. The sand was scattered into the air and the rock below was exposed, and it split before my eyes, and red liquid lava poured out of the rents. The earth’s hot crust was erupting out of the ground directly beneath me.
And at the same time lightning once more ripped across the sky, vast forked bolts that stabbed the air and made it scream.
And a loud roaring sound filled my ears, and then a wind sprang up from nowhere and knocked me off my feet. I staggered upright and saw hot volcano-spew rolling towards me like tides in a raging ocean. The sky was empty now, all the Maxolu craft had been obliterated by the savage winds. The air itself shimmered with heat, as if it were ablaze; and hail rained down on me and burned my face.
I knew now that my world was dying and there was nothing I could do to save it.
A river of lava flowed fast towards me, and engulfed my knees and thighs, and burned off my trousers and boots and the flesh of my legs and arse beneath, and I tasted ash and my own blood as I accidentally bit my tongue. My skin was hot and my body hair was sparking, and waves of heat oppressed me like a pillow used to suffocate a convicted coward.
I howled in despair. I could not run, or move in any way. My legs were ablaze, the flesh was turning molten.
Then the red-hot volcano-spew engulfed me, up to the chest, then up almost to my neck. I thought about my wife, Malisha, and my baby girl, Sharil. And I mourned their deaths, as my tough flesh began to burn, and my bones were seared with heat, and my eyes stung with ash that turned my tears into hailstones.
Sharrock defeated? I wondered.
Never! I vowed. But in my heart I knew I was doomed.
Excerpted from Hell Ship by Palmer, Philip Copyright © 2011 by Palmer, Philip. Excerpted by permission.
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