Assur of Babylonia
voyages to an alien world in...
by Kirk Straughen
About the author
Creatures of the Air
ASSUR'S SCALP PRICKLED WITH HORROR. He thrust his spear down
the awful orifice with every ounce of strength he possessed. Again and
again he stabbed, each time striking deeply but with little effect,
each blow becoming more and more desperate as he was drawn closer and
closer to the gaping mouth.
Out of the corner of his eye he caught a blur of motion. A spear hissed beneath him, thudding into the stem of the plant where the nerves connected the subterranean brain -- a modified root -- to the rest of its body. It shivered violently, like a man caught in fever’s grip, and Assur fell heavily to the ground as the tendrils about his body went limp.
Soft arms went about his neck, and muffled sobbing came to his ears through the dark veil of Lunala’s hair.
“Steady girl, I’m not badly hurt,” he said as he stroked the sensuous lines of her back, intimately aware of her nude body as she clung tightly to him.
Lunala wiped the tears from her eyes and looked at him with a quivering smile.
“I thought I was too late, I thought the ver had killed you,” and then irrelevantly “Oh, I must look a mess.”
“Never a more lovely mess have I ever seen,” and then impulsively, he kissed her.
For a moment she was surprised, then slowly began to respond with passion. A soft moan escaped her lips as he cupped her firm breasts and began kissing her nipples, which swelled under his swirling tongue. Then, reluctantly, she slowly pushed him away.
“I’m sorry, I can't,” she sobbed. “You don’t know who I really am, and the fault is mine. It’s just that I wished for a short time to escape the weighty responsibilities of state, to be just an ordinary girl, to be liked for who I am, not because of what I am …”
“And who are you really?”
“I am Lunala Pratem, Queen of Rin.”
A silence stretched between them for a time.
Assur sighed deeply, and forced a smile.
“Well, we had both best take a cool bath in the stream before continuing on, don’t you think?
Half an hour found them within sight of the sky-boat. Fortunately Lunala had managed to bring the craft down in a grove of feathery pomu trees, whose soft leaves and branches had broken her fall. The vessel now lay on its keel in the underbrush, surrounded by the sapped limbs that had slowed its descent.
To Assur’s eyes the sky-boat resembled a fish turned on its side. Its 20-foot long oval body, ten feet at its widest point, was made of a tough yellow silk-like fabric stretched over a light wooden framework. Attached to the body were sets of vertical fins aft, and horizontal ones along the sides. Two cockpits were positioned one behind the other, deep enough so that only the head and shoulders of the occupants protruded.
The Queen explained: “The two large magenta discs you see mounted fore and aft are made from vitrusa, a special glass. They convert sunlight into an etheric force that flows via copper wires to a grid of metherim alloy. When the grid is energized it radiates a repulsive force that lifts the craft into the air. The sphere of metherim alloy you see projecting from the stern is also powered by the vitrusa discs, and provides forward thrust. Steering the craft is accomplished with the fins, speed and altitude by increasing or decreasing the strength of the etheric force.”
“Ingenious,” remarked Assur, realizing the banality of his reply. He was still coming to terms with Lunala’s revelation that had left his mind a swirl of conflicting emotions – the desire to possess her as a woman and the knowledge that, as Queen, she was forever beyond his reach. He sat quietly on a rock, watching her open panels in the craft’s sides and peer within.
Lunala swore luridly, and turned to Assur as he came to her side.
“Look at this,” she cried, her eyes flashing. “Someone has smeared a corrosive paste over the main power conduit. It was slowly eaten away by the acid, cutting off the etheric force to the grid. Little wonder my craft crashed. This is sabotage, attempted murder!”
“Who would do such a thing?”
Her full lips compressed into a thin line. “I don’t know, but believe me I intend finding out. Fortunately, I can use my gold necklace to bridge the gap. The other damage is negligible, so we’ll be airborne in a few minutes.”
The repairs were nearly complete when the stillness of the jungle was broken by hellish war cries as a band of six savages burst through the undergrowth twenty yards to the rear.
“Hold them off,” shouted Lunala. “I need more time.”
A spear thudded into the earth at Assur’s feet. He wrenched it from the soil and hurled it at the charging primitives. It struck one full in the chest, knocking him to the ground.
“Done,” yelled Lunala as she jumped into the cockpit. “Climb aboard.”
Assur dodged another spear and hurled his own, felling a second savage. The rest came on, undaunted by their sudden losses. One, perhaps braver or more foolhardy than the rest, grabbed the vessel’s stern as it rose into the air. The others fell back jabbering in consternation at the unexpected sight.
The sky-boat cleared the treetops as Kav hauled himself to the deck of the craft. Holding his flint knife between his teeth he crawled along its length, determined to die a warrior’s death and thus ensure the rebirth of his soul.
Assur, seeing the savage’s plan and determined not to let him come within striking distance of Lunala, had also crawled out upon the deck.
“Get back in here,” yelled Lunala. “I’ll send the sky-boat into a steep climb and he’ll tumble off.”
But it was too late. The two men were now grappling on the narrow swaying deck. There was nothing she could do but hold the craft steady and hope Assur would be victorious.
Kav fought to drive his point downwards into Assur’s chest, while Assur struggled to stab upwards into his opponent’s guts. Both had risen to their feet, each clutched the other’s knife-hand at the wrist, each fought to unbalance the other and deliver a fatal thrust.
Assur could feel his feet slipping under the relentless force of his adversary’s powerful muscles. Kav grinned, baring teeth filed to points, confident victory would soon be his.
The Babylonian caught his opponent by surprise. Dropping his own knife, he grabbed the hand of Kav that gripped his wrist, and placed his foot upon his stomach as he fell. Assur landed on his back, pulling Kav down with him, and at the same time straightened the leg upon his stomach, hurling the savage over his head and to his death.
“You damn fool,” cried Lunala as he climbed into the cockpit. “You could have gotten yourself killed.”
Assur’s only response was an infuriating grin.
Soon the sky-boat was winging its way swiftly and silently across the dark sea towards the distant island of Rin. Assur looked down at the sable waves far below, the wind whipping his hair and blurring his vision with tears, forcing him to don the cumbersome goggles that Lunala had provided.
They flew onward in silence. It was impossible to talk – the wind of their passage through the air whipped words away. As the flight was long, Lunala locked the controls and both took refuge from boredom by dozing lightly.
Assur woke with a start. Somehow he sensed danger was near. Looking about he saw an object at a slightly higher altitude almost directly in their path – it was a fuzzy sphere of filament covered branching hollow rods. They were translucent green and filled with a lifting gas that kept the thing aloft.
Leaning forward, Assur shook Lunala awake and pointed at the sphere. It was at least two hundred yards across, and although the thing looked harmless enough he felt that somehow it posed a threat.
She grumbled sleepily at first, and then came wide-awake at the sight of the sphere, instantly recognizing it as an annth. These strange plants that evolution had freed from the bondage of the soil, took their nutriment from the dust and water vapor of the air. They were not usually found in these latitudes. Freak winds, however, had blown this one from its usual abode thus catching them unaware.
The real danger was not from the plant itself but from other creatures of the air, the zarusa -- symbiotic animals that fed upon the secretions from its special glands, and in return guarded their host from other aerial herbivores that sought to feed upon it.
Now, seeing the sky-boat as a threat, they boiled out in an angry swarm and hurled themselves towards the helpless craft...
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Swords Across the Void and the character of Assur are copyright by Kirk Straughen. It may not be copied without permission of the author except for purposes of reviews. (Though you can print it out to read it, natch.)