THE LAST TERRAN by Blake Rogers
2 The Attack
At last they reached Sporn City, the main settlement on the planet and site of Sporn spaceport, its landing field currently empty of space vessels. The ‘city’ itself was a meagre collection of mud huts, dirt floored, linked by crudely fashioned duckboards. These ‘streets’ were home to a heterogeneous mixture of native Sporn and interstellar wanderers like Lod, with whom the Sporn traded while they aimlessly awaited the next shuttle out of here.
Into this stinking, festering, noxious dung heap of a place rode Lod Jovis, leading his captive at his saddlebow.
His thumb rested on the control device as he used the barbarian to force a way through the bustle towards the square, on whose edges stood the entrance to the spaceport—currently barred to the impecunious Lod—the administration centre; the Temple of the Flame, centre of what passed for religion on this planet; and the market. On the fourth side of the square was a muddy little river. The market was his intended destination, since it was only here he could have his captive sold. His plan was then to pocket the proceeds, buy himself an exit visa, and spend the rest of the credits on ensuring that his wait for the next ship was as pleasant as this planet could make it.
For the moment, however, Lod’s captive made a good icebreaker. The barbarian shambled through the mass of natives, knocking them aside if they did not get out of the way quickly enough, and then Lod and his mount trotted through unimpeded. What brought so many people to this planet the Protean did not know. He had come here as a stowaway, hoping to get somewhere more interesting. Surely this narrow fertile strip held nothing of interest. The question was academic now: he was getting out of here.
At last they came out into the square. Here the crowds were less clotted, and Lod rode towards the market, a collection of tents and stalls surrounded by a ramshackle palisade. The captive at his side seemed quiescent, but Lod knew not to trust him. He kept the control device in his hand, ready to send a bolt of energy through the barbarian at an instant’s notice. If that didn’t work, he might be forced to use the sword he had taken when he enslaved the barbarian, but it would be unprofitable to kill his captive. Yet now the market was in sight the chances of an escape attempt were their highest.
The captive’s hairy head had sunk almost to his chest. Suddenly it shot up, his attention caught by a newcomer on the scene. A tall, pale skinned Sporn had stridden into the square, forcing its way past the other natives who viewed its appearance with apparent consternation. Lod watched dully from his mount as the Sporn rooted itself almost in the exact centre of the square, facing the log walled administration centre.
Lod cast the pale skinned newcomer an unfavourable look. The Sporn was standing stock-still but as Lod watched it was trembling, its head shaking back and forth. The head exploded.
Lod almost fell from his saddle in surprise. His control unit dropped from his nerveless hand into the mud. The barbarian seemed not to have noticed, however; he was watching the Sporn. The head was gone, leaving a headless trunk still standing. The other natives were running. From the cracked ruin of the head was drifting a white plume of… smoke?
No, that wasn’t it. Something else floated gossamer like on the gentle breeze. Drifting down on every hand, it began to settle on the churned up mud of the square. Now the headless body fell withering to the ground, as if its task was done.
By now most of the Sporn had fled the square and the sounds of consternation were spreading through the settlement. The barbarian was peering at the ground nearby. He still had not seen that Lod had dropped the control device. Lod quietly slid from the saddle, intent on retrieving the control device before it got into the wrong paws.
The barbarian swung round. Lod froze, as if caught committing a criminal act. The barbarian’s face was grim. He gestured.
Lod whirled round to see the ground swelling up beside him with a pale shape like the Sporn newcomer who had died so strangely. Another appeared, mushrooming up from the mud. And another... and another... they were all around him! The head of the first one to appear burst with a pop, and more white smoke—no! Lod Jovis thought numbly. Spores!—drifted gently away.
Desperate, the barbarian seized the sword from Lod’s saddlebag, then pounded forwards, feet splattering through the mud. With a swing of his great arm, he cut the next pale Sporn to the ground but even as he did its head popped, showering him with spores. Roaring, the barbarian clawed at the air. More spores drifted down to the ground, and almost immediately swelled up into pale Sporn. Some landed on the bodies of running green Sporn, who slowed their movements as their hide lost its green hue.
It was happening all around the square. The pale Sporn reproduced exponentially, swelling up into full size before their heads popped, releasing more spores that grew into more pale Sporn or infected the greens. Lod cursed, wishing he had a beam weapon about his person, but they were forbidden on the planet. The green Sporn regarded any source of fire or heat as sacred, and it was an offense to prostitute the Holy Flame. All beam weapons were kept locked in a hut within the spaceport—beyond Lod’s reach.
The barbarian ran. Lod snarled.
‘Come back here!’ he shrilled, and searched the mud for the fallen control device.
The cunning barbarian had seized this distraction as a chance to escape. Lod should have guessed he would. Now where was that device?
His zymoron was also fleeing. He was almost entirely surrounded by pale Sporn. The square was thick with them. Curse the green Sporn and their foolish religion! A beam weapon would clear the square in no time. And curse that coward barbarian. Lod turned to run, but the pale Sporn surrounded him on all sides. He cowered down to his knees.
But they seemed not to notice him, intent on reproduction. The air was thick with spores, each swelling into fecund life the instant they touched the muddy ground. Decisively, Lod rose and tried to force his way through the crowd of pale beings, but he soon found that there were too many of them. So many that he was trapped. He felt pale hands pawing at him. One covered his face, and he felt himself suffocating.
With an effort, he tore himself free and staggered away into a more open area. The barbarian had not fled the square, but was wildly swinging his sword, fighting the interloping pale Sporn. The only other person Lod could see in the square was a willowy green Sporn who stood in the entrance to the administration centre, watching the chaos in apparent horror.
‘You lummox!’ Lod shouted at his erstwhile captive. ‘You’ll never defeat them like that.’
The barbarian cut down another Sporn but its exploding head exhaled a cloud of spores right at his face and he choked. Wiping tears from his eyes, the barbarian yelled, ‘How will I defeat them, then?’
An idea flashed through Lod’s mind. ‘Fire! Get fire! That will destroy them!’
The barbarian thrust the sword into his belt and sprinted over to the temple. Lod fought his way through the growing ranks of Sporn. Where was his mount? He had lost everything this day, his chance of leaving this planet… Spores filled the air. He began to choke. Writhing, he fell to the ground, his face turning blue.
The stink of burning vegetable matter reached him and he heard the roar of fire, felt a wave of heat rush over him. Still he coughed, but it seemed that the cloud of spores was reducing somehow. He gasped for air, and rolled over onto his back.
Flaming pale Sporn were fleeing past him. Drifting spores dropped blazing from the air. On none of the alien worlds Lod had visited in his wanderings had he seen anything so strange. He saw the barbarian now, blundering through the ranks of pale Sporn. What was it that he now gripped in his mighty paw?
It was an ornate brazier from which blazed a great flame, and he was chasing the pale Sporn down with it. They were highly flammable, Lod Jovis realised as he rose to a crouch; much as he had assumed. The fire was spreading from one Sporn to another, and the spores were burnt black. Now nothing remained of the throng of pale Sporn but ashes, over which stood the barbarian, brazier in one paw now guttering down, an expression of immense arrogance on his face.
Green Sporn had crept back into the square and now stood rooted at its edges, watching the barbarian in amazed silence. The Sporn in the entrance to the administration centre was also watching. Some of the buildings were on fire, the market palisade was blazing. If no one did anything the whole settlement would soon be an inferno.
Lod Jovis noticed the control device lying half trampled in the mud nearby. He snatched it up.
‘Look what you’ve done, you clumsy lummox!’ he scolded the barbarian. ‘The market and everything else is going to go up in flames! I only meant for you to destroy the invaders.’
‘I found the brazier in the temple, O wizard,’ rumbled the barbarian. ‘They worship fire, seemingly.’
‘And look what it does to them,’ said Lod, as if it had been the barbarian’s plan. ‘Those pale ones... you’ve killed them all. But now the rest are in danger.’ His skin prickled with mortification. This was all his fault. But at least he could blame the barbarian.
The green Sporn had been galvanised into action, and were organising long bucket chains to extinguish the flames with water from the river. As they did so, a small group of Sporn came up to Lod and his slave. Two of them gently detached the brazier from the barbarian’s paw and took it back into the temple.
‘My humblest apologies, O Sporn,’ said Lod hastily. ‘My captive has caused endless damage. He was well intentioned. He thought, as did I, that the pale interlopers constituted a threat of some kind.’ He laughed nervously as the Sporn turned their featureless faces in his direction. ‘But now the lummox has almost burnt down the entire town. Of course, I am willing to make all possible reparations. Perhaps you will accept this slave in payment?’
The leader of the Sporn contingent said nothing, but made a pointing gesture at Lod, then at the barbarian. Then beckoned. Without turning, he moved in the opposite direction. Lod, with heavy heart, began following him. He seized the barbarian by his brawny forearm and dragged him along as the other Sporn closed ranks behind them. They were taken towards the administration centre.
‘You’ve got a lot to make up for, you great lummox,’ he hissed at the barbarian, who loped along at his side, an imperturbable expression on his brutal face. ‘Do you know nothing about alien relations? One must respect all the customs and traditions of an alien planet’s inhabitants. One doesn’t simply stroll into a native temple and desecrate their holy of holies.’
‘All I know of other planets is how to conquer them,’ the barbarian muttered, hand set arrogantly on the hilt of his sword. ‘Once I trod a thousand worlds beneath my feet, heaped up the heads of aliens into great pyramids in the blazing ruins of their capital cities. I crushed a score of rebellions on a score of worlds, expanded the empire, drove back other barbarians, fought for emperors who came and went. I was a hero to half the galaxy, a curse on the lips of the rest. These vegetable men are nothing.’
Lod listened to these incoherent boasts with mounting anger and incredulity.
‘I don’t know half of what you’re talking about, barbarian, but I’ve half a mind to send a terminal shock through you. The only thing that deters me is the fact that I hope to sell you and make a profit, or at least buy myself out of the mess your impetuosity and impiety has put me in.’ He scowled. ‘Who are you, anyway?’
Introductions had seemed unnecessary when he enslaved the barbarian. Now that they were facing judgement of the Sporn, it might help if he knew his brutal companion’s name.
‘I am Kroom,’ the barbarian said distantly. ‘Kroom the Terran, Imperial Galactic Warlord. And who are you, O wizard?’
CONTINUES NEXT WEEK