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The Ship of Ishtar
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Pages (PDF): 244
Publication Date: 1924
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The Ship of Ishtar tells the story of Kenton, who receives a mysterious ancient Babylonian artifact, which he discovers contains an incredibly detailed model of a ship. A dizzy spell casts him onto the deck of the ship, which becomes a full-sized vessel sailing an eternal sea. At one end is Sharane the assistant priestess of Ishtar and her female minions, and at the other is Klaneth the assistant priest of Nergal and his male minions, representatives of two opposed deities. None of them can cross an invisible barrier at the midline of the ship, but Kenton can. His arrival destabilizes a situation that had been frozen for 6,000 years.
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A tendril of the strange fragrance spiralled up from the great stone block. Kenton felt it caress his face like a coaxing hand.
He had been aware of that fragrance — an alien perfume, subtly troubling, evocative of fleeting unfamiliar images, of thought-wisps that were gone before the mind could grasp them — ever since he had unsheathed from its coverings the thing Forsyth, the old archaeologist, had sent him from the sand shrouds of ages-dead Babylon.
Once again his eyes measured the block — four feet long, a little more than that in height, a trifle less in width. A faded yellow, its centuries hung about it like a half visible garment. On one face only was there inscription, a dozen parallel lines of archaic cuneiform; carved there, if Forsyth were right in his deductions, in the reign of Sargon of Akkad, sixty centuries ago. The surface of the stone was scarred and pitted and the wedge-shaped symbols mutilated, half obliterated.
Kenton leaned closer over it, and closer around him wound the scented spirals clinging like scores of tendrils, clinging like little fingers, wistful, supplicating, pleading — Pleading for release! What nonsense was this he was dreaming? Kenton drew himself up. A hammer lay close at hand; he lifted it and struck the block, impatiently.
The block answered the blow!
It murmured; the murmuring grew louder; louder still, with faint bell tones like distant carillons of jade. The murmurings ceased, now they were only high, sweet chimings; clearer, ever more clear they rang, drawing closer, winging up through endless corridors of time.
There was a sharp crackling. The block split. From the break pulsed a radiance as of rosy pearls and with it wave after wave of the fragrance — no longer questing, no longer wistful nor supplicating.
Jubilant now! Triumphant!
Something was inside the block! Something that had lain hidden there since Sargon of Akkad, six thousand years go!
The carillons of jade rang out again. Sharply they pealed, then turned and fled back the endless corridors up which they had come. They died away; and as they died the block collapsed; it disintegrated; it became a swirling, slowly settling cloud of sparkling dust.
The cloud whirled, a vortex of glittering mist. It vanished like a curtain plucked away.
Where the block had been stood — a ship!
It floated high on a base of curving waves cut from lapis lazuli and foam-crested with milky rock crystals. Its hull was of crystal, creamy and faintly luminous. Its prow was shaped like a slender scimitar, bent backward. Under the incurved tip was a cabin whose seaward sides were formed, galleon fashion, by the upward thrust of the bows. Where the hull drew up to form this cabin, a faint flush warmed and cloudy crystal; it deepened as the sides lifted; it gleamed at last with a radiance that turned the cabin into a rosy jewel. In the center of the ship, taking up a third of its length, was a pit; down from the bow to its railed edge sloped a deck of ivory. The deck that sloped similarly from the stern was jet black. Another cabin rested there, larger than that at the bow, but squat and ebon. Both decks continued in wide platforms on each side of the pit. At the middle of the ship the ivory and black decks met with an odd suggestion of contending forces. They did not fade into each other. They ended there abruptly, edge to edge; hostile.
Out of the pit arose a rail mast: tapering and green as the core of an immense emerald. From its cross-sticks a wide sail stretched.. shimmering like silk spun from fire opals: from mast and yards fell stays of twisted dull gold.
Out from each side of the ship swept a single bank of seven great oars, their scarlet blades dipped deep within the pearl-crested lapis of the waves.
And the jewelled craft was manned! Why, Kenton wondered, had he not noticed the tiny figures before?
It was as though they had just arisen from the deck . . . a woman had slipped out of the rosy cabin’s door, an arm was still outstretched in its closing . . . and there were other women shapes upon the ivory deck, three of them, crouching . . . their heads were bent low; two clasped harps and the third held a double flute . . .
Little figures, not more than two inches high . . .
Odd that he could not distinguish their faces, nor the details of their dress. The boys were indistinct, blurred, as though a veil covered them. Kenton told himself that the blurring was the fault of his eyes; he closed them for a moment.
Opening them he looked down upon the black cabin and stared with deepening perplexity. The black deck had been empty when first the ship had appeared — that he could have sworn. Now four manikins were clustered there — close to the edge of the pit!
And the baffling haze around the toys was denser. Of course it must be his eyes — what else? He would lie down for a while and rest them. He turned, reluctantly; he walked slowly to the door; he paused there, uncertainly, to look back at the shining mystery —
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