3LBE #15
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Ten-foot Two, Eyes of Blue

by Clay Waters

 

The war was the news, as it had been sixteen years running. It came in crystal clear on Nazarene’s ear radio: Raptor ships had assaulted an Allied moonbase, sustaining heavy losses while inflicting minor damage on Allied forces.

She grimaced: Sheer happy talk. Humans were losing, steadily but surely. And both sides knew it.

“End,” she whispered; the report ceased.

She looked down upon Manhattan’s jagged skyscape: Sharp, indented profiles of laser cannons topping a range of bubbled office towers. The cannons had gone unused so far. The enemy hadn’t gotten that bold. Not yet.

Nazarene, tallest human alive, stood atop the tallest of the Five Towers, the triumphant middle finger built long before in response to human terrorism. Now it pointed toward an interstellar enemy, nicknamed Raptors, after the clay-red carapaces that made them resemble dinosaurs. They’d dropped out of a wormhole just nine light years away, armed with sleek and diverse tech stolen from species more advanced but less ruthless. They’d issued no communiqués, made no demands before shooting things out of the sky — be it a Jumberg crammed with schoolchildren or an Allied warplane, they either couldn’t or didn’t make distinctions, breaking through the atmosphere in cloaked ships and departing with equal stealth. They had thrown together a base on Mars, but a plausible Allied assault was a good decade away.

Above Nazarene’s head, human patrol copters braced for an attack. Two-hundred floors below, wind tunnels wreaked havoc on cyclos, cabs and pedestrians. But atop the tallest building of the world, it was eerily serene: Normalcy, or as close as possible in wartime.

No matter how things ended up, Nazarene thought, she’d contributed a bit to that soothing illusion: By taking people’s minds, for a moment here and there, off the war.

Perhaps she’d make the news herself pretty soon.

Her celebrity had faded, her life’s direction altered, profoundly enough to bring her up to this dizzying height, staring over a security railing too high for a normal-sized human but which posed no barrier to the tallest ever.

She hypothesized what would happen if she really were to jump. From such an incredible height, one tomato splatter would look like any other. None of the horrified witnesses would be able to determine the length of her frame, the shortness of her life.

She looked down again, then behind, as if measuring whether, after gaining the roof, there would be more profit in retracing her steps or in simply taking the quick way down.

It was time.

She stepped over the fence, one freakish leg (longer than the average man was tall) dangling over the side. Six feet high, the fence had been built to prevent such jumps. For Nazarene, ten feet two inches tall, it was a matter of a slight hitch of her legs — and she was straddling a half-mile of city.

She edged over…

“Stop!”

A stranger had manifested on the roof beside her. He was of gargantuan girth, huge bald head, and unnaturally smooth, padded-looking skin. She marveled at how such a mass could move so quietly.

She dismounted. ”How’d you get up here?”

“I could ask you the same question.”

“I guess you could.”

He registered her height, and her eyes — pellets of shallow blue that had transfixed humans ever since she was a seven-foot pre-teen. Some were terrified of her. He wasn’t prone to such fears, yet even he felt disoriented in her presence. People called her porcelain girl — ghostly blue veins standing out on pale alabaster skin.

Her head, though merely average-sized (like a match-head on its stick), actually blocked the early afternoon sun, and the hyper-chlorinated blondeness of her hair stung his sensitive eyes. She looked barely able to support her emaciated body on such reedy legs. Even her crazy-blonde nest of hair seemed too much weight to bear.

“So who are you?” She added, after a pause.

“Robert,” he lied. ”You’re the famous Nazarene.”

“Not so famous anymore.”

“You disappeared.”

“I tried to be normal. It didn’t take.” She laughed. ”What reporters don’t get is that when every man around you is waist-high, every date is going to be weird. I was the one-woman freak parade. But you see her once and you lose interest. Unless you’re a freak too. In the head, I mean. Boy, they never quit. People who want to cook and eat me. You figure only girls with some meat on them would get that. I guess it’s the war, people go crazy.” The hard angles of her face were softening up. ”Something else? My feet have been numb for years. The nerve endings don’t reach. Can you imagine the doctors never thought of that?”

“No long-term thinking. It’s why they’re losing the war.”

“You mean We. You’re not one of those appeasers, are you?”

“Robert” changed the subject. ”Listen. I work for a man. He’s not a freak. He can give you anything you want. He can give you privacy.”

Nazarene nodded. She didn’t seem surprised. ”This isn’t the first ’lucky break’ I’ve gotten — being rescued like I’m a princess. I’m no princess.”

“My boss isn’t looking for a princess. Would you like to meet him?”

Her eyes narrowed. ”How?”

“He’s nearby.”

“Is he watching us now?” She squinted suspiciously into the sun, but only the small fleck of a retreating patrol copter was visible.

“Yes. Unless you had other plans?”

She gave a sour smile and walked toward him on her reedy legs. ”I wasn’t really going to jump, you know. I was testing myself. But I’ll go with you — making no commitments.”

“Of course not.”

“You’re nearby?”

“Very close. Please follow me.”

They passed under a stanchion, out of view of the ubiquitous scopes.

By the time she saw the spacecraft that had brought ”Robert,” it was too late to run. His hands — which were far too scaly for hands — were already wrapped around her bony chest. She made a pro forma struggle, but it was useless: Raptors were far stronger than average humans, and Nazarene was weaker than the average human.

“There are patrols all around,” she choked out.

“We’re cloaked. How do you think we lay bombs?” He shoved her inside the craft, which was too small for either one of them. The ship controls were far too small for his huge hands, which were now shedding their flesh-like coverings.

As the ship canted undetected through the clouds, the creature unpacked, emerging larger, lumpier, scalier as he shed the membrane. By the time the ship escaped the ionosphere the fake skin was coming off in sloughs, revealing the red-crusted raptor inside — like a boiled lobster in a breadskin warp.

Nazarene drew back in disgust. ”Nice trick. Stolen from what species?”

“The human conceit.” Actually, it was valid. Most raptor technology had been stolen from other species — tortured until they spilled the secrets of the magic.

“So why take me?”

“The General’s been watching you for years. He’s obsessed. Demands every report and photo we get.”

“Would he appreciate hearing that?”

“He doesn’t have a translator chip. He believes humans could track him that way. In fact” — he plucked out her ear radio and pierced it in two with a claw finger — ”even these make him nervous. And now, you’ll sleep until we arrive.”

A hatch irised open, sending a blast of stench toward Nazarene; the smell of muck and fecal matter stung her eyes. With two clawed appendages, Ram prodded her into the crud-filled chamber. Nazarene had stopped resisting. With a third arm, Ram fished a silver wand out of a supply tub and injected the contents into her chest. Nazarene knew nothing until Ram reopened the sleep chamber and shook her awake. On Mars.

• • •

“This is a war crime,” Nazarene said, slinging filth off her face and arms.

“Tell it to the Geneva Corporation.”

“You mean Conventions. Better bone up before you go back to Earth, bub. Not everyone down there is as easy to fool as me.”

Ram flicked an eyelid over his prisoner, not totally in anger — though that emotion ran like blood in male Raptors.

What he felt was closer to intrigue: He’d never been spoken to in such a familiar way by a female of any sort, certainly not by a cringing Raptor female. Ram had fleeting thoughts of using her before giving her up for Galan’s pleasure. Then he thought of the potential reprisals — torture for himself, his family bashed to bits in front of him — and banished the thought.

From the craft’s tiny portal Nazarene glimpsed a vast volcano, unusually wide and stumpy, resembling a cracked, cancerous breast.

After receiving some incomprehensible (to Nazarene) garble of light and sound on his monitor, the craft began decelerating toward the volcano’s steel-clamped mouth. The enormous alloyed jaws slid apart slightly, allowing the ship to drop through the maw.

“You call it Olympus Mons,” Ram said as the craft hovered at a checkpoint. ”The largest volcano in the system. Your most recent attack cost four warships that didn’t make it within 1,000 klicks of the surface. General Galan was most amused. You should hope he still is.”

Not that it would matter. Galan would crack her spine soon enough, like the others Ram had kidnapped for him.

But hopefully not too soon. This one was a coup, and Ram craved credit with the general. In a society not known for its easygoing nature, the General was considered rather demanding. His last helper had displeased Galan once too often — and the position had come violently open.

“Is that smart, being based in a volcano?” Nazarene queried. ”It might blow up in your face.”

“That’s not likely. It’s been extinct 20 billion years.”

“There’s always hope.”

Not for you, he thought, but kept it to himself. He didn’t want her to hang herself on her own hair before Galan had taken his pleasure.

Thinking of more tips to keep her alive, he said: ”Remove your clothes. He despises clothing. Otherwise he’ll cut you to ribbons getting them off.”

She obeyed with alacrity. In a minute, Nazarene was utterly nude but for the white hair ribbon.

“Is he cruel?”

“Not overly so.”

She had begun trembling a little. This he enjoyed. Before she’d seemed resigned, almost — curious.

After a final swap of signals, the ship made its final plunge. And it was a plunge. With autopilot disengaged, it was up to Ram to guide the ship the last final klick, and they touched down with a jolt. A surprisingly artless landing, after the efficiency of the kidnap. The Raptors had tortured the Floreans into explaining everything about flying Florean ships — but had neglected to learn landing procedures. With all the captured pilots dead, improvisation was required.

Ram clawed a monitor. There was a blast of suction, and the ship’s hatch reopened into a dank, humid tunnel. Nazarene flinched; Ram pushed her out.

“You can breathe it, don’t worry.”

Ram prodded Nazarene forward into a lush, humid chamber, made hotter by the crowding of dozens of the creatures, which turned their horns as one toward the arrivals.

Like a staff meeting in hell, she thought, struggling for breath in the oxygen-anemic environ, full of the dead-cow smell of Raptor.

A pit full of greenish mud dominated the center of the caved area. It contrasted with the walls, every millimeter of which was crammed with myriad incomprehensible (and incompatible-looking) technologies. In between the slabs of jammed-in machinery, small portals stared out onto dark-red desolation.

An enormous raptor, larger even than Ram, raised a spiny head from the mud pit and flicked four tiny eyelids in their direction. As Ram prodded Nazarene closer, a psychotic upturning of flesh escaped the ragged corners of the General’s mouth — a brace of incisors suitable for tearing flesh.

Ram was gratified; the General seemed pleased. Even the other Raptors, normally carefully docile in Galan’s presence, twittered in interest.

“He says hello.” Ram pushed her into the mud beside the General. She tried to escape, but a pair of tentacles laced around her ankles and neck.

“He’ll break me!” She screamed.

“He’s dealt with women before.” Though none nearly so tall, Ram thought. She was almost as tall as Galan.

The General snouted a tentacle around her head, snooting around for her white hair ribbon, thickly wound in a cloverleaf pattern. The twittering noise increased.

“He wants to see your pretty hair.” Ram had relaxed sufficiently to dip an appendage into the General’s mud. ”I’d undo the ribbon. Quickly.”

Then Nazarene looked directly at Ram.

And smiled.

In that instant Ram realized the enormity of his fault. In the next he imagined the torture chambers. By the next, he rationalized no one would be around to operate them.

Nazarene undid her hair ribbon.

The pretty white ribbon.

The ribbon made not of velvet or satin or silk but two volatile substances encased in a binary polymer shell requiring only a trigger — in this case, the untying of the knot which kept the two ends in equilibrium — for detonation.

The resulting roar hurled outward, from the reinforced hull of the command center to the funnel of molten red rock piled above, frying and scattering metal, rock and red-horned beast alike, etherizing all into the swirling red dust of the planet.

For the first and last time in recorded history, Olympus Mons erupted, raising a towering dust cloud high enough to escape Mars’ atmosphere.

Nazarene made the news….

 

 

Clay Waters writes from Hoboken, NJ. He’s had short stories published in The Santa Barbara Review, Abyss & Apex, Black Petals, and Lullaby Hearse. His home on the web is www.claywaters.com.


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ISSUE #15

Summer 2005

FICTION