"[S]carcely had I gained a secure seat upon the sill than a huge hand grasped me by the neck from behind and dragged me violently into the room. Here I was thrown upon my back, and beheld standing over me a colossal ape-like creature, white and hairless". |
- A Princess of Mars
I'm standing outside her apartment, trying to get up the nerve to knock, when I hear hideous noises through the door. She must be eating. The soft tear of flesh peeling away from bone, the snap of gristle between her teeth...the sound is intimate somehow, like we're sharing something special. It is noisy, though. A Thark raiding party could be going on an evening stroll through the dead city, stop to listen, and say to themselves, "Good heavens! Could that be the sound of something terrible feeding on our young? Perhaps we should stab it."
Stop stalling, I tell myself. Remember, you are worthy of being loved.
The self-affirmation doesn't do much to slow the massive thuds of my anterior heart, but I do lift my fist and knock. The door creaks open, and there she stands, all fifteen feet of her. The ape I've loved since our first hunt. Amy.
"Oh, hey Matt," she says.
"Hey Amy," I say, my voice making an embarrassing squeak as if I were still an apelet. I flex my shoulders, making sure to show my neck bristles to their best advantage. Does an apelet have neck bristles? I should say not.
"Mmmm," she says, licking a last bit of organ meat from her teeth. "That was some good Thark. So, what's up?"
"Um, I was just passing through this section of the dead city, and I was wondering...I mean, if you're not busy..."
Her face and hands are slick from the viscera of her meal, and the way the moonlight hits her just so...it makes her sparkle, like her whole body is covered in blood. She is so beautiful.
I'm suddenly aware I've been staring at her too long. She'll think I'm creepy. I look away and catch sight of movement outside her window. A Thark raiding party? That would be awesome! I could club a straggler to death and present her with its tenderized body, and then she would be all "Oh Matt, you're so strong" and I would just shrug, thereby emphasizing the magnificent length of my neck bristles.
But it's not Tharks. A calot is nervously pacing street below, following something. At first glance I take it to be a Red, maybe set loose by the Tharks just to be torn apart by the beast. Getting closer, I can tell I've never seen anything like it before. It's about the size of a Red, but its skin has the pale coloring of my people. It capers about with its back held completely vertical, like a mad midget with a horrible spinal condition. The little monstrosity leaps into the air, the calot charging after it.
At the sound of a wet cough behind me, I turn back to Amy. I quickly evaluate--was stalking into her apartment uninvited impolite or charmingly masculine? She doesn't look amused. Diversion tactics.
"Um, look at that," I say, nodding at the window.
"Tharks?" she says, shuffling up.
"No," I say. "Something else. It might be one of those Kangaroo people from Gooli, the way it jumps."
"No way," she says, pushing me aside and sticking her head full out of the window.
Just then, the thing sails past us, right above our window, giving Amy a good look at the freak-show.
"Cute little thing," she says, drawing herself back in.
"What?" I say, poking my head back out the window to confirm she's looking at the same thing I am. "How is a Goolian cute?"
"Oh, that's no Goolian," she says. "There's no tail. That's a...a baby or something."
"A baby?" I say, looking at her eyes, trying to discern the joke. I glance out the window and back again. "A baby what?"
"A baby ape, silly," she says, slapping me playfully on the chest. "Look at him. He looks like you, sort of."
I stare down at the thing below us as it stands ridiculously erect, waiting for the calot that is chasing it.
"That is not a baby ape," I say. "And it is not cute."
"Whatever," she says, shambling into the kitchen. "You should take it as a compliment."
"Um...what?" I ask. "A compliment? I'm lost."
I hear the wet crack of a fresh bone being split lengthwise, and my stomach growls.
"I say it's cute," she calls back, "and then I say it looks like you. That means I think you're cute."
She thinks I'm cute! I think. And then, But in a "hideous mincing abomination" way?
Sure the freak and I share color and bipedal movement. But it's just so...so tiny!
"Wow," she says, slurping. "This bone marrow is amazing. You should try some."
I look down at my body. Lightly stippled skin. Long, powerful arms. My upper set are probably as strong as some of the full-grown males in the troop.
"Seriously, Matt," she says. "It has a kind of fruity zest to it."
I poke at my gut. It's bigger than last year, but that's attractive, right? Bigness? The I'm-A-Successful-Hunter waist?
"Maybe this Thark ate lots of berries or something," she says, between slurps.
She has been spending a lot of time with Greg when we're all at the Caves. He's smallish. Feminine, almost. Ridiculous, really. More like that little obscenity out there.
"Or maybe it was sick. You know how a troop member tastes after dying of the ague? That meat has a tangy flavor, like old sompus fruit."
There is a thump from behind me, and I turn to find the Thing sitting on the window ledge, looking at the street below. It doesn't seem to know we are here, occupied as it is with whatever game it's playing with the calot.
From the back, it looks like a starved female with some kind of bone disease. It is grotesque.
Amy has to see this.
I grab it by the neck and throw it on the ground, planting a foot on its chest.
"Hey!" I yell to the other room. "Come look at your cute baby!"
I'm watching it squirm under my foot as Amy stumbles into the room, still holding her bone mallet.
"What are you..." she starts, and then sees the writhing thing I have pinned to the floor.
"Tiny, isn't it?" I say, smiling. "I mean, you can't really think it looks like me now, right?"
"Where's the calot?" she asks, her mallet up, eyes darting around.
"It wasn't...um...," I mutter, gesturing at the creature, trying to come up with a good reason why a nearby feral beast that seemed so attached to this creature just slipped my mind.
And then the room is filled with a sudden shriek as the calot barrels through the doorway on a collision course with me. The shriek, it turns out, is my own, but I do not realize this until after I've scampered backward at full speed, toppling out the window, and falling headfirst onto the stones below.
When I come to, I probe my skull with my fingertips. Yep, good and split. The lining around my brain kept useful tissue from seeping out the cracks, but since I'm conscious again, my brain must have reformed itself into a serviceable configuration. How long was I laying here on the street while the ape of my dreams did battle with the beasts I brought into her place?
Smooth move, Matt.
I take the stairs on all fours, racing to the top of the decaying building. I squint as I enter, afraid I'll find that she's killed them both while I napped on the street. Or that she's dead. Both scenarios will seriously damage my chances of going out with her.
Instead I arrive just in time to see the baby-thing leap onto Amy's back and club her on the head with her own mallet. She drops instantly, just as I did on the street below. The calot on the floor beside her looks to be dead, or nearly dead. She did all that damage on her own. Oh, man, she is so hot.
"Give me that before you hurt yourself," I say, lunging for Amy's mallet in the baby-thing's hands, at which point it simply throws the weapon at my shins.
"Ow!" I yell, falling halfway to the floor. "What is wrong with you? I..."
Unable to finish my thought, it pokes me in the chin with its tiny fist. I start to bleed profusely, but just because it opened the scab where I got scratched by a Thark sword just last week. That's all. But if this wasn't irritating enough, it swings around and jabs me in the gut. That gets me gagging, and I hork up at least a third of my last meal.
I'm praying that Amy won't wake up to see me getting beat up by a baby when I feel another sharp blow to my head, and I'm out. Twice in one day. If something doesn't skin and eat me while I'm asleep, I'll have a headache for a week.
When I open my eyes again, Amy is lying on the ground next to me, dried blood caked over her broad eyebrows. Her eyes are fierce. I swallow.
"So?" she asks.
"What?" I ask innocently.
She sits up and surveys the room. "So you caught one glimpse of a calot half your size and ran away, leaving me to deal with it alone."
"No!" I say, sitting up. "I would never do that! I...I fell out the window."
"You fell out the window?"
"Yeah," I say, looking back at the window trying to imagine how it happened. "I...stumbled, and then fell out the window."
"I'm not sure that casts you in a much better light," she says, picking up a few broken bits of bone from the floor and examining them. "But if you want to go with it..."
The calot is gone, and so is the Thing. They must have thought we were dead. Oh man, if Greg finds out about this, I'll never show my face in the Caves again.
"My mallet is broken," she says, staring at what used to be the handle in her hand.
"Oh. I'm sorry. It must have broken when it hit me on the head," I say, rising to my feet. "It's so weird how that happened, because, you know, my skull is nearly unbreakable."
She raises an eyebrow. "The calot picked up my mallet and hit you on the head? They don't have hands."
"No, no, I mean the other one," I say. "The baby-thing."
"That hit you on the head?" she says, tossing the mallet to the ground. "And knocked you out? Something that small?"
"I was on the ground already," I mumble.
"You were on the ground already?" she asks. "How did that happen?"
"I..." I begin, but seeing her expression, I re-evaluate.
"It was pretty crazy," I say. "There were, like, all these Tharks that came to rescue the baby and I had to fight them and after I killed so many of them that their corpses were on top of me weighing me down, one of them that was still alive held the baby up so it could hit my head over and over."
"I see," she says. "And the Thark bodies?"
"What?" I say, looking around. I'm shocked. She needs to know I'm shocked. "You're right! They must have...fed them to the baby."
"Fed them to the baby?" she asks. "Bones and all?"
I shrug. "It's probably a cultural thing. Freaky Tharks. Never know what they're going to do next. Feeding their own corpses to babies. That's just crazy!"
She turns her back to me. "That was not a baby," she says, walking out the door.
I watch her go, wondering if she might be making fun of me, but then realize I don't care.
"I know, right?" I call out, trotting down the stairs after her. "That's what I've been saying all along! Hey Amy, wait. I'm sorry about all this. You were amazing with that calot, and I just came over to tell you that. That you're amazing. And I like you. A lot."
She pauses at the door out. I hold my breath. She reaches back and takes my upper-and-lower-left paws in hers. Both my hearts start pounding so hard, my neck bristles vibrate, and my pulse throbs in the cracks in my skull. I feel like I could take on an entire Thark army.
She pulls my paws and we exit onto the dark street.
"Where are we going?" I ask.
"On a date," she says. "I'm starving. Catch me a Thark and after we eat, you can lick my face clean."
I look down at our claws, locked together.
Play it cool, I think. The hottest female in the troop just took your paws. Don't freak out.
"That baby-thing, " I say. "Up close, it didn't look anything like me. Right?"
She just squeezes my hands as we reach the city limits and starts to run across the open plain, pulling me behind her, laughing.
On our second date I'm going to take her to the Caves. I can't wait to see the look on Greg's face.