Defender of the Flesh
by Matthew F. Amati
It was a living world, and the men came to murder it.
From pole to pole, from its east to its west and around its equatorial belly, the planet was a single life form. It bristled with hairy vales, valleys of scales, it bubbled with salivary oceans. The world of flesh breathed its weather, sobbed its seasons, wept when the wayward sun wandered, blushed and gladdened when the warmth returned.
And like a baleful harbinger, here came the harvester, the slaughtership Pikeman’s Payday. She stole into parking orbit above her prey.
There were nine in the Payday’s crew, murderers every man. Up spoke the Captain. “Well thump my think-box, what do you see, boys?”
“Biggest I seen in a year of Saturdays, Captain,” bellowed the bruiser Baltan.
“Look at those mountains! Get a gawk at those seas!” said the scrawny Gaffer.
Goggle-glassed Dagg tossed down a handful of X-rays, sprinkled the world with a chromo read, sang the jitters of an EKG.
The rest had money in their eyes. “What you see, Dagg?”
“Bounty of a beast, my friends. Heart rumbles like an earthquake. Rich yellow fat to twenty miles deep. Brainwaves puzzling us out. Oh, she sees us. But she don’t know to fear us.”
“Must be a wild one. Lost her herd young. Never learned Man’s ways.”
“Drifts out here, chases a fleeing sun. Sips starlight, feasts on passing starwhals.”
“Break out the orbital flayers, lads. Prepare a siphon. Ready barrels for the deep black blood. Don render-hooks and gore-waders. Aim the harpoon for her mighty heaving heart.”
But at that moment, astern of the Pikeman’s Payday, there hove a junk-hauler red with rust. Splashed abaft her bow: Defender of the Flesh.
“Ach, it’s a bunch of Beastniks,” the Captain groaned, “come to keep men from making their living.”
The Defender hailed the Payday in righteous tones. “Go from here. Leave this world to live life as it knows life. You shall not flay its fibers, drain its blood, drag it wounded and weeping, away from the only sun it’s ever known, thence to the slaughterbase.”
The Captain gargled into the hollerpipe. “You can’t stop us. The people of the Billionwealth need bio-meat. They need the leather of this creature’s hide, they need the rich broth of its blood, the sturdy beams of its bones. We have a license to harvest, and you mayn’t interfere.”
The Defender said it would stay and defend. The Payday flexed its twin cannons. The Beastniks sent an angry jeremiad down the hollerpipe. But the logic of violence prevailed. A blast across the bow, and the Defender scurried, leaving the living world to its fate.
“We warned you,” were the Defender’s parting words to the Payday. “You’ll have none to blame but yourselves.”
Laughter from the Payday crew.
“They warned us?”
“Threaten a triple-clad Ravager? A junk hauler like theirs?”
“With our armor? Our guns?”
“Every armor has a chink,” said Gaffer quietly. “Every weapon a weakness.” But the worldflayers laughed.
The Pikeman’s Payday touched down on a trembling meadow. Curly black hairs grew to the height of grasses.
“Now men,” the Captain said, “we’re all clear that this world is meat for Man. It’ll scream loud enough to scare comets, sob deep enough to sadden suns. No matter what suffering we witness, know that you’ve killed before, and you’ll kill again. Though you’ll wade in blood to your necks, though you’ll stink of gore, though you’ll hear this world holler, you’re not above this cruel business, not one bit. As the proverb has it: Man must hunt, and Man must slay, that Man may eat and live another day.”
Gaffer peered out the peekhole. “Look!”
Through a heaving valley crawled mites big as trucktrains. Beasts born of nightmares, mandibles grinding, lattices of legs, shells shiny like anthracite.
“Shoot to kill, if those things approach,” the Captain warned, though he knew the fauna were harmless. And down the ladders dropped the nine.
“Reconnoiter,” the Captain barked. “Surface check. Seek pustules to poke, veins we might tap, scars of valuable cutanite. Meet shipside at five bells and one.”
When the men met again, the one called Gaffer waved his arms. “Captain! A cavity! I found a cavity. And deep inside it... you won’t believe it, sir! Xenogris!” He held out a palm. A greasy gobbet shone.
The men jumped. Xenogris! Pricier than Piscian rubies! Only a living world could make xenogris, deep in the unfathomable intestinal depths.
“Five carboys, at least!” Worth nearly the bulk of this world’s flesh.
“Stay the slaughter, and stay put, men,” the Captain commanded. “Show me this cavity, Mr. Gaffer.”
The men protested. Such a prize must be shared by all. Would someone try to stow it? Lie about how much xenogris there was?
“Shall we lose a half-day’s work while the whole crew tags along to see the treasure?” the Captain protested. The men growled. The Captain gave in.
Over hills horny with thickened nail, down warm fluttering throatvales, over a river of saline tears, and there they spied it. Out of the cave blew damp fogs of breath.
“Careful, dogs” the Captain warned. “These cavities are treacherous. Some are tympany for hearing the song of stars, some are bowels excreting garbage of the guts. But some are feeder-maws, and we don’t want to slide down a feeder-maw now, do we?”
The men did not. But the treasure beckoned.
“Tell me, Mr. Gaffer,” the Captain growled as they donned headlamps and mukluks, “what jailyard disgorged you into our crew’s midst?”
“Bellatrix Station, Captain. I did a ninety-nine stasis for multi-murder.”
“Killer of crowds, eh? Who’d ye do it to?”
“Crew of my last ship.”
The brow of Baltan furrowed. “I’d heard Bellatrix shuttered in ’333. No inmates there for ten turns now.”
But the cavity was ahead, and the treasure beckoned, and Gaffer’s puzzling past was forgotten.
The crew stole through an entrance lined with lip, down a shaft that dripped with drool, Gaffer in the lead.
“How deep did you find this stuff?” the Captain asked, and his bold voice quavered.
“Not too much farther.”
“I don’t like it,” Dagg hissed. “This slime puts me in mind of digestive glycoproteins. This whole cave whispers ‘feeder maw’ to me.”
“Where...” the Captain began, and the lips slurped shut behind them.
“Feeder maw!” the men moaned. “Where is Gaffer?” the Captain cried. But Gaffer was gone. Grasping in the darkness, the men couldn’t tell which way was forward and which way led deep into the gizzard of the living world.
They couldn’t tell until a spasm of muscles showed them. And that was the last they ever learned.
Outside in the sunshine, safely outside the sealed sphincter of lip, Gaffer doffed his work-cap. He bowed his head in a brief Kaddish for his departed crew.
From the clear sky, the crusading Defender of the Flesh swooped low. It landed next to the empty Pikeman’s Payday. The crew slung hawsers around the Payday’s bulk and prepared to haul her skyward. Destination: junkyard.
Over a blushing hill, astride the back of a giant skin-mite, Gaffer rode.
“Ahoy, brother,” called the Beastnik leader.
Gaffer waved an arm.
“Are they gone, then?”
“Whence none returns. My trusty chow-hole dines well.”
The Beastnik nodded soberly. “And will you depart with us?”
Gaffer said he would not. “Come fetch me when they’re signing flayer crews. Then I’ll don the blue togs of a new-sprung prisoner again, and bunk on a slaughtership.” He pondered. “I’d best update my backstory, though.”
“And what will you do until killers ride again?”
“I’ll stay here, at home.”
Gaffer rode to where he kept his shack built of scab, his cookpot where he fried up the abundant fleas, fat as hens. He knelt on the breathing ground, felt the shudder of the world’s pulse beneath his hand. He watched the Defender of the Flesh haul the hulk of the slaughtership up and up till both were specks in a green sky.
“I’ve killed before,” said Gaffer, “and I’ll kill again I suppose. For you, my love.”
Gaffer touched a finger to the fluttering flesh of his world. The ground warmed. Fathoms below, Gaffer fancied he felt the thrumble of a gargantuan beating heart.
Copyright © 2017 by Matthew F. Amati