A Hot and Copper Sky
a short story
She lived in a cabin on a bluff overlooking the Cobalt Sea on the planet Octavion. Sometimes, when the wind blew in from the east, she would stand outside her cabin to feel the windblown mist from the giant waterfalls of the Sad American River as it plummeted down Mount Azure into the sea. Afternoons, when the sun's harsh rays were strongest and even the Pterodactyls refused to take to the sky, she would cross the meadow behind her cabin to the edge of the falls and cool herself in the swirling vapors of the sparkling river water. Later, she would lay on the flat boulders near the base of Mount Azure and gaze up at the magnificence of the Perfume Mountains.
Her name was Daryn, and this afternoon she strolled naked across the meadow, a towel draped over her shoulder. A tall woman, nearly six feet, Daryn had long brown hair and a lean svelte body. She had striking features, a sharp nose and a pointy chin, softened by full lips and large green eyes. Her breasts, matured by her thirty years, were a hint oversized with small, round nipples. In the strong sunlight, the red highlights of her hair stood out.
Nearing the falls, Daryn placed her towel on a small bounder and walked into the mist. The roar of the water was nearly deafening, but she felt no particular danger so close to the huge falls. She remained a good hundred meters from the edge of the cliff, turning slowly, as the cool water bathed every pore of her body. She pulled her hair back and then ran her hands down her sides.
She felt a rush of excitement as she turned in the mist. She felt someone watching. It was a game she often played. She imagined a man stumbling upon her and watching her. She felt his eyes on her like pin pricks, roaming every inch of her body. She rubbed herself in the cooling water. She rubbed her breasts. Then slowly, her fingers dropped between her legs.
Her eyes snapped open when the shudder gripped her. She walked further into the mist to let the water wash her. As soon as she felt the rough creases beneath her feet she stopped. Holding her hair back, she looked for the small crevice in the rocks and then at the bright green slime beyond the crevice. Going down on one knee, she ran her fingers over the crevice and then over the slime. She imagined how it would feel stepping on the slime, the cool slickness that would send her sprawling down the slope of the rocks all the way to the falls and down to the Cobalt Sea.
Daryn stood and backed away. She shook herself and walked out of the mist. Wringing her hair with both hands as she walked back to the boulder, stopped momentarily and scooped up the towel. She walked back across the meadow, past her cabin to the high bluff above the sea. She spread the towel on the grass and sat on it crossed legged.
Leaning back on her hands, she closed her eyes and tilted her face up to the sun. She felt the heat on her face. She let her mind float in the heat. Her mind roamed to thoughts of -- the Sad American Falls, of the explorer who discovered it nearly a century ago. How did the legend go? The first man to ever lay eyes on the falls, sat down and cried at its beauty. He stayed there for an entire day, dreaming of his home, of a lush green land far far away. Of Earth. Legend had it that the explorer turned around, re-crossed the Perfume Mountains back to First Colony City and returned to Earth. Daryn wondered about a man who could be so moved by the beauty of a waterfall and his need to return across an entire galaxy to the home of his youth.
She blinked her eyes to the bright sunlight, rolled on her side and lay, face down on the towel. She thought about her home as a little girl. It seemed like so long ago. She remembered the dusty streets of Vermilion Town, of the stone village at the edge of the Cinnamon Hills on the far side of Octavion, across the Silver Desert. She remembered the stone house her mother and father had built, her room overlooking a narrow street that always smelled of cooked meat and tangy goat yogurt.
She remembered evenings spent playing on the front porch, shielding her eyes to watch the strong sun fall behind the Cinnamon Hills, as long orange and brown shadows crept across Vermilion Town. She remembered days spent playing on the dusty streets, the smell of her mother's pancakes, the sweet taste of cane syrup.
She remembered the warmth of her father's beard on her face. He was the only man who ever loved her, the only man who loved her without reason, without limit. She remembered him hunched over his workbench, the wheel of his sewing machine spinning as he made clothing for the Octavion settlers, practical clothes for a harsh world. Her father was a tailor. He was a frail, gentle man, who crumbled when her mother died.
Daryn was sure the stone house was still there along the dusty streets of a town so far away, it might as well be on another world. She was sure the brown and orange shadows still crawled over her house when the sun fell behind the Cinnamon Hills. She felt a tear on her cheek.
Rising on her hands and knees, she crawled over to the edge of the bluff and lay on the cool grass and looked down at the crystal water. The water was a bright blue close to the beach. Moving away, the water became turquoise with streaks of bright green and purplish blue near the reefs. In the distance, the Cobalt sea was pale blue, so pale it was hard to tell where the sea ended and the sky began.
Daryn watched three Ichythosaurs moving beneath the waves. They appeared as black stains sliding in the water, their fins breaking the surface as they rolled in the sea. She'd seen an Elamosaurus once, cruising in deeper water, it's hideous head bobbing as it rocked in the water.
A noise below drew Daryn's attention back to the beach. She craned her neck over the side and looked down at two Dimetrodons scurrying along the narrow beach. Snapping at one another, their sail fins swayed as they darted back toward the jungle that ran to the right of the bluff.
Shielding her eyes, Daryn looked over at the trees and saw three Pterodactyls perched along the tree tops. One spread its leathery wings and jumped from its perch, flapping in jerky motions as it rose and swooped away. Its loud cackle echoed back to Daryn as she looked back at the sea.
The strong Octavion sun was beginning its quick descent now, falling toward the sea, streaking the waters with an iridescent glow, turning the horizon into copper.
Daryn rose and stretched and picked up her towel. She walked back to the cabin. She felt the depression again in her chest, like a dead heart, like a dead stone in her breast.
"No," she thought, "I won't think about it."
But there was no way she could not think about it. In the morning the hovercraft would return and the men would disembark. She ran her right hand over her left wrist, over the red mark that was still tender, that was always tender. And she fought as hard as she could, to keep from crying.
She stayed up later than usual, much later, fighting off the dread.
The hovercraft arrived not long after dark, its ear-piercing hum unmistakable as it banked over the jungle and came to rest between the cabin and the Cobalt Sea.
Daryn sat up in bed. She rubbed her temples and tried to calm down. When the engine killed, she jumped up and pulled on a shirt and shorts. She made it into the front room before the door slammed open.
Howard stood in the doorway, a scowl on his bearded face. Daryn retreated to the sofa and sat, her hands pressed against her knees. Howard's black hair was messed, his beard rough looking, dark stains dotted his light green uniform. He leered angrily at her. Daryn felt her heart now, pounding in her chest.
Rubbing his beard with his left hand, Howard began to unzip his jumpsuit as he stepped into the cabin.
"Come on," he said gruffly. "What are you doing wearing clothes?"
A blond head bobbed behind Howard. A pair of blue eyes peeked around Howard's large shoulder as Daryn stood slowly.
"Come on," Howard said, climbing out of his jumpsuit.
Daryn slipped her fingers into the waist band of the shorts and pulled them down. She kicked them aside as the man behind Howard stepped into the room. In the same officer's green jumpsuit, the man stared at Daryn, running his gaze down between her legs.
"Come on!" Howard was naked now and moving toward her.
Daryn pulled her top off and dropped it just as Howard pushed her back on the sofa and mounted her. She squirmed; and he grabbed her throat and squeezed.
His breath reeked of liquor and he smelled of sweat and dirt. Daryn closed her eyes and let herself go limp and thought of the falls and then of cobalt water and cinnamon hills and stone huts and a sky streaked in copper.
As soon as Howard finished he rolled off and said, "She's yours."
Daryn looked up at the man who stepped forward and climbed out of his jumpsuit. Smaller and younger than Howard, the man looked much cleaner with a neat beard and eyes that actually stared back at her.
She wasn't sure, but she thought she saw a shy smile and maybe even a hint of embarrassment as he moved between her legs. Far gentler, the man put his hands on her shoulders as he slipped inside her and took his time with her, breathing heavily and actually kissing her mouth before he came.
He climbed off gently and fell back on the floor, his eyes roaming from her breasts to between her legs. Daryn felt the leaking now. She stood up slowly, feeling it roll down her legs.
Howard grabbed her wrist and said, "Food. Bitch!"
When she reached for her shorts, he grabbed them and threw them across the room.
"I like to keep the bitch naked," he told the other man. Daryn could feel them watch as she walked away into the kitchen to the refrigerator. She pulled out two of the pre-formed meals and slid them into the oven.
"No knives in there?" the other man asked Howard.
"Naw. Spoons and forks only. But it's smart to keep an eye on her. She's dangerous."
"She's got hands, don't she?"
Howard turned to Daryn and said, "Come back here."
She walked back in.
"Stand there." He motioned that she should stand in front of both of them.
"Now put your hands behind you," Howard said. "Move those feet apart."
Daryn closed her eyes as the men stared at her. Her heart no longer racing, she forced herself to think of the falls again, of the thundering sound of the white water plummeting from Mount Azure. She listened to the timer clicking on the oven and wondered how it would feel to stand naked in front of a man with softer eyes, with eyes that looked at her longingly instead of violently. She had that once, a long time ago, for a short while. She was so young and the time was so short.
The timer finally went off. She moved back into the kitchen and laid out plates for them and pulled their meals from the oven. She drew ale for them and placed goblets next to each of their plates before retreating back into the living room.
"Stay where we can see you, bitch." Howard shoved meat into his mouth, then washed it down with ale.
"Watch that ale," he told the other. "Don't overdo it 'til we strap her down."
The other man looked at Daryn as she sat in a chair where they could see her.
"What's her name?"
"Bitch," Howard said. "Just call her bitch."
Daryn closed her eyes. She listened as they went back to eating, smacking their lips, sucking on the goblets. She heard them talk about two Tyrannosaurs they over-flew in the Indigo Forest, and of the Stegosaurus herds along the plateau.
"Naw," Howard said. "Nothing can get up on this bluff except those damn Pterodactyls. But you can slap those little bastards away."
Howard finished eating first. He shoved his plate aside.
Daryn got up immediately and put it in the cleaner.
"Where'd you find her?" the other man asked, staring at Daryn's butt as she passed.
"Found her in a bar in Tulage."
"Near the ionic mines?"
"Yeah." Howard belched. "Someone told me she lost her man in a cave in or something."
"She never told you."
"She don't talk."
The other man rose and put his plate in the cleaner and said, "I'll get the supplies."
Howard leaned back in his chair and put his hands behind his head.
Daryn watched the other man carry in the pre-formed meals and the other supplies and tired her best not to show any emotion when he dropped the box of books next to her feet.
"The boys sent these," Jason said, nodding to the books. "My name's Jason," the man said. He shrugged and headed back into the kitchen to refill his goblet with ale.
Rising, Howard waved to Daryn and said, "Come on, Bitch."
She followed him down the hall. He pointed to the bathroom and said, "Go ahead."
He watched her from the hall.
Then he followed her into the room and put her in bed, snapping the steel manacle on her left wrist. He checked to make sure the manacle was still secured to the steel headboard before leaving her.
Daryn listened to the men drink their ale and tell their stories. She heard pieces of the conversation. Jason called Howard's set up here "perfect." Howard said something about "a man draining himself." When they laughed they sounded like young Pterodactyls on their first flight.
After a few minutes, Daryn reached over to the paperback book on the table next to the bed and looked at it. It was an earth book, aged and worn, with an exotic scene of the interior of a cafe on its cover. There were three characters in the scene. In the foreground sat a man with gray hair and a moustache. He was pouring himself a cup of liquid from a golden carafe. The man looked very much like Daryn's father. There was a determined look on the man's hawk-like face.
Behind and to the left of the man who looked like Daryn's father stood an exotic looking woman with long brown hair. The woman was dressed in lacy white shoulder epaulets and a matching brassiere. Around her waist was a white belt that held up a long white scarf that draped between her shapely legs. She also wore tall white high heel shoes. The woman danced atop a small dance floor made of white light that illuminated her from the floor up. Daryn wondered what it would be like to wear shoes with such high heels.
Between the two characters stood another character. This was the main character of the book. Young and rugged looking, with reddish hair, his name was Marid. He stood in the open doorway of the cafe, looking out at a street scene, at a narrow street of sand colored buildings. He was a kind man in an unkind world, a gentle man, a caring man.
This was the third book in an old Earth series. She ran her fingers over the title -- The Exile Kiss by George Alec Effinger. She enjoyed these books so much because she liked the women. They were so independent. She also liked the way the people could alter their lives and personalities by plugging in mind-altering devices directly into their skulls. She longed to alter herself. She longed to be lost in an exotic cafe.
Daryn read two chapters, then put the book back. She didn't want to rush it. She wanted to savor every scene, to read the book ever so slowly. She was just readjusting herself when she saw Howard standing at the foot of the bed. Rubbing his hairy chest, he nodded to her legs and said, "Open them up." She closed her eyes and pretended she was in a cafe and a man like Marid was staring at her.
When Howard was finished with her, he rolled over and went to sleep. Jason climbed on her immediately, his breath now laced with the bittersweet scent of strong ale. Suspending himself above her on his hands and knees, Jason craned his neck down and kissed her again on the mouth and took his time with her, took a long long time.
Jason fell asleep on the other side of Daryn, sandwiching her against Howard's sweaty back. They didn't even turn off the light. She closed her eyes and tried to sleep. She let her mind roam to a far away land, a city of lights and dancing girls and people who were not who they were supposed to be, people who were someone else.
Much later, she felt Jason climb on her again and start up again. She pretended to sleep, but his jerking hurt her arm so much she had to readjust herself.
"Oh," Jason said. He grabbed her arm and looked at it. "Does it hurt?"
Daryn didn't meet his gaze, but she nodded yes.
Jason grunted and climbed off. He went into the front room and came back with Howard's large set of keys. It took a few tries, but he found the key and unlocked the manacle. Still holding it shut, he paused and said, "Howard warned me not to let you out."
"You'll be a good girl, now won't you?"
Daryn turned her gaze to him and nodded slowly.
As soon as he let her out, she rubbed her wrist. It was so raw it was blood red. She climbed out of bed.
"Where are you going?" Jason asked anxiously.
She went into the bathroom.
"Oh," he said, but didn't follow.
Stepping back into the hall, she looked at Jason and raised her right hand and waved him forward. Then she turned and went down the hall, through the living room and out the front door. She waited out on the porch for Jason who appeared in the doorway two seconds later.
"Wait. What are you doing?" Jason's said in a harsh whisper. He didn't want to wake Howard.
Daryn looked up at the near moon, bright and yellow in the dark sky. Beyond its cratered face was the second moon, gray and dull. The wind shifted, and a fine sprinkle of mist floated over them from the falls. It felt so cool on Daryn's body.
Daryn turned back to Jason and forced herself to smile. She reached her hand out. He took it and she led him around the cabin and through the meadow for the falls. The falls loomed like a monstrous ghost in the bright moonlight, its roar echoing in Daryn's ears as she led Jason past the boulders and into the mist.
The water swirled around Daryn, washing the sweat off her body, washing the pain away from her wrist, cleaning her so completely. She rubbed her hands over her body. Facing the mist, she pulled her hair back and let the water flow over her face.
Jason stood near the edge of the mist. Hesitating, he looked back toward the cabin. When he turned back to Daryn, she opened her arms for him. He moved slowly to her. He had trouble keeping his balance on the rocks. Daryn wrapped her arms around his neck and kissed his lips and then pulled away, further into the mist.
She heard him trying to yell over the roar of the waterfalls, but could not understand. Still facing him, she reached her hands out and he took them and slowly, ever so slowly, she led him deeper into the water.
She was having trouble catching her breath in the falling water, and struggled to keep her footing. She continued to smile at Jason and continued to pull him along. She felt the rough creases underfoot now and swung her foot in a slow arch until she found the crevice.
Daryn planted her right heel firmly in the crevice, let go of Jason's hand and then pretended to fall. Jason reached for her. Daryn pulled away, grabbing the crevice with both hands, letting her feet and body slide over the slime toward the falls.
Jason leaned forward and reached again. Daryn reached her left hand out. When he grabbed her hand, she pulled hard. His feet hit the slime and slipped out from under him, slamming him hard on the rocks. Daryn pulled her hand away and watched Jason struggle, watched him squirm, spreading his hands and feet out. The more he struggled, the faster he slid. Shoved along by the water, he slid all the way down to the edge and then over the side of the cliff.
She thought she heard him scream but only for an instant.
Daryn pulled herself away from the slime. Planting her feet in the crevice, she pushed herself away to crawl back out of the mist. She pulled her hair back again and waited to catch her breath before hurrying back across the meadow.
Easing into the front room, she pulled on her shirt and shorts and dug into Jason's pockets for his keys. Fumbling them, she froze and listened for Howard. Three heartbeats later, she slipped back out of the cabin and bolted for the hovercraft.
There were too many keys. Daryn struggled with each, looking back at the open door of the cabin between gasping breaths. A noise overhead made her drop the keys. She recognized the sound of leathery wings as Pterodactyls passed overhead.
She looked back at the door again, fumbled with the keys and kept trying. Finally, a key slipped into the lock. She turned it and it opened. Then a loud scream knocked Daryn back. She fell down and saw, perched on the hovercraft, the hunched brown body of a Pterodactyl. It opened its long jaws and screamed again.
Daryn looked back at the cabin and then ran her hands over the ground until she found a rock. Rising, she threw the rock at the Pterodactyl, catching it square in its chest, sending it tumbling backward off the hovercraft. Screeching loudly, it flapped off into the night.
Daryn opened the door of the hovercraft and heard another sound. She turned just as Howard jumped off the porch and raced right for her. Daryn fell away from the hovercraft, turned and ran around it and headed straight for the falls. She heard Howard's footfalls behind her as she raced across the meadow.
Without looking back, without decreasing her pace, she ran headlong for the falls and noticed, as she reached the boulders, the faint gray rays of dawn.
Daryn ran into the mist, turned to her left quickly and tried her best to slow down. She fell and tumbled on the rock and finally came to a stop well into the waterfall. She looked back for Howard, but couldn't see him.
Gasping for breath, she crawled backward along the rock toward the falls, her arms and feet spread wide until she felt the creases under her left foot and eased over. She found the crevice, planted both feet in it and waited.
She hadn't even caught her breath when he came through the water for her. Moving slowly and sure-footed in his work boots, Howard reached for her. Daryn slid back, grabbing the crevice with both hands.
Howard lunged for her and grabbed her just as his feet hit the slime and gave out from under him. He crashed on her, tearing her hands away from the crevice. The force of his crashing weight shoved them apart. But Daryn was on the slime now and felt herself slipping, felt the cascading water pushing her along the slope of the huge cliff down toward the falls.
She saw Howard sliding too, away from her but also for the falls. Struggling, he slid faster and faster. Daryn clawed at the slime, tried her best to dig her fingernails, her toenails, to bite at the slime, anything to slow her descent.
But the water poured on her and the slime pulled at her and finally, in one sinking moment her legs fell away and she plummeted over the side and down the long waterfall.
Her breath was gone. Her body seemed to rise for an instant and then seemed to fly as she sank and fell and fell. Daryn opened her eyes and reached her arms out and thought -- so this is what it feels like to die.
She closed her eyes and time went away.
Until -- she felt a sudden warmth.
Until she tasted something salty.
Until she broke the surface and opened her eyes again in the Cobalt Sea.
It took a few seconds to distinguish the falls in front of her, the churning columns of water rising from the sea in giant spurts. Instinctively she pushed back away from the churning water and something touched her foot.
Daryn jumped to the side and saw -- a hand. Howard rose from the water and coughed into Daryn's face and then gasped. He coughed again and Daryn turned and swam, pulling herself with her aching arms, pushing herself with her legs, pushing herself away from the falls, and away from him.
Only, the falls sucked her back. She felt herself slide back toward the bubbling water. She pulled harder with her arms, sank a moment and then shot forward, propelled with the water away from the falls.
She swallowed water this time and struggled to catch her breath. She rolled on her back and coughed and felt the sun on her face now, the wonderful warm sun.
Rubbing her eyes, she looked around quickly. He wasn't there. She dipped under the water and looked through the crystalline water. Nothing. And slowly she made her way around the bluff to the narrow beach. The wet sand was gritty under her hands. She pulled herself up and crawled away from the water and collapsed. She turned her head to the side and felt the sun again on her eyelids and her cheek and lips.
She tried to open her eyes, but they wouldn't open. She told herself she had to open her eyes. She had to get up off the beach. She told herself again -- Dimetrodons!
She felt her right eye open. She licked her lips and pushed herself up off the wet sand. Sitting up, she looked around at the empty beach. The sea was also empty and beautiful, shimmering in the sunlight.
Rising, her entire body ached, as if she'd been pounded. She took cautious steps, watching her legs and moving her arms around. Nothing seemed broken. She ran her fingers over her face and pulled her hair back once again.
At the base of the bluff, she shaded her eyes with her hands and looked up. It wasn't a sheer face, but it was very steep. There were, however bushes and vines and rocks. Looking around again, for Dimetrodons, she saw none and started up the cliff. The vines smelled sweetly of chlorophyll.
She had risen about six feet when she felt something grab her ankle. Instinctively she clung to the vines and kicked furiously and looked down into Howard's face.
Twisted and blue, the face was contorted in anger. He opened his mouth and screamed, "Bitch!"
Howard lifted his right fist and hammered her calf. Pain shot up the leg. Daryn pulled on the vines and tried kicking herself free as Howard raised his fist again. She heard a growl. No, it was a snarl, a long hissing snarl.
Howard stopped. His head turned away. Daryn kicked his hand with her other foot; and he let go. She clambered up and then saw them, on the beach.
Two Dimetrodons were on the beach, hissing and snarling as they moved slowly toward Howard. Their sail fins swaying, their dagger teeth bared, the twelve foot monsters rose on their toes and then raced for Howard. They were so fast! Howard climbed a few feet before the first one struck, sinking its teeth into Howard's leg and pulling him down.
A hideous scream was muffled quickly as the second Dimetrodon struck, ripping Howard's left arm off at the shoulder. Twisting their strong necks as they tore at the flesh, the Dimetrodons lifted their heads and swallowed large pieces of Howard until all that was left was one leg, which they fought over. Ripping it in two, they swallowed it down and then took a snip out of one another, their faces masked in blood. Racing back on to the sand, their heads jerked from side to side as they searched for anything else they could eat. The sun glimmered off their fins as they darted back and forth across the white sand.
Daryn caught her breath, looked up and slowly ascended the cliff. A Pterodactyl swooped close by, but she saw it coming and threw a stick at it. She took her time, carefully setting each foot before moving up until she was at last near the top of the bluff.
She threw her right hand up and dug into the grass and pulled herself up. She was in mid-pull when a hand grabbed her and yanked her up in one fell swoop.
Daryn tumbled over Jason and landed on her back on the other side of the man. Shielding her eyes again from the sun, she tensed up and inched away from him. But Jason did not move. He glared at her with a face swollen and misshapen. His left arm dangled at a hideous angle from his shoulder. Grass stains marked his good arm and his face.
On his knees now, Jason opened his mouth and tried to speak but nothing came out. He looked at her with such a pitiful look, not angry or violent, but sad and pitiful. He whimpered and sank back.
Daryn rose and moved around Jason and gave him a good kick and watched him tumble over the edge of the bluff. Leaning over the crest, she watched him slam against the sides of the cliff, all the way to the beach. The Dimetrodons, six now, raced for Jason. They ripped him apart and devoured his entire body in furious seconds.
The sun was at its height when Daryn walked naked out of the mist of the Sad American Falls and strolled back across the meadow to the cabin. Climbing into a soft blouse and comfortable shorts and leather boots, she picked up the last of her bags and the two sacks of food she'd prepared, along with the water containers. She put them in the hovercraft next to her boxes of worn paperbacks. She made sure she had all her paperbacks.
She went back into the cabin and poured kerosene on the bed and down the hall and on the sofa and in the kitchen all the way out to the front porch. She tossed the metal container back on the porch before striking a match.
Holding the match over the porch, she said, "Goodbye."
She dropped the match and backed away.
Daryn watched the cabin burn beneath the strong Octavion sun. But she felt no heat on her face, no heat whatsoever. The wind had shifted and blew in from the east, bringing sheets of mist from the falls, mist that touched her face and clung to her arms. She looked at the falls and Mount Azure towering overhead and at the magnificence of the Perfume Mountains.
The hovercraft started right up. Gently prodding its controls, Daryn rose over the burning cabin and skirted the falls before turning to circle the mountains. She set a course for the badlands of the Silver Desert and the rolling Cinnamon Hills beyond and the familiar shadows and dusty streets of home.
This story is for my friend George Alec Effinger.
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