The Alphabet Challenge: “X” Story No. 2 of 3 — “Xerxes”

This is the 24th round of The Alphabet Challenge mentioned in THIS<<link post. As a refresher, the Broxson twins, Gary and Perry, and I will each write one story for each letter of the alphabet. Meaning, a story whose title begins with the given letter. For this round, it’s the letter “X“.

Readers have two weeks from the date of publication to vote for their favorite story in the current round. Points will be assigned to each writer based on the votes received.

In each round, the story with the most votes gets three points. Second place gets two points, third place gets one point. In the case of a tie, the points for the tied rankings are added and then split equally among the writers who tied. At the end of the year, we tally up and crown the winner with the most points.

Long or short, each story will appear on its own post and the trio will be followed by a fourth post where readers can vote.

The writing challenge has no restrictions and the stories span a wide gamut of genres. The majority of the stories fall in the PG-rating range with a few perhaps pushing into the soft R-rating. Some readers might find a few of the stories disturbing because of the topics, language, and/or plot points, and if so, stop reading and move on.

Here we go. Presented anonymously, the second of three stories with titles beginning with the letter “X” as submitted by its author.

Xerxes

Copyright 2020 — (added after voting closes)

(3,868 words – approx. reading time: about 15 minutes based on 265 WPM)

I’m going to tell you a story about a giant. Some of it is fictional, some of it is factual. All of it, however, is truthful.

In 1973, the preeminent Israeli geneticist, Doctor Ira Greenspan, received a crate. In his laboratory in Tel Aviv, he pried it open. Inside, was single bone. Immediately, he recognized it as a human femur. He rifled through a drawer and found his measuring tape. He measured the thigh bone, then measured his own. He rushed to the chalkboard and worked out the math. Not believing it, he erased the formula and calculated again.

Shocked, he sat on a stool and muttered to himself. With trepidation, he lifted the red phone receiver and dialed the Israeli Intelligence Agency, Mossad. “It’s Greenspan. I must speak with Director Wolfe! Tell him it’s about my project . . . Project Beanstalk.”

***

Wolfe arrived the next day. With him, a middle-aged female agent. “Doctor Greenspan,” Wolfe said, “this is Agent Naomi Godot. She’ll be my liaison. As you know, I’ve got my hands full with the bloody Arabs.”

“Of course,” Greenspan said, shaking the agent’s slender but firm hand. “I assume you have the proper clearances, my dear?”

Naomi nodded. Men, she thought, they don’t even know when they’re being condescending. She flashed her credentials. “Top Secret. You can tell me anything, Doctor.”

“Very well,” Greenspan said, leading them to a glass encasement. He pulled back a shroud and revealed the object that had brought Mossad operatives to his laboratory.

“Big, all right,” Wolfe said. “Could it be from a rhinoceros? Giraffe?”

Greenspan shook his head vehemently. It was he who felt condescension now. “It’s human, dammit. Don’t you think I’ve run the tests?”

“Easy, Doc,” Wolfe said. “Our agency’s got 20 million shekels in Project Beanstalk. I’ll ask whatever questions I like.”

Naomi stepped between the men. “Doctor Greenspan, I need to be briefed. I’ve read the documents but some of the scientific jargon just flew over my head.”

Greenspan softened. He loved tutoring the ignorant. “We’re quite fortunate,” he said. “This is not a fossil. It’s an actual bone. We tested surrounding stones at the site in Megiddo, where it was excavated. We’ve analyzed the decay rate of the carbon isotopes . . . this thigh bone is approximately 73,000 years old.”

“That’s interesting,” Naomi said. “But your papers . . . they mentioned something about DNA Insemina-Surrogacy. What’s that?”

That was Wolfe’s signal to leave. He’d heard the old man’s spiel and was unconvinced. “You’re in good hands, Doctor Greenspan. Agent Godot will report directly to me. Shalom.”

Greenspan carried on. “I will extract DNA from the marrow. I will then repair the damaged helix with genes harvested from a modern human. Once accomplished, I will inseminate an African Elephant with the biogenic broth.”

“Wait,” she said, “an elephant?”

“Dear,” he said, stroking her shoulder. “How else do you propose we incubate a giant? At the end of its 16-week gestation, the neonate will be as big as you . . . and I . . . combined.”

***

Naomi immersed herself into Project Beanstalk, researching every step of the controversial procedure. She read related articles on Nephilim, Anakites, Emites – giants of the Jewish Pentateuch. Talmudic rubbish, she thought. Despite her skepticism, she committed to daily visits of the secret zoological enclosure on a cloaked army base. It was there that she fell in love with a 14,000-pound elephant cow named Chalev.

She was horrified the day Greenspan and a gang of technicians inseminated the animal – cutting a path to her reproductive tract, inserting a massive tube through her cervix, and injecting loads of the miracle elixir.

At 44, Naomi sympathized with the beast. Men, she thought, when they’re not belittling us, they’re ramming things into us. She’d married her career, forfeiting any chance of a family. In some primal, maternal way, she envied Chalev.

She stayed with Chalev, hand-feeding her grasses, tree bark, and fruits. When the techs came to weigh, measure, and probe her, Naomi berated them for their callous treatment. “She’s a lady,” she scolded, “possibly a mother. Be gentle, you idiots. Show respect . . . she may give birth to Israel’s savior.”

Naomi didn’t really believe it. She’d read the prospectus on Project Beanstalk and found the idea ludicrous. Either Director Wolfe wants to unload me, she thought, or Mossad is extremely desperate. After the recent Arab invasions, she reasoned, how could Mossad not be?

Her intuitions told her that Project Beanstalk was the laughable last resort of an anxious nation, surrounded by marauding hostiles. Such were her thoughts, until the 6th week of Chalev’s pregnancy.

As she petted Chalev’s trunk and fed her berry bushes, Naomi saw a ripple under the animal’s gray skin. She stepped to the side, for a better view. There it was again: a traveling spasm along the mother’s abdomen. She gasped and advanced and pressed her hands, chest, and face against Chalev. The internal thing stirred.

“It’s alive,” she whispered to Chalev. “I don’t know what it is, Girl, but it’s alive. You’re going to be a mother.”

***

“Why the electric winch?” Naomi asked.

The tech wheeling the rig answered with a question: “Never worked on a farm; have you, sweetheart?”

It was delivery day – the 100th day of the giant’s gestation, two weeks sooner than Greenspan had predicted. The elephant host was in peril. Her girth had greatened; her knees and feet creaked from the stirring burden.

Director Wolfe arrived in a sharp suit and aviator shades. It was the first time Naomi had seen him in months. “What’s the over-under?” he asked her.

“Pardon,” she said.

“Over-under,” he repeated. “The odds we get something useable?”

“Something useable,” she repeated with disdain.

Wolfe winced as the technicians reached deeply into the elephant’s birth canal, lassoing the infant with a steel cable. “If we can keep it alive,” Wolfe said, “you know, until it reaches puberty, it might be an asset to our ground operations.”

She heard him, but her attention was on Chalev. The elephant was in extremis. She trumpeted and groaned and finally collapsed.

Greenspan gave the order: “Engage the winch.”

The techs complied. As the spool turned and the cable tightened, Chalev convulsed, frothing from the mouth.

“You’re killing her!” Naomi shouted. She was barely heard over the whirring of the winch.

“Hardly a concern,” Greenspan hooted. “Her work is done.”

Amniotic fluids gushed, wetting the shoes of all assembled. Wolfe cursed and wiped his with a handkerchief.

Greenspan shouted, “A foot! I see a foot!”

Naomi saw it too. It was huge, as broad and long as cricket bat. And there was something about the toes. She counted and recounted. Six.

The winch whined and the cable hummed and the motor smoked. “Keep pulling,” Greenspan ordered. “Get in there and pull with your hands!”

Two techs did so. The other fled. Calmly, Wolfe shot him in the back.

Another foot emerged, slicked with gore. At this moment, it occurred to Naomi that the thing was breach and that Chalev would not survive.

Greenspan grabbed a foot and tugged. Comically, he slipped on the effluvium but jumped up and continued his efforts.

Naomi stroked Chalev’s ear. The strain had burst the vessels in her eyes, making Naomi think of two red roses. She sang a Yiddish lullaby.

                        Night time – close your eyes

                        Night, night – till sunrise

                        Go to sleep, the wind blows

                        Sleep is how the baby grows 

She hadn’t thought of the song in decades. Now, it seemed so appropriate.

“Look out,” Wolfe shouted. He pointed his pistol at a spot just under the elephant’s rib cage. Naomi turned to see a massive hand jut from the hairy hide. Six fingers, she observed. She screamed until the room spun; then she fainted.

***

She awakened on a gurney in Greenspan’s lab.

“What happened?” she asked, adjusting her skirt and blouse.

Wolfe and Greenspan turned. They were sharing a 22-year-old barrel-aged bourbon and smoking Cuban cigars.

“What happened,” Wolfe slurred, “is that we did it! Project Beanstalk is a success! Those Arab bastards will think twice before invading The Promised Land!”

“Mazel tov,” Greenspan toasted, touching tumblers and guzzling neat whisky.

Naomi dismounted the gurney and asked, “Is she dead? Chalev?”

The two men nodded. Wolfe added, “But the child lives. We have him” –

“Him?” she asked. “It’s a male?”

The two men balked at the question. They’d never even considered a female savior. “A boy, yes,” Wolfe continued. “He’s with the techs in the Army Hospital. We have him in a fortified incubator.”

“What’s his name?” she asked.

Again, the men blanched. “Name?”

“I have a name picked out,” Naomi offered. “I’ve thought about it for all these months. It’s Xerxes.”

Wolfe replied: “Wasn’t that a king?”

“Yes, yes,” Greenspan added, “the Great Persian King, renowned for crushing his Arab enemies.”

“Yes,” she said. “It is also the Farsi word for hero.”

“Very well,” Wolfe said, Xerxes it is. Now, one last item to discuss. Naomi, as you’ve observed, the techs are not the most . . . maternal. I’d like you to be Xerxes’ nanny.”

“Caretaker,” Naomi corrected, agreeing immediately to the task. “I would have it no other way.”

***

After receiving cipher codes and badging permissions for the Army Hospital, Naomi entered the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit. Dozens of small beds had been stored in an adjoining room, clearing space for a 20-foot Plexiglas dome. Naomi peered inside the incubator. “Xerxes,” she whispered, fogging the glass.

The giant baby awakened and regarded her.

She held the gaze of its single eye. She smiled, and the baby mimicked her. Teeth, she saw. Two rows of blunt, budding teeth.

She spoke into an intercom. “My name is Naomi. I am your friend. I will call you Xerxes.”

“Erk-zese,” the baby burbled, and pointed to his nose.

“Yes, very good.” She knew that the child would experience accelerated growth, but talking on his birthday . . . unbelievable.

“Are you hungry?” she asked, motioning to her mouth.

Xerxes lifted a large feeding tube, capped with a rubber nipple. He sucked on it until milk dribbled down his chin.

Greenspan entered in a bluster. “I wanted to be here,” he panted, “when you met. Sorry. I was celebrating with Wolfe and” –

“It’s okay,” she said. “I needed this time – one on one. What type of milk is he on?”

“Whale. Beluga.”

She shook her head. “Too rich. Too many calories. You have to match bodily growth to intelligence growth.”

Greenspan replied, “Tell that to your boss. We’ve got orders to accelerate maturation by all means necessary. The Prime Minister wants Xerxes to reach puberty in one month.”

“A month! That’s insane!” Naomi crossed her arms. “I won’t allow it. I’ve read your research, Doctor Greenspan, the most optimistic program is 6 months.”

“I know,” Greenspan sighed. “But Mossad predicts another attack from the Arab Alliance within weeks, not months. If our savior can’t save us, we’re doomed.”

Xerxes rocked on his diapered bum and managed to stand. He pressed his doughy body against the barrier and giggled. Naomi hummed and made stroking motions. “Good boy,” she said, and clapped. The toddler tipped over and fell onto the mattress, causing a minor quake.

“He’s grown since I’ve entered the room,” Naomi said. “He’ll outgrow this . . . this cage . . . in mere days.”

“It’s not a cage,” Greenspan protested. “But you’re right. At this rate, he’ll be 15-feet tall within a week. We’ll have to move him then . . . with your help. We’re hoping you can establish a relationship with him, earn his trust, teach him to communicate, instill the urgency of The Mission.”

Naomi scowled. “You mean indoctrinate him. You want me to turn him into a weapon – teach him to hate the enemy. Incite him to kill.”

Greenspan blinked. “Yes, dear. But you make sound like a bad thing. Israel is on the brink of extinction. This child is our Goliath, our Sampson, our Savior. If you’d rather we find someone else to” –

“No,” she snapped. “I’ll do it.”

As Greenspan departed, she muttered: “But I’ll do it my way.”

***

“Moving day,” Naomi sang, as she entered the nursery.

“Goody, goody,” the giant rejoiced. “Xerxes want play.”

Naomi absorbed the child’s happiness. It was a balm, a soothing shield against the nefarious nature of her job. She entered a code and the dome separated and opened. “You’re free,” she said, and took a deep breath.

Shakily, Xerxes stood. He was 16 feet tall. His weight was estimated at a half ton. He stretched his plump arms and wiggled his pudgy fingers. Delighted, he squealed and danced and frolicked in his freedom.

“Easy, big boy,” Naomi laughed. “You’re registering on the Richter Scale.”

The boy’s features had changed remarkably in one week. A shock of red hair had grown into a flaming mane. When he smiled, he displayed a dazzling array of dagger-like teeth. His eye sparkled like a blue diamond.  His baby fat had transformed into a bulky, but sluggish musculature. He was still ungainly and slow, but she knew she could fix that.

“Follow me,” she said, tossing him a raw, plucked chicken – his favorite treat. He followed her through a labyrinth of corridors, folding double to traverse 9-foot doorways, until they reached a cargo elevator. Down they went, into a secret, subterranean training facility that had been prepared for precisely for Xerxes.

“Put on this armor,” Naomi said. “It will protect you from a variety of explosions and ballistics.”

“Bawwistics?”

She unfastened her holster and showed him her gun. “This is a gun. It shoots bullets – lumps of lead that can penetrate your skin and kill you.”

“Kill?”

“Kill,” she said, pondering the definition. “Xerxes, remember what it was like before you were born?”

He rubbed his eye with his balled fist and said, “Nope. Don’t ‘member that.”

“That,” she said, “is what it’s like to be killed. To be killed is to be dead; to be dead is to no longer exist. No more memories. No more life.”

“Baaaad,” he bawled. “Don’t want dead. Want life.”

She tossed him another chicken and helped him with his armor. “I want life, also,” Naomi said. “Me. Doctor Greenspan. Wolfe. All of our friends and family. All the people of our country. But there are people in the world – bad people – that want to kill us. To make us dead.”

“Noooo!” Xerxes roared, smashing a wooden table. “Xerxes stop the baddies. Xerxes kill the baddies.”

She clapped. “Bravo! You’re my hero. The champion of my people. I will teach you, Xerxes. I will teach you to be a warrior.”

And so it began. For the next three weeks, Naomi and a few hand-picked Special Forces soldiers, initiated Xerxes into elite combat training. They started with simulations and gradually introduced live munitions and bellicose soldiers. Initially, Xerxes cowered, pleading for mercy, pleading for Naomi to save him.

“You are the warrior,” she scolded. “You just let those soldiers overrun you. Tell me: what happens if the baddies win?”

“The baddies kill.”

“Kill who?” she drilled.

“Kill me. Kill you,” he blubbered.

“That’s right,” she said. “Dead. Like this chicken.” She threw the bald bird against the metal wall. “Dead!”

Tears streamed from his blue eye. “Sorry,” he cried. “Xerxes sorry.”

“I don’t want sorry,” she said coldly, “I want action. I want you to kill the baddies. Use the techniques we’ve shown you. Use your fists, your feet, your teeth . . . do whatever you have to do to save our nation. Am I clear?”

He lifted his hung head. His countenance changed from a soft child to a hardened lad. She could almost hear him grow – the rushing rivers of hormones, the creaking of his stretching bones, the knitting of his bursting and building muscles, the grinding of his teeth in anticipation of a feast . . . the feast of his enemies.

“Clear,” he said, his voice breaking.

Puberty, Naomi thought. It won’t be long.

            That night, she heard his muffled cries coming from his bedroom. “You should be asleep,” she said, turning on his light.

“Can’t sleep,” he mewled. “Dreams of baddies.”

She sat next to him and stroked his red hair. “There, there. Mother’s here. Let me sing you a lullaby.

                        Night time – close your eyes

                        Night, night – till sunrise

                        Go to sleep, the wind blows

                        Sleep is how the baby grows 

By the time she’d sung it twice, Xerxes was asleep.

***

The Yom Kippur War occurred on the 40th day of his birth. History would label it the One-Day War, but Naomi always corrected that appellation. “One hour,” she’d say and laugh. And then she would remember Xerxes, and her levity would turn to lament.

On October 6th, the enemy axis, consisting of an Arab coalition, attacked at dawn. While the Israeli Air Force fought in the skies, the Israeli Infantry braced to face the superior ground forces. It was a consensus among military brass and foot soldiers alike: Without the giant, Jerusalem would have been taken and Israel would have fallen.

Six weeks later, Wolfe took the podium at the Yom Kippur Victory Ceremony. “You should’ve seen the brute,” Wolfe extolled. “He rampaged through the phalanx of Arabs like they were butterflies. Must have killed a thousand. No, ten thousand. I watched him break men in half and fling their parts asunder. I watched him bite heads and spit them like grape seeds. I watched him stomp the fallen with his heels, bash the fleeing with his fists, and smite his foes, one and all, with the wrath of an angry god.”

Internally, Naomi preened with pride as Wolfe waxed on. It was her name that was left out of the war story, but she didn’t care. She was a woman born into a patriarchal culture. It was the way of men, she knew, to laud their accomplishments and forget about the roles played by lesser cast.

As men applauded men, she thought about Xerxes. A single tear slid down her cheek and she quickly wiped it away.

***

Xerxes returned from the fatal campaign a different creature. Naomi pleaded with him to confide the details of his heroic feats. But he demurred. He wanted nothing but solitude. His mood darkened and his demeanor soured. Wolfe, in the interest of security, ordered that Xerxes be moved to an undisclosed location.

For several weeks, Naomi pleaded with Mossad bureaucracy to grant her access to him, but Doctor Greenspan blocked it.

“He’s dying,” Greenspan explained. “His metabolism burns like a shooting star. Besides, he’s served his purpose. The mission is accomplished. We’ve beaten the enemy. The Arabs will remember this for generations.”

“Even so,” she argued, “he’s alive now. Let me see him. Let me be there for his death . . . as I was for his birth. You owe me this, Greenspan. You know you do.”

Greenspan looked sheepish. He reached into the pocket of his lab coat and handed her a badge. “He’s in the missile silo on the east side of the base. Don’t tell Wolfe I gave you this. He gave me strict orders” –

She leaped and kissed him. “Thank you, thank you, thank you!”

He watched as she ran, her sensible shoes clacking through the corridor.

***

It was an old silo, bereft of threats, save a single giant.

“Xerxes,” she called, and the echoes mocked her.

“Here,” was the anemic reply.

Naomi fanned the flashlight, slashing shadows and parting darkness. There, under the launch platform, was her dear Xerxes. She approached, allowing the light to trace his features. It had only been a month since he was a virile colossus; now he was a vestige.

He was surrounded by chicken corpses, rotten, and uneaten. Greenspan, she figured. He tossed them down here. Couldn’t stand the thought of his progeny starving to death.

But the giant had starved, she saw. By its own volition. Xerxes was a husk, shriveled and emaciated. His one eye, rheumy and weepy. His red beard now white; his red mane, all but gone. When he tried to smile, three teeth fell and shattered like thawed icicles.

“So you are,” she said. “You are here. I’ve been looking for you.”

The giant sniveled, “I’m glad you found me.”

“It was Wolfe,” she said, feeling the need to explain. “He put you down here. I had nothing to do” –

“I asked him to,” Xerxes said.

“Why? You should be celebrated with parades and medals and national praise. Why hide, Xerxes?”

“Because,” he said.

She stepped forward and stroked the back of his six-fingered hand. “Because why?”

“Because I was afraid.”

A sharp laugh passed her lips before she could bite it. “You! You are the People’s Champion; Mauler of Men; Destroyer of Foes! You are a giant, Xerxes. A bloody giant! What could possibly frighten you?”

His heavy, hairless head fell into his palms and he wept. “Love,” he finally confessed.

“Love?” she asked. “Love for country? For humanity? For justice and the divine right of all men to live in peace?”

“No,” he laughed, weak and wheezing. “Love of war, Mother. Love of destruction, murder, and mayhem.” His hand grasped hers and she winced from the strong grip.

“What do you mean?” she asked, trying to pull free.

Xerxes’s black tongue spilled from his mouth like a sick serpent. His breath assailed her to the brink of nausea.

“I mean,” he said, “that I love killing humans. I love it more than life itself. On the battlefield that day, I lived a thousand lives. And do you know why?”

She was too frightened to answer.

“I’ll tell you why, Mother,” he continued. “I lived a thousand lives because I took a thousand lives!” He laughed and his ribs cracked. “I love everything about killing men. Their screams, their pleas, their bargaining . . . oh, the thought of it now, makes my groin roar.”

Naomi had the sense that the creature was expanding, striving toward its former enormity.

“The taste of frightened men,” Xerxes said, smacking his lips, “is uniquely delicious.”

“Xerxes,” she said, “this isn’t you. You’re good. You’re a good boy.”

He laughed from his broken throat and bile spewed forth.

“You are,” she insisted. “I would know. I’ve known you every day of your life.”

“My short, pathetic life,” he said, wiping his lips.

“You will be remembered,” she said, “revered. Poems will be written, songs sung.”

“Yet,” he said, “it will be for naught. I will be as I was before I was born. Nonexistent.”

She stroked his shrinking hand. “You will live in the hearts and minds of all Israelis.”

He tried to smile but a yawn hijacked his countenance. “This is my final hour, Mother. Will you sing to me?”

“The lullaby?” she asked, racking her memory for the Yiddish lyrics.

He nodded and his eyelid drooped.

Naomi climbed into his massive lap and pressed her lips to the cup of his ear. Softly, she sang:

                        Night time – close your eyes

                        Night, night – till sunrise

                        Go to sleep, the wind blows

                        Sleep is how the baby grows 

The End

If you’ve already read the other two stories and are ready to vote, click HERE<<<Link and you’ll be taken to the voting poll.

If you’ve not read the other two stories, they can be found at the following links:

X (Marks The Spot) <<Link

X-Con <<Link

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