Space Zebra has stripes like an electric rainbow. His spiky mane spits in the left eye of Madam Gravity. His teeth were stolen from the living, breathing mouth of a titanium shark. His wild eyes could hypnotize a maypole on a blustery spring day. His filthy hooves have blighted an antique carpet with smears of ochre mud. The insurance company will not be happy.
Zebe grazes on a large, juicy steak. The former owner of the plate is trussed up like courier’s piece-work under the circular table. Winner takes all, in life and dinner.
He prods his victim in the ribs with a muddy hoof, but receives only a stoic grunt in reply. In fairness, it is tricky to converse eloquently with an oily rag in one’s mouth, especially if it is also tied in place with a cloth serviette.
“You should fire the chef,” Zebe says. “The meat is tough.” This is almost certainly untrue, but the traduced chef has already fled, and his employer is in no position to argue. It doesn’t seem to be stopping Space Zebra either.
“Boss,” says one of his goons, poking both of its scruffy heads under the tablecloth to gawk at their captive. “Law is coming. Let’s grab the parcel and run.”
“I’m eating,” says Zebe. He masticates some more, ingests a baby potato for good measure. “Lemme tell you a story,” he says, thoughtfully, his mouth overflowing with steak and savage dentition. “My dear parents lived and died in a zoo back on Earth.”
“You told us that one before, boss.”
“Who said that?”
“Not me.” It might even have been the same goon. They don’t look remotely the same, but somehow they’re still hard to tell apart.
“Stop interrupting,” says Zebe. “I never knew my parents. I was born from a viscose mixture, brewed up in a test tube in the laboratory of a mad scientist up on Orbital City. The professor had some rather strange ideas about the proper relationship between very different sorts of creatures.” He showed his teeth in an awful smile. “Very strange. Thanks to him, I’ve got the genes to prove it. I busted out of there just in time. Might have wound up with an elephant’s trunk. Or worse, looking like a human.”
“Boss, can we just eat the package and leave?”
“How many times do I have to tell you?” says Space Zebra. “First count the ransom, then eat the prisoner.”
“Now where was I?” Zebe says. “Well, they call me an animal. Do I look like an animal to you?” He flashes his spiky mane, and flares his nostrils.
There is no word from beneath the table.
“I don’t think he can talk with that rag in his mouth.”
“It was a rhetorical question,” says Zebe. “That means I’m not actually expecting anyone to answer.”
“Sorry boss.” And then a few moments later, “The Law is here.”
“Help me tie this gizmo on,” says Zebe. He’s done eating. The leftovers are a tragic mess. One of his goons shuffles over and helps stretch the straps of the rocket backpack firmly around Space Zebra’s equine body. There’s a metallic click as the buckles snap into place. “You grab the package,” he says. “I’ll deal with the Law. No going back now. It’s show time.”
“Okay boss,” says the goon. It reaches under the table with a massive, hairy arm, hauls their captive out effortlessly, and then props him up against the table. He’s too trussed up in twine and duct-tape to stand on his own.
“You think that I’m a villain, don’t you?” says Zebe. “Not just a wild, upstart ungulate, but an actual force of evil.”
There is no response, unless rapidly blinking eyes count.
“Do you think I was born that way? Or do you think it more likely that circumstances combined to make me that way? I’m genuinely curious.” Zebe lowers his head right down in front of the captive, looks at him eye to eye. “What do you think doctor? Nature or nurture? Who is to blame?”
Rather than wait for a grunted reply, he yanks on the ripcord of his backpack with his teeth.
Space Zebra exits the room vertically on a column of acrid smoke and blistering fire, tearing a massive, ragged hole in the ceiling. From the sky above, the goons hear an echo of his shouted departure, “Don’t eat the professor before we count the ransom. Business first, then pleasure.”