It hadn’t come down since great-grandparent days, but as its last descent had left no stone on stone—nor man, woman, child alive—anywhere people had once dwelled aboveground on the continent, the hero would go up before it came down again, and kill the kaiju maximus. They would go too: the hero’s weakness, and her strength.
For long cool days, she led them up the old byways toward the spectre of the mountains. Finally they reached the foothills. Here and there leaves of the deep green forest had just begun turning red or gold in the last days of summer. He and the children were all fit, all well, and so most days the hero could get about twenty kiloms out of them. She carried the food, that pack twice the weight of his, which was plenty heavy enough. She brought down game for them if he asked, a turkey, or ducks. They did just as that old sciencer in the last cavestead had counseled: every morning a drop of her blood under the children’s tongues and his, and indeed the heroic factor served to ward them all from sickness. No more fevers, not a cough. The scaled dry patches on the boy’s neck and hands cleared up, and he suffered no more frightening episodes of breathlessness. In little more than a month the baby, looking all the time more and more like poor Sofiya, shot up several centimets, five or six, and put on as many kilos. And him? That ankle he’d twisted back in the spring stopped aching during the first and last hours of a long day’s hike, stopped aching at all. You don’t really know, until it’s gone, how much the pain was wearing on you all along.
Come downhill one bright chill afternoon, he and the baby and boy were resting in the swale, eating apples, when the hero came down from the sky. She gave him the choice of the last hill they’d climb that day. “Which one?” she said. Just north of them two hills overlapped in east-west adjacency. “Where’s the good water?”
He thought about it and said, “That one,” holding out his apple toward where, unseen and unheard, a freshwater spring bubbled up from cloven rock, and ran down down the chosen hill’s farside. Though much higher, the other hill looked easy-hiking. The hill awaiting them was squat, not half so high: but they’d end up climbing its height four or five times, after all the switchbacks, its sides being steep and densely forested, interrupted by brief sheer bluffs. There never really was a chance, was there, the easy hill might have had the water?
“Saw some ducks while I was up flying,” the hero said. (They only ever argued over the children—food for them, water for them, rest.) “But just those spoonies with orange fat.”
“Kids won’t eat that kind, you said.” The hero’s latest eyes caught the light funny, as if prismatic oil were wetting them, not saltwater tears. “They taste too nasty.”
“It’s okay,” he said. “Really.”
“You gotta speak up if you want me to hunt.”
It was nice, he told himself, that she thought to offer. “Tonight I meant to finish up what we brung fresh from the last cavestead. So please don’t worry yourself.” He didn’t need some special solicitude that came out of the blue every once in a while. What he needed was not to be argued against, and never, ever overruled, when the hero wanted to wring a few more kiloms from the day—and so skip some meal, rest stop, or water break—and he said to her, “They can’t; the kids are tired. We need rest.”
I don’t think Sofiya should do that. I don’t think she’s ready.
“You hurting for water? I can take the canteens and fill em.”
“We’re okay. Early tomorrow morning we should hit the trickle, otherside of that west hill there. We got plenty till then.” He smiled up at her (irises glinting jewel-like in the oblique fall of light). “And you know I know my water.”
“Yeah.” She touched his head and ran fingers through his hair which, not easily, he kept washed and combed for her. “You do, don’t you?”
Now, his father: there had been a dowser, the old man able not just to find the water but call it from the ground, however dry. He himself could feel the water pumping or at rest in the earth well enough to say where the nearest creek or pond lay, and to judge at a glance whether this standing pool or that mineral-stained leak was poisonous or potable. And the boy could as well: grandson’s talent biding fair to rival his grandfather’s, for already son could often pinpoint what father could only be vague about.
The hero looked at her weary children half-eating, half-sleeping on their weary father’s lap. “We’ll rest here a bit longer, then head up when the sun touches the top of those trees there.”
Mouth full of apple, he nodded. On rare occasions the hero drank thirstily from a spring, or returned to camp with the haunch of some deer she’d devoured out of his and the children’s sight; and he’d roast it up for their supper and next-day’s eating. But she took neither food nor water more than once a month. All the good that a daily two leets of water, full night’s sleep, and three squares did for you, the hero got from a quiet half hour’s sit-down in the sun. She found a bright spot now and partook.
He unraveled a cocklebur from the boy’s head propped on his thigh. “What say you, buddy? How was your papa’s waterwitching that time?”
Eyes closed, the boy held an apple to his mouth, nibbling at it; he spoke with quiet dreaminess. “We’re gonna get to that water today, Papa—right as the sun’s going down. And the spring’s a good gushy one, not no little trickle like you said.”
Still with a couple nice bites on it, the baby chucked her apple-core to the mangy pup that had crept after them since midmorning. “I wanna’nother one, Papa,” she said. “I’m still hungry.”
“We ain’t got apples to waste, pumpkin.” He handed her the half left of his. “Now, just you get to eat this, okay? It’s yours, all by yourself.”
Dr. Anwar abu Hassan, psychogenomicist: To us who still flounder in the storms of the untamed heart, the awakened mystics have explained just what good, in the cosmic sense, is this folly called erotic love. Lust and passion are early doors, first steps away from pure self-concern; and later doors, further steps, lead even as far as the mystic arrives: to that love surpassing understanding, which may encompass a whole planet, and every living creature on it. And so, when we introduce the heroic factor into the population, and give rise to a superhuman élite, let us not have forgotten the heart. Predilection for the pretty face is a precursor of universal caritas. And in defense of one beloved earthling some hero may well save us all.
At the Ritual Benison before each boss-fight, a hero will temporarily advance +1000 XP for every point of comeliness their spouse possesses. But the hero must ensure that his or her spouse always has food, water and rest enough to maintain this attribute. And superheroes must consider the welfare of their children as well, for the sword and the wings can only . . .
Twilight was setting fire to the clouds as they reached the flat top of the hill. Up there was rocky, windswept and bush-covered; or, no—these were all trees, dwarfish kin to the lower forest, with not one gnarled cousin reaching even shoulder-height. All sense of accomplishment from so many steps taken thus far, from so much ground covered, can be voided by a single majestic vista. The prospect overlooked a broad and forested valley, compassed by distant hills, and marching thence to the very limits of sight: ever-higher mountains, some peaks snowtopped, a few piercing the clouds. Let it not be said that he knew a single moment’s despair—for he was loyal to the hero, and steadfast to her cause: humanity’s salvation—but neither could such a view hearten anyone so footsore. How far must they go? At his feet the children sat down together, stretched out side-by-side, and went to sleep: not a full minute passing between these progressions. The hero didn’t want your chatter, your second guesses, nor to be pestered with ten thousand questions. But he dared ask this one aloud, although quietly, and well softened up:
“I guess we got quite a ways further to go, huh?”
“We’re here. This is it,” the hero said. “I’ll kill it tonight.”
According to the maps a city of millions had nestled in this valley before the age of monsters cut short the Anthropocene. Now, only a howling green wilderness filled the lowlands, and on the sixth day God might have called it quits in the morning, finishing with the beasts: never having put people in the garden at all. For miles and miles—forever—there was nothing to see, save rock, tree and mountain: certainly no kaiju maximus. “Where is it?” he said. “I don’t see anything.”
The hero took his shoulders in hand, turned him bodily about, and let go; she pointed.
Knowing that her finger pointed west, even so he was confounded for a moment, and thought east, where sooty night had fallen already. Never before had he seen such insombration as covered over a deep groin between western mountains. This wasn’t the smoky gloom that minores carried about with them, those mighty shambling towers. Nor yet was it the terrifying local midnight in which the hero had fought and killed a kaiju plenus, fully mature, while that great beast hove up over the world nearly lost in darkness, although it had been sunny midafternoon. No, the insombration that blackened the valley’s western reaches didn’t so much dampen ambient radiance as seem a positive dark in its own right: the opposite, not merely absence, of light. The bright fires of sunset had no power to penetrate those malignant shadows, which gave up not even the faintest conjectural hint of the maximus within.
A chill wind blew on this hilltop. He shuddered. “I can’t get the least little glimpse of it through that. Can you?”
The hero nodded. She shrugged off the pack of food, and unbuckled and dropped her heavy sword as well. “Y’all get yourselves settled up here.” Carapace flipping open, her wings extended. “I’ll be back shortly to get ready for the fight.”
“Is it woke already?” he said. “Or still sleep?”
But with a swiftness just faster than his eyes could track the hero plunged upwards into the lowering dusk and sped away west.
If you’d crouched next to him while he checked on the children, you’d have judged them much too wiry for their age. Where was the baby fat? you’d wonder. The chubby thighs and soft bellies? And though one was six, and the other three-and-a-half, brother and sister were very close in size; for the boy’s dead heroic twin had hogged the womb, and been born with not a fair half but nearly fourth-fifths the share of health, size and strength. Sofiya had been a little frightening, so fiercely had she rejected any helping—any intercessory—hand, although in the end she needed her papa no less than this baby and boy, hadn’t she? And please don’t say these sleepers looked uncared for, like no one worried over them always conniving for their well-being. But he feared you probably would. Who loves these children? you’d cry out, looking all around you, hot-eyed and accusatory. Who feeds them? The heart wrung in his chest taking in their gaunt exhaustion. He took off his coat and draped it over them. With just his grandfather’s woolen sweater against hawk on the hilltop, he set about gathering wood for the fire.
Onions and potatoes sizzling in bacon fat was a smell to wake any hungry youngster, however deeply asleep. The children pressed close to him at either side, staring lustfully into the pan. The baby made to stick tender fingers right into hot popping grease; he caught that hand. “Whoa there, pumpkin.”
“I’m hungry though.”
“We’ll be eating in two shakes.” He chopped up most of the remaining ham for the hash and stirred the pan. Still, supper could use some more stretching. He tapped the baby’s nose and pointed. “You see that bent-over tree, the little’n? Just looky at all that good dandelion growing under it. How about you go pull us two big ole handfuls for the pan? And make sure to shake off all the bugs and dirt. You know how.”
“But I’m hungry, Papa.”
“Soon as I get me some greens, you get your supper.”
After the baby jumped up, he said, “And, buddy, will you gather up everybody’s canteen for me? Just a few steps thataway, over behind the big boulder you see right there, I judge it’s a nice spring of water just bubbling up—”
Sassy, and with voice raised: “I know already, Papa.” The boy shouldered up the baby’s canteen beside his own.
“Well, all right.” The outburst surprised him. It wasn’t a tone the boy would ever dare take with his mother, and so neither should he with his father. But a bit of backtalk was, in this case, good news. Trekking twenty kiloms everyday kept the boy so doped with fatigue, the sun could rise and set without him showing any glimmer of personality or preference, much less temper. So, yes: shout at Papa if you would! “Go on, then. Pour out the old water, and rinse them canteens out good, you hear? Top em all back up full too.”
“I know.” The boy stamped a foot, holding out his arm to receive the last canteen strung up over his shoulder.
“Best not be super long about it either, buddy. Or me and the baby might get so hungry we gobble up your supper too. Whew, don’t this pan just smell wonderful?”
“You better not, Papa!” In their leather sleeves, the winebottles under his elbows and pinched to his sides, the boy hurried round the boulder toward the stream’s source.
While they ate he told the children that this was the night Mama would fight the kaiju. Strategic, this timing; for very little news was so upsetting it could ruin a good hot supper, served up right now. “The big one?” said the baby. “Yes, pumpkin.” “The maximus?” said the boy. “Yes, buddy.” And that seemed to be that, for at least so long as they scraped their forks into the pan.
After supper he found himself taking in anew their grimy little faces, all smeared and content, and he heard his mother’s voice. When you fixing to wash these babies, man? Been three weeks now. It’s cold and windy out here, Mama. I can’t wash them in this weather. Boy, it’s getting into the fall. Ask yourself: is it gon’ get warmer and warmer, or will you be breaking ice to get at the creek soon? They’ll cry, Mama; that’s how cold it is. I don’t want my children hating me. Well, all right—keep doing what you doing, then. I’m just sorry I musta not taught you anything about where sickness come from, or the kind of infections won’t nothing cure. Myself, I’d just build up this fire good, and see the babies get nice and warm afterwards . . . but you grown! Do it your way.
“Y’all,” he said, “it’s been a long time now, right? I think we all might need a bath.”
There was an uproar, and tears to break your heart. Possessing nothing like the necessary fortitude, he pretended to be his own implacable mother, and dug out the little cake of soap, everyone’s change of underthings, and after doubling the fire marched himself and the children round the boulder to the near-freezing gush of mountain spring.
“I can do something,” the boy screamed. “The fire underground, Papa.”
Children spoke wildly at bathtime, and you learned to harden your heart and pay no attention. He put hands on the boy to undress him for soap and water.
“Wait,” said the boy. “I can make the water hot. I can, Papa.”
He let the boy go and sat there on a rock beside the stream. Sucking her thumb, the baby leaned heavily against his side, as she did when upset. “What do you mean, buddy?”
“There’s . . . fire in the ground, Papa. Real deep down,” said the boy. “And there’s steamwater sitting on top of it.” His hands swooped and gestured to map these geologic interrelations. “I can ask that hot water to mix with this cold, so the spring comes up here feeling nice.”
“Can you, buddy? I never heard of such a thing. My own papa couldn’t. . . Well, go on; let’s see.” He watched the boy’s face go demented with effort, with concentration, and his heart sank realizing the son he thought he knew was in fact unknown to him; but it lifted up too, for the boy had genius. The candlelight of his dowsing gift blazed high into roaring flames. And, oh, how had he ever forgotten this?—how the twenty-times-brighter gift of his father at work on some feat used to cast illumination by which he himself could plumb depths, discerning subtleties ordinarily far beyond him? From some superheated pool a full subterranean mile down, the boy caused geothermic steam to vent upwards through intervening strata, and that terrifically hot water to temper the icy flow of the mountain stream warmer, and warmer still, until even bloodwarm—
“There, buddy,” he said. “That’s hot enough.”
White plumes of vapor were emerging from the cracked boulder’s underside with the cascade of water. He quickly got off his own coat and sweater and all the baby’s things and ducked her into the balmy waters. While his son stood there with face set, eyes squinched closed, body all a-tremble, he bathed his daughter.
Soaping her feet a second time, he tore open a fingertip on some errant shard of glass—but, no; for apparently this glass was somehow in his daughter’s foot, or on it. He asked the baby to sit down there in the water and let papa see that foot. It gave him a nasty scare, seeing what he saw. By the campfire’s dim filterings from the boulder’s farside, and by the guttering embers of sunset: the baby’s toenails had all gone black and strange-shaped. Then, gingerly pricking his thumb against the sharp downcurved points of them, he understood that his daughter wasn’t taken ill at all—indeed she was soon to transcend the question of illness altogether. The lusciously heated water delighted the baby and she wanted to linger and splash. But the fires of the boy’s gift were by now dwindling fast, and the spring beginning to cool. “Can’t play in the water, pumpkin.” He soaped her hair and rinsed it squeaky. “Bud’s working real hard to keep it warm for you. We gotta hurry.”
The boy said, “Papa . . .”
“It’s all right, buddy.” He lifted the baby out, towel-swathed. “Let go.”
The spring resumed its arctic flow, the steam dispersing at once. The boy took weary seat upon a rock nearby.
He had the baby dry and in her change of longjohns and fresh socks, all snugly bundled up and booted again, in about a minute flat.
“Well, buddy,” he said. “My dowsing’s nowhere near as good as yours. So we’ll just wait till morning”—what optimism, the apocalypse scheduled for tonight!—“and you can have a bath when you feel strong enough to call up more hot water. Okay?”
“Hey, pumpkin—hey there—you come back here! What you running off for all by yourself, like you don’t know better than that? Mmhmm, you just sit down right here beside your brother. Buddy, you hold my baby’s hand, you hear?”
Never in your life did you see somebody wash up quicker. Dunking himself, he yodeled once from sheer cruel iciness, and then kind of hopped from foot to foot while scrubbing himself with soap, hooting sadly both times he crouched to splash himself over with frigid rinsewater. It was a pathetic and undignified show—nevertheless hilarious to the children, who shrieked with laughter.
He led them back to the fire. The gusts were cutting northerly across the hilltop, and so he’d built the fire in the windshadow of a depression, and stacked up stones for a further break, but still the flames leaned and shuddered. The children tried to talk to him of such little events of the day past as the three of them would hash over nightly before bed—for instance, that poor little puppydog. “What you thinks gon’ happen to him, Papa?” But hunkered down before the fire, he only shook his head, teeth chattering while he pulled the comb through his hair. So the boy began telling the baby that same old made-up story, about the nice family with three little kids, who lived together in a tent set up beside a stream on a green field, where the kids could play all day in that good, sunny place. As usual, the baby wanted to know Was it warm? How warm was it? And the boy laid out for her again how wonderfully warm it was there, the sun shining everyday.
Sounds nice, he thought, but as always wished to object that people couldn’t just live out in the open like that. If ever people dared to gather in numbers on the planet’s surface, and especially when they began to cultivate, and build, and knock down trees, a perturbation intensified in the leylines. Kaiju felt such human activity as a worsening itch in need of a good hard scratch. The children knew perfectly well that people had to live underground in cavesteads; they’d visited plenty. But they spent most of their lives in the wind and rain and sunlight, campfollowing after the hero with their papa; and so naturally the great outdoors, and tents beside sweetwater streams, seemed to them pleasures anyone might know.
Warmed through and dry, he dressed. There was cutlery and the pan to put up. With no threat of rain, he decided against the tent, but got out the ground pads and bedrolls. After a word to the children—stay put, behave—he went to launder his and the baby’s soiled underthings.
Dr. Anwar abu Hassan, psychogenomicist: While we are contending, still, with the problem of human survivability vis-a-vis the existential alien threat, please, my dear colleagues, heed this warning: The Hero Project will have thought too small, and perforce must fail, if we discard all but the mechanistic solutions. I submit these questions for your consideration.
How does the martyr remain true, although put to the ultimate test? Whence comes the endurance of the last man standing, his unbroken will to survive? And what is that moral fiber investing the woman who runs always to the succor of other lives, never balking at risk to her own? Can a coward fight the kaiju—will a selfish woman, or a waffling, indecisive man? So, yes, then, to near-sonic flight, to static apnea in vacuo, to electrogenerative plaxes; and, yes, as well, to all the various exoskeletal enhancements: But as we engineer the superhuman corpus, again I say, let us not neglect the heart!
And should the spouse freely offer up the greatest sacrifice, then the hero’s biomagicite shall become charged with +100 mana: finally sufficient to induce a Volcanic Hotspot, whereby a perforation in the earth’s crust causes superheated magma to discharge explosively from the aesthenosphere, instantly destroying kaiju minores, and causing pleni and the maximus. . .
Spraying the sky the count of stars must go to billions, and the singular moon shone down as well, just a sliver waxing from new. From unlit lunar lands far from the bright crescent—still burning more than a century on—the wrecked mothership winked and flared with eerie phosphorescence. Yet apart from their fire on the hilltop, not another light could be seen over the whole dark and untenanted earth. Barring this one little camp, there was nothing to proclaim that apes had ever come down from the trees, or women once decked themselves in silk and diamonds, or men in times past waged war upon each other.
Lest the wind blow it away, he tangled up their laundry to dry in the boughs of a tree-canopy all knotty and interlaced as arthritic fingers. By the time he’d rejoined the children fireside and stretched out his hands to ease their cold-ache, the boy and baby’s talk had turned to chocolate.
He protested. “But if we make it tonight, there’s none for later. That’s it, all gone.”
The boy extended a litigious forefinger. “You said we’d have our chocolate when Mama fights the kaiju. You promised, Papa.”
No, he’d said “maybe,” for he never made promises. What on earth could he guarantee? “It’s the last little bit, y’all.” He could feel himself doing the ugly, tiresome thing, whereby you put off some pleasure best enjoyed now, for fear nothing good will come again. “Are you both sure?”
So he put on water to boil and shaved the chocolate into their tin cup and, finishing the honey as well, sweetened it all up. Sitting between them with the cup, he parceled sips back and forth, but could as well have left the arbitrage to them. For sister and brother were best of friends tonight—angels of fairness—and this camp saw such smiles as none had in some time. What else do you hope to see? Only that your children be warm and well and glad. While they ran fingers round the inside of the cup, chasing dregs, the hero came down from the air and it was time.
Her wings folded invisibly into her carapace. And two mettes tall and more, she brought herself down kneeling to child’s-reach. “Bless me for the fight,” the hero said, and all the lightness left their camp, as if hawk, suddenly switching quarter, had blown the fire out. She picked up her scabbard from where it lay, pulled forth the sword, and beckoned the boy forward to kiss the flat of the blade.
“Papa,” said the boy.
“I’m here.” He set the baby back safely from the fire and took his son’s hand. “I’ll catch you, buddy. You won’t be hurt.” Last time, a bolt of lightning had struck down abruptly from the cloudless sky: charging the sword, but also felling the boy in passing. For a week he lay shivering and mumbling in some half-awake state, and thereafter for months was ill and weak.
They walked over to the hero at his son’s slow pace. Small folk know that unreckonable caprice flickers always through the heart of the great, and they know as you may not that so-called love—that the benevolent smile—may turn on the instant to wrath and ruination. Therefore the children never approached the hero with steps less wary than those of the old Israelites coming before Yahweh.
The boy looked up into his mother’s face: her stillness and regard, insectile or statuesque. Going to his knees beside his son, he whispered urgingly of the planetary importance of this single fight above all the rest that had ever gone before.
The boy said at last, “I hope you win, Mama,” and touched his puckered mouth to the sword even taller than himself. At once the pommel in the hero’s grip took light, brilliance spilling out between her fingers. The cold gray steel began turning to white-hot fire.
He snatched the boy back into his arms, tumbling over, and kicked desperately against the ground to get distance between them and that incinerative heat. Their coats smoked, hair crisped. “Take it away from us,” he shouted at the hero. “It’s too hot.” She got up holding the incandescent beam, and with each step farther seemed to bear away a furnace going full blast, its doors ajar, and then some vagrant midsummer’s day, and thereafter lesser and lesser warmth, until the cold of the boreal night closed rightfully about them again. At the summit’s edge the hero plunged the sword down into solid rock that sputtered and smoked like grease scorching in a pan much too hot. Leaving the bright blade bobbing in liquid stone, the hero came back and knelt as before. Then she bowed until her forehead rested on the ground, for the baby’s kiss upon her back.
Already the hero had wonderful wings, but to fight the maximus she’d need much better. As a rocky shelf, one thousand tons, falls off some mountainside and onto the unlucky walker below, just so did the kaiju hit, with as much force. And their alien effluents, whether spat, shat, or bloodlet, reduced the flesh of earthly creatures to runny sludge, a fertile dung for the world’s resurgent wilderness, feed for the forests that arose where every city fell. They couldn’t guess what shape, this time, the hero’s metamorphosis would take; she had no idea herself. Their only forewarning was that, whatever changes, they would be always perilous, always a shock.
“Pumpkin,” he said and squatted on his haunches. He reached out his arms and sucking her thumb the baby came to him. But when he urged her from his embrace and toward the hero, saying, “Give Mama a kiss, just like you did before,” the baby seized a fistful of his coat, nor wished to let it go. “Are you scared?” He stroked his daughter’s hair and smiled at her in complicity, allowing a little of his own fear to show. “I know; me too. But I need you to do this one little thing for me. Just for your papa: won’t you give Mama a kiss on her back?” (A kiss compelled held no power—nor did a loveless one.) His appeal shifted something in the child’s heart prior words had not, and her fear-blank eyes began to clarify. He said, “Please?” and the baby nodded. Toward the hero and away from him, he set her walking with gently propulsive hands.
The baby cast back one uncertain glance. At his nod, she bent to kiss the hero’s dorsal carapace. Fretfully his two hands hovered to grab his daughter back. No sooner did the baby’s lips alight than her mother’s torso—indeed limbs and whole self—returned to a more human shape, but not made of flesh and bone, rather become some kind of living marble.
At dead center of the hero’s smooth adamantine back, a thin-lipt mouth pursed open. From this hole erupted a long and rotary tentacle of spiked stone. With full decapitatory powers, this flailing rotor tore the air just centimets overhead where he cringed, pressing the baby and himself down, noses flat to earth. Hysterical from terror the baby fought to get free and run, while he shouted at the hero to go up into the air before she killed them both. When the hero had gone aloft, he let the baby go. Sister fled back to brother fireside where the children clung together like half-drowned co-survivors who had won to shore by grace of God alone, and through shark, shipwreck and storm, had not gone down with all the rest.
The hero could not lift much more than her own weight off the ground ordinarily, but now without effort she stooped from the sky and plucked him up into her arms. They hovered midair.
Her mouth by his ear to be heard above the roaring downdraught of that strange, singular wing: “Do you love me?”
“Really?” Her lips were stone, and if not soft at all, entirely smooth. “I wonder. Love me enough to do anything? No matter what?”
“Whatever,” he said. Could she even feel his fingertips caress her face? “I’ll do anything.” She was hard to embrace, hard to come close to, being made of stone and so much bigger. “I love you.”
“To fight the maximus I need more than you ever gave me those other times. A whole lot more.”
He said, “How much?” and she said,
“How much can I get?”
Even then the hero waited on him to press his lips to hers.
If you’ve ever sucked and chewed on sugarcane, then you have the right image. Vigor, youth, beauty—something on that order—was wrung out of his body like water from a sodden rag, or sweetness chewed from sugarcane. But the agony made no difference to how readily he opened his mouth to the requited passion of her stony kiss. Suppose that some small sacrifice were asked of you as helpmeet and shieldbearer for the greatest hero who has ever lived, and suppose that in fulfilling your role she might deliver the homeworld. Would you do it? He would. She hardened to some much denser substance than living marble, and the arms about him caused his bones to creak and ache. Becoming a chevaux-de-frise of sharp diamond, her lips began to abrade his, drawing blood as the kiss went on.
As he grew feeble she held him closer, until desire and will notwithstanding, his body just could no longer. The hero held her lips one short millimet from his, begging, “Kiss me, kiss me,” and he tried, oh he did, always whispering back when she asked, “Do you love me?” “Yes, yes.”
Let him go. There was a gravelly clatter, rock-on-rock, as pebbles bounced off much harder stuff. Dimly he became aware that his children were screaming and throwing stones at their mother again. Let him go. I hate you. Had the kiss gone so far already? Not too far yet, he hoped. Someone must see the baby and boy tucked into their blankets tonight. And who but him would see them fed a hearty warming bowl in the morning? Such terror these thoughts inspired, he turned his face from hers. Released, he felt himself fall through the air, and hitting the ground saw rainbow-bright glitter and then darkness.
He woke to the baby and boy saying please don’t be dead. Prostrate on the ground he scrabbled there unable to turn faceup, without the strength even to lift his bloody mouth from the dirt. Get up, Papa, get up. Trying to say anything that might comfort the children, he made only the mewling of a kitten which alone of its litter tossed overboard had washed ashore undrowned. These efforts to speak and rise, strenuous to no effect, wearied him so that finally he lay for a long time in a quietude hardly distinguishable from that of a corpse on its bier. The children as well exhausted themselves, and their howls waned to grizzling; their yanking at his coat, to a small hand each stroking at his hair.
From faraway in the night there came at random either one vast crash or repeated booms, as if contending gods took and threw godlike blows. Once, a tremendous though faint echo of the hero’s anger resounded out of the distance, her voice pitched such that blood would have spurted from their ears, had he and the children heard that blast near at hand.
Time did what it does and by and by he felt himself drift from merest proximity to death, into slightly more distant purlieus. He splayed one withered claw under each shoulder and pushing against the ground—pushing as hard as he could—came somehow up to sit. Just the sweet Lord can say how he got up on his two stick legs and made it over to the fire where he sat again, or fell. They paced him there, a child at either side; patient, silent, good as gold.
“Look in the pack there. Get me out the cut-ointment and a clean rag.”
The boy did so.
It wasn’t too bad dabbing the mud from his lips with the dampened rag, but smearing his lacerated mouth with the astringent ointment, he made noises that couldn’t be helped.
“All right,” he said once he’d caught his breath. “Put it up now, bud. Rag goes with the dirty ones.”
Exactly once before had the baby seen the toll of this dire miracle, though she might not remember. Standing beside him, she groped with bemittened hands at his slack seamed cheeks, his thin white hair, as if only by touch could she grasp this onset of morbid age. He smiled at her and said, “Mama will turn me back like I was after she beats the kaiju.” If she does . . . “Don’t you worry, pumpkin.” But not even the voice was his own: higher, breathy, querulous. Her face crumpled, tears welling in her eyes, and none of his friendly words were reassuring to the baby.
The boy came back to sit, and lean, gingerly against him. Had you trotted the globe around and come home again, having despaired that day would ever arrive, so too might you breathe out as the boy did then, as long and slow, a shudder passing also through you. Many times he’d seen his papa go suddenly grey, though never before this stooped and frail, a spotted scalp visible like dirt and stone under a dusting of snow.
To distract the baby’s unhappiness, he said, “Want to hear something wonderful?” Brightness pulsed in the western dark, like the traffic of thunderbolts between stormclouds. “Let me tell you what happens sometimes, pumpkin.”
Between hiccups: “What, Papa?”
“Sometimes, when a hero’s got no son or daughter with the factor—that’s still alive, I mean—then it starts expressing in the other same-sex child. That happens a lot with heroes, actually. Your papa should’ve been on the lookout.” His tone was light, as at storytime, or telling jokes.
“What you mean, Papa?”
“I think, pumpkin,”—He kissed her teary cheek—“you’re gonna wake up just like Mama one day real soon. A hero. How about that?”
The baby reached a hand to his mouth as she’d done when almost newborn, still an infant, and pressed his lips together in a buttoning gesture. She let the hand fall and said, “No,” as decisively as when refusing despised foods. “I don’t want that.”
“Well,” he replied (as always when the sequel would come soon enough, nor be anything the children desired): “We’ll just have to see then, won’t we?”
“No, Papa!” The baby grabbed his coat and gave him a good shake—he so weak, she could do so. “Not see. I want to stay people.”
He tapped the little fist clinched in his coat and raised his brow at her. The baby turned him loose.
“Aww, don’t say that.” He shook his head sadly at her. “I really wish you wouldn’t, pumpkin. Mama is people too.”
“I mean, I mean.” The baby was still at that age when words tend to fail, and anger or tears have to fill the gap; her voice broke. “Like you and buddy.”
“Shh,” he said, “Okay, then,” as if she might not rise to Homo sapiens heroïcus on his mere say so. “All right, all right.” He rubbed circles on her back, she quieted, and the whole world tipped nauseously then. He heard himself shout.
“What’s that?” Terrified, the baby embraced him round the neck. “What is it, Papa?”
The ground beneath them was yawing as if the sea, the planet itself groaning deeply bass and agonized as some old sinner repentant on his deathbed. Abruptly, some twenty kiloms down the valley, a bright volcanic arm—a hand of fire—thrust up from the earth and made a credible grab for the moon, incandescent fingers raking across the sky. Brilliance snatched aside the black of night as though it were a flimsy curtain, the truth behind it high noon. They cried out, throwing up a hand or both as the dark cold valley was relit to midday green. The gushing white blaze spewed comets as a geyser does waterdroplets, these fiery blue offshoots waning yellow-orange-red as they fell to earth, as the sourcefire itself discolored: now dimming to ochre and yet still painful to see, even squinting through their fingers; now dimmer still, ruddy-black as the glowing crumbs of their own little campfire; now going out.
In that awful first glare, though, they glimpsed the kaiju maximus, its shape like some conjuration out of all the earth’s collective nightmare, reminiscent of a creature he’d seen once in a picturebook, some beast of the forgotten world—and called what? He couldn’t remember. Bright-lit, that apparition stuttered in stark chiaroscuro, wallowing in magma: horrific, bigger than could be put into words. The eruption, dwindling, and burnout endured only for a slow five-count, but it seemed as if hours passed. Nor did they look away even once, not one time blink, until the veils of starless insombriate night fell over that vision again. After this sign and wonder, the baby turned to him expectantly, to see whether Papa might interpret, but he could only shake his head.
The end of days—what is even this, to a child’s need for sleep? He looked to the boy and saw that his son’s eyes were closed, mouth softly open. To the baby he said, “Let me go tuck in buddy-man.” She released her hold round his neck and stood by watching while the boy was chivvied to his feet and, eyes closed, mumbling irritably, not really awake, was led over to his bedroll where, coaxed, he laid himself down, at once dead to the world again, while the boots were pulled off him, the covers tucked up around him. Heart rattling so in his chest you had to hope it could last the night through, he clambered to his feet after these exertions and saw that far hills were burning like victims in flight from some holocaust, their hair alight, their heads bewreathed in flames, all ablaze with forest fires. The wind began to taste of ash. He sought his spot by the fire again and the baby climbed into his lap. “Ain’t you sleepy at all yet, pumpkin?”
“No,” the baby said, and then: “Did you love Sofiya?”
Again the earth moved as it should not, making unwonted sounds, but they were by then inured.
“And did Sofiya love you, Papa?”
“Well,” he began, and was by fortuity saved from a lie and the truth alike. “Oh, looky there!” He pointed into the darkness just over the marge of their campfirelight. “See who came up to join us.” From those respectful shadows doomed spaniel eyes watched them. For even after hope, it seemed, hopeful forms and strategies survived.
The baby said, “Puppy!” and jumped up. “Can we keep it, Papa? Like the family in the tent by the river? They got a dog.”
That ole mangy mutt, there? Of course not, child: it’s no telling what diseases that thing’s got! “All right,” he said, and sent the baby over to the hero’s pack.
“Well, you ain’t pulling, pumpkin,” he said. “How you fixing to get that knot loose if you don’t pull good? Pull, girl. There you go, there you go. See? Now loosen it up, reach in, and should be right there on top: the hambone left from supper, wrapped in one them ole-timey plastic bags.”