He awoke in the desert, buried in sand and glass and unaware of his name. The earth pressed upon him with unbearable weight and with each heartbeat, a bright, internal light pulsed behind his eyes. Like all pain, it drew him to action.
It was the work of moments to swim free of the hold the sand had on him. Breaking out, he screamed and kicked and drew in great lungfuls of air. A few leg strokes more and he was standing tall.
“What the hell!” he said, not making of it a question, but an oath. He could see that his arms were burning, hands glowing like embers of burning wood. His gear hung in tatters, cape all but gone, boots fused against his legs. He commanded fingers, which hardly seemed his own anymore, to tap their way along his fiery ribs until they came to rest in the center of his chest. Where once a bright emblem had been -his moniker and shield- now three claw marks tore through the remnants of once indestructible fiber.
“Think,” he commanded himself, holding his head between both hands and pressing hard. “Think!”
But there was no answer, no sudden revelation, only the whisper of passing wings and a shadow that flitted along the sands beneath his downcast eyes. He didn’t bother looking up.
It was a crater in which he found himself and reflexively he began to climb. The walls shifted beneath him and progress toward the rim was slow. By the time he reached the top, the shadow and the sound of wings had grown closer and more frequent.
“Stay where you are! Come no closer!”
Like the cry of a hawk, the voice fell upon him from on high. He looked up, daring the desert brilliance to catch a glimpse of the thing in the sky. When it soared away from the burning solar disk, he made it out. A drone with a magnificent wingspan circled above.
“No closer to what?” he asked his knees weak. He staggered at the rim like a drunken man near the edge of a cliff. Finally, off to the right he saw it, the glittering jewel of a domed city. Caught in crystal reflection by the noonday sun, it dwarfed the dunes and jagged hills beyond. As he contemplated the sight, his thoughts muffled beneath a pounding heart, a familiar name sprang up from the well of pain in which he found himself. This was Krustallos, the city of glass. Sanctuary for the innocent.
What was it doing in the middle of a desert? Never mind that, Lisa Lenhart would be there. She must.
He turned and began to walk toward the glittering oasis. Hot as they must be, the desert winds brushed against him like ice and his flesh cooled quickly as he covered the distance. The glow of his limbs subsided, leaving behind dark and shriveled flesh. Skeletal fingers touched the hollow of his cheeks. What had happened to him, he wondered?
“You are violating the quarantine zone,” came the voice from above. “Move away from the city or we will open fire!”
The shadow moved closer. It dipped and danced across the dunes, repeating its message until the drone above, or its controllers, could no longer tolerate his continued footfalls in their direction. The desert erupted into spouts of weapons fire. The bursts sprayed sand into his eyes, eyes which seemed unwilling to blink against the onslaught. He wiped the back of his hands against them, clearing them enough to see.
He kept walking.
The next burst of fire tore across his chest, but made no more impression than the sand they had kicked up a moment before.
“Lisa,” he said and kept walking. His mind was clearing and he could picture her now, the close-cropped, raven black hair, eyes wide and long lashes, the slightly crooked smile.
Suddenly the desert lifted from beneath his feet, the air erupting into a maelstrom, the fiery, fierce brilliance of which he recognized. A missile strike from the drone. A mushroom column of gray, superheated effluence rose around and above him.
Losing patience, he jumped into the rising vapors, seeing through them as easily as he could peer through clouds and beyond walls.
A turn this way, then that, and he found his attacker flying just beyond the fireball it had loosed upon him. Rolling to his back, he led the flight path of the drone and, with long-practiced ease, caught up to it a second later. A punch silenced the engine and its wings snapped like kindling in his hands. The nose pitched down and he let it fall to the desert. An oversized dart.
Fluttering behind him like a kite, the tattered remnants of his cape announced that he was still high above the desert floor. He was flying, holding himself at a dizzying height with ease. It felt good, better even than pulling himself out of the furnace of the sands. He turned toward Krustallos and tried to understand.
He had built this city, one gift in a long career of saving and advancing the humans he loved. Designed to protect them, it should have held against all siege and terrorist infiltration. Who could have taken it over; what villain held hostage the jewel of the desert?
He couldn’t remember.
For long moments he drifted closer, not quite determined what to do. Lisa was there, the last he knew; she had been making a new home for them in the tallest of the crystal spires, and that meant he had to do something.
“Stay where you are, Heros! You are under quarantine.”
They had called him by name. Who had called him by name? Projected from the city, the voice filled the desert sky with its booming authority. He tried to match it.
“You know me!” he shouted toward the domes. “Name if you can the last thousand who stood against me, or the thousand before them? Who stands against Heros Meum today? Come out now. Leave the city, or there is no basement depth I will not dig to find you, coward!”
There was no reply.
For a moment, waiting in silence, he hovered, scorched boots dangling high above the earth, but when he chose to push forward they pushed back. A battery of lasers opened up, high-strength military pulses hitting him with all the force the drone had thrown his way and more. Grunting, he waded into the beams. They could not hold him for long, and somewhere over the pop-pop-pop of the laser pulses, a voice was begging now.
“Please, leave us alone! Aren’t there enough dead? Leave us alone!
It was Lisa’s voice. He stopped and the pulses of light stopped. She was begging him, pleading that he come no nearer. He tried to see into the city, but it was too big a space for even his vision to pick out a single woman.
What he could see was that neither the drone strike nor the lasers had done him the slightest harm. Additional harm, that is. Whoever held the city no longer had the master weapon they had used against him.
“Lisa, don’t worry. They can’t stop me now!”
“No, you bastard.” It was still Lisa’s voice, shrill and desperate. “Stay where you are.”
The words cut across his mind. He wanted to ask; he wanted to know. His own thoughts remained muddled, still gray after whatever Brobdingnagian blow had knocked him for a loop. Who was he up against, and what hold did they have over Lisa? He couldn’t show his weakness by asking, and he couldn’t dive in while the situation remained unclear.
“Send her out and I’ll spare your life,” he said. “It’s the best deal I can offer. Harm her and I’ll personally toss you into the sun!” A chill accompanied his last words, sending a shiver for which he could not account down his spine.
It didn’t take long for him to have his answer.
A glint of light and a trail of dust brought his attention around to the base of the great domed city. A transport was moving. Big wheels bobbed on their independent suspensions as he watched the all terrain bus work its way out from Krustallos. After coming around one of the biggest dunes, it stopped near a craggy outcrop of stone. A lone figure stepped down a ramp, a figure in a pressure suit, the helmet glass a mirror of reflective gold. Once that suit stood on the sand, the ramp quickly retreated; the bus revved up its engines and circled away.
Legs spread and arms folded across his chest, Heros eased down before the figure as gently as if he had been lowered from the sky on a wire. Even before he touched sand, he could hear the crying, and though he could put no reason to her distress, he recognized the voice at once.
“Lisa, you’re all right now,” he said softly. Though he reached out, she shied away, stepping backward so violently that she went down, catching the worst of it on her butt and outstretched hands. Even then she wriggled away at his approach and he stopped moving toward her.
“Lisa,” he whispered, trying to focus the sound from his lips so that it would resonate through the helmet of the pressure suit. “I know I look bad, but don’t worry. It’s still me… I just, I just don’t know what’s going on and you have to help. Who is doing this?”
The crying stopped. With some effort, Lisa regained her feet on her own. Now he could see the emotions of fear and grief as they warred across her features behind the helmet’s reflective screen. She didn’t quite look herself.
“Who did this to me?” he asked.
“What are you doing here?” she queried in return, her tones somehow cutting and purposefully cruel. “Do you want the whole world dead? Every man, woman, and child?”
“Whoever it is,” he assured her, “I can stop them. I know this looks bad,” he gestured inward with his hands, “but it’s still me.”
“Still you…” He could see her head drop within the helmet, eyes closing against the unbearable. “Do you think it absolves you if you can’t remember?”
He didn’t know what to say. Looking around, he could see no obvious threat compelling her actions. Neither lasers nor drones zeroed in.
“Has it stolen your mind too?” she asked, her question broken by sniffles.
The question left him dumbstruck; he didn’t know what to say.
“Is who stealing my mind!?” he demanded, no longer able to proceed in subtle tones. Swiftly and without thinking, he took her by the shoulders, repeating his demand as she struggled in his grasp. Glancing from side to side, she began to scream, eyes following the jerky, terrified movements of her head. Her wide-eyed focus was on his hands, those blackened claws with which he held her tight.
“No!” she screamed.
He released her and stepped back. “Lisa?”
“You’ve killed me!”
He raised his hands, palms forth, as if in surrender. “What? What are you saying?”
“Oh, My God, don’t you remember? Heros, don’t you remember anything?”
“I remember!” He shouted, but what he remembered was an endless dream of searing pain. What was the last thing? The last thought before his nightmare in the fires began?
He remembered flying. In space. The airless deep tingling against his ears, his eyes seeking out the wobbling dance of Sol and its eight familiar planets. He recalled being eager to get back. To get back to…
Lena. Not Lisa. He had been thinking of Lena.
In a world of endless women, few seemed immune to the allurement of a tights clad Herculean figure. For decades, Lena Lind had proved the exception. Heros had known her since High School, since before his public career and his quite literal rise to power. Lena had found him shallow and self-interested, and it had taken him years of his best game to bring her around.
And now? Was it betrayal he saw in Lisa’s eyes? What could have happened? If only he could bring the deeds of even yesterday into the forefront of memory. He fought desperately for the slightest of clues.
“The Arcturan freighter,” he said, the words forming numbly on his lips, as if they welled up from the memory of some other soul. “Lost in the Dead Zone. The call for help.”
“And you had to go,” she said. The words were a departure from Lisa’s beautiful and lilting voice, emanating from the suit like the growl of a hurt animal.
“Well, of course, I…” Bit by shattered bit, the memories cut through his fog of consciousness.
“Nothing ever survives the Dead Zone, ever,” Lisa said, flogging him with her words. “But you had to go.”
“I’m Heros Meum.” What he had meant to say proudly came out instead as a croak. His head swam with visions of a dark, swirling maelstrom. A maelstrom they called the Dead Zone. It was an otherworldly nightmare, a trap that lay beyond the jump gates of an orange-yellow star in the constellation Boötes.
“I had to go…” he said weakly.
“A distress call,” Lisa added. “Why did they have to live long enough to make a distress call?” She was crying now. Soft tears. “No one else ever has. You knew that!”
“I had to try,” he said, matter-of-factly. “I’m Heros Meum. Only the azure stones can harm me, and I have all three. I have…” Suddenly his attention returned to the claw marks across his chest. One. Two. Three. They were the length and width of the azure stones, those lethal, radioactive remnants of his homeworld’s core.
Now he remembered! In jumbled order, the moments of his undoing returned.
Crying, he had fallen backwards into the sun. Heartsick and hysterical, he had allowed the sun’s close gravity to draw him down in its fiery embrace. Held against his chest were the azure stones of Miinos. He was falling, and everything was too brilliant and blazing to look upon. He wanted to die, and he held the stones in a death grip of determination. As they weakened him, the heat of the sun began to bite.
He remembered the days before his suicide attempt. He remembered Lena Lind as he descended to her balcony, her face framed in the tender light of the stars. She had reached up to him. He recalled taking her hand as he landed, sweeping her close for a homecoming kiss.
He needed that moment with Lena, that moment of betraying his Lisa, to feel powerful again. The rescue of the Arcturan freighter had not gone well.
A spinning vortex of lightless particles obscuring all it touches, the Dead Zone hides everything, covering entire star systems with its embrace. Worlds vanish, not only behind the veil, but within its vast and nebulous reach. At first, Heros could see little beyond the tentacles of the deadly nebula. Then, with his penetrating vision at its greatest strength, he made out the dulled light of nuclear thrusters. Then came the sweep of a large navigation fin rising into the gray shallows from beneath greater depths of black.
The Arcturan freighter, the Dead Zone had swallowed it as a whale might swallow an insect in the heave and tussle of the ocean.
Even as he grabbed one of the ship’s propulsion pods, his fingers digging into the dura-hull metal, Heros knew he might be too late. With the effort an average man addresses a sack of cement, Heros pulled the weighty ship free. Starward he hauled the craft while tentacles of black trailed and clung to its steely hull. And to him.
Shouldering the impressive starship, Heros pressed his ear to the metal, listening for reverberations, but as he cleared the Dead Zone, not the slightest sound clicked from within the hull. Neither footfall nor the beating of a telltale heart greeted the super man’s eager attention.
It was too late now. He didn’t need to force the airlock to know that bodies floated within.
Though Heros manhandled the derelict all the way to the Arcturan gate, the fleet awaiting his arrival sent no congratulatory greetings but instead set itself in battle array. Apparently they had no stomach for recovery, neither for their own Arcturan dead nor for the freighter’s once valued cargo. They offered neither praise nor admiration for the efforts of Heros Meum.
Heros fingered the com-set they had floated his way and argued for the dignity of the dead, but with little success. The translator seemed glitch.
Yes, he had been too late to the rescue, he admitted. Yes, perhaps it had seemed impossible from the start, but hadn’t Heros been the master of the impossible since birth? Imagine a starlight crib shot away from a dying world, that crib crossing the boundary of one universe and into another. In this universe, the physical laws made Heros king of the impossible, the hero of worlds and savior of his adopted Earth.
Now the freighter behind him hung like a dead weight on his reputation.
“I brought them out of the Dead Zone,” Heros insisted. “That has to mean something.”
But there was to be no argument. Ahead of him he could see row upon row and rank after rank of gun ports sparking to life. The cauldron of the fleet’s artillery was spooling up its capacity to annihilate matter. The cannonade was about to begin.
Releasing the com-set, Heros shook his head and dove out of sight. From above and behind, there came a rush as of a nova vomiting out the heat of its core. Why had he bothered? The freighter and its hapless crew were erased by the Arcturans, obliterated from existence.
Such was the unreasoning terror of the Dead Zone, and Heros had done nothing to change it.
“No time for this,” Heros said, “to the controls! I need the stasis generator, the one Actus Reus built to capture me, remember?”
“You’re cold,” Lena Lind said as he held her.
“It’s cold in space,” he answered simply. “I need you to warm me up.”
At that she laughed, wrapping her arms playfully about him. “Usually, you fly so fast, I have to cool you down.”
“The air, yes,” Heros mumbled, distracted. “Friction.” But he didn’t want to be seen blazing across the skies tonight, not as a meteor headed here. Instead he wanted, he needed to know he could still get away with anything.
Before the quiet hours, Lena had already taken ill. Not noticing at first, Heros laughed when she collapsed, thinking Lena must have swooned at the ecstasy of his touch. It was not unheard of. But no fan girl (or boy) had ever burned with so sudden a fever. It took a moment for the super man to realize the gravity of the moment. Not even his kiss could awaken her now.
The strength to deflect an asteroid, the speed to intercept nuclear missiles, neither served to address the convulsions which began to shake Lena’s frame. Heros stood as helpless before her crisis as before a global banking collapse. He clothed her, all the while hoping she would wake, that the fever would break, that many easy resolutions which might happen would.
When they did not, Heros carried Lena back to the balcony, lifting her gently into the air. The lights of a local medical facility could be seen within the first few hundred feet of climb and would have taken no more than a swoop to reach, but nothing less than the best would do for Heros Meum now that he was in the midst of a rescue.
Though it took the better part of an hour to reach, he wrapped his cape about Lena to shield her from the elements and headed for the experimental treatment facilities of the CDC in Georgia’s Druid Hills. Both the Chief of Staff and the Deputy Director were long-time fans, and Heros used Lena’s mobile and his own secret code to alert them.
The appropriate flashing lights and a gathering of critical med-teams were on hand when he brought Lena down out of the clouds. He already knew her pulse was thready, and he tried to advise, but they took her from him quickly and without heed to his observations.
Soon Heros found himself the sole occupant of a large, well-lit room, waiting for word from some of the best medical minds the world had to offer. Upon seeing his reflection in the walls of mirrored glass, he tried not to look worried and subtly struck a more heroic pose.
The word never came.
By the time he found the receptionist and then an orderly, they were both unconscious. The doors to the examining room proved locked and hermetically sealed, and his penetrating vision showed Heros a disturbing sight. Flat line monitors proclaimed Lena long past saving, while her corpse lay with chest cavity open and blood painting the surgical sheets. The body of at least one doctor lay at her feet.
Still, Heros did not panic. But he seemed the only one. Those who would have locked down the building succumbed too quickly. Those whose unthinking fear sent them out into the night made it past the guards and into hiding unchallenged.
What seemed obvious in hindsight, that Heros was himself the carrier and prime vector of the disease did not at first occur to the super man. Neither did it come to mind for the generals he visited next, nor to the brains who began by analyzing patterns of Internet searches, trying to track the spread of a disease that was already making their own brows sweat and fingers burn with deadly heat.
Wherever Heros went, the Reaper came.
“You look old,” he said to Lisa.
“It’s been years,” she returned matter-of-factly, her voice turning away from tones of terror and accusation. “You’ve been gone for years, Heros. The world has turned to sand.”
“Everything…,” He mumbled, pressing his palms to his eyes, as if to soothe the sudden ache of realization. “It kills everything. I brought it back from the Dead Zone, didn’t I? The Dead Zone! How many have I killed?”
“Billions and billions,” Lisa assured him, “and you’re not done yet.” Her face gone as pale as the gray wisp in her hair, Lisa wilted forward onto her hands and knees.
“But your suit.”
“Might have worked,” Lisa said, “if you hadn’t touched…”
As if trying to absolve himself, Heros kept talking, eyes wide. “I remember now. I took the azure stones and held them close. I thought they would kill me on their own, but they didn’t. I thought they would weaken me so the plague might have its way, but no! They sickened me, stole away my strength, but I couldn’t die.
“Still holding the stones, I lifted toward the setting sun. It was a gentle twilight, so filled with water color grace, but that’s not how it looked above the clouds, not beyond the moon. The sun became a furnace the closer I drew to it- a furnace I flew into, sick and dying, praying for death. Instead…”
By now Lisa had fallen full across the swirling sands.
“Instead, I burned in hell for what I had done,” Heros finished. “Years at the solar core. The plague couldn’t kill me; the stones couldn’t… now the very fire out of which your world was born failed me! But the pain. You have no conception. No conception! After a time, I went mad, I…”
Quieting, he knelt down and gentled Lisa to her back. She was still breathing, still conscious, but very pale.
“Good thing I built that city,” he said, glancing back toward Krustallos. “It saved them, didn’t it? When all else failed.”
“A fortress,” said Lisa, smiling. “Yes, my love, but don’t try to help anymore. You’ve got to leave.”
“Fortress.” Heros nodded, his lips too burnt to smile. He lifted Lisa with the ease another might use to scoop up a handful of sand.
Whether willing to die all the faster or beyond caring, Lisa didn’t resist. She neither struggled nor offered a single whisper of protest.
Stepping into the high winds, Heros took her aloft. He took her higher than ever he had on a romantic flight. The suit Lisa wore protected her from the cold and thinning air. Only the plague Heros had brought with him out of the Dead Zone could penetrate it.
As he flew, the question occurred to him, what features of the domed city had held the plague at bay? How had Krustallos survived?
If he could determine that secret, he might yet save mankind.
Soon deep oceans lolled beneath their speeding forms. Flying on his back, Heros held Lisa close with one arm and pushed the other out before him, his hand clenched in a fist that broke through the thinning but stubborn air like a bullet, leading their supersonic flight.
In no time they were there, the deserts of central Australia spreading out beneath them. It was a landscape that had long challenged the survival skills of the natives, and Heros didn’t drop far before seeing the great pebble of Uluru dominating the colorful but barren world below. Ayers Rock the Europeans called it, a central part of creation to the Aborigines and for Heros Meum the location of his personal fortress. A place for solitude of which no human knew the address.
Over the years his enemies has already nuked both his Arctic and Antarctic decoys, but Ayers rock with its global reputation and constant stream of tourists had escaped their attention reliably.
A hidden, cosmetically camouflaged hatch in the northern face winked open at Heros’s approach and closed as suddenly behind him. Lights flared into life all down the length of a descending tunnel. It was an impressive shaft that fell more than fifteen hundred feet into the core and root of the mountain. There, in a stadium sized expanse of crystalline machines and quartz walkways, a central platform began to glow with awakening power. Holograms of his father and mother winked up out of nowhere to greet him. More than conceits to sentiment, the flickering images seemed happy to see him and awaited his command.
“What is it, son?” asked the ageless and un-aging images as one.
“You left us in such a hurry,” added his mother’s simulacrum.
“We’ve been worried,” said the father. He was a big, strapping figure dressed in white robes. “You look tired.”
“No time for this,” Heros said, “to the controls! I need the stasis generator, the one Actus Reus built to capture me, remember?”
“Yes,” the insubstantial images said together again. Though their touch would fail to toggle the slightest switch, their A.I. had been interfaced directly with the fortress’s servo mechanisms. At their urging, platforms creaked and turned, overhead cranes swung, and robotic arms on great extenders maneuvered with swift and dancing moves. Seconds later, the stasis trap was delivered.
“What are you doing?” Lisa asked weakly. Her breath was growing more ragged and her eyes had gone rheumy.
“Saving you, my love,” Heros answered as he tore away her protective suit. His blackened nails made quick work of the armored gear, ripping it away with the same careless attention a child gives to the wrapping paper of a gift.
In hearing his words about saving and love, Lisa almost laughed.
“Listen to me,” Heros said as he lifted her. Gently carrying Lisa a short distance, he placed the dying woman across a raised table, the surface of which had once served as a surgical platform. His hands moved in a blur as he tied her down. “This is the most brilliant weapon ever devised. If I hadn’t tricked Actus with my robot twin, he would have used it against me. Stops all motion at the quantum level. That’s what it’s for. You can’t die if your body stops moving through time, now can you?”
“I can’t live either,” came the sullen reply. Jaw set, Lisa tried to raise her head, to look Heros in the eye, but the effort failed. She lay back, sickened by the exertion. Eyes closed, she continued. “Heros, please stop. I can forgive you for her, for seeing her, but not for the billions who died! Without you, there wouldn’t be…”
When her voice failed, Heros filled in the gap as he directed the great cone of the stasis projector into place above her. “Without me, your planet’s poles wouldn’t be radioactive. Without me– no poisoning of the Red Sea. No need to build Krustallos as a sanctuary against anti-Heros terrorism. No use for my collection of captured villainous gewgaws, this brilliant piece among them. No billions dead. I know…”
“Leave us be,” Lisa whispered with what seemed her penultimate breath, but before her lips could close, before her final sigh might pass into silence, Heros was ready. The ponderous device above her powered up. At their stations, the holograms of Mother and Father directed energies greater than could have been amassed by the Boulder Dam in a month of Sundays.
A cold blue beam caught Lisa in the chest and stopped her heart. A fraction of a second later, from her graying tresses to her once balletic toes, through flesh and bone and soul, not an electron stirred.
From outside it seemed she had been wrapped in a milky, crystal shield. Lisa’s body lay cocooned in an adamantine sheath no force could penetrate, for within it the arrow of time had ceased to fly.
“That’s it then,” Heros said. “Mother. Father. Prepare another table. For me. I’ll be ready shortly.”
With a quick step Heros reached a wide panel of lights, dials, keyboards, and uncounted toggles. He moved quickly, with forethought and determination.
After several minutes his father’s digital simulacrum appeared beside him.
“The generator is recharged,” Father said with an almost Shakespearean flourish. Then, while gazing into the lights dancing beneath Heros’s fingers, he added more softly and in a good imitation of human empathy, “Son, have you thought this through?”
“I know, Dad. If I let them know where I am, they might bomb us. Vaporize this whole damn mountain. It’s a risk, but they’re all I have left.” He glanced back toward Lisa in her cocoon. “And the only chance she has.”
“You’re sending them everything,” said his mother, her image having appeared on the opposite side. Her translucent, ghostly hand moved to cover Heros’s own.
He was finished now.
“Mother. Father. I’ve given everything. All the stored knowledge of the fortress. Every crystal-trapped memory you sent with me out of our dying universe. All I know about the stasis field, the Dead Zone, the construction of Krustallos. Everything.”
“They are not ready!” his parents said in stentorian unison.
“But they will be,” Heros answered. “That’s the beauty of it. They have the time. It’s the one thing I haven’t given them. Time to be themselves. There. Look. They’re receiving the transmission.
“Now, both of you. I want you to put me in stasis. Then go into caretaker mode. It may be a long time before I see you again.”
“Just as we cannot stop you, neither can we harm you,” said his mother.
“But, mother, you must obey me.” Cupping his blackened hand near the hologram’s cheek, he looked into eyes reflecting the past of another universe. The ancient, unaging woman smiled. “You won’t be harming me, mother. For me, the time from now to the ending of the stars will pass in an instant. No long dreams, no separation, no loneliness. Time will simply stop and one day, hopefully, start again…”
Heros didn’t say another word until the glowing cone of the stasis generator centered into place above him. The table on which he lay rose to meet it.
“Mother. Father. Believe me; I know what will happen. A thousand, or ten thousand, or a million years from now, those humans will master the black death and they’ll come for us. They won’t forget, and they’ll bring the cure with them. You’ll have to be watching for them. Do you promise?”
“As long as there is sun above or heat below, we will watch,” promised his mother.
“Well, they’ll come for Lisa anyway,” Heros said as he watched his father pass a ghostly hand over a bank of relays. The table began a low, bone deep oscillation. “She gave her life to stop me. They won’t forget her; they’re like that.”
“If they fail to come, we shall wake you,” said Heros’s father.
“No. No!” Heros insisted, growing more agitated as the tip of the stasis generator began to blaze with light. “You mustn’t. I carry this thing, this plague! And they must use all the knowledge I have given them to erase it from me, to restore my full flesh and body. I can’t; I can’t face her again like this.”
“I understand,” said his mother.
“Maybe… Maybe they won’t take the chance with me at first. They’ll only come for Lisa. If they do, that’s OK.
My time will come. When I wake, there may only be a ghost of her here to greet me, like the two of you. Maybe mankind will have left this world by then, been gone for a hundred million years. Maybe. But still, a recording, a dream of her standing there, waiting for me. They can do that much, can’t they?”
“We’ll tell them so,” said his father.
“She’ll stand there and I’ll see her again and she’ll say a few words, something simple. ‘You did it, Heros Meum, my hero. You let us live!’ They can do that much, can’t they?”
Heros had often imagined his love doing the things she would never do, and, once more, he returned to the oldest comforts of imagination. He held in his minds eye an image of perfect acceptance and adoration. It was his balm and his hope as the stasis beam fell and the tick of the eternal clock ceased… for now.