Matters of Time
He was between the graves when they found him. The soft morning light and a gentle expression lent him the appearance of sleep.
His left hand brushed a soft hill where an ancient scabbard had fused with the earth. A red banner fluttered from its hilt. The original had decayed many years ago, but he always tied on a new cloth whenever the last became too ragged. This was the final replacement.
His right hand was nearly buried in the flowers carpeting a second rise. Pale blossoms covered a pale tomb. A ring—delicate, green and silver—was clasped loosely in his palm. It was still as perfect as the day it was made, but the jewel had grown cool against his skin.
Hundreds of smaller graves spiraled out from his figure like a constellation—all his old friends. He had been sharing their company and watching the stars, then at last his eyes were finished seeing.
Simon was dead when they found him.
The surface held its breath in disbelief. It couldn't be him. He would never die, couldn't die: death was an inconvenience visited on lesser men. In their minds, it would be easier to snuff out the sun, or to stop the planet from turning. Hushed voices claimed rumor, conspiracy, hoax... There must be some mistake. The body could be anyone, just a vagrant with a passing resemblance.
An urgent call was sent to space, and Earth stood still and waited.
It was late that night when the Chouginga Dai-Gurren arrived carrying the only man who would know for certain, but the great ship brought no relief from the question. Reporters clamored around the capitol only to be met with closed doors and ominous silence. Passing hours weighed heavily on Kamina City, and the sense of foreboding grew with each moment that came and left in emptiness. Citizens stopped hoping for good news.
At dawn Simon's identity and death were officially confirmed. There was to be a public funeral and a memorial, three days of international mourning.
Some had argued for sending the body to space, or for cremation on a magnificent pyre fit for a demigod, but the Captain said burial was best for a digger, and they laid him in the earth where they found him. His heavy stone marker was grand in its simplicity, and Simon was at rest, cradled between those he loved most.
Kamina City was older; the people had grown older too.
There were no more do-or-die pilots. Daring ganman raids, epic space battles to decide the fate of humanity: these were things written in history books. Heady, wild days were past, and pioneer spirit dulled to mature contentment. The citizens of Earth were a happy people, but their smiles had lost the glow of a civilization in its childhood.
But tonight broadcasting stations raided their archives for every dust-caked recording of Simon they could find. It was a marathon of ancient film from the first days Above Ground, and households and public gathering places everywhere were glued to their screens; all that was silent and somber came alive. They gasped as explosions from the Anti-Spiral war bathed street corners and packed clubs in digital green light. Crowds marveled at the gentle voice of their first and only princess, then sobbed as one through the tragedy of Nia's funeral-wedding. They cheered themselves sore over reels of the Second Threat, when an older Simon emerged from the wilderness to lead Earth to another glorious victory. There was even grainy, badly recorded footage from the battle for Teppelin, an era almost beyond memory. Video after video lit up the darkness, and voices around the world raised in farewell to the man who was the star of them all.
The celebration gained momentum, and those who were there would never forget the image of that dark-haired, confident youth: real as life and twice as big. His Spiral gaze cut through the screen and across time to shine down on upturned faces of all shapes, and he recognized every one.
They knew then that Simon was there with them, he had always been with them, and this evening they would be there for him, too. Something passed through the masses, stirred them like a breath of wind from some mysterious fifth direction unknown to the compass.. They were briefly joined to a glory outside of their lifetime. Heroes were real, and theirs had not fallen after all: Simon had finally ascended to his rightful place. He had triumphed again.
Fireworks exploded. Glasses chimed together across the city. Anything was possible, and everyone was young again for one more night.
An empty bottle clattered to the floor. Viral didn't bother to pick it up.
He'd never felt older than he did tonight. The beastman slumped over a bedside table and stared dully at the wall. After all this time among humans, he had never gotten into the custom of personal decoration. His captain's quarters were still as blank and lifeless as an infirmary. He wondered if this reflected some defect in personality, or if it was just something else that marked him as less than human.
The only items breaking the monotony were a few shelved books and a simple cloth doll leaning against them. The toy had a faded blue body and yarn hair tied on by childish hands. Presumably, it was meant to be him. Anne had given it to him as a birthday gift, but since not even Viral knew what day he'd been created, the little girl had picked one for him. A birthday for his birthday. Kittan's sweet niece ... how many generations had it been since she died?
Viral turned away. This wasn't the kind of distraction he wanted now. Neither was a drink, if he was honest with himself. The alcohol had been a foolish choice: it made his troubles too easy to forget, and too easy to fall into the habit of forgetting. He knew better, of course. But to shut up the memories, if only for a little while... it would almost be worth it. The beastman grimaced. Viral could see another version of himself forming a sick friendship with the bottle, and the vision repulsed him. He kicked the rest under the table and out of sight.
He'd given the eulogy today. It was the last thing Viral wanted. He hadn't wanted to do anything except sit for days.
As soon as he arrived on planet he'd been ushered to a sterile white room—much like his own room—where bureaucrats were huddled on the tile and fogging the air with nervous breath. Without warning or pretense, they parted around a cold gurney, and there lay the man himself. All the fidgety energy that had been following Viral since the summon flooded away when he finally saw the body, and his legs were suddenly untrustworthy. Simon's discarded husk knocked everything out of him. He was so tired. He just couldn't, not now, not like this.
A squat man had steered him aside, mumbling words like "great tragedy" and "duty." His forked red beard looked familiar: Minister of the Interior? They came and went so quickly.
"The people need you more now than ever," he'd said. "More now than ever. Commander Simon was a legend, a hero. That this should happen ... unthinkable. They need a familiar face to reassure them." The man never stopped wringing his plump hands. "We all grew up with you, Captain; you're an icon and the only one who's been around as long as he has ... was. From the old days," he chuckled nervously, actually chuckled. This wasn't real. "You being there will do more good than anything we could say."
The bearded offical kept pleading, but Viral already knew that—whatever his personal wishes—he would accept. He'd say the right words, go through the proper motions, attend all the ceremonies. The citizens would be comforted; they would look to him for confidence and strength, and he wouldn't disappoint. He'd do his duty. He always did.
Viral recalled very little of what followed. He felt like a sleepwalker, but sleepwalkers are dead weight, and he was supposed to be the anchor in a sea of confusion. Good, reliable Viral: the old-fashioned beastman with the trademark face. The important thing was to look correct and hope no one guessed the truth. Mourners and cameras had moved around him in slow-motion blocks of color. There was music, and someone was crying. He was aware of himself shaking hands, holding flowers; drinks were thrust into his arms, and when the lights and voices were gone, here he was.
Viral rubbed his neck wearily. The last few days had been a nonstop rush of funeral arrangements and public relations, and for the first time the beastman found himself alone with nothing to do. There weren't any speeches left. He paced the room, tried to shake the sense of disbelief that clouded every thought and action.
Then he saw the roll of fabric laying by the door where he'd forgotten it. It was a rustic shape that looked out of place against the sleek, modern furnishings—long and irregular, like a spiral staff wrapped in an old cloak.
Realization finally struck like a blow to the chest. Simon was never coming back.
The pane he'd been trapped behind shattered, and everything he'd expected to feel at the funeral flooded out at last to his relief and frustration. The beastman knotted a fist in his hair. He ... that bastard couldn't even bother to say goodbye before leaving his oldest friend behind. Perhaps they'd begun as enemies, but Viral thought that after all they'd been through together, he at least deserved an explanation.
No final words, no nothing. Gone forever. If Simon had any earthy possessions no one knew. There had been no letters, no abandoned rooms or keepsakes. He left the surface as he arrived, carrying only the clothes on his back. Even Boota had disappeared. Perhaps he'd been able to follow Simon where Viral couldn't, or maybe the famous molepig simply died before the master.
Viral thought he'd long-since understood the consequences of immortality, but suddenly eternity seemed so much longer; time stretched out before him, crushingly vast and lonely. He bent over the cloak and staff. One man was gone, and was the world any different for it? Everything felt changed. Something irreplaceable had been lost, yet the sun rose and sank as it always did, and every galaxy turned in its place.
Gently, he pulled away shroud. A few glittering specks fell to the floor, and it took him a moment to place them as grains of sand—they must have been clinging to the folds when it was still worn by Simon. Then the lingering scent floated up from the cloth. Viral's throat constricted. He carefully pulled the cloak around his body and leaned against the wall.
When he closed his eyes, the smell wrapped around him like a living memory. He didn't fight it this time.
There were moments that had belonged only to them. The old Gurren-Dan still kept in touch though their lives had drifted apart, but as the years stretched into decades, friends died around them until only two were left.
The lone survivors continued meeting for old-times' sake, and eventually the habit became a tradition unto itself: a desert retreat shared between man and beastman. Simon rarely came into the city any more—even anonymously—but he couldn't hide from Viral, who welcomed an excuse to venture away from the buildings and offices that were demanding more of his time as the government grew.
They came together as equals, and these were some of Viral's fondest memories. Usually.
That day he met Simon at the base of a low mesa. Pink and gold ribbons circled the smooth stone walls that buffered wind and shaded all but the mid-day sun. The Second Threat had recently been resolved, and it should have been a time of high spirits. Just like always Simon was the first to arrive, and just like always he hailed the beastman with his usual good-natured taunts, but for the first time Viral had nothing to say. He shrugged off the other man's greeting with an irritable mutter and an expression so sour it sent Boota scurrying for cover.
Simon was visibly taken aback but too tactful to press further. Boota was more vocal on the subject; the molepig chattered irritably before disappearing in the billows of Simon's robe. There was no telling where the damned animal went. Viral deeply considered making an exception to his policy against eating sentient beings.
He hadn't meant anything by the coarse reply. It just slipped out. The past few weeks had been like living on a wire, and it took effort to suppress the constant strain lest it rise above the surface and color his behavior. Viral was almost forgetting how normal felt. He'd been certain today was what he needed; if he could just get away for a while, clear his mind, it would stop.
The truth was a disappointment. Viral willed himself to relax and enjoy the many small tasks involved in raising camp, but his efforts came off forced and unnatural, and neither companion spoke much through an increasingly tense afternoon.
The beastman resolved to clear the air while they were gathering firewood. Simon was plucking at a pine stump a few paces away, but Viral could see him watching patiently from the corner of his eye. Did he think Viral missed those sidelong glances? Or was it just part of the plan to wear him down? The beastman frowned; he knew Simon was waiting for him to break the silence first. It was a familiar and annoying game they played whenever Viral wanted to talk about something he didn't want to talk about.
He opened his mouth, then snapped it shut for the hundredth time. The words wouldn't order themselves properly; each phrase he invented sounded more stupid than the last. Viral ran a clawed hand through his hair. This was all so stupid. He reached down to grab a gnarled branch, but it was lodged firmly the dusty soil: not a branch, a dried root. Viral yanked harder, but the root resisted a second and third time.
"Dammit!" His cleaver was in his hand before he knew it, and he struck the wood, hacking furiously until it finally wrenched free. He'd gone too far. There was nothing left of the root but shards of kindling. Viral hissed in irritation, and he could feel Simon's eyes on his back as he picked up the shattered pieces. When he turned around the man was still staring. Viral chewed the inside of his cheek; he may as well blurt something out before he came to his senses.
"Do you remember the Anti-Spiral hallucinations?"
Simon blinked. "Yeah..." He clearly hadn't expected such an old subject to be raised, but it was best to keep the beastman talking once the door was open. "There were two different versions of Aniki in mine. That's how I knew it wasn't real."
Viral said nothing. He fidgeted with the wood and felt like a damn child.
Simon tried again, "It looked like each person had their own illusion."
"You saw the others'?"
"Parts, yes." The man drew his sentence out like bait.
Viral knew this type of skittish behavior drove his friend crazy—Simon had teased him about how silly it looked for a notoriously grumpy beastman to have such a bashful streak—but it was a hard habit to break. Business was one thing, but the weaker emotions weren't proper or easy to discuss, no matter how many times Simon insisted otherwise.
"Hmm." Viral picked at the broken splinters and gathered his words. His face was carefully blank. "There was a beastwoman in mine."
Simon's brows shot up; he most definitely hadn't expected this. A girl! He continued the casual pretense, "I seem to remember that. She had light hair, didn't she?"
"Yes." The beastman looked down. "About her ... she's dead."
"What?" Simon dropped his smile. Viral hurried to fill the pit of stunned silence that yawned between them.
"It's not a big deal."
"What! Viral, she was a real person?"
"No. Yes. I didn't know her that well, just checked around every few years to see how she was." Viral flushed. "About two weeks ago I heard she had died."
"All these years ... I know beastmen age differently than humans, but..." Simon raised a hand to cover his mouth, dropped it, raised it again. For the first time in a long while, he had no idea how to react. Any other day it would have amused Viral to see the famous leader so confounded, but now he only felt the edge of panic. "She was real, all this time. I'm so sorry."
"It's nothing." I take it back. Say something corny, tell a joke, don't look at me like that.
"Why didn't you tell me? Why didn't you go to her?"
"It's not that simple."
"What was her name? I thought you wanted-"
The quiet seemed to amplify the shout and sent it echoing off the rocks. Each withdrew to a nervous standstill. The lines of Simon's face were all confusion and sympathy, but seeing the man reenact his own shock made Viral sick. It was like finding her grave a second time.
He took a steadying breath. "Her name was Tsuuma, and there was nothing between us."
"She was in your dream. I thought it made you happy, that you would want that life."
"No! It was impossible, that was the point. Did it ever occur to you, Simon, that the dream-version of her was the lie?" Viral thought he sounded calm enough, but he could feel by the cold prickling in his face that what little color he had was draining to gray. "That happy, peaceful picture was all faked by the Anti-Spiral, and I gave her a happy, fake life to match. All lies. She never... she didn't love me..." He couldn't stop the acid from creeping into his voice. "I just liked the idea."
"Why can't you understand? It's nothing."
compared to you losing Nia. What is the figment of some woman compared to your true wife? What am I beside a man like you? Nothing. This pain is a bad joke.
The beastman felt something warm trickle between his fingers. He'd clenched his fists around the broken wood, and the splinters pierced through skin. He hadn't even felt the punctures until he saw them. Viral uncurled his hand. The red slashes across his palm healed within seconds, as if nothing had happened, and he found himself unexpectedly furious.
"It's already getting dark, and we don't have enough fucking wood. I shouldn't have said anything!"
He threw down the bloody splinters and stomped away, defying the other man to follow. Viral crashed through the branches of a fallen tree where he would be safe from Simon's eyes. He snapped off dead limbs, eager to focus on work instead of unpleasant discussion. The wood pile grew swiftly, but the beastman had to stop when he was overcome by a wave of dizziness. The encounter must have shaken him more than he realized.
Viral took a drink of water and looked across the barren landscape. Why did they always have to come here? Simon could have chosen a place with more trees. A river might be nice for a change; he'd always been fond of swimming, but this region was dry as bone. It was as desolate as the little frontier village where she was buried. Viral grit his teeth. Everything turned into Tsuuma.
Everything. Lately he couldn't even wash his clothes, inspect navigation gear, or—apparently—gather firewood without her ghost standing over his shoulder. Clinging like this was morbid and immature, and he told himself to just get over it.
The beastman considered with twinge of embarrassment that snapping at Simon had also been rather immature. Viral peered through the branches. He could just make out a cloaked figure in the gathering dark. The human was tossing another stick on his own pile; he hadn't wandered far from where Viral left him.
No, he shouldn't have yelled. Simon had aways been a good friend and didn't deserve such childish treatment, and Viral was certainly too old to be throwing tantrums. He resolved to apologize when they finished setting up camp, though if he apologized Simon would want to talk about it again, an idea that made his stomach knot.
Viral had always struggled to be a model soldier, and it disturbed him to be upset by such a simple matter, that anything could cause him to act so rashly, so unbalanced. He hadn't been lying when he told Simon he'd barely known the female, yet the past few weeks he'd been a wreck.
He understood that Tsuuma's appearance had been a random illusion within an illusion, that nothing would ever come of his or any beastman's jumbled DNA. It was no more than a ruse to distract him from battle. Viral knew all these things, and it had been his mistake to invest a deeper importance in the vision.
That moment's fantasy had bought him a lifetime's worth of nightmares. They came every night now: frustrating, terrible dreams full of regret, and hadn't he enjoyed them?
It was true: as much as he wanted to be free, the lie had been too beautiful to let go.
Her graceful figure was always retreating, and he couldn't resist the pursuit. Sometimes the tips of his claws might brush her hem or the ends of her long, long hair, but nothing more. Viral never understood why she didn't stay, and he would call out as she disappeared into the distance, Wait! When can I see you again?
And she always answered, in a voice that evoked desire and disgust, Never.
But that was another lie. She would appear again on some other night, and again she would mock him, but they at least they would be together. It was a perverse, guilty pleasure he couldn't reveal to anyone, not even Simon, but it was close enough to harmless.
The small part of him that found comfort in these encounters was obliterated when she died. The last shred of hope died with her. Only then had he realized how far he'd let himself be deluded, and what had been occasional nightmares now intruded into wakinglife. The bitter irony was not lost on Viral that only after the dreams had soured did they come every time he closed his eyes.
The cruelest nights featured a perfect, impossible child. She had the tiniest hands, and so light! He always marveled at how light she was.
Memusu was a miracle; she was as curious and full of life as she was small. Playing tag in the tall grass, learning to tie her shoes, reading her picture books, falling asleep in his lap: everything she did was a wonder. He would be happy to do nothing more than watch her for the rest of his eternity.
Then their tranquil sky would turn dark and shatter. The worst kinds of danger would pour down to engulf them, and her eyes—the color of his own—would grow huge with terror as the blackness ripped her from his grasp.
He couldn't save his child. No, not really mine. Bonds would hold him fast, enemies would block his path, each time it was different and each time he fought giving everything he had, but it was never, never enough. He was doomed to that most unforgivable of failures.
All night Viral pushed on in the useless struggle. She called for help that never arrived, but he wouldn't allow himself to give up. Even when he could no longer see or hear her, and it was far too late, he forced himself past all endurance until his mind and body were about to break—then wake in a cold sweat, tangled in his sheets. He would lay in the dark waiting for his heart to slow and know that it was only a matter of time before it happened again. It might be days, months, a year, but he always went back to hell.
As painful as the nightmares were, it was the sweet dreams he resented more. At least consciousness was an escape from the worst fictions his brain spat out, but being snatched away from a blissful afternoon with his family was no relief. It was a different kind of torment, one that made reality the punishment and waking up the worst part of his day, leaving him broken over a life he would never have. Viral hated it and wanted it. It was going to drive him mad.
A distant cry startled the beastman out of his reverie. He'd let himself be driven to distraction. Again. The sun was nearly submerged between the hills, and when he squinted in the direction of the voice he saw the dying light had transformed the mesa's warm colors to a hard red. The silhouette of a man waving his arms appeared like a cut-out against the stone. Simon ... he shouldn't have brought Simon into this. How ridiculous he must seem to a man whose loss was anything but imaginary.
Viral picked up the logs and staggered back toward camp. The largest branches dragged behind him, tracing erratic rock gardens in the sand. There would be more than enough fuel to last until morning, though heat never lingered over the wastelands and a chill—unimpeded by naked earth—had already descended quickly with the darkness.
He pulled himself over the scrubby hill where the fire pit was waiting. Simon acknowledged him with a nod then turned away to finish tying down canvas. For a moment Viral thought they were pretending the confrontation never happened, and he dropped the branches, feeling oddly dismayed. He startled when Simon spoke without turning around.
"I won't bother you about it, and I know you didn't ask for advice," he began, "but whatever happened ... please don't turn it against yourself. Or anyone. It'll tear you down, make you less than yourself." His voice lowered, "Trust me, I've made that mistake before."
The beastman wondered what he meant. Simon had sacrificed more than anyone, but he coped gracefully, without lashing out. That calm nobility had made an impression on Viral after the Anti-Spiral war, when Nia had faded out of existence and Simon relinquished his leadership.
At that moment, it was almost as if the human wasn't human at all, but some higher life form. Viral understood why Earth had united behind this man who could walk away from anything untarnished. His determination was a greater force than nature; it was not possible for him to give in or stop trusting. Guile and deceit were alien to him. He would never abandon his allies, even if, in their weakness, the favor wasn't returned. Simon asked little and promised everything.
Viral could only manage a hoarse, "Okay."
The lame reply seemed to satisfy Simon, and he busied himself with a bedroll, throwing a quick smile over his shoulder to let the beastman know he wasn't angry. The man worked with efficient, economical movements. His body was still sturdy, his hair was still thick and vigorously messy—even in rags he radiated authority—but there was a weariness in his eyes that betrayed great age, something in his last glance that suggested an apology.
And Viral, while relieved they were still on speaking terms, felt hopelessly inadequate. Instead of dealing with his own problems, he'd burdened his friend with them. Which was why he couldn't understand how had Simon been the one to offer a silent apology, or was it pity?
The idea of pity chafed, even though it reminded the beastman he was the one who was supposed to be saying sorry. He had been planning it only a few minutes ago, but now it stuck in his throat, as if Simon's courtesy had somehow been an admission of blame. Viral gnashed his teeth, unsure if he was humbled or offended, or—impossibly—both.
There were many times he was convinced his failures were beyond forgiveness, and he was below deserving it; and just as many times when he was above owing anyone a pardon, and those who disagreed could all go to hell.
That belligerence was a thorn in his side, but it was too much a part of him to weed out. He'd picked it up as a very young beastman, back when humans were a plague to be exterminated. Viral had been so ambitious, so eager to please. Destruction had been his job, his reason for existing, and he was good at it.
He was proud to see the admiration in the faces of his peers and underlings, and to have his commanders think he was someone worthwhile. There was no telling how many humans he killed or how many villages he crushed, but his skill was sure to please the King, and that's all that really mattered. By their deaths, Viral was determined to prove his right to live. His existence had no room for doubt: humans were inferior beings, his masters could always be trusted, and all was well.
Then it turned out he'd been wrong, terribly wrong. Gurren Lagann turned the world upside down and broke it apart.
But beneath his bruised pride was the insistence that he'd only been a soldier following orders. Guilt was something he had yet to learn.
Viral hadn't expected the ambush. At the time, he was still getting accustomed to the outcast lifestyle. It was rare for someone to approach within attacking range without his knowledge, but the skinny young man—just a boy, truly—had appeared without warning by the edge of the watering hole. His cracking voice declared that he would recognize the beastman and Enkidu anywhere, he had been watching them for days, and he would never forget the one who had murdered his family. He was like Simon, and he would destroy his enemies. A scrap-metal blade had suddenly materialized in his fist, and he struck blindly while adrenaline ran hot. Viral didn't try to stop him.
The child's savagery had been surprising, but rage soon turned to horror when he realized the wounds were healing as quickly as he could make them. Even revenge was out of his reach, and the boy had collapsed in bitter tears at the feet of his intended victim. Viral watched.
It was a chance encounter, but there must have been hundreds like him, making it painfully clear that while the war had ended, the damage wasn't undone. Those were the bloodiest years. Viral understood and accepted their hate; it came with the slow acceptance that humans were his equal and therefore had every right to loathe what he'd done.
What made him furious were the growing insinuations that the new equality was a sham, because it was the beastmen who were inferior. Such was the claim a rabble of illiterate cave-dwellers made against the beastmen, a race who had for centuries operated under a complex military system with highly-developed factories, hospitals, agriculture, mechanical and bio-technology. The audacity was shocking. Viral brushed off abuse and outright lies, but this accusation that he was somehow less than a human made him angry in a way that cut deeper.
Humans had proven themselves to be remarkably resourceful, but Viral always believed it was because freedom was a cause more worth fighting for; it was a matter of will, in which case they would find him more than a match. If only he tried harder, if he just got faster or stronger or found a better technique, then he could overcome any adversary. Viral felt firmly in control of his own fate, yet to his frustration, no improvement made a difference against Simon. In fact, every time he was convinced the next battle would be his victory, it seemed his defeat only came easier.
What Genome had said before his death, what the more "civilized" humans whispered in taverns, and what others jeered openly all boiled down to the same thing. If it was true, all his efforts were useless: Viral would lose forever because of what he was.
That had hurt very much. Failure had once been an opportunity to learn, but after Teppelin there was only a helplessness like he'd never known.
Viral sank to his knees in front of the fire pit. His shaking hands made clumsy work of the starter twigs, scattering them across the ground; perhaps he was colder than he felt. Maybe that accounted for the astringent sensation in his chest.
For years he'd wandered, sense of self shattered, but hadn't he picked himself up? Hadn't he done well? Just because he had limitations didn't mean he couldn't make the best of what he was given, and it didn't mean he had to sacrifice dignity. He refused to let past humiliations keep him down. Once again Viral labored under the twin burden of shame and arrogance, but he—a beastman—proved again and again that he was still valuable and respected enough to hold a position of importance.
He had more experience, more skill, all recognized by more medals than any of his human crew. He was immortal. But as much as he told himself this, they had something far greater that he never would. They were heirs to the Spiral legacy, a gift granted by the simple virtue of being born.
That elusive power meant everything. Viral couldn't deny its truth, and when the humans went home to their families at night, he envied them.
The wanting burned against his senseless pride, filling him with guilt and disgrace when—in those darkest, most secret hours—he would give anything to be one of them, or at least an animal too stupid to care.
And Viral was still too stubborn to tell Simon, "I admire you," and he couldn't say "Please help me." And she was still dead.
He gave up the fire. There was something wrong with his vision. Everything blurred together, so he felt rather than saw the strong arm wrap around his shoulders.
"...Simon." Viral opened his eyes to the empty apartment.
"Who will I confess to this time?" He sat silently for a long while, then wiped a sleeve across his face.
The rectangle of sky outside his window had acquired a grayish tint, but that was hardly an indication of the time; Kamina City was never dark. The beastman couldn't tell if he'd fallen asleep or not, but it didn't matter. There would be no more days in the hills, no more arguments or plans.
It didn't seem possible. Even now he could imagine the man as clearly as if they were in the same room. How Simon had looked back with his easy smile—a smile no longer carefree, but no less warm. Infectious.
With a deep sadness Viral realized this was the only way he would see Simon again: conjured up by memory. Soon he would be the only living person who had known the man at all, the only one who had heard him speak or shaken his hand. He would be left with these ghosts while others would be joining the real version—wherever he was—and it wasn't fair. It wasn't fair for Simon to leave him alone.
Viral tilted his head back with a sigh, relaxing against the wall. There was no point in trying to be indignant; his heart just wasn't in it.
He knew the man didn't belong here. This parting was inevitable, and it was terribly selfish to wish otherwise. Simon was no Genome. He had been more like Nia, whose love for the beautiful and good things in the world had convinced her to linger in spite of the pain of living. Likewise, her husband hadn't stayed for glory, but out of a tireless shepherd's concern for his people. His was an act of kindness, and the old man didn't care who knew.
Simon must have decided his work was done; he'd walked the Earth for generations and had finally called it quits. It was amazing that he'd kept it up for so long considering all the loved ones waiting for him, his real family: Nia, Yoko, Kittan and all his numerous kin, the Adai children Darry and Gimmy, even that loud, idiotic so-called "brother" of his. Viral couldn't begrudge his friend the rest and happiness he more than deserved. Who would trade all that for the company of one uptight beastman?
Fair enough. Still, Viral had gotten used to the idea of Simon being around. They were each other's one constant. People drifted in and out, lifestyles and landscapes were always changing, but Simon had been his point of reference.
The beastman didn't know what would become of himself now. Viral supposed he could go back to work as usual in a few days, but the idea seemed absurd. There was something disrespectful about continuing with routine as if nothing had happened.
He looked around him in the dim pre-morning light and saw how different his life had become. The stuffy, orderly quarters; folded bedding and stacked papers, but no weapon at his hip; suffocating high-rises ... so many things he never would have predicted. Was it just the natural change that came with age, or had he lost himself? It was a disturbing thought that somehow, without ever realizing, he'd let himself become a government pet: a tame beastman to exhibit before other Spirals as evidence of their political progress.
Viral shuddered and buried the doubt. He wouldn't believe these decades had been a waste. Protecting the planet and all the life it sheltered had always been his first goal. His role had just evolved to the different needs of Earth.
Change, he decided—if it was the right kind of change—wasn't bad. The problem was he wasn't sure if it was right anymore. The last few days forced him to realize how much the surface had altered in his absence. Viral had been piloting the Chouginga for so long he'd lost touch with the very planet he was sworn to serve. Now with Simon gone, the beastman had to wonder if space was still his proper post as a sentinel of Earth.
He wondered what the old man might think if he were here now. It wasn't that difficult to imagine; Simon had often said that his seven years of bureaucracy had been enough to last a lifetime. No doubt this was one of the reasons he spent so much time in relative secrecy among the little people—only appearing to save the day when a larger crisis arose, like some storybook hero—then fading back into the landscape. It almost seemed like cheating to Viral, though it was true the driller wasn't suited to an office any more than he now belonged with the living.
Simon knew the roll of captain and diplomat was far more than a desk job, but that never stopped him from taking the beastman down a notch. At one of their last gatherings he'd jokingly waved his staff toward the distant mountains. "How do you like my corner office?" he said, arching an eyebrow. "I bet mine's bigger than yours."
The corner of Viral's mouth slid up when he recalled how next he'd grabbed Simon's ankle and sent him tumbling into the lake—a lake the beastman had finally dragged him to. The human had a point, though. Viral pictured Simon wandering across the great unknown, and it didn't seem much different from his own years as a guerrilla. It might be nice to live like that again, but without the bitterness.
Viral reached across the floor to the abandoned staff. He ran his claws over the smooth, worn surface then carefully curled his fingers around the pole. It felt good in his hands. It reminded him of how the trees had moved in the wind—the sound and the smell—and there was a wave of longing for dappled light and real soil below.
Life had been hard at times, but much simpler. If he wanted to eat, he hunted. Whatever he needed, he found or made. The world was distilled to a clarity he rarely felt any more.
He leaned on the staff and slowly climbed to his feet. Viral stretched his legs, then pulled the cloak tighter around him. A flutter of excitement was replacing the emptiness in his chest. He found himself wondering what was out there on the rest of the surface. Even after so much progress, there must be some secret places left.
Commanding the Chouginga Dai-Gurren had been an honor and an adventure. It had also been a handful, but there were plenty of capable officers who would love to take on a captain's responsibilities—though they would never have a chance as long as he was around. They'd soon find titles looked more glorious to those who didn't see the accompanying paperwork.
Viral had changed before, perhaps another change was in order. Maybe it was time. He thought his lieutenant-commander might enjoy being the first new full captain in living memory. He thought about letting his hair grow back out and wearing whatever the hell he wanted for a change. He thought about free, wide spaces and days spent chasing the horizon.
Most of all, he remembered laying in a night shadow of that long-ago mesa, dreading sleep. Simon's steady breathing from across the coals had been a little comfort, but he was still afraid of what was coming, or afraid of what might not. When sleep took him, he dreamed of Musumu. She was torn from him as always, and he was determined as ever to save her, but this time was different.
He struggled ... and won. Viral had been overcome with disbelief, but as he finally pressed her fragile, warm body to his chest, he knew that—even though his arms held no one and he had defeated nothing—it would be one of the greatest moments of his life. Viral cradled his phantom daughter, then he told her goodbye for the second and final time.
He had learned to let go; he would do it again.
The bright fingers of dawn were unmistakable now. Viral blinked, gold-on-gold, as the young rays trickled through the gloom and into his window. It was a beautiful new morning, and the staff felt right in his hands.