When she is old enough that she’s allowed to use her mother’s tablet, Emma watches old news footage of the first battle between a gargantuan alien monster and Mondo, the monster that protects the Earth.
The newscaster says the prevailing theory is that the first alien monster that landed on Earth had—perhaps inadvertently—transmitted some sort of signal on a frequency that only Mondo could recognize. Whatever the explanation, when the alien plummeted into downtown Boston—tentacles ripping the restaurant from atop the Prudential Center, corrosive grease turning the Charles River into roiling toxic sludge—Mondo woke deep under Mount Kilimanjaro and made immediately for it. Despite his enormous girth, he moved quickly, ignoring panicked attacks from Tanzanian and Kenyan fighter jets, and splashed into the Indian Ocean. Speedy as he swam, a large swath of eastern Massachusetts had been destroyed by the alien monster before Mondo emerged from Boston Harbor and the battle began.
Emma watches Mondo rear up onto his hind legs and stomp down hard on the alien—Octo-Beast, the video calls it, even though it has fifteen tentacles—pulping two of its limbs. Her jaw drops when Mondo spears Octo-Beast in the dead center of its round, rippling torso with his double-horn and rips the alien open to its neck. Her mother catches her at that moment, gasping in awe at the torrents of black blood that spill out and rush down the city streets. Worried about nightmares, her mother takes away the tablet and bans Emma from using it for two weeks. Emma waits out the ban and then, the moment her mother isn’t looking, queues up video of the next alien to attack, the one made of electricity and rock. Mondo wins that battle too.
Mondo has a scientific name, which Emma learns as soon as she is able to read, at five years old. But everyone calls him Mondo.
Emma has a poster of him on her bedroom wall and she sometimes sits cross-legged on the carpet and stares up at it the way other girls look at pictures of pop stars or TV actors. Sometimes she stands and gets close to it, tracing her finger along Mondo’s double-horned snout, up the gentle slope of his green-and-orange forehead, bumping along the short sharp spikes on his back, each one a little hill. Swooping down his tail like a ski slope. Her birthday and Mondo’s birthday are the same: July thirteenth.
Maybe not his birthday, exactly, but the day he woke up, the day he clawed his way out of Mount Kilimanjaro. And not the same year either. Mondo had been awake for forty-three years when Emma was born. But still. There’s a connection.
People were scared of Mondo at first, but that was because they didn’t understand him, didn’t realize that even though he was a giant monster, he was a good one who fought the bad ones. Sometimes people don’t understand Emma either. They think she doesn’t care about them just because she can’t show it the same way they do, just because she doesn’t always notice when they’re sad or happy or scared. But she cares about people like her mom and dad and the other kids at school, even if they don’t realize it unless she tells them with words. Mondo acts and people know how he feels. She appreciates that.
Every year in elementary school, Emma’s science fair projects are about Mondo. “How much does Mondo eat?” “How long was Mondo asleep for?” “Why does Mondo protect humanity?” Eventually, her teachers tell her to branch out. Eventually, she studies these things in college. Eventually, she teaches them to others while she gets her doctorate. Eventually, she will learn all the answers.
“Clearly Ultrabēlua shares an ancient connection with humanity, potentially on an epigenetic level,” she argues during her dissertation defense. “There are the hieroglyphics in the Kilimanjaro cavern, of course, that show representations of Ultrabēlua alongside human figures, along with the various images of stylized animals, celestial bodies, and the various signs and symbols researchers have yet to decipher. This suggests it once existed amongst humans or perhaps its ancestors—”
A professor on the panel holds up his hand. “You’re getting a bit speculative, Ms. Pezzulo.”
“Hardly,” Emma says. “To me, it seems impossible that Mon—that Ultrabēlua is the first, or only of its kind. Isn’t that the big question? What came before? And what comes next?”
While Emma has been alive, only one alien has attacked—The Fiery Stilt, a painfully on-the-nose name for a stickbug-like monster that belched flame. But Mondo still steadily patrols the Earth. If no more attacks were imminent, wouldn’t he burrow back belowground and slumber? So Emma isn’t surprised when another attack comes, but she is in an inconvenient place, back home hiking with her mother, her favorite thing to do. When her phone buzzes with calls and texts and alerts, they’re halfway up Mt. Gilligan, near the house in the Adirondacks where Emma grew up. Emma has to brace herself on an old-growth pine with one hand while she scrolls messages with the other.
Khartoum is the battleground this time, and while the fighting will be long over by the time Emma arrives, she and the rest of the world’s Ultrabēlua researchers all race there anyway, eager to be first on the scene, first to examine the aftermath.
Things are different this time. This time there are two monstrous corpses.
Everything about Mondo was enormous and powerful, the newscasters intone, but sometimes that is not enough. Mondo defeated the snake-eel-millipede monster that news networks cannot decide on a name for—they vacillate between Slithering Doom and Mondo’s Doom—but the strain was too great.
Mondo’s heart, the newscasters say, was giant and mighty, but it turns out there are limits to everything.
At first, Emma imagines she will not receive clearance to examine Mondo’s body, that she will be unable to confirm his death firsthand, that the wound left by his passing will never scab over. She remembers when her grandmother passed away, how her mother spent days alternating between loud sobbing and quiet blank stares. Emma told her mother that she loved her grandmother, that she was sad she was gone. Her mother cried at that too, and gripped her tightly, and Emma didn’t know what that meant, if she had done something good or bad. When she sees the other researchers react like her mother, she knows they are sad, and she waits to see how they react. After a few days, she still hurts, and thinks they must too. But they are all scientists, ever curious. They pick at scabs.
Dozens converge on the cadaver in Khartoum, staking out their fiefdoms. Who will study the brain? Who will investigate the double horn? The lungs, claws, fur, eyes, digestive tract? How will they even pierce his hide to begin the dissection? Mondo’s Doom ripped open a few holes, but they are not always in the most advantageous spots for investigation.
A team from São Paulo spelunks into a cavern gashed out of Mondo’s side, and they hear something that resonates slow and irregular and loud. A heartbeat only noticeable deep inside the beast.
That makes sense. If you’re a flea standing on top of a dormant volcano, how could you know what roils underneath?
The scientists retreat and try to think of a way to save Mondo. They come up with nothing, and so they content themselves observing his body while they conceive of more outlandish and unworkable ideas. It appears to Emma as if they’re simply waiting for Mondo to die. Emma will not do this. She plunges deeper into her studies, seeking the origin of the monster that protects the Earth. Of course she travels to Kilimanjaro. Of course she procures all the necessary papers and permits for entry, for exploration deep within the ruined remnants of the mountain where Mondo slept.
Headlamp strapped around her forehead, Emma hikes into the abyss below the mountain. Deeper and deeper, guided by ropes and chalk marks until she reaches the nadir of the pit, the womb that birthed the world’s champion. She sees other marks scratched into the walls. Shaky, enigmatic hieroglyphics. She’s seen them before, but only in photographs. In person, close up, they’re different. It’s like they speak in a special language just for her. They aren’t about feelings, but action. Others examined these and saw symbolism, subtlety, but that isn’t the way Emma perceives things. These are instructions. Something clicks and they aren’t incomprehensible anymore.
Before flying back to Khartoum, she goes to see her parents, tells them she loves them and hugs them both because she knows they will appreciate and remember that.
It takes every string she has to pull, but Emma arranges to speak to the board of the UN Commission on Ultrabēlua and Related Creatures. Talking to people individually is difficult, but in a group, when she can think of it as speaking to herself, as defending a theory, it is easier. They let her explain her plan all the way through before anyone speaks. Throughout, the expressions on their faces and their body language are as overwhelming and unreadable as ever, but they don’t interrupt, and she takes this as a good sign.
When she finishes, it’s quiet for a moment, and then someone says, “That sounds like magic.” Grumbles of agreement follow.
“What about Mondo isn’t magic?” she asks. She quotes Clarke’s Third Law, and a few scientists grudgingly admit that whatever science is behind Mondo and the aliens might not be magic, but is close to indistinguishable.
“Look at everything Mondo has done for us,” she says. “Shouldn’t we at least try? If I fail, what’s the harm?”
These are scientists and bureaucrats. Appeals to emotion are not supposed to work. But didn’t they all begin studying Mondo because he is mysterious? Because they wanted to know something that no one else knows, to brush against the ineffable?
Not everyone agrees to support Emma, but enough people—the right people—do.
Normally, to inspect Mondo, Emma would wear a sterile plastic full-body suit to prevent him from catching something. As if some bacteria could sicken this massive thing. As if one woman could poison an ocean, gnaw down a forest.
Mondo could do that. But he wouldn’t, because he loves the Earth. Everyone knows that, and no one needs to ask him to be sure.
Naked, smeared with dirt and clay and sand from the cavern below the ruins of Kilimanjaro, Emma steps into the monster. It is almost unbearably hot, and sweat prickles her skin immediately. She pushes inward, following the distant and hesitant beat of Mondo’s heart. Memories of hiking with her mother come to her, of her mother holding her hand to help her up a steep rock as a little girl, of her holding her mother’s to do the same as an adult. Her own heart tightens and flutters.
She worms through tight spaces between muscles the size of icebergs, tendons like skyscraper girders. Hotter and louder and deeper, the clay on Emma’s body softening and turning sticky. The vessels widen until before her is the heart, slowly contracting and expanding. Blood rushes through it, susurrating like water in the pipes of an old house. It sounds so strong that for a second Emma thinks everyone must be wrong—Mondo’s heart is as powerful as ever, working just the way it should. But if she closes her eyes and listens hard enough, isn’t it slowing down incrementally? It’s the sort of change that you can’t notice if you’re searching for it, but that you feel deep in your guts.
Tentatively, she reaches out and places her palm on the thick heart muscle. Warmth and energy pulse through her. With a deep breath, she does what she saw tiny stick people do in the hieroglyphics. She leans forward into Mondo’s heart, letting herself fall into it, wondering if the melting sensation is real or all in her mind.
Mondo journeys around the world endlessly while waiting for a new alien threat to arrive. The scientists who study her try to explain to the public what brought the monster back to life. This is why Mondo spends so much time in the Adirondacks now, they say. Most people believe them, but some won’t. Eventually, the scientists retreat back to their studies. It doesn’t matter who believes them. They know what Emma did, what she’s become.
People do believe the scientists, however, when they say that another attack must be imminent, because when Mondo senses that they have tapered off, she will find a place to sleep. Not yet, though. Because Mondo is the monster that protects the Earth. Mondo loves the planet and the people on it. And everybody knows this.
Timothy Mudie is a speculative fiction writer and an editor of all sorts of genres. His fiction has appeared in various magazines, anthologies, and podcasts, including Lightspeed, Escape Pod, Wastelands: The New Apocalypse, and Interzone. He lives outside of Boston with his wife and son.