They were walking south along the highway when Mako coughed.
At first Stacker assumed that she'd choked on an insect. It was summer in Alaska;mosquitoes swirled thick as mist beneath a sky the hue of dirty ice. He'd packed coils to use when they made camp, but there was little they could do when walking except stay out of the shade.
Mako coughed again.
Stacker turned and saw her silhouette hunched against cracked asphalt, chest rattling, shoulders curled. His heart plummeted like a Jaeger dropped into the ocean as Mako clamped her mittened hands across her mouth.
“How long?” he asked. “Dono kurai?”
He tried to make his voice gentle but Mako looked scared anyway. She swallowed and wiped her mouth upon her sweater's fraying sleeve.
“Kyō.”, she said. Today.
Stacker crouched down beside her. The butt of the rifle slung over his shoulder bounced on the tarmac.
“Do you feel sick?”
She looked puzzled. Stacker rested the heel of his hand on his forehead and struggled for the right words. “Anata ga byōki ni kanjite imasu ka?”
She shook her head. “Water,” she said. “Please.”
Stacker reached back and pulled a canteen from the side pocket of his rucksack. He searched for smears of blood around her mouth as she drank, but saw none.
If she wasn't immune, he thought, she'd have been dead already. Then he wondered if he truly believed that, or if it was just another lie he had to tell himself in order to survive.
Mako finished drinking and passed him the canteen. Stacker slipped the bottle back into his rucksack as Mako glanced up at him and smiled. “Ikimasho!”
Stacker nodded. “Let's go,” he agreed.
The tundra spread out around them; a patchwork of wiry,tough grass, beds of moss and pools of dark water between clumps of evergreen pines. There had been few signs of habitation in Alaska before the plague. One year later, the only man-made structure in sight was the frayed ribbon of asphalt that had brought them from Anchorage.
Two hundred thousand people lived in Anchorage before Knifehead brought the virus that ended the Kaiju War as swiftly as it had begun. Mako and Stacker were the only two survivors.
Stacker had calculated that two survivors from a city of two hundred thousand meant maybe three and a half thousand people in the entire United States. Ten thousand in the Americas. Eighty thousand on Earth.
The Anchorage Shatterdome became a mausoleum in a week. They'd spent the freezing northern spring inside the base, confining light and power to a few rooms so the corpses wouldn't rot. Once the thaw came Stacker had taken Mako and all the supplies they could carry and headed south; convinced that their best hope of survival was to search for somewhere a safe distance from the coast where they might find a remnant population. The Jeep he'd commandeered got bogged down less than a hundred miles from Anchorage. Since then, they'd walked.
Stacker felt responsible for having failed to prevent the plague, and even more responsible for having survived it.
Mako never questioned her own survival. She accepted the pandemic the way she had accepted Onibaba's rampage, and she followed Stacker without question. Stacker sometimes wondered if if had been he who had saved her, or whether it had been the other way around. It didn't matter. Mako needed Stacker to survive, and Stacker needed Mako.
They followed the road south, through a pine forest. Trees closed in around them, covering the road with a soft brown mat of decaying needles. Grass already fringed the asphalt. Stacker kept a sharp eye out for bears, but all they saw was a moose that lumbered across the tarmac several hundred meters away, grass hanging from its antlers.
“Mite yo!” Mako said as they crested a rise. She pointed to a white metal sign in the distance.
Stacker, who had reached instinctively for his rifle when he heard Mako shout, shaded his eyes with his hand. The sign was overgrown by saplings and studded with bullet holes, white enamel peeling to reveal silvered metal. He could make out a distance, but not a destination. Five miles.
Mako tugged at his sleeve. “Dokoikuno?” She repeated the question in lisping English. “Where are we going?”
“Don't know,” said Stacker, “but it's not far.”
They reached the town by three.
Mako stopped twice to cough before they made the city limits. Stacker watched her shoulders shake and thought about influenza, about bronchitis and viral pneumonia. The kaiju cough wasn't the only killing pathogen. Mako was taller then she had been when they set out, but she was far too thin. The town might have powdered milk, orange juice, fuel for their small stove. There might be antibiotics.
They stopped by the remains of a welcome sign that lay face-down in long grass. Stacker lowered his backpack to the ground.
“Koko de matsu.” he said to Mako. “Wait here.”
Mako looked worried. “Nanishiteruno?” She clambered over to Stacker's pack and sat on the padded back panel, her shoulders against the sign's frame.
He picked up the rifle. “Not long.”
“What are you doing?”
“I'm going to have a look. Watashi wa mite iru tsumoridesu.”
Mako nodded tightly. Stacker wondered if she understood what they might find. She'd seen too much already.
“Stay here,” he said. “If you hear anything, run into the woods and hide. Don't come out until you see me. Understand?” He repeated himself in Japanese as he reached into his parka and pulled out his combat pistol. “Take this.”
Mako took the gun. The grip, small for a gun, looked enormous in her hands. With Stacker watching, she checked the safety and laid the gun on the pack with its barrel pointing off into the woods. “Yes, sensei.” She glanced into the town, then back to Stacker. “May I train?”
“If you like. But take it easy. Sukoshi yasumu, yeah?”
Stacker shouldered his rifle and set off down the main street. He heard Mako cough before he had walked a dozen paces.
The town was large by Alaskan standards, which meant it was little more than a village by English ones. Streets branched off to either side as Stacker headed into the commercial district. He bypassed a couple of abandoned RVs-one with four flat tires, the other bent around a telegraph pole. A black and white house-cat crossed the road in front of him, and a pair of deer grazing beside the forecourt of an abandoned petrol station leaped away as soon as he approached. The virus hadn't spread to animals, but the local wildlife had not yet lost its fear of man.
The first building Stacker found was a general store, set up like a log cabin with a sloping roof and broken tubes of neon nailed above the door. The door was open and he entered without much hope, sure that wintering animals would have ruined most of the provisions. He saw at a glance that most of the shelves were empty. Circles of mold stained the lino beneath piles of empty plastic wrappers. The air smelled rank. A dangling sign over the first aisle advertised bottled water, but all of it was gone save for one punctured plastic container. He wasn't too worried about the water-they had a pump with a ceramic filter-but he'd hoped to find more food.
The counter held a stack of curling flyers that advertised RV parks, campgrounds, and a garage. There was no mention of a clinic or pharmacy. He found a tiny shelf of basic medicines, the floor sticky with spilled shampoo, and salvaged a single pack of aspirin.
Some aisles had more to offer than others. Stacker searched for food that might have lasted; beans, bags of rice, snack cakes or processed cheese. He found nothing. At last he picked up a stick to poke beneath the shelves and was rewarded by the sound of a jar rolling towards him. The glass was smooth and cold to the touch, the contents transparent amber. Honey.
Stacker smiled.He'd hoped for something with more vitamins and minerals, but Mako would enjoy the sweetness.
He tucked the honey in his coat. As he turned to leave he heard a sound from deeper in the shop. Stacker unslung his rifle.”Hello?”
He heard a soft breath echo from the shelves.
Two survivors out of two hundred thousand in Anchorage meant there could be as few as eight people alive in the whole of Alaska. The odds were slim, but that didn't stop him hoping. “Hello?”
A can rolled across the floor.
Round black eyes blinked up at him. The bear cub paused, snuffling beneath the shelves for food.
He heard another breath, right behind him.
Stacker swung the rifle round as the grizzly coughed and reared up on her hind legs. Standing, her ears touched the rafters. Three-inch claws slashed through the air as Stacker brought the rifle to bear.
The grizzly's claws lodged in the stock of the rifle an instant before he fired. The bullet, a solid .35 that would have stopped the bear in its tracks had it connected, buried itself in the logs at the rear of the store. The grizzly ripped the rifle from his hands, but the gun blocked the blow that would have killed him had it landed.
Stacker felt the strap pull at his shoulders for a moment before it snapped and the weapon was gone.
The bear dropped to all fours and charged. Hemmed in by the shelves, Stacker had nowhere to go. The grizzly's shoulders took up all the space between the aisles. He had no idea how it had even managed to get in the store. He backed away. The cub snarled and swatted at him. Stacker saw the gleam of sun on glass to his right.
He dived for the window.
The grizzly caught his parka with one claw as he jumped, and the rain of glass as he crashed through the pane finished the job. Down spilled into the air as Stacker hit the ground and rolled.
The ground was mud over a solid layer of permafrost. He landed hard enough to knock the breath from under his ribs, but not hard enough to cause any permanent damage. He rose, gasping and shaking pieces of glass from his coat.
He expected the bear to stop, but the animal crashed straight through the window after him. Its eyes were tiny black dots in the vast dark oval of its face. It smelt of death.
Stacker turned and ran.
He had no real plan, only a vague awareness that his rifle was still in the store, if he could get back inside.
The grizzly caught him before he was half way to the cabin, slamming into his back with the weight of an express train. He felt incredible pressure, though her fangs did not penetrate his skin. The bear ripped into his heavy clothing. Her teeth and claws tore cloth like paper. He could not raise his head from the ground.
Stacker had expected to die at the claws of a kaiju, not the teeth of an animal barely twice his size.
He covered his head with one hand and groped in the grass for a stick.
“Kare kara nigeru!”
The shout and the gunshot came simultaneously.
The grizzly snarled. The pressure on Stacker's back eased. He reaised his head cautiously and saw Mako standing by the store, her legs spread wide to brace herself. She fired another gunshot in the air.
“Mori ni moderu!” she shouted, and fired again.
A flock of starlings burst noisily from the trees as the bear cub loped from the store, bleating. The grizzly swung its heavy head from Stacker to Mako and back again, and for a moment Stacker thought the bear would charge. Then the cub bolted for the shelter of the woods, bounding away from them. The grizzly followed.
Mako dropped the pistol in the grass and ran towards Stacker. She did not stop when she reached him but flung herself at him, arms wide. “Sensei,” she said, through muffled sobs.
Stacker stroked her hair. “I'm okay,” he told her, and realized with surprise that it was true. “I'm okay.”
Mako sniffed. She wrapped her arms around Stacker's shoulders, fingertips not quite meeting over his back, then jerked her hands away with surprise. “You're bleeding.”
Stacker smelt sweetness. “I'm fine,” he told her, groping for the Japanese equivalent. “Daijobu. It's only honey.”
Mako tasted it, and giggled. She licked the honey from her fingers while Stacker struggled to stand. His ribs ached. He felt like he'd just spent ten hours in a Jaeger cockpit.
“You stopped coughing,” he said. “When did you stop?”
Mako looked puzzled. “Watashi wa oboeteinai.”
“We talked about practicing your English.”
“I don't know.” she said slowly. “My throat feels better. Did you find anything?”
Stacker shook his head. “Only the honey. But there's plenty of houses we haven't searched. If I can find a safe one, we'll stop for the night.” He knew they were safe from kaiju this far inland. Whether they would be safe from the wildlife was another matter entirely.
Stacker sighed, already regretting the spoiled honey. He hadn't meant for this to happen. Mako deserved honey; she deserved a future with people in it, with electricity and radio and safe housing, healthcare and education. A future without kaiju, without plague. Stacker couldn't provide any of that; not any more. But he couldn't help thinking that he could have saved the honey.
Mako stared at him, frowning. “Anata no kao ni sore o nandesuka.” she said, her voice worried.
Stacker raised his hand to his nose. Bright blood stained his fingertips. Somewhere to the west, along the coast that was too far away to see, Stacker heard a kaiju roar.
“Don't worry,” he said. “It's nothing.”
He grasped Mako's hand, and led her on.