Grendela climbed the volcano in the early morning light of her thirteenth birthday. Thirteen was a magic age. At thirteen she would become a fully-fledged kaiju. Grendela: Destroyer of Cities. It was a great honor in her family. They had a nice little village all picked out for her to smash into the ground this morning. There would be a ceremony while the villagers fled for their lives. Her grandmother had probably made a cake. It was probably cooling right now, waiting to be frosted.
She wasn’t going to destroy any villages today, though. Let them eat her cake without her; she didn’t care. Her whole family were kaiju, dating back to the old days of the legendary monsters. But Grendela didn’t want to be just one more giant monster. She wanted to be an environmental scientist.
She’d tried to explain it to her family for weeks. “You can’t be a scientist. Look at you! You’re a walking science experiment,” her mother said.
Her father wasn’t any more helpful. “You’re a lava monster. You’ll just have to learn how to deal with it. Learn to be the best lava monster you can be.”
“When I was your age, I couldn’t wait to collapse my first roof. That’s the problem with kids these days. They all want to knock over a few landmarks here and there but none of them want to put in the work on the smaller villages. Don’t want to work their way up anymore,” her grandfather said. But Grandfather Kaiju said a lot of things that didn’t seem to have anything to do with Grendela.
None of them understood her.
She dragged the equipment for her experiment behind her in a little red wagon the size of a human minivan. It bounced and clanged as she plodded up the mountainside, watching for loose dirt or particularly sharp boulders underfoot. Pine branches brushed her dark hide and pulled at the canvas bag in her wagon. She would show them.
Grendela was descended from a long line of lava monsters. It was in her blood. And in her feet. She could sense the magma trapped underground as she walked. Great pools and rivers of it. She looked for something with every step. She needed the perfect pool of lava to set up her experiment. Not too big and not under too much pressure. She followed a line of magma step by step up the mountain until she found it.
Her little red wagon squeaked as she dropped the handle. It was a simple experiment: a turbine sitting atop an aluminum tripod, a jug of water, and a little light board she’d built out of spare parts. The dirt was soft where she wanted to setup and the tripod settled at an odd angle once she got it situated, but it didn’t take long. It took her longer to get her cellphone setup far enough back so that she could fit her entire kaiju body in the shot. She didn’t get a lot of signal on the mountain, but hopefully it would be enough to live-stream her video.
The light of the camera gleamed off her teeth as she pulled her lips back in her best kaiju grin.
“Hi internet. You don’t know me, yet, but you will soon. My name is Grendela and I want to show you how I, a kaiju, can give power to human cities,” she said to the camera. “The only thing that keeps scientists from using volcanoes to power your cities is that it’s so hard for humans to find safe, unpressurized pockets of magma. I can do it, though. And this is how I prove that I can do it.”
She swept her arm out to show off her equipment.
“This is a very simple setup. I’m going to use my kaiju claws to drill down into the Earth. There’s a nice little pocket of magma beneath me. I can sense it. Once I hit the magma, I’ll pour water down into the hole. The water will turn to steam. The steam will rise to the surface and spin the blades on the turbine, powering the light board. When this light turns on, you’ll know that I’ve succeeded.”
She flexed her brown claws, each a foot long, to show her audience. And then she punched them into the soft earth, spinning them down, down, down. The hide on her hand soaked in the Earth’s heat as gladly as she drilled deeper.
She stopped as the magma caught the tips of her claws. Snatching them back out of the hole, she blew on the ends to put the tiny flames out. She turned back to the camera and gave another, smaller grin.
“We’ve struck magma.”
Next came the water. She struggled to get her arms wrapped around the jug she’d hauled up in her wagon. An awkward grip was all she could manage and she almost dropped it as she tipped the water out over the hole, releasing a steady trickle of water.
She stepped back to wait, her whole body tense muscle and scales. The tips of her claws tasted like dirt and burning as she sucked at them. The steam should rise to the surface any minute now. Any minute and then the turbines would start to spin. It shouldn’t take long.
She gave the camera another snouty grin, fully aware that the internet was watching her. Waiting with her. Judging her.
In her mind, she ticked off the number of things that could have gone wrong. Maybe she needed more water. Maybe there was too much room in the magma cavern and the steam wasn’t going to come out. Maybe the magma or the dirt was just absorbing it.
“It should happen any moment.” She tapped her claws against her snout. “The steam has a long way to travel, remember.”
She could sense the magma just waiting for her, down there. There was no way she’d made a mistake about that. The whole day would be wasted if she had to go back and find more water to try again. She was a magma-sensing monster, not a diving rod.
She tapped her foot in irritation and the turbine jiggled on its soft base. The blades gave a half-hearted turn and then gave up before making even a full revolution. The light board didn’t even flicker.
She was just about to pack up her wagon again when a puff of steam appeared at the top of the hole. Just a tiny little cloud, barely more than a whisper’s breath. The little white puff didn’t even reach her turbine’s blades before it dissipated in the wind.
It wasn’t enough. She’d have to come back with more water. She needed a fire hose up here given the weak little puff her huge jug of water produced. She had no idea how she could manage to drag enough water up here for her experiment. The sun was almost to the top of the sky already. It would be dark before she could do it.
She was trying to find a way to explain all of this to the internet when her feet felt something new. The ground beneath her shook. The magma beneath churned. And steam roared to the surface.
This time it was no wispy cloud but a geyser of steam. It blasted the turbine, spinning the metal blades and condensing back into water, only to drip back into the steam cloud and come back as fresh power. Grendela let out a whoop that shook birds from the trees down the mountain as the bulbs on her light board came on. Every single one of them. Her little turbine produced more power than she ever could have anticipated.
“You see that, internet! Do you see those beautiful little light bulbs? That’s the power a kaiju like me could unlock for your cities. All of the power and more is waiting beneath the Earth just waiting to be tapped. And I’m coming to release it for you.”
But something was wrong. She could feel it down to her magma-sensing bones. She’d felt it for minutes now. She was hoping that it would go away on its own, but it wasn’t. It was getting worse. She was a lava monster. She wasn’t wrong about these things.
The magma was rising to the surface.
Grendela scraped earth back over the hole with her claws, trying to seal it up. She looked around for particularly big rocks she could add to hold it all in place. But the magma beneath the surface was melting them, gobbling them up, as it climbed to the surface. It was too hot and under too much pressure.
The magma understood only two things: too little space and a hole that led out. The acrid smell of burning earth filled her snout. She had no choice but to back off. Her hide could take heat but she was pretty sure it couldn’t withstand lava, yet. She backed into her cellphone and heard the sickening crunch of a screen cracking. That would put an end to her glorious live broadcast.
She watched as magma bubbled out of the ground. Great globs of it splattered out of the hole. Her turbine melted as the lava wrapped itself around the metal legs. The light board was next, collapsing like it was made of nothing more than butter.
The ground crackled and cracked open. Just little cracks at first, but they grew and spread. Grendela struggled to keep her balance as the ground became unstable beneath her. The Earth roared. It was no throaty rumble, but the thunderous sound of the Earth breaking from deep within. Each crack and crevice spat lava as the force of the magma ripped the crust apart.
“No, no, no, no,” Grendela said as the cracks spread. “No, please stop.”
She covered her ears against the noise, wrapping her claws around her head. The lava fountains sprouted every few feet, moving toward the village at the base of the mountain.
“Not the village,” she said to the fissure she’d created. But it ignored her or couldn’t hear her over the din.
Lava and the smell of scorched earth spread until it mixed with the local vegetation and became the smell and the smoke of trees burning. It stung Grendela’s eyes.
She didn’t know what to do. The village was in the path of both fire and lava. Human villages seemed so very flammable.
She turned and ran down the hillside, clawed hands splayed out behind her. This time she didn’t watch for such minor things as tree branches. Sap clung to her legs as she pushed her way through the forest.
The village was an old one. The buildings were made of the gray mountain stone. People formed lines between the water tower and the homes closest to the spreading fire. They used fire hoses, garden hoses, and passed buckets from hand to hand, dousing shingled roofs and wooden fences. They could see the black smoke rising from the trees, but hadn’t yet realized the full danger. They couldn’t see the lava bearing down on them.
Grendela knocked over a withered old pine as she burst out of the trees. Black smoke billowed around her as the wind pushed the fire closer to the village. The first villagers to notice her dropped their buckets and screamed. One-by-one the rest looked up. Their eyes widened in fear. They dropped what they were holding. The last remaining patches of dry ground turned to mud as hoses were left forgotten. A couple of them pulled out cell phones to snap pictures of her.
“What are you all still doing here? You can’t be here,” she roared. It came out sounding much harsher than she meant.
The small people beneath her flailed. Cars started all over the village. Some of them threw things at her. Buckets and garden tools bounced and crashed against the tough hide of her shins.
“Hey, cut it out,” she said. “I’m trying to help you.”
Grendela lumbered into the village. Each footstep shook items loose from the human houses. Wind chimes crashed. Windows shattered. Precious and fragile things were crushed by her careless steps.
A little girl running across her path slipped in the mud and landed hard on her butt. Her powder blue shirt was soaked through. Mud packed her hair to her shoulders. Grendela reached one clawed hand down to help her up, and the child wailed. Grendela jumped back. Her elbow caught the water tower and knocked it over. Water washed out gardens and swept the little girl even further from Grendela as it raced across the open space of the village. The girl’s mother scooped her up and they got into a car and sped away, fishtailing in the mud.
“Sorry,” Grendela called after them as they went. The last few people fled and she was left standing alone among the empty homes. Flames leapt from rooftop to rooftop as if avoiding the lava that hadn’t yet reached the village floor. The smoke rose up into her face and coated the insides of her nostrils. She was never going to get rid of that smell.
She tried to put out the fire on the nearest roof. She swatted at the flames with her hands, but the structural supports of the home were weakened by fire and the whole house collapsed. The fire latched onto anything inside that it could consume. Carpets, beams, mementos. The fire didn’t care.
There were no hoses left. No rains coming. The sky, what Grendela could see of it through the smoke, was clear and blue. There was nothing she could do. She wandered back into the forest, but couldn’t bring herself to look away. From the trees, she watched the buildings burn to the ground, wiping her eyes with sooty hands.
Lava joined the flames slowly, seeping into the village. It crackled and steamed as the mud tried to cool it, but the lava marched on. Within hours it had covered or consumed everything it touched, taking back the mountain stones that had been buildings only that morning.
There was a huge “CONGRATULATIONS” banner hanging over the doorway when she got home. Its red letters mocked her. She wiped her feet on the mat, leaving it black with soot. More soot smeared the brass door handle as she let herself in, trying to wipe her face clean with her other arm.
The living room was crowded with giant monsters. A newscaster’s voice narrated the destruction of a local village by a new kaiju. Grendela’s name wasn’t mentioned, but she knew her picture with black smoke and flames behind her would be on every station tonight.
Her mother wrapped blue tentacles around Grendela, twining them all the way down to the claws she trapped at Grendela’s sides.
“Oh darling, are you okay? We saw your live broadcast and then watched the rest on the news. What an amazing way to destroy your first village! And we thought this environmental science stuff wouldn’t amount to anything,” her mother said.
“Um, mom that’s not really what I was-” Grendela started.
But her father was slapping her on the back with his own claws. “It’s in the blood,” he said. “You’ll make a fine lava monster.”
Grendela sighed, waiting for her mother to disengage her tentacles so that she could wipe the tears from her eyes.
“I broke my phone,” she said. They all seemed to ignore the way her voice cracked.
“Well that’s one of the hazards of being a kaiju!” her father said. “We’ll get you a new one with a better case. You’ve earned it. Now come in and have some cake.”
The cake was a tall chocolate cake, ringed with plastic green trees. A strawberry filling oozed out of the top. Some of it was plopped on top of several haystack cookie huts scattered around the base. Grendela turned away.
“I really should clean up,” she said.
“Nonsense! We’re all kaiju here,” her father said. “We’re used to a little dirt and smoke.”
He took her by the shoulders and guided her forward as the rest of the family stood to congratulate her. Tentacles and claws were everywhere.
From the dining room, her grandmother beckoned to her with one withered, old tentacle, drawing her off from the crowd while the cake was being handed around.
Grendela slumped her shoulders and followed. At least the other room was quieter.
“I thought it was a nice experiment, dear,” she said, handing Grendela a neatly wrapped package. “I think you have a lot to offer science, even if they don’t know it yet.”
The paper was decorated with microscopes and atomic symbols. Grandela pulled gently at a ribbon the color of lava, careful not to destroy the present within.
As she pulled the paper off with her claws, she laughed and hugged her grandmother, crushing her poor shoulders as tears stung her eyes. Inside was a thick textbook. The cover showed a color image of one of her ancestors with hot magma pouring from a volcano behind him. Kaiju and the Environment: How Giant Monsters Change Our Planet.
“There’s a chapter in there about volcanoes and geothermal power,” her grandmother said as Grendela flipped through the pages.
“Thank you. I can’t wait to read it.”
Her grandmother understood.
First appeared at The Confabulator Cafe, July 2016