For a heartbeat Hermann mistook the sand for snow. He stood atop a massive white dune and bowed his head as a sharp breeze tugged at his long dark hair, teasing the edges of a silky blue ribbon woven through a loose braid. Hermann looked down at his unfamiliar hands and felt a vivid rush of joy. He was holding a kite as big as himself. The small, gold-brown hands clutching either side of the bird-shaped kite tightened as an even stronger gust of tropical air struck, playing with the nylon edges of the kite’s wide wings. At first Hermann thought the bird was a peacock, but at the same time a voice inside him laughed at the idea. It’s more important than any silly peacock could ever be.
The kite’s elaborate feathers caught the sun and flashed a hundred shades of jade, turquoise, and vermillion. Its chest was the color of fire and its head reared back, the sharp beak open in a noiseless call. Hermann held the kite to his small chest protectively, its long tail flapped against his bare leg. He was wearing a sundress the same flawless white as the dune; his feet were bare, the hot sand burning with each step.
Careful to keep the kite’s tail and string from trailing on the ground, he started to run breathlessly over the sandbank. The boom and hiss of the ocean grew louder as he dug his heels into the sand and struggled on. The white dune seemed to grow as he climbed, the small hill becoming a steep mountain. The sky was the color of a healing bruise, an uncomfortable grey-yellow that deepened to purple as storm clouds gathered. Hermann held the kite closer, lungs burning as he continued relentlessly upwards. He would sometimes slide a few spaces backward and have to start again, running to gain the lost ground back.
His heart was beating quick as a hummingbird’s inside his chest, but he didn’t feel any of the usual skips or palpitations. No leg pain, no headache. Why would he? This wasn’t his body, this was him but it wasn’t him. It was a confusing tangle that made sense with the abstract certainty of dream-logic. The little girl that was Hermann Gottlieb and herself stopped and turned, brushing her hair away from her eyes, blinking against an abrasive spray of sand. In the far distance there was a voice shouting her name…their name.
Hermann ignored it. He was determined to fly his kite. The voices were carried away by the wind as it swelled fiercely. He could see that the top of the dune was tantalizingly close. It was just within reach, a perfect place to launch the rainbow bird-kite out over the sea. She had seen other birds out there. All the gulls and petrels glided effortlessly over the smooth green water, their wingtips brushing the glassy surface as they hunted fish. With a final burst of energy Hermann jumped straight over the very top of the dune, slipping and landing in a sitting position on the other side in a small avalanche of crumbling sand.
The smell hit him first. It wasn’t the comforting salt smell of the sea at all… it was an unnatural chemical odor, a rank and powerful acidic smell that scorched the inside of his nose and stung his eyes. Some distant part of Hermann knew that smell well from his years in a biology lab, but finding it here was all wrong. A little voice in his head gagged as it spoke to him.
The ocean is sick.
And it was; the smell was coming from the thick lapping waves and as he/they watched the tide line turned a noxious blue. The frothing water stained the white sand as it moved in and out, leaving gooey toxic residue everywhere it touched.
The smell was overpowering and Hermann took a few tentative steps towards the neon waterline, compelled by curiosity and hypnotized by the unnaturalness of the scene. Out on the open ocean a squall was boiling, building up and up until the world turned dark and ominous. It was then the first object pushed violently out of the sea; at first Hermann was sure it was a slick stone. Smoothed by the current and tossed on the beach by the waves but then, then it shuddered and the stone thrust out its head. It opened a beak-like mouth wide and vomited blue water and black blood over itself and the sand.
Hermann began to scream. The high-pitched hysterical scream of a little girl tore itself violently from his body and he jumped backwards, nearly stepping on a second turtle that had beached itself behind him. The wind stole his voice as he struggled to get away from the dying turtles, sobbing. He looked down the beach and was horrified to see more and more of them struggling towards land. They came in droves, first dozens then over a hundred crawled laboriously forward each saturated with the blue acid. The shimmering liquid ate away at shells and left blisters on speckled skin, turning everything it touched to lifeless slag. The turtles squealing voices rose above the howling storm and they sounded like human beings screaming, seizing in agony. In his panic to get away from them Hermann’s small fingers lost their rigid grip on the kite.
The wind snatched it from them and Hermann grappled mindlessly as the beautiful rainbow bird was swept into the torn sky.
No, their voices screamed together. Come back!
But it was already a colorful dot in the distance, the string snapped and the long tail fluttering violently as it was carried out of sight. The cries and moans of pain intensified, growing closer and Hermann froze in revulsion as the sea turtles inched towards him. Their ruined bodies scrapped over the tiny footprints his feet had left in the tainted sand. They cried out to him, begging for help he couldn’t give. Someone put their arms around his waist; someone with a warm voice was carrying them away…
Hermann burst awake choking on his own breath, ripping at the blankets covering him. He elbowed someone who was leaning over him and for a full minute he looked into a pair of green eyes he didn’t know. There were words being spoken but he didn’t understand them. He had known it was a dream even as it had been happening, but now that he was awake he couldn’t tell reality from the dream, struggling to remember his own name. It was all muffled under a suffocating weight, as though he was buried up to his neck and only when the stranger pushed him down forcefully was he able to recognize the world around him.
Newton. His-his other, was looking down at him in panting, pale fear.
“Herms. Hermann. Wake up.”
Hermann reached out, gripping onto Newton’s arm until he his nails dug into the vivid tattoos. The Hive was buzzing slightly but they felt...oddly distant. Usually when Hermann was this scared they were stumbling over one another in their rush to help. At the moment they felt only mildly interested and a steady grey static was obscuring their voices; a jammer in the Kaiju signal.
“Breathe, dude…inhale and exhale. Steady now…”
Newt pressed splayed fingers to Hermann’s sternum and he gagged, trying to take in oxygen and hold back vomit at the same time. The dream wasn’t dissipating at all. The sounds of the dying sea turtles and the rank stench of Kaiju rot stuck tight to Hermann’s brain. He choked on a soft sob and Newt wrapped gentle arms around his back, murmuring garbled words of comfort into his ear.
They weren’t home in the cottage but they weren’t sleeping on the makeshift cot in Newt’s office either. Hermann blinked, gritted his teeth and pushing himself into a sitting position with his good leg. He rested his lanky body against Newt’s reassuring bulk. Where had they fallen asleep?
The voice in his head-now his own voice, broke through the nightmare long enough to remind him of the last few hours. He moved his neck stiffly feeling the vertebra pop just above the base of his spine. Newt’s lab was adjacent to a smaller refrigerated warehouse that had been built near the Gloophouse. All fish and dead Kaiju samples were housed there and it was more convenient for the biologist then having a workspace in the hangar or one of the other New Pentecost research buildings. The storm had made it impossible for anyone to leave the Longhouse so they had bunked there for the night on the softest available surface. Hermann shook slightly; his head was pounding and his mouth felt stuffed with cotton.
Newt made sure Hermann could sit up without support before he scrambled to his feet. They were on the LOCCENT Bridge, only inches away from where Hercules Hansen had made first contact hours before. Tendo had dozed off close by. He was still upright, his body reclining backwards in an old technician’s chair with his arm draped across his chest. Hermann had no doubt he was going to wake up in a knotted mass of muscle cramps. Already, Hermann could feel a dull pain in his own lower back. He and Newton’s nest of ratty sofa cushions and discarded clothing was doing his bad hip no favors. They were all getting too old for such nonsense.
The dream of the turtles, the beach and the girl were deteriorating to fragments. Gottlieb had not experienced anything like it in a long time. The dream reminded him of his vivid experiences with Kotick’s memories…the sensation of existing in two bodies at once as he slept. Aside from he and Newton’s visits to Dream Theater and the odd conversation with Mother Hermann hadn’t traveled or spoken in dreams since New Pentecost’s inception. He decided it was best to forget this, he didn’t know any little girl like the one he had temporarily in habited. It was just a fluke, possibly a stress dream.
“Lucky Tendo leaves his coffee cups everywhere Herms…”
Newt’s voice jerked him away from his thoughts. Nearly tripping over an exposed power cord, Newton scampered back to Hermann, a lukewarm mug of water grasped in one hand.
“Here…I had to get it from the bathroom but-“
Newt stopped mid-sentence staring at Hermann with a confused expression, his good eyebrow furrowing. Hermann reached for the water but his partner made no effort to hand it to him. His eyes glazed over, his expression glassy and hard to read. It reminded Gottlieb fearfully of the freezes Newton was prone to just after his induced coma…. it was the same lost look. The twins had called it Newt’s “buffering” expression and Hermann could almost see the man’s brain struggling to process something--something that was just out of reach.
The blank look intensified and Newt muttered something unintelligible under his breath, his gaze never moving from Hermann’s face. Hermann lay tentative fingers against Newt’s cheek, his voice a fearful whisper.
“Newton, what is it?”
The white noise inside Hermann’s head rose and fell in cascading waves. He bit his lip to center himself and there was a copper tang of blood in the back of his throat. Newt shook himself, his pupils expanding and contracting in a flash of blue and, for an instant, Hermann was sure that Newt’s eyes were actually glowing. The cup tumbled from Newt’s limp fingers, landing with a clang and a splash of water on the tiled floor. Newt blinked; if the glow had been there it extinguished immediately. Hermann gripped either side of his partner’s head pulling him so he could look directly into his face.
The biologist shivered once and then offered a drooping half-smile. The confused look lingered a moment more before it disappeared.
“Newton, are you alright?”
“Yeah. Yeah dude I’m fine…I just had this weird brain-fart. Like double vision or something.”
Newt rubbed at the bridge of his knows under his glasses and slumped back.
“Been working too hard. Maybe I need to take a weekend. Or a week…”
The white noise pattern that had built up in Hermann’s brain tapered off and the Hive’s collective voices became clear again. They seemed calm and unaffected by whatever had happened and that was somewhat reassuring. If the blank stare had been linked to something hurting their Fast-thinker, the Kaiju would have noticed.
“Maybe we should make an appointment with a doctor in the infirmary.”
“I’m fine, Herms. It was just a little thought-hiccup. And I’m also a doctor, so you know; I can diagnose myself on it.”
Hermann managed a shaky smile and rolled his eyes.
“You aren’t that sort of doctor, Newton.”
“Yeah well. I’m a sort of doctor.”
A trail of spilled water glided over the uneven ground and soaked into the fabric of Newt’s jeans. He blinked at the tipped mug and reached down to grab it, turning it over in his fingers as if trying to understand why it was there in the first place.
“Ah shit, I dropped it. …I’ll get you a refill. Hang tight okay?”
Hermann gave a nod, watching Newt jog away to the bathroom for more water. The lapse had only lasted a few seconds, half a minute at most. Something about it and the dream sat heavy in Hermann’s stomach, adding to the coils of tension started by the late night visit to Mother. He pushed it all aside and started into his morning flex-limb routine. If it happened again he would talk to someone in the New Pen clinic…with or without Newt’s permission.
Hermann looked over the respirator mask in his hands in disgust. Rubbing at the corroding plastic filters on the front, he poked about on the inside with revolted fascination.
“When was the last time this was given a good cleaning?”
Vanessa laughed and pulled her own mask on without hesitation. She adjusted the straps to make sure it was snug before turning to help Hermann with his.
“Don’t be a fussbudget. You’ll be happy to have that thing when we get inside.”
“Ugh. The inside smells like…synthetic pine tree.”
She laughed again and shook her head, pulling a pair of worn leather work gloves from a peg on the wall. Dozens of similar pairs hung close by some with names written above them on small strips of flaking masking tape. Hermann picked the cleanest looking pair and followed his ex-wife’s example.
“Then you got one of the good ones. The filter packets are still new enough to have some kick to them…better fake pine than real gloop.”
Checking the Gloophouse for damage was a high priority job, and Hermann had agreed to accompany Vanessa on her rotation for multiple reasons. Foremost was the fact she was good company and a compassionate listener. Being around her was a balm on his soul and Hermann would have found any excuse to spend the day with her when things grew stressful. She handed him a pair of stained rubber boots and her eyes twinkled brightly above her respirator mask.
“You’re just lucky we’re not one of the people going INSIDE a tank today. If I had handed you the chest-waders it would have been best to just run the other direction.”
Hermann smiled back and leaned on her as he pulled on the knee-high wading boots. His shoes fit snugly inside them, and he adjusted his coveralls fastidiously as Vanessa wrapped the bottom of his cane with a plastic bag.
“There we go. That’s as waterproof as you’re going to get.”
Vanessa pulled a paper timecard and drove it into a small stamp near the door, tucking it away in a cubby also labeled with masking tape. She wasn’t a permanent Gloophouse worker, but was taking her turn with tank cleaning and basic upkeep. Hermann often felt guilty he was immune to the unpleasant jobs like this or sanitation. He was here today for purely selfish reasons.
From the supply room, he and Vanessa walked down a wooden hallway and through a metal door into the main Gloophouse building. Despite his respirator Hermann flinched immediately at the smell. Moisture clung to the lofty metal rafters, collecting into heavy water droplets that struck his shoulders and the top of his head.
The day was going to be hot. The storm had lasted a little over forty-eight hours, leaving a trail of debris and humidity in its wake. All around Hermann could see other workers checking the metal fermenting tanks for damage, going over every bit of essential piping with a fine-toothed comb. The Gloophouse proper had no real floor to speak of; it was comprised of forty massive cooling tanks, similar to equipment found in breweries, each the size and shape of a cement mixer turned on its side. Each tank was suspended in seawater pumped in and out from the ocean and thin wooden catwalks encircled their cramped sides, their thin metal legs disappearing into the murky water below.
Vanessa pulled a clipboard from its holder clipped to a catwalk guardrail and scanned it briefly.
“I guess tanks twenty two and twenty three got ruptured in the storm, but that’s not so bad. I think we’ve had worse than that from other storms…”
Hermann surveyed the damage report over Vanessa’s shoulder inquisitively.
“Balor once told me that even if we lost half the tanks we would still be able to produce enough food to keep the Hive on a reliable feeding schedule.”
Hermann kept behind Vanessa and paused when she did. She stopped at every tank and checked its gauges, writing down the pressure and amount of gloop maturing within. He admired her ability to concentrate entirely on the task at hand, her handwriting pristine and meticulous despite the work gloves. He was having a hard enough time keeping his eyes from watering. The smell of gloop, the fish gut/bio-nutrient mixture they fed to the Hive, was possibly the worst smell in existence. One of the doctors who had taken residence on New Pentecost had once told Hermann that if given the choice between doing an autopsy on a bloated corpse in a hot room and working a day in the Gloophouse without a respirator, he would gladly take the corpse. Vanessa seemed to read his mind and gave a muffled laugh under her mask.
“It’s worse today because of the tank rupture. You should have done the wise thing and stayed in the Longhouse.”
Hermann gazed over the edge of a catwalk uncertainly, resting his weight on the metal guardrail as he watched two workers clean out a tank feed with their bare hands.
“I needed a distraction today. I felt stir crazy in the hangar and I’m no good to the cleanup effort elsewhere. Not much of a help here either but at least I can pretend.”
There was a loud thunk sound as chunks of meat substitute and gelatinous discharge fell from the tank filter duct. The Gloophouse workers took a step back swearing under their masks as the smell hit. Hermann could feel it worming its way up into his sinuses and gagged. Vanessa seemed unfazed.
“What’s bothering you, sweetheart?”
She walked down the catwalk to the next tank and Hermann followed her, thankful to put some space between himself and this newest assault on his sense of smell.
“Where to begin? I suppose at the moment it’s the fact I can’t go to greet Herc Hansen. Not being allowed to- ugh...”
He stopped and choked back a dry heave when Vanessa opened up a small oval-shaped observation hatch at the top of the nearest gloop tank.
“A-allowed to meet him at the ship. I dislike sending others when there’s even a chance of something going wrong. It irks me…”
She nodded, squinting at something inside the tank before she let the hatch drop and moved on to the next set of pressure gauges.
“Yeah, but we do that for a reason, right? Going to meet the mail plane or the supply ship is one thing. Going to meet a strange ship full of strange people is another. You and Newt are still juicy targets. You aren’t exactly the most popular people in the world…there’s good reason to play it safe on this.”
“I dislike the idea of being protected as much as I dislike people being hurt on my behalf and I knew Newton feels the same. But...”
He sighed and rubbed his gloved hand absently over his abdomen. The dime-sized bullet scars he had on his back and just under his ribs were a constant reminder of why it was best to be constantly diligent.
“I understand why we stay away. But it makes me feel cowardly.”
“You aren’t a coward, Hermann. We just don’t know anything about the ship that brought Hansen here. Better safe than shot. You’re meeting with him later tonight, aren’t you?”
Hermann gave a brief nod.
“We have a guard detail on the ship. The Hawkhead crew has some modest repair work to do before they can leave safely. We’ve offered help and supplies but the guard is mostly there to make sure the only person to stay here is Ranger Hansen.”
“Did you know him well? During the war? You mentioned him in letters and I know you were stationed with him before Hong Kong.”
Hermann stared down at the water again, frowning as he tried to recall his encounters with the Australian ranger.
“Mmm. I had a passing familiarity with him. In the early years when he piloted with his brother I only saw him at a distance, but later on he was like Pentecost’s shadow. Ghosting him from place to place and speaking on his behalf at times.”
Hugging the clipboard to her chest, Vanessa leaned on the railing next to Hermann and listened attentively. He continued, his voice muffled beneath his respirator.
“Thinking about it now, I do believe he was aware that the Marshall was ill. Mako believes that as well. I don’t think Pentecost confided that secret to many people but Hansen would have understood. If word had spread that the Marshall was unable to continue in the program, well…perhaps we wouldn’t have had our final stand.”
Condensation dripped down onto Vanessa’s forehead and she wiped it off irritably. The sun was beating down through plastic skylights in the corrugated metal ceiling. Here and there some roof panels were missing, swept away by the night’s brutal winds. Hermann stood again, moving from a catwalk onto a roomier platform covered with dozens of oversized metal barrels.
“I heard Hansen was offered a position as Marshall and he turned it down. A shame. Perhaps the Fortress domes would have gone in a better direction with him at the helm.”
“Perhaps. But I don’t blame him for taking retirement, Hermann, not after what happened to his son.”
Hermann tapped idly at one of the barrels. They held some of the raw ingredients poured into the fermentation tanks. Each barrel would eventually be dumped into a waiting tank and distilled into something equal parts nutritional and foul. Kaiju loved it, at least. Vanessa filled out a few more lines on her clipboard, counting and recounting the barrels until she was satisfied.
“I just wonder why he decided to come here now. What made him come out of hiding long enough to join us here? I don’t imagine he has much love for Kaiju and we’re lousy with them.”
The same thought had crossed Hermann’s mind more than once and he clucked his tongue in agreement.
“It could be that he was being harassed by the PPDC like you were. Maybe they believed he had some connection to us. Aside from the Whateleys, most of the people who came to Newton and my aid were part of the old guard. Or he was being hounded by the press and the public wherever he was. You can’t get more secluded then Kaiju country.”
“Maybe…I just wonder if the benefits of living somewhere quiet outweighs living among the monsters you fought most of your life. It’s difficult to adjust, Hermann, and I’m not going to lie and tell you that they didn’t bother me at first.”
Setting the clipboard into a wall of concrete cubbies, Vanessa gestured towards the far end of the Gloophouse.
“I made you suffer enough stench. Let’s get to the fun part, shall we?”
The Kaiju’s metabolism was slow and their bodies soaked up any nutrients they were given like sponges. When the Hive’s nutritional program had been set in motion they had soon figured out that if they were careful, each individual only needed to eat several tons of gloop a month to stay strong and retain a healthy body weight. Sure, each Kaiju would supplement with the odd school of fish, but their bodies had been designed to be as self-sufficient as possible so a little nutrient paste went a long way. The younger Kaiju consumed more than their elders but this wasn’t a surprise to anyone in the biology department. They were still pups, and like all babies they needed extra nourishment to grow.
With Vanessa’s help, Hermann managed to climb the slimy rungs of a slightly crooked access ladder up to the top of the feeding trough. He liked to watch the Kaiju feedings and had come to several in the past year in an effort to see Hive members he had never met face-to-face. Some of the brothers only breached the surface when it was their turn to protect Mother. They had been hesitant to even come to the Gloophouse at first, but he and Newton had coaxed them with adamant promises that their hunger pains would be banished immediately. That had done the trick.
Vanessa removed her respirator and sucked in a deep breath of fresh air as they walked out onto the precarious metal balcony next to the feeding silo. Hermann followed her example and gave a deep, thankful sigh of relief when the ocean air filled his lungs.
“Alright. Let’s see who we got today.”
She examined a laminated schedule duct-taped to the side of the gloop-silo with a frown, pushing stray hair from her eyes. Because of the sheer amount each Kaiju ate, they could only be fed one at a time and each had learned rather quickly when it was their turn. Hermann had only seen four feedings in total and, because of his irregular attendance, two of those had been Mudpuppy. Hopefully today would be someone new. Vanessa tapped the schedule triumphantly.
“Here we go…Tiki. It’s a Kaiju named Tiki’s turn today. Can’t say I’ve met the gentleman.”
“Do you know many of them?”
“The Kaiju? Not really. I’m really only on good terms with a few. Sometimes when I’m on gloop duty and it’s my turn to supervise a feeding, I’ll get a polite one who gives a thumbs up or attempts a thank you. I always appreciate that.”
The feeding silo was a massive metal cylinder the size of a three story building. It rose out the water and attached to the end of the Gloophouse facing the open ocean. When the contents of a fermentation tank were mature, the gloop inside was siphoned out into the temperature-controlled silo. During feedings, the silo’s contents were dumped unceremoniously into a long, elevated cement trough roughly the size and shape of an Olympic swimming pool. All a feeder had to do was press the button that released a metric ton of slimy slop down where the Kaiju could eat it and then keep track of how much each individual consumed. Vanessa prepped the feeding log, making a note on the sheet as she spoke.
“That’s a funny question for you to ask, Hermann. You’re the one who talks to them. I thought you would know each and every one.”
Hermann smiled sheepishly.
“I hear them more as a large unit--a symphony of voices. In the Hive the individual voice doesn’t matter as much as the whole…like a beehive. Lately I’ve been wondering if it’s time to make an honest effort to meet all of them. It’s been gnawing at me for some time and when I didn’t recognize Gilligan in the Longhouse during the storm it …well. Another problem to add to the pile as Newton would say.”
Adjusting her respirator around her neck, Vanessa pulled off her gloves one at a time and watched the water for signs of movement. Kaiju were rarely late to a feeding.
“That would be like herding large underwater cats, sweetheart. I don’t envy you the task. How is Newton by the way? I haven’t talked to him in a month. I used to run into him all the time when I took my turn doing grunt work for records. Ugh. I don’t miss that job.”
Hermann clenched his teeth and felt his heart skip a beat. He had been debating if he should tell Vanessa about the dream and Newton’s bizarre lapse but wondered if it was a good idea. She would fret about it but she wouldn’t lose her head. He needed a collected, outside opinion and Vanessa’s was always the best. Gottlieb opened his mouth to answer honestly but stopped when the water began to roil a few feet away. It grew shallow and opaque near the metal legs supporting the partially submerged Gloophouse and, as he watched, a Kaiju slid effortlessly up to the feeding trough, its scaly back glistening just above the waterline.
Tiki was decidedly of the older generation. His back was a riot of oddly placed spines and sharp bony protrusions the color of old wood. His snout was so high up on his short snub face that he could take a breath without raising his head out of the ocean. He was huge; perhaps not as big as Vesuvius, but a borderline cat-4 if ever Hermann had seen one.
It was also instantly obvious why he had been given the name Tiki. His head was a strange shape the face short and stubby, but topped with an elongated frill that was part triceratops and part Karloff, the Kaiju killed in Vancouver so many years before. The skin patterns, multiple vertical eyes, and forward facing jaws all came together to form something vaguely reminiscent of a South Pacific tiki mask.
The Kaiju turned, nostrils flared as it scented the air. Its eyes met Hermann’s and narrowed slightly in confusion. It was like...It was like his Hive brother didn’t recognize him. Hermann reached out again, trying to reflect friendly thoughts and pastel colors to the Kaiju to make his intentions clear.
Tiki snorted and gave what could have been a nod, pulling his body upwards and hooking his long front limbs over the side of the trough. He gave an irritable growl and looked expectantly at the gloop silo. Vanessa pulled a loop of keys off her belt and unlocked a metal box embedded in the side of the silo. Hermann was barely aware of her, his breath coming short. Why would Tiki not answer him? Even the most feral of the Hive was at least polite to someone favored by Mother.
The enormous chute leading down from the bottom of the silo groaned as Vanessa turned a key into the manual controls and pressed a large metal release button. Inside the storage tower there was a faint whirring noise as a door pulled upwards and gloop came flooding down into the trough. Tiki was so eager he could hardly wait for the cascade of enriched fish guts to hit the pool sized feeding trench. He held his mouth near the transfer shaft and lapped at the foul smelling mixture as it surged past. Vanessa gagged and lifted her respirator back to her mouth.
“It’s like watching a puppy eat. We work so hard to make them healthy and they probably wouldn’t notice if there was a spare tire in there, right Her-Hermann? Are you alright?”
Tiki took gulping bites pulling the gloop down his gullet as it spattered over his head, still pouring from the chute in a spray of meaty chunks. He hadn’t even bothered to look at Hermann again and the cold uncomfortable feeling inside his stomach tightened. This was nothing…it had to be nothing, just an overeager Kaiju more interested in food than talking to the Small voice. He was becoming paranoid.
“Oh, er--yes, Vanessa.”
He gave a nervous laugh and pulled his mask on distractedly.
“Just impressed how much a single Kaiju can put away.”
She watched him skeptically, glancing away only to keep track of how much gloop was spilling from the silo. An old-fashioned odometer style gauge ticked off the tons methodically. Hermann himself had figured out a simple mathematical formula for how much a Kaiju needed to eat based on their size and estimated weight. He looked down at Tiki again and regretted it. Vanessa was wrong; it wasn’t like a puppy at all. It was more like a wild pig. Under his work coveralls his pocket began to vibrate and Hermann grabbed for his cell, thankful for the distraction. The text was from Raleigh and read simply: Herc is off boat. Hawkhead leaving in another hour. You and Newt still want to interview him tonight?
The balcony above the feeding trough shook as Tiki pushed his head deeper to get to some hard-to-reach morsels stuck in the corners. Hermann grabbed the guardrail and felt his Flexlimb compensate for the sudden balance shift. Vanessa grasped his shoulder and patted his back, pointing to the phone.
“Important? You need to go?”
Hermann nodded frowning thoughtfully down at his smart phone. He wiped a small translucent chunk of gloop from the screen before starting a quick reply. He would have to speak with Vanessa about Newt later, this was more important.
Small meeting at the Outpost in two hours…You, Mako, Newton and I will meet him.
Hitting send Hermann almost had to shout to be heard over the sound of Tiki gorging himself.
“I do. I’m going to meet our newest resident and if I don’t take a shower first I think it would make a terrible first impression.”
The Outpost was surprisingly empty as the day wound to a close. Hermann nursed an ice-cold soda in a chilled glass, sure that he could still smell the Gloophouse in his hair and on his skin. He leaned back in an out-of-the-way booth, propping his bad leg up on a conveniently empty chair. He had made a point of taking a space as far from the bar and karaoke machine as possible, but it seemed that had been unnecessary.
Tendo, who usually tended the “bar” half of the Outpost general store and bar/restaurant, was taking the evening off. He had put in a hard shift making sure the island’s communication lines were all open after the storm. A radio tower had been knocked askew and he had worked with Mudpuppy for a good four hours to get it straightened out. The repair work had been done when the day’s blistering heat was at its most severe; Hermann was only too glad to let his friend call it an early night.
That was probably why the bar was so empty. Most people were exhausted from a day of clearing wreckage and fixing broken buildings and had skipped the Outpost tonight. Once again Hermann felt guilty. He was hopeless when it came to manual labor. He had a tough time just leaning over while keeping his balance and Newton’s spatial cognizance was not what it once was. They were quite a pair. The only time these issues weren’t issues was in Occam…they always had a way of cancelling out each other’s flaws during a drift.
Hermann stared at the clock over the bar and scowled. Newton was late. He had wanted to speak to him before Hansen and the other rangers arrived. He was nervous without his partner and thoughtlessly adjusted the coaster under his drink, tapping his nails against his glass in a random rhythm.
“Can I get you some fries or something, Doc? Top off your Coke?”
Sonia slid into the opposite side of the booth and grinned at Hermann, her nose scrunched in that characteristically Whateley manner. While her brother seemed to jump unhappily from job to job, Sonia had taken a permanent position in the Outpost, tending the bar and stocking the canteen shelves. She wasn’t much of a cook but she could warm up a plate of fries or a grilled cheese if necessary.
“I’m alright for the moment, Miss Whateley. Thank you.”
She beamed at him, reaching out to take his hand and squeeze it before she leaned back and stretched, giving a huge yawn. Every few minutes she would cast a sideways glance at an enormous flat-screen TV mounted on a wall over the bar to check the score on a muted basketball game.
“It’s dead in here tonight. I was thinking about closing up early and going out for a swim with Muds...”
“I might ask you to lock the doors once the others arrive. I don’t know if our talk is going to require privacy, but I think it would be best not to overwhelm Ranger Hansen his first night here.”
Sonia’s Cheshire grin widened and she leaned forward, her head on her hands.
“I had the biggest teenage girl-boner crush on the whole Hansen clan. There is not a bad gene in the bunch. Just hot Australians as far as the eye can see and, might I say? Mr. Hunk-ules has aged like a fine wine…if a fine wine could have hot crow’s feet.”
“I’ll be sure to, err…pass that along, Miss Whateley.”
Hermann raised an eyebrow, trying to hide a smile by taking a long sip of his soda. He set it back down with a clink of ice cubes and wiped at his mouth thoughtfully.
“By the by, did Tendo mention any communication from Melero and Degari? We haven’t heard from them in weeks now. It’s not like them not to check in.”
Sonia closed her eyes and bit the end of her tongue trying to recall.
“Only thing to come in on the long, short, and medium waves were the updates from the weather service--nothing encoded either. So, that’s a big N. O.”
“Mmm. Would you ask Tendo to reach out to them? They may still be in Shanghai. That was where their last correspondence was from and I wanted to speak to them about spreading the early detection net, opening up international talks again. It’s just something to think about for now, but it could be vitally important in the near future.”
Sonia nodded and held her index finger to her thumb to show she got the message.
“I’ll tell Tendo tomorrow. He’ll be on it pronto.”
Back in the kitchen, a research assistant Hermann didn’t know of was scraping the grill. Her t-shirt bore a logo that marked her one of the climate researcher’s bunch. She was probably taking her turn here on rotational duties. He debated internally if it would be best to make her leave before Hansen arrived and was about to say as much to Sonia when Newton burst through the Outpost’s front doors. He was sweat-drenched and puffing for breath, pulling a flannel button-up hastily over his stained tank top. Hermann grimaced; he hoped that Newton had at least washed his hands.
Sonia took this as a sign to get back to work and patted Newt’s shoulder fondly as she passed him. He trotted over and plunked down next to Hermann giving him a sloppy kiss on the cheek before he grabbed his half-empty drink glass. Newt chugged the rest of the Coke down and belched loudly as he smacked his lips.
“God, that’s good. Herms! We found it! We found a way to attract the Pac-man bacteria to PE-HD!”
Hermann pulled Newt’s filthy, water specked glasses from his damp, sweaty face. He grabbed a napkin from the booth’s metal dispenser and a melted ice-cube from his glass to clean them, listening to his partner babble about his latest breakthrough at work.
“If we can just figure out, like… two more things then we can trick the bacteria into eating plastic waste AND Blue particles! Think about it man; it eats everything then we stick in a shutoff and it just dies off. No more plastic water bottles clogging up the gulf and building up in the…”
Hermann was only half-listening; he slipped his partner’s clean glasses back on his face and reached up to run his long lanky fingers through Newt’s wild hair. He attempted to push it down flat with little success. Newt grabbed his fidgety hands and grinned crookedly.
“Hey, don’t be nervous.”
“I’m not. I-“
He let his eyes trace Newton’s face and felt a sudden jarring nausea. His vision blurred momentarily and he turned his head, sensing the biologist’s fingers tug from his. He was about to open his mouth and apologize. He legitimately didn’t understand where the wave of sickness had sprung from; sunstroke, or maybe too long without anything in his stomach… it was difficult to keep food down with the fishy gloop smell still sticking to him. He looked up and was surprised to see Newt had gone pale. The biologist rubbed at his forehead and moaned. Whatever had hit Hermann had gone through the ghost drift and hit them both yet, once again, the whole Hive remained conspicuously absent.
“Newton. Maybe something is wron-“
The Outpost doors pushed open again, letting in a brief peek of the blistering evening outside. Raleigh entered first, holding the door open for Mako and a step behind them was the man himself: Ranger Hercules Hansen. Newton glanced at him and then gave Hermann a look that read loud and clear. We’ll talk about it later. Already the spell was passing and all their attention was on the first-gen vet as he made his way towards them.
In Hermann’s memory the man had been huge. He hadn’t quite reached Pentecost’s height in physical or psychological presence, but then…no one could. Those shoes were impossible to fill. Still, he had been imposing and had a quiet, almost melancholy patience that was difficult to forget. The man in Hermann’s memory had little in common with the person that looked at him now. He had shrunken and aged more in three years than most could in a lifetime. The lean muscle was still there but it was clinging to the skeleton of a war casualty.
Mako put a hand on his shoulder and steered him towards the booth, gesturing for him to sit. She treated him like he was fragile and in truth that was just how he looked. Hermann leaned forward slowly, hand outstretched.
“Forgive me for not standing, Ranger Hansen. We’re all very pleased to see you.”
Herc shook his hand slowly, reluctantly, and there was an obvious tremor in his grip. He nodded to Newton but looked visibly relieved when the biologist didn’t reach out his own hand to shake. He sat and studied the scientists, scrutinizing them wearily.
“First of all, I’d like to say thank you. Thank you for letting me come here when you didn’t have to…and apologies for not giving notice. I didn’t want the press getting wind of my move, so I just paid a cargo ship to slip outside its usual route, under the radar.”
Mako slid in next to Herc and Raleigh sauntered over to Sonia at the bar. Hermann was having a hard time pulling his eyes away from Herc’s face. He was so gaunt and hollow-eyed, the whites of his eyes rimmed bloody red. Insomnia, if Hermann had to guess; he hoped it was nothing more serious than that, but the telltale tremor wasn’t a promising sign. Herc was one of the oldest living PPDC rangers; the only mach-1 pilot left standing. Who knew what long-term side effects piloting could have on someone his age. Hermann felt a trickle of Newt’s nervousness in the drift and it steeled him.
“You might imagine we were surprised that you would want to come here in the first place. The Kaiju seemed like they would be a deterrent.”
“Not the same Kaiju, right? The war Kaiju are dead.”
His answer was surly and brief, and Hermann frowned at the obvious anger that was lurking in his words. Mako chimed in protectively, her hand wrapping around Herc’s on the tabletop.
“He will grow used to them as we all have. It will take time but he will be among friends on New Pentecost.”’
Raleigh pulled a chair to the edge of the booth, his arms full of drinks. He put a glass of lemonade in front of Mako and an unopened bottle of island-brewed beer in front of Herc. The ranger blinked at it uncomprehendingly, making no motion to drink it.
“Haven’t seen a real beer since-well. I can’t really remember…”
He looked at Newton and Hermann again and there was a note of something unsavory in his eyes. Dislike, maybe…or at least distrust.
“There’s a lot of luxury in this place. I didn’t expect it to be so big. That hangar Raleigh and Mako showed me was practically a dome. Where do you get the funding?”
Newt smiled and grabbed for one of the drinks Raleigh had brought over.
“Mostly it comes from shit.”
Raleigh laughed but Hermann cleared his throat to clarify.
“We get government aid from a few places. The UN, United States, and even the New European Union but we also collect a portion of our budget in grants from research groups who need our…unique resources. But what Newton is talking about is our, ah-recycling program.”
Newt snorted and elbowed him gently.
“We sell Kaiju shit. It’s a funny story, right? That idea came from something Hannibal Chau said the night I went to get a brain from him. He said they sold everything, even the crap, so now-”
Mako cut him off as Herc’s confused frown deepened into a scowl. He glared at Newt and curled the hand that wasn’t holding Mako’s tightly into a shaking first.
“It’s a beneficial thing, Ranger Hansen, sir. It helps yield better crops for farmers and we do not charge very much.”
“Well. I’m glad you’ve found some use for them.”
The table went awkwardly silent and Herc tugged his hand away from Mako to grasp his beer. He struggled with the cap an uncomfortably long time before Raleigh finally reached out to pull it from him and pry it off with a bottle opener on the edge of the booth. Hermann tried to bite his frustration back, recalling what Vanessa had said earlier. He needed to show patience.
“Ranger Hansen, I invited you here for a brief orientation. I’m sure Ranger Becket and Ranger Mori have given you some idea of how things operate here but I wanted to go into a bit more detail.”
Herc didn’t look at him as he spoke, his attention focused on the beads of condensation dripping down his beer bottle. His nostrils flared slightly and Hermann could feel the anxiety kick up inside Newt’s skull.
“You will have your own apartment; we’ll find you suitable living arrangements. I don’t think you’ll have to share. Our islands don’t have their own currency but we do live on a sort of points system where extra work hours can go to luxuries that aren’t food and board. You’ll be expected to hold down a job and unless you have one in mind you will be assigned different duties on a rotating schedule. If you are unable to-“
“I won’t work with the Blue-bags.”
Hermann blinked, taken off-guard mid-lecture. Herc’s voice was a gravelly rumble as he clarified.
“The Kaiju. I’ll do whatever thing you want, but I won’t work with them.”
Newt made a noise that was borderline snarl.
“Don’t call them that! You know they’re letting you live here too.”
Raleigh held up his hands consolingly, eyebrows knitting.
“Whoa, come on. We’re all rangers here. We can figure this out. There’s plenty of other jobs-”
Herc looked up, his sunken eyes burning. He clutched the beer bottle to keep his hand from shaking with little success.
“No. You and Mako are rangers. Those two are…“
Newt leaned forward teeth bared as his glasses slipping unimpressively down his nose.
“Are what, Crocodile Dundee? You got something to say, say it!”
Herc took a deep breath and stood up, but stopped when Mako gripped his shoulder firmly, her face set. Herc’s posture relaxed somewhat, the fire going out of his eyes. He shook his head.
“God. I’m sorry. Just. There was a Kaiju outside and...i-it’s the first time I’ve been so close to one since…since D-day. It’s working on my nerves.”
Hermann thought back and realized that the last time Herc had been so close to a Kaiju was Leatherback, the night he had shot a flare into the monster’s eye. The same night he had lost his son. Mako whispered to him soothingly.
“That was only Mudpuppy, sir…he’s very sweet. He’ll leave you alone if we ask but I promise that you will see they are different in time.”
Hermann and Newt had only known Hansen in passing, but Mako had grown up with him. It must have been like reuniting with a lost uncle, Hermann realized. No matter what the man said they couldn’t ruin that. If anyone could help him through this initial shock it would be the pilots of the Shrike Rapture. They had both moved past their own painful experiences to live and work with Mother’s Kaiju.
Herc seemed to count breaths, taking a sip of his beer and swallowing with obvious difficulty.
“This beer is good.”
He examined the hand-drawn label and finally looked into Hermann’s face again.
“I am glad to be here. I’m sorry. It’s been a very, VERY long day. I’ll start work whenever you need me to.”
Raleigh took a last swig of lemonade and made a beeline for the door. His expression was shuttered and, as was often the case, hard for Hermann to read.
“Maybe it’s time to call it a night. I’m gonna crash on my couch. Sir, you’ll be in my bed till we find you something better…”
Raleigh nodded once more to the table and slipped outside. He was going to clear the way, Hermann realized. Make sure Mudpuppy and the other Kaiju weren’t skulking about outside. Herc thanked them politely for the beer and walked out side-by-side with Mako. She looked over her shoulder once apologetically then disappeared back into the gathering dusk. Newt was ripping a napkin into tinier and tinier pieces, his leg bouncing frantically as he tried to process the brief conversation.
Hermann didn’t move or reach to touch him in comfort. All the rangers went through this. He could recall when even the twins had been angry and sickened by the thought of cooperating with Kaiju. Healing would come with time and tolerance. Newt leaned against him, still ripping the napkin. He wiped at his nose, voice shivery with nerves.
“I hope this wasn’t a mistake.”
Sonia plopped down a greasy basket of onion rings and wiped her hands off on her apron.
“Huh. They didn’t stay that long.”
Hermann shook his head.
“No. They didn’t.”