Hermann gottlieb sat at his desk. The room was illuminated only by his computer screen, and his phone was ringing. It was night in Hong Kong, but it wouldn’t be where he was calling.
There was a click as the line picked up. “Hello?”
“Newton, it’s Gottlieb. How are you?”
“Hermann! I’m great. Long time no talk, man. What’s up?” Newt’s voice came through a little garbled, distorted by the long distance line.
“'What’s up' with you?” Hermann countered. “I’m not the one that stopped answering his emails.”
“You’ve been sending emails?”
“... Oh. Shit, I’m sorry, that’s on me then. Were you just calling to make sure I wasn’t like… dead?”
“More or less. I also wanted to let you know that I have a week of leave coming up. My finger is currently on the button to purchase an aeroplane ticket to the States, if that would be amenable for you. I’d like to see where your research has gone.”
“Oh, yeah! That would be great. I’ve missed you, buddy.”
Hermann sighed, but said “Likewise.”
“When would you be coming?”
“Four days from now.”
“That works! I don’t have much of a schedule to clear, working from home and all.”
“No, I’d imagine not…” Hermann bought the ticket.
“But Hermann. Be honest with me, you know you can. Is this or is this not just because you miss having someone to yell at?”
“... The assistant they gave me doesn’t yell back, ” Hermann admitted. “It takes all the fun out of it.”
“Well, I’ll bet that there’s gonna be a lot to yell at me about when you get here, so don’t worry about that.”
“I had assumed.” He felt himself smile a little.
“Oh… but Hermann,” Newt said. Hermann’s smile faded at the change in tone. “Just… I feel like I should warn you ahead of time. The… the effects have gotten worse. More visible.”
Hermann frowned. “Worse how?”
“You’ll notice I stopped sending photos,” Newt said.
“What does this mean for you? For your research?”
“Both me and my research are fine. I’m stable, and I have my answer, so… we’re all good!”
“You… said you were stable the last time,” Hermann said. His voice was laced with doubt.
“I’ve had considerably longer to be certain,” Newt said. “I’m not having any more side effects, just… not to be overdramatic or anything, but I would not be surprised if you don’t recognize me.”
Hermann’s eyebrows shot skyward. “... All right. Great. That’s going to keep me up at night until I fly out.”
“Don’t let it, dude,” Newt said. “Swear to god, I’m a-okay.”
Hermann made a disbelieving noise.
A faint doorbell rang on the other end of the line. “Whoops,” Newt said. “That’s dinner. I gotta go, but I will see you when you get here, okay?”
“All right,” Hermann sighed. “Take care of yourself, Newton. Don’t do anything stupid.”
“You got it, dad! Bye!” The line went dead. Hermann set the phone down and massaged his temples. Anxiety welled in him. What had Newton gotten himself into?
Newt had been dismissed from the PPDC a year ago. Budget cuts were rampant, and since there were no new kaiju to study, his services were deemed, despite his protests to the contrary, superfluous. For a while, he stayed in an apartment in Hong Kong, continuing his work out from under the watchful eye of the Corps.
Hermann had found him in a mess of scientific equipment, dripping blue, faintly glowing sludge into a beaker.
“Newton,” he asked. “What are you doing?”
“Hermann,” he said. “Thank god you came. No one is paying me to tell them things any more, so I’ve been busting at the seams with this for days. Look!” He thrust the blue sludge forwards.
Hermann looked. “Is that... Kaiju fluids?”
“Eeh, kind of. It’s Kaiju fluids-based.” Newt stood and set the beaker aside. “So, you know how older pilots are starting to get neural degradation from the drift?”
Hermann nodded. Even the lessened strain of the two-pilot drift system was proving too much for some candidates, and it was beginning to show in slower cognition, worsening memory, and failing motor control.
“ Well. This could prevent that from happening! It’s what I was working on, back before they let me go!”
“What is it?” Hermann asked, bending over to peer at it closer.
“It’s a gene therapy. Kaiju brains are hardwired for multi-consciousness connection. Human brains aren’t so lucky. When you get two people up in a place that’s only meant for one it can start to chafe. And that’s where this comes in. Think of it like brain-lube.”
Hermann made a face, straightening.
“... Okay, maybe lube isn’t the right word. Think of it like brain coolant. In the drift, Neurons get overworked because of the increased strain. A dose of this bad boy just coats them in the same stuff Kaiju have in their brains to help information process more efficiently. It’ll be a buffer against unnecessary damage.
“That sounds like it would be a miracle,” Hermann said. He leaned forward on the cane. “More efficient pilots would be amazing.”
“Have you started testing?” Hermann asked.
“Uh… on… me?”
Hermann blinked. “Come again?”
“I’m working on a shoestring budget here!” Newt said. “What am I supposed to do?”
“So many things that aren’t what you’re doing,” Hermann said. “I’d say I couldn’t believe you'd be stupid enough to do this to yourself, but clearly you are!”
“No one listened to me when it was just the theory,” Newt said. “So I’m coming back with proof.”
“Or you’ll mutate yourself, or poison yourself, or kill yourself,” Hermann said. “Does anyone but me know what you’re doing?”
Newt scoffed. “Of course not! Kaiju… anything is so rare that if people try to replicate this there won’t be enough to go around. I have to sit on this until I know I have it right.”
“And how will you know?” Hermann said.
“I… don’t know yet, exactly. But I’ll know when I know! Nothing ventured, nothing gained, Hermann. This could be the leap that we need to give us a leg up when the Kaiju come back.”
“If the Kaiju come back,” he said.
“Whatever.” Newt waved a hand. “It’s gonna be fine. I’ll mention you in my Nobel prize speech.”
Hermann rolled his eyes. “Sure.”
A month later, Hermann’s phone rang. He picked up. “Newton?”
“Hermann. Hermann.” Newt was panting, his voice strained. “I fucked up. I fucked up real bad and I think that I may - ach - I may be in trouble.”
“Fucked up how?”
“Test went bad. An OD, a bad batch, I don’t know but it feels like I’m trying to turn myself inside out and I don’t - shit!”
Hermann’s breath caught. “Do you want me to come?”
When Hermann arrived, Newt was on the floor. Some glowing blue… stuff dribbled out of his mouth and nose, staining his face. His fingernails had gone black. Hermann knelt by his side and shook his shoulder gently. “Newton. Newton, wake up.”
Newt stirred. His eyes blinked open. One of them was… wrong. The iris had gone partially slack, leaving the pupil gaping lopsidedly. “My god,” Hermann said. “What happened?”
“I think…” Newt mumbled. “I think I’m okay now. I don’t feel like death anymore, so that’s nice. But I threw up like a lot.”
“That’s probably what saved your life,” Hermann said.
“So. Does this put an end to your project?” Hermann asked.
“You know it doesn’t,” Newt said. “This is too important to drop.”
Hermann sighed, wanting nothing more than to shout at Newt for what he’d done. But the sight of him on the floor, covered in sick and god knew what else, made Hermann soften. “I know.”
Newt patted his hand. His eyes closed briefly. He looked exhausted. “Thank you for coming, buddy.”
Eventually, the cost of living in Hong Kong proved too much for the no-longer government-funded biologist. Newt had a house back in America, from before he relocated to join the PPDC. He packed his things with fingers that were slightly too long, tipped in black nails that were slightly too thick, and bid Hermann goodbye.
After that, it was like it used to be before they shared a lab. Long distance calling was an expensive hassle, so they emailed back and forth, keeping each other abreast of developments. Newt’s project seemed to be going well.
Three months ago, Newt had stopped attaching photos of his work.
A week and a half ago the emails had stopped altogether.
Gottlieb sat on the plane, satchel clutched to his chest as he watched the clouds drift by the little double-layered window.
Despite Newton’s reassurances, the thought of what Hermann would find stateside had indeed kept him up at night. Visions of scars, sores, and disfigurements filled his mind. One thing Newton and Hermann shared was a willingness to go to any lengths necessary to do their work, even if those lengths were ill-advised.
Or just stupid.
Newt was only stupid when it suited him to be so, And Hermann fervently hoped this was not one of those times.