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Confluence

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"Initiating Drift Compatibility test in 3...2...1..."

There was a soft buzz, a warm pressure behind his eyes, growing hotter.

"Drift at 50%"

Shapes appeared, flashes of memories he didn't recognize as his own, a woman sang a faint lullaby somewhere far away.

Enter world, light unshown....Follow heart, follow home...”

"60%"

A faint crackling sound as nervous systems tried to mesh together, synapses reaching out. A deep, rhythmic thudding, a quick heartbeat pulsing through his ears. The heat was becoming unbearable, blood vessels in his eye sockets and sinuses wailing protest with a dull ache that spread up his forehead. He took a breath to steady himself.

"65%"

An exposed wire to the brain—minds violently ejected from each other. Sharp pain radiated through his limbs, like a screech of feedback from a microphone. Someone groaned in pain and another voice cut in.

"Crap, disconnect! DISCONNECT!"

Queequeg ripped his headset off before the array of electrodes could burn his scalp again, his hands twitching with the dissipating electrical currents. Tash had not been fast enough with his own headset, small wisps of smoke accompanying the smell of burning hair as he moaned in pain, slumping against the machinery. Amari was unbuckling him, supporting Tash against her as he slumped forward. Both looked nauseous, the inevitable feedback of being near your drift partner in a moment of pain.

"Drift attempt number three failed." Starbuck sighed and nodded towards Pip, who noted the time and began switching off the drift simulator. Queequeg detached himself with care, his head still feeling like it had lost a fight to a brick wall and his limbs throbbing. Amari had dragged Tash over to a metal bench and had him leaning his head forward, examining the electrode burns on his forehead and holding a tissue to his bloody nose. Queequeg stepped free of the machinery and ripped out his rubber mouth-guard, tossing it to the floor.

"God DAMMIT!"

Starbuck gave him a sympathetic look. "It was a bad idea Queequeg, we knew it probably wouldn't work."

"65%, always 65%!"

"We'll start looking again."

"Christ, Starbuck! "Queequeg turned, wiping the blood from his upper lip with the back of his hand. "I'm sick of looking! I'm done with screening rookies and doing hand-to-hand with meatheads!"

"Hey, come on now—”

"No, sir, I'm done."

Pip coughed pointedly and adjusted his Buddy Holly glasses, looking towards Stratbuck "Sir, should I call the Captain?"

"No, I—" Starbuck rubbed his hands over his face, "No Pip, he'll find out soon enough."

Pip nodded and returned to the scrolling data on his monitor. Starbuck leaned his head onto his folded hands and surveyed his pilots. Queequeg was still fuming, Tash looked about ready to pass out, and Amari was giving him a deliberate 'I-told-you-so' look as she massaged her drift partner's temples.

"All right everyone, take 30!" He waved away the Shatterdome personnel manning the equipment, "Amari, take Tash to medical. Queequeg, go check in with Dr. Flask."

The pilots obeyed, Queequeg still angry but too sore to stomp down the corridors. The door to the Drift-Science lab was propped open with a heavy neurological reference book and two loud voices chattering in impenetrably technical French came from inside. Queequeg took a deep breath, did his best to still his shaking hands, and stuck his head in the door.

"Hey, it's me."

Doctors Aya Dague and Eileen Flask were arguing over something on Dr. Flask’s desk. They stopped their conversation and glanced over at him. Both gave him the same sympathetic look that Starbuck had. He was getting sick of it.

"Didn't work?" Flask pulled out a stool by her desk. "C'mere, let's take a look."

"65%. Again." Queequeg sat down, but flinched away from Flask when she reached over to pull down his eyelid. She looked down and belatedly realize she was still wearing elbow length rubber gloves dripping with some mystery fluid.

"Oh, sorry," she grinned. "I got a slice of the infamous Alice. Do not touch it." The kaiju brain section was sitting on her desk with several metal instruments stuck out at improbable angles—the whole thing gave off a scent that reminded Queequeg simultaneously of rotting eggs and bleach. Flask continued talking as she peeled off her gloves, but Queequeg had started to zone out, his head still buzzing.

"Where's Tash?" Dr. Dague cut into his thoughts. She was looking at some data on her tablet, probably the results Pip had finished compiling. It took a moment for the question to register, but Queequeg blinked a few times and shook his head.

"Medical. He got the brunt of the rejection."

Dague looked at her whiteboard, where several graphs and charts detailing brain activity were taped up and heavily notated with blue marker. "I told them," she muttered. "I told them someone already paired wouldn't drift with another. But do they listen? Nooo, we must try to force a drift—merde!" Dague trailed off, still cursing under her breath in French and adjusting her twisted braids, held up with a precarious lattice of pencils and beaded pins.

Flask rolled her eyes and pulled Queequeg up, directing him past the temporary walls covered in human and kaiju cranial diagrams and the shelves of preserved brain samples floating in viscous yellow fluid. In a smaller room there was a makeshift MRI machine, cobbled together from parts bought, begged, and stolen from facilities all around the Bay Area. Queequeg laid down inside and Flask watched through a window, giving him a thumbs up when the scan was finished. Queequeg let himself have a moment in the dim room, appreciating the relief out the bright lights.

When he emerged back into the main lab, he found Flask peering at the images that were rendering on the projection display. The three-dimensional model of his brain spun and Flask tapped a few keys and wrinkled her brow, watching colors pulsing through the projection.

"Aya, come see this."

Dague left her whiteboard with reluctance and came over to the projection. Flask paused the cycling image and pointed out something, bringing up a secondary display where data points were emerging.

"What do you think?"

"Ehhh..." Dague frowned, "Je ne sais..."

They started talking in rapid French again and Queequeg felt a twinge of annoyance. He turned away from the doctors and walked to one of the small cleanup sinks, above which a small mirror was covered in photos and notes, There was still a smear of blood on his lip and his right eye was clearly bloodshot. He leaned forward and examined his old electrode burn scars, now red and irritated—he hated how they disfigured his tattoos, knots of paler skin on the dark blue patterns. The buzzing in his head was subsiding, leaving behind ringing ears and a massive headache. Pulling down his eyelid, he leaned into the mirror, his reflection blurring. A heavy fog seemed to be settling over him and he went back to the metal stool he had been sitting on, slouching his shoulders. His vision was getting fuzzy and the ringing only grew louder. A soft groan escaped him.

Dague and Flask paused in their conversation, turning back towards Queequeg.

"Are you feeling okay?" Flask asked, the question more clinical than it was concerned.

"Just a little...fuzzy. And the ringing is getting worse—it feels like tinnitus."

The two women were on him in a matter of moments, Dague shining a pen light in his eye and Flask pressing a buzzing instrument into his ear. A few months ago he might have tried to shrug them off, but he had become resigned to the doctors at this point. Dague bent his head at a strange angle while Flask jammed yet another instrument at his skull.

"You have to stop this." Dague put an unusually affectionate hand on his shoulder.

"You're giving yourself brain trauma," Flask also sounded concerned, rapping a knuckle against Queequeg's temple. “Gonna be mush in there.”

"How many more can I do?"

The women exchanged a glance.

"I don't—" Flask began.

"How many more?"

"If they keep on rejecting, maybe three. Five tops." said Flask. A moment of silence followed, the doctors pausing in their examination.

“Dammit. Dammit!" Queequeg stood and pushed passed them, crossing over to where his brain projection was still turning. He stared at the cycling model for a few moments before turning back to Flask and Dague. "I have no clue what this means."

"Ehhh..." Dague seemed to be searching for the right words.

"We have told you that your brain doesn't like..." Flask wiggled her fingers together in front of her face, "...joining with others.

"Your synaptic architecture rejects the drift." Dague pointed to a diagram she had pinned to the whiteboard."

"Unfortunately, it's starting to damage your brain. You can see the inflammation in the frontal lobes." Flask spun the projection.

"If you keep forcing it, chéri, you will do permanent damage. No drifting at all" Dague squeezed his shoulder.

"Or much of anything else." Flask looked grim. "There's too many variables, we have no clue what the side effects could be. You could lose your eyesight, your muscle control, your language center..."

"What if I found a drift partner?"

"Well...theoretically if you found a drift partner and made a successful connection your brain wouldn't deteriorate any more. It might even repair itself…" Flask brought up some other data on her screen, “I’ve been doing some research for a friend about synaptic reconstruction through drifting, it’s promising.”

"But—” Dague cut in, "It would have to be perfect, 100% compatibility. Even Amari and Tash, they are only 85%."

"—And you haven't given us any indication you're an easy man to drift with," Flask finished.

Queequeg slumped, dejected. They were right, of course. He should have known from the start when he rejected his cousin on his very first drift. Fifteen other possibles, different ages, races, genders, backgrounds; all highly trained, capable pilots. Each walked away with a crown of electrode burns and jangled nerves. Even the supposedly “hyper-receptive” Tash...

Still 65%.

Always 65%.

Queequeg clenched his jaw. He wouldn't be a Jaeger pilot, wouldn't get to walk into the Pacific and feel the Kaiju fall beneath him. Wouldn’t help anyone.

"I'm going out."

"Queequeg…" Dague put her hand on his arm.

"I'm going out,” he shook her off. “If Starbuck or the Captain ask after me, tell them I'll be back in the morning.”

"Queequeg, wait!" She reached for his arm again but he slipped away and out the door. Flask’s "C'mon man!" was an echo in the hall as he stalked away.

He stopped at his bunk to grab his jacket, bag and helmet. He couldn't stay in the Shatterdome tonight. He could already feel himself relax as he stepped into the cool Oakland evening, the lights of the city shining through the fog beyond the dark expanse of shipping containers and rusted cranes. Looking the other direction, you could just make out the red beacons that marked the abandoned Wall of Life out by the mouth of the Bay.

Nodding at the bored looking night security guard, he retrieved his motorcycle from a shelter under a photo-voltaic panel. The sea water sloshing against the Shatterdome's support pillars and the cries of gulls were blocked out as he put his helmet on. Flipping down his visor, Queequeg kicked his bike into life and sped down the dark road, past the chain-link and barbed wire perimeter, and into the night.

Chapter Text

The street of Oakland were dark, but people still were out, sitting on their porches around kerosene lanterns and makeshift fire-pits. Most electricity was still confined to the city center—even a decade after that supposedly final Battle of the Breach. But the city was undeniably alive, despite the lack of resources coming in. The Silicon Valley townhouses were long abandoned, their residents migrated to the great inland empire after Trespasser’s attack. Coastal cities were still officially classified as disaster zones. Families who had been holding on in the Bay Area by their fingernails before the kaiju attack now found their rents lower then they had been in decades, if anyone bothered to collect it at all. Amari had nicknamed Trespasser “The Great Anti-Gentrifier.” It was amazing what getting crushed beneath a 3000-ton monster could do to your property values. Sure, the ever looming threat of imminent doom was just out beyond the skeletal Golden Gate, but that wasn’t really different than how it had been before. You trade nuclear war for kaiju, there’s always something to be worried about.

Queequeg took his bike into the middle of the city, where a few businesses still had reliable access to the power grid (or enough wherewithal to patch themselves into somebody who did). There was a hostel still operating here staffed by a rotating cast of stoned 20-something drifters who minded their own business. This tended to be helpful when you looked like Queequeg did, he really didn’t want to deal with too many questions tonight. He stashed his bike in a nearby alley and covered it with a blue tarp from his backpack. The hostel was on the second floor of an old brick building—a pre-earthquake, pre-kaiju relic. They buzzed him in and he climbed the narrow stairs.

“Hey man,” the sleepy-eyed staff member behind the front desk had a nametag that said PETE and was fiddling with a decades old pink Nintendo DS. “Nice tats.”

“Yeah, sure.” Queequeg said, “You got any open beds for the night?”

“Sure thing...” Pete flipped open a binder on the counter and paged through it. “Room 6 is almost empty. There’s just one other guy in there.”

“Perfect.” Queequeg took the key from him.

“Hey, we’ve had to start locking the doors after 2AM!” Pete said, “So...ya know. Be in by then.”

“Got it.” Queequeg walked down the hall. He wasn’t surprised by the curfew, since the Mt. Fuji attack every coastal city was jumpy. Rules that hadn’t been in place for years were being reinstated.

The room was stuffy—crowded with four bunk beds, a tiny sink and mirror, and a single long window high in the wall. All the beds were undisturbed, except for one bottom bunk. The scratchy blanket was folded back and a battered copy of the Iliad was sitting on the pillow. Its occupant was nowhere to be seen.

Queequeg chose the upper bunk under the window, cracking it to let in some fresh air. He checked his watch. It was 11:30. He should be able to go get a few drinks before he he had to be back inside. He hung his bag on a hook by the sink and retrieved his wallet and room key, flipping the hood of his jacket up. Maybe he’d run into mystery roommate later.

It had started to rain by the time Queequeg found his way back to the hostel. He had spent a good two hours trying to numb his still throbbing head at a tiny dive bar and he could already tell he would regret it tomorrow. Head spinning, he managed to make it back into the hostel just before curfew. Pete flipped him a peace sign as he passed him on the stairs.

“You got the room to yourself man, no sign of the other guy!”

Great.” Queequeg grimaced and went back to his room. Sure enough, the bottom bunk was still empty. He pulled off his shirt and jeans and tossed them onto an empty bed, swithced off the light, and carefully crawled up the ladder to his bunk. He didn’t even remember falling asleep and he certainly didn’t notice the chilly breeze coming through the still unlatched window.

When he awoke, he had no clue what time it was. It was still pitch dark outside, the streetlights turned off to save energy. The rain was really coming down now and he had the beginnings of a hangover pounding behind his eyes. As his vision adjusted, Queequeg could see something moving next to his legs. He watched in horror as a pale hand appeared on the s ill and slid the window open wider. He scrambled backwards, still too groggy to speak, remembering belatedly that he had left his heavy duty flashlight across the room in his pack. Another hand appeared and he could hear a grunt outside as someone lifted themselves up towards the window.

Queequeg let out a shout as the figure clambered through the window and grabbed his leg. The figure also yelled, scrambling for purchase before finally toppling forward onto him and falling off the bunk with a loud thump.

Who the fuck are you?!” Queequeg was crouching on the mattress.

Who are you?!” The figure had scrambled to their feet in the dark.

There was a loud thumping on the wall and a voice shouted “Go to sleep, assholes!”

The figure slapped at the wall switch and the room was flooded with light. Queequeg could now see that the intruder was a white guy around his age, dressed in soaked clothes with wet curls plastered to his forehead and more freckles than he had ever seen. He looked terrified. Queequeg realized what he must look like crouching on the mattress—living most of his life in the Shatterdome and getting pushed around by the diminutive Dr. Flask and skinny Amari, he often forgot that other people found his size and tattoos intimidating. They stared at each other for another second.

Queequeg nodded towards the empty bed, “Is that you?”

“Yeah...” the guy said. “I—I missed curfew.”

“Fine.” Queequeg shut the window and laid back down, putting an arm over his eyes. “We’re roommates for the night.”

“I—sorry.” the guy said, “Sorry for falling on you. I didn’t know anyone would be there.”

Queequeg glanced out from under his arm. The guy had turned bright pink and was turning away. Queequeg had a strange flip-flop in his stomach. Probably the booze.

“It’s fine,” he said. “I’m Queequeg.”

“Ishmael,” he made a movement like he was going to shake Queequeg’s hand, but then realized their different height levels would make the greeting awkward. “I’ll um...turn off the light.” He hit the switch and Queequeg could hear rustling as he changed out of his wet clothes and turned on the sink. He couldn’t stop listening. For whatever reason, the sounds of this random stranger brushing his teeth were unignorable. He took a deep breath.

“Night, Ishmael.”

“Night.”

The sounds of the rain outside tapped against the closed window. Queequeg lay awake in the dark, listening as Ishmael went to his bed and settled in, his breathing slowing over the next few minutes.

He could feel his heart pounding in his chest. “Dammit.” Queequeg whispered to himself, rolling over to face the wall and closing his eyes.