Chapter 1: Prelude to the Storm
The first conclusive report was filed by the recently rebuild Australian Volunteer Coast Guard Association. It was going to be the most important document of the decade. In the month of March 2040, a vessel patrolling some 50 miles off the west coast witnessed a very unusual phenomenon. Its pilot, Molly Baler, stopped the engine after seeing a big unidentified jumping out of the water. She would later report also seeing a dozen or so seagulls circling the sky, perhaps fifty feet above sea level, screeching in a way she had never heard before. Intrigued by their erratic behavior, she decided to investigate from a distance. After a minute or so, the very same shadow jumped out again, this time very visible. Molly Baler supposed it was some great shark. It contorted itself in the air, like it was trying to shake something off. A few seconds later, what she identified as the very same shark jumped out again and landed on the boat’s windshield. Molly took shelter, terrified, but continued her observations. The animal shook strongly, as if having a seizure, before sliding back into the ocean.
Less than an hour after the event and a few miles down south, Byron Bay sets off its shark alert. More than five individuals were seen dangerously close to a bone sanctuary, on the very narrow beach of Apex park. Very quickly, said individuals picked up speed, before stranding themselves on the beach. Witnesses certified that some of those sharks were arriving so fast that a few of them hit some of the bank rocks head on, creating gigantic pools of blood both on the sand and in the water. All civilians were promptly evacuated. It seemed that none of the predators actually tried to attack any of the humans present.
In the span of only a couple of minutes, eighty-seven adult tiger sharks came to die on Byron Beach of asphyxiation that sunny afternoon.
And one man saw it all.
He was never supposed to be there. But he helped with the evacuation anyway.
His name was Raleigh Becket.
Chapter 2: The Cage
One could have thought he got used to it after all these years. But he still hated the landings. Hermann Gottlieb carefully exited the chopper before moving as fast as he could out of the platform towards the entrance, under the careful scrutiny of half a dozen soldiers. The long journey cranked up in a very uncomfortable seat did not make this any easier. Every muscle tense, painful in the cold relentless wind. Each step was dependent on that old cane, that old friend. His whole body had adapted to it throughout the years, shaping itself anew. Even if somehow he managed to get his leg back together now, he wouldn’t even remember how to walk without it.
Once the reinforced gates finally closed behind him, he was greeted by lieutenant Malleanu. It was the same ritual, over and over again. The cordial conversation, the handing of the bag, then the parka. Someone brought him a seat. Getting rid of both shoes and the cane. All of those were then fed to the scanner. A young soldier had to help him stand to go through the metal detector. It was humiliating, in a way, but unavoidable. Regulations. They had to follow them, didn’t they?
This place was one of the most secluded military base in the Alaskan region and the secret home to a very special guest. The lieutenant escorted Dr Gottlieb through the dark corridors of lightly rusted metal and sealed security doors. He knew his way around by now, but he also knew this would be as casual as the military were willing to get. It didn’t matter. This place was meant to be an impregnable fortress all on its own. Strangely enough, the anguish he felt the first few times he came here had now entirely subsided. This was just routine nowadays.
When they finally arrived to his door, his final destination, Hermann could see in the corner of his eyes the security guard switching off most of the monitors in front of her, as always. Soon only remained visible the camera that surveyed the entrance. The computers were still recording though. He knew it. Without a doubt, it was her own way to offer them a semblance of privacy, out of respect and despite the risks. To the entire world, Hermann Gottlieb was the savior of the earth. Of course, it had been a team effort. He couldn’t help but cringe at the simple mention of that term. “Savior”. Never-the-less, this was how he was perceived and it certainly had a few… Advantages.
Reality came crashing back with a loud beeping sound, followed by the shriek of the opening door, overwhelming his delicate ears. He could not help but swallow. Now he was anxious. He slowly walked through the armored gateway and into the reinforced transparent airlock. The panel closed back behind him, and with a sudden woosh, the glass door finally gave him access to what was always referred to as “the cage”.
This was by no means a small room. Perhaps fifteen meters long and two stores high. It was a big, ugly rectangular thing with concrete walls and no windows to let any natural light shine through. Long shelves occupied the sides, half filled with books, mangas or magazines, that Hermann alone brought here throughout the years. A couple of mementos, mostly pictures of places and people. But nothing that could have reminded him of the time they spent in the Shatterdome, or what came after that. They had even given him an old keyboard, which was collecting dust at the far side of the room. The rest was anecdotic: a bathroom, a desk, a round table, chairs, a small bed, a TV screen that was never on. No computer.
And of course, he was there. Sitting in a plastic armchair like he hadn’t moved for days. Eyes lost. Everything lost. Lips slightly parted.
“Newton!” he repeated, louder.
Finally, a blink. Very slow. Lazy. The man turned his head towards him, the bags under his eyes becoming clearer and clearer. He never had those in his youth. Not to that extent. A small, endearing smile appeared. It always looked like Newton Geiszler was moving in slow motion these days. Like he belonged to a different time constraint. Both scientists simply gazed at each other for a moment. A quiet gauging of their mutual state.
Hermann was pretty sure he looked rather tired himself. He had been working ten hours at the lab before his travel and had barely gotten any sleep. He just wasn’t as spry as he used to. He remembered those times during the war when they worked for fifteen to twenty hours straight on a regular basis. He wasn’t capable of that anymore.
“Hello,” Newton whispered. “What an incredible surprise.”
Hermann couldn’t help but snicker. At the very least sarcasm hadn’t completely left him yet. They found a way to start the conversation. In other words, the guest was talking and the host mostly listened, nodding at appropriate times, smiling but rarely responding. That was how it usually went. Their disheveled prisoner felt more or less present depending on the day. Often, it felt like holding back an entire boat in the middle of a storm with just a single rope. He just kept slipping away, over and over again. Hermann could see it now, his eyes progressively moving away from his face to stare into the unknown. The nothingness.
That man who was once way too passionate, always boasting, and a constant burden to his nerves, that man now simply sat there, in a haze, as if in a constant state of sedation. He never understood where Newt’s mind was wandering off, but he knew it couldn’t be a good place. There was a dull anguish in the core of his stare whenever it happened. A sadness that was beyond sad. All he could do was keep him away from that for as long as he could, even though the great nothing would certainly engulf him back the moment he would walk out the cage. No progress was ever made. Newt only kept deteriorating.
“I brought you something you might enjoy.”
Hermann dropped the document he was carrying in his bag on the round table to the side and let it slide next to Newt’s arm. He simply looked at it. The title read “The limits of Theory of Mind explained”. It was the results of a neurological study conducted on apes in a semi-captivity environment.
“You remember Doctor Nusslin, don’t you? I believe you two were acquainted for a while. Since MIT, if I am correct. She certainly has gained a lot of respect from the…”
“In collaboration with Chen ZeHui,” he whispered, his voice barely audible. “I remember her.”
She was a neurological surgeon who served as a consultant for Shao Industries. So Newt had worked with her there? Hermann couldn’t be sure.
“What was your opinion of her?”
“What makes you think I got one?”
“Newton, you remembered her name. Of course you have one.”
The light smile widened slightly. (If only he could hold on to that smile.) But he still hadn’t touched the report. Hermann wondered if he ever read the books he brought him beyond a few pages.
“Smart girl, miss Chen. But way too subdued. Can’t believe she would work on something that boring.”
“Ah, but as far as I’m aware of, this is only the first part of their research together.”
He kind of expected Newt to be more inquisitive about the matter, but no answer came. He wasn’t sure if it was a good thing or not. Hermann was vaguely anxious with the idea of bringing that subject to him. But at the same time he had nothing else to keep him occupied with. He was still debating whether or not he should tell him when Newt’s light voice interrupted him.
“So how’s work?”
That gave Hermann pause. It was so rare for his friend to jump in like that. Even if it was a little bit out of the blue…
“It’s… Well… Tedious. At least for now. We’re still figuring things out on a logistical level.”
“Really? What are you working on ?”
“I can’t tell you, it’s classified. You know this. How about you? How have you been doing?”
“Oh you know… The usual. Found new ways to annoy my caretakers. Hiding stuff in weird places. Writing equations in pee.”
The sole mention of any activity beyond brooding felt like a true beam of sunlight to Hermann’s consciousness.
“Also… I… I dunno. I had a weird dream the other night… I dreamt... I saw them again.”
Hermann’s face fell.
“It was… Well not really, I mean I knew it was a dream, that’s what was so weird about it. I know they’re not here anymore. I can’t… Hear them. They’re not with me. But it felt so right.”
With every second, it felt like Newt was taking more and more time to get the words out, like his mouth was slowly disconnecting from his brain.
“And it’s just… I’m sorry. Don’t you think it’s… incredible the way memory works? Did we have this… Conversation before? It’s fascinating. How is it… that I— I, I can never remember my father’s face correctly and… I k-now they’re not h-here anymore, but if I close my eyes… long enough… I can still feel the rush l—like it never left me. It’s still pulling… Pulling me out. It’s not real. But it is. But it’s not. Do you think?”
His voice was barely a whisper now. He was back in the state where he found him.
“What? Do I think what? Newton?”
But he was no longer looking at him.
“Newton, what is it?”
He was not going to answer that. But surely he could still hear him. Hermann Gottlieb never thought he would see the day when he would actually regret the state Newt was in the very first few weeks after the precursors had abandoned their grip on their precious emissary. It had been nothing but emotional turmoil. Anger. Fury. Tantrums. And then despair.
Newt had trashed everything in his cell countless times, but it had been something. Some kind of sign that, at the very least, he was still in there, struggling. Not everything he had said back then had always made sense. But amidst the ramblings, Hermann always caught a glimpse of his former friend, fighting to get a hold on himself. And for a while there, he had hope.
But it was as if the precursor’s presence had left a big empty space inside his head, and that all this agitation was caused by everything else falling back into place, like a powerful air suction inside a damaged space pod. It had been relentless and left nothing in its wake but this quiet state where Newt was barely recognizable.
Not that he was unaware that “quiet” wasn’t all that there was left. A couple of months back, lieutenant Malleanu had taken him aside, a worried shadow upon his brow, to show him a recording. Newt had been talking in his sleep and the lieutenant had wanted to know if Hermann could make any sense of it. Well, ‘talking’ was not really the way to put it. Hermann had watched a six minutes video of his former comrade tensed into place, paralyzed in a weird angle on his bed, first mumbling, then screaming at the top of his lungs, the most cold-inducing shrieks he had ever heard in his entire life. Hermann’s entire body had reacted to it, struck by a new sense of terror. Even in his worst hours, never a single crisis had overcome Newton this way. He felt physical pain just by watching.
Those screams were words all right. Still, none of it made any sense, like they were shouted at random. It didn’t even sounded like Newton’s natural voice and it had scared Hermann to death. First, because he couldn’t do anything about it and nobody cared, and second, because wherever this… distress came from, it had seemed way too real.
And so today’s little episode had struck a blow. As he sat back down into the aircraft, Hermann couldn’t help but reminiscing about that very very awful six minutes nightmare, conjuring all his mental strength to keep him from breaking right here and then. The screams and the one name that he recognized amongst all the delirious nonsense.
Jake Pentecost stood in an unknown office, all suited up in that formal attire. Doctor Gottlieb was staring right at him from across the room, like he had grown a third arm or something. That was kind of awkward. It was just one of these days when he wished he had gone back to his chaotic, insignificant little life. Unfortunately, war changed people a great deal. He had responsibilities now. People looked up to him like he was some kind of authority figure. Jake couldn’t even bear looking in a mirror these days. All he saw there was his father.
Was that his destiny? Walking in the shoes of a man that no longer existed? The one thing he was always trying to avoid. Thankfully, he wasn’t Marshall now, Nate was. At least he dodged that bullet. He was way better off spending his evenings eating buckets of ice cream than being stuck with piles of paperwork and a whole bunch of high ranking officials ready to kick his arse. Crisis averted. Not that he hadn’t been offered the job, he simply was not ready to take it. Ever. But to be honest, he had witnessed way too much shit in the past six years to simply walk away and leave a bunch of assholes in charge. Especially now that Mako was not around anymore.
Damn, that still hurt. Speaking of which…
Doctor Gottlieb had sat down slowly on his armchair. He was getting paler and paler every time he saw him. Older, too. Of course Jake couldn’t even begin to understand the extent of his work, but it was going to be the death of him for sure.
“You have come a long way, ranger Pentecost, and you still haven’t told me why. Unfortunately, my time is limited and since I no longer work for the Jaeger program…”
Right. Truth was, Jake had been stalling him. He had no idea how to bring this up. The direct approach then.
“Okay, I need to ask you a favor. I know you’re busy with Prophecy and all, just— hear me out.”
The man frowned but complied.
“There has been a bit of a crisis recently. You might have heard of it. As in, a good amount of people just died in very suspicious circumstances and every government in the world is trying to keep a straight face while everyone is panicking kind of a thing.”
“You are referring to the Tokyo flight incident.”
“Yeah. That was freaky as hell.”
A whole bunch of sea birds suddenly decided it would be a good idea to all pass through the engine reactor of an airplane in mid-flight. The following explosion caused the plane to crash-land into the ocean. No known survivors. This kind of shit never happened. Never like that, at least. Yes, a bird or two can get caught while a plane is taking off, sure. But that many? In mid-flight? And it was the second time in a span of only a month. No wonder people were freaking out.
And the problem was, it was not going to be an isolated case. Everyone understood that. A great deal of different species was acting weird. It had been happening for years, mostly fishes and cold-blooded creatures. And mostly around the Pacific Ocean.
What were the odds?
“Worst part is, nobody really understands how this all works, or how to stop it. I know, like, teams of scientists were monitoring mass extinctions caused by Kaiju blue running rampant since the beginning of the war, but this is something else.”
“If those occurrences are believed to be a consequence of the deterioration of natural biomes, then surely there are several laboratories studying the question.”
“There are. We had to transfer all the infos we collected about Kaiju biology to the Awaq Uru lab a while back, to use it as a common database. It’s a coordination thing. And since this whole ordeal was deemed a major hazard, the military has jumped in on it as well.”
“Hence your presence here I suppose?”
“Yeah,” he answered clumsily. “Sure.”
Jake sighed. Well, he had to spill the beans now.
“So, here comes the real awkward part. The army has put together this massive team of experts to try and solve this thing, but so far nothing has come of it. I mean sure, they’ve had some results. From what I understand, there is a link with Kaiju blood and all, but to be honest, I’ve read this freaking report a dozen times and I still understand jack shit.”
He dropped the heavy file he was carrying in front of Gottlieb, who looked at it with a mix of incredulity and downright annoyance.
“As I have previously stated…”
“Yes, I know. Busy. And that’s the shitty part. There is one guy that knew more about this stuff than anyone else on this entire planet. And he’s kind of in prison right now.”
The man closed his eyes. This didn’t bode well.
“Ranger, I have asked, on multiple occasions, for doctor Geiszler not to be left idle. That the only way to keep his mind from deteriorating was to keep him busy. Now is a bit too late for this.”
“I get your point but it wasn’t my decision.”
“Then why come to me?”
“Well, first, if I go there myself I might punch him in the dick, and second… I’m gonna punch him in the dick, okay? Clearly I’m not the guy who should bring that matter to him.”
“Then why are you here? There are proper channels for this sort of thing.”
“Well, I’m kind of the one who pushed this idea, in a way? So I’m the one who should have come here in the first place?”
The scientist was giving him the look you give a small child that had come up with a very elaborate but pathetic lie.
“Okay, fine! I was trying to dodge a meeting. Don’t look at me like that! You don’t know these people! Just… Just read the report, okay? All the information that I can give you, without breaking the law, is in there. If you believe Geiszler can actually help this time, then let him have it. If something goes wrong, I’ll… Take responsibility, I guess. It’s just… I feel like this is going to get out of hand pretty soon and you’re probably the only guy I can trust. Think about it. Please.”
“So, whose research did you bring me this time?”
Newton was slouched over his bed, his feet against the wall, looking at Hermann from upside down. It was the most creative he had gotten with his sitting positions in a while. Maybe, just maybe, he was in a good mood.
“Yours, actually. If you’re willing.”
That got a reaction out of him. Hermann left the file on the table as he sat down, and watched patiently as Newt rose clumsily to his feet. Another plastic chair was pulled with a teeth gritting noise and the both of them sat in silence.
Newton lifted the first page of the report with nothing but boredom. But he was reading. He could even see on his face he was struggling to focus. Minutes passed, pages were turned, and not a single word had been exchanged. Suddenly, Hermann could see a frown. Something had gotten his attention, God only knew what. That page was turned in a hurry. And another. And another. Until he was going through the report at a frantic pace.
A spark of interest was flickering in Newt’s eyes. Nothing like the flame that had belonged there before, but a spark none-the-less.
Chapter 3: A Can of Fish Food
Hello again ! I will attempt to update this story every monday. Hopefully I can keep up.
As always, you're welcome to correct me if I messed up something. Have a nice week !
“Could you not…”
The airlock opened before Hermann could finish his sentence. They had finally received the last cargo they needed.
“Can someone tell me why we are transferring stale water in here?” grumbled an irritated lieutenant.
“It’s not stale water, it’s fish eggs! And don’t take them out of the heater; they’re ready to hatch! Do you want them to catch a cold?”
Newt had walked up to him to take the large white box out of his hands. It had already been a week since the report had landed on that table, and what a week it had been.
While Hermann was relieved to see his former friend crawling back out of the shadows, he was also extremely worried. Newton was weak, both physically and mentally. He had to take naps every two to three hours or he would just collapse. He was very unsteady on his feet and sometimes he would have episodes where he would repeat the same idea over and over again, stuck on a loop. His willpower might be back, a little, but that was the end of it. And Hermann was not fooled by his apparent enthusiasm. Newt was struggling a lot and his mind hadn’t been used in a while. A sportsman coming back to his field after an injury, this was bound to be painful.
And then there was the fact that all of this was taking place in a cell, in the middle of a military base. They had had to explain why they were turning the place upside down as well as getting clearance for every little thing that came inside the cage. At the beginning of Newt’s… Stay, they had designed the whole thing to at least try and keep the prisoner from harming himself. With mitigated success. And now they were bringing in a 1.5 meters square Plexiglas fish tank. Maybe this warranted an explanation.
“Nothobranchius Kadleci, lieutenant, the fastest cycle of reproduction of all vertebrae. This was by far the most convenient option, believe me, he considered poisonous snakes. If we play our cards right, within the next nine months, we should have gone through enough generations to have some much needed data. So don’t you worry, the tank will not remain here forever,” Hermann added in his most reassuring tone.
Ultimately, those were some really small fishes, which meant they would only obtain partial results. But time was an important factor and they couldn’t make their first observations on species that could take years to mature. One batch was their blank sample and was to be kept in a lab in Arizona. Hermann had called a few colleagues and two other groups of the same specie were to be grown in Europe in similar conditions (He had never mentioned Newton, of course.). The point was to cross-reference their results in order to be as thorough as possible. The ones they kept here were to go through a very special treatment. Whatever Newt’s global state of exhaustion was, he clearly knew what he was doing.
And now the cage looked less like a prison cell, and more like their old lab. They had taken advantage of the wide grey walls and had written all over it with erasable markers. Plans, equations, hypothesis, notes. Newton literally had to live within the work, at the center of his thought process.
Subsequently, Hermann had accepted to play laboratory assistant on his weekends, simply to make sure his old friend wouldn’t blow himself up. It was a challenging position in so many ways, on top of the fact that they both had radical opposite views on science. Once Hermann had wondered if his colleague even understood what science was supposed to be. Newton wasn’t as factual, he was more of an idea guy, contrary to Hermann who always looked at problems or data with no preconceived opinion and went through all possibilities from beginning to end, until he understood every single parameter. That was the sensible way to conduct an experiment. Of course, it never was what Newt did.
His wandering brain would generally encounter a “what if scenario” that he found inspiring or exciting, and he would go: “I wish it were true. Let’s test that out, shall we?” This way of proceeding was a complete nightmare for Hermann, who either saw it as a waste of time or an easy way to overlook important clues. But then again, it was Newton Geiszler. His greatest weaknesses were also his greatest assets and he had a real talent for thinking outside the box. So much that Hermann had started doubting there was even a box in the first place.
Unfortunately, this had also put Newton in a lot of trouble in his youth. It had been, back then at least, easy to mistake the man for an opportunist who would jump at any conclusions, just as long as it fitted his vision of things. Not that there weren’t many of those in the scientific community already. Newton Geiszler just wasn’t one of them. His personality was extensive, he loved to draw all the attention he could get, but he had shown Hermann, time and time again, that he enjoyed being wrong as much as he enjoyed being right. Once again, contrary to Hermann, who would get angry or frustrated the moment something started to elude him.
So it was Newton who had come up with the scientific battle plan this time and Hermann who had reluctantly followed, unraveling bits by bits, what could be, in fact, a genius move. Or a total disaster, he wasn’t sure. At any rate, he had to clear a couple of things before he left. He couldn’t stay forever, as much as he wanted to. Perhaps a few things were still needed, he had already unearthed his old notes about the degradation of kaiju blue over time, but that wouldn’t be enough. A lot more research had been done in the meantime and they needed to regroup —Click.
… Information. Yes. He’d have to get into the archives and retrieve all chemical analysis from the past —Click click.
… Hum… thirty years or so. And from there…
Ha… What was it again? Ah yes, the— Click click click click click.
Hermann turned around with a sigh, only to witness his colleague leaning over his desk, a pen in each hand that he was clicking alternately. And this was why he didn’t miss sharing his workspace. Hermann desperately wanted to finish his to-do list, but at the same time, he understood that Newt hadn’t had a real pen in his hand for years and that the compulsion to simply fidget was probably too great for him to abstain. Still, the rhythmic noise was incredibly distracting.
“Newton. I have to leave soon, could you please give me a minute?”
No response. He was simply standing there with his pen, a very tired look upon his face. Without a doubt, they had pushed too far already. Hermann was also suddenly reminded of how much exhaustion he had accumulated himself. His body felt… Well, old. Heavy. And all he could do in this moment was look at Newton’s back, a silent weight descending upon his throat. What he wouldn’t give to simply walk up to him. Walk up to him and rest his head…
This was a fluke. Only a fluke. He knew this could happen and he was prepared. He swallowed.
With perfect timing, Newton suddenly turned around, forcing him to regain his composure.
“I think we’re gonna have a probl… Are you giving me that look again?
“What look?” Hermann snapped defensively.
“You know the one. Anyway, I think we should add a few parameters to the hole ocean pressure thing.”
No. No, I don’t know the one.
With careful precision, Hermann moved forward, to see what Newton was writing on his desk, while keeping a reasonable distance. He was making a series of weird notes on a page of the original report while still clicking the other pen.
“You know,” Newt said out loud, “it would make our lives a lot easier if we had a time machine just to go back at the beginning of the war to collect the samples we’re missing. I mean, there are a ton of required conditions no one can actually replicate…”
Before he had finished that sentence, he went slightly off balance, only to catch himself on the plastic flat surface in front of him.
“Alright,” Hermann said, “that’s quite enough for today.”
“No, man, I’m fine.”
“No, you obviously are not.”
“It just got a little blurry, that’s all. I’m just…”
“Oh, don’t you start with the stubbornness.”
“Taking a few notes and then I’m going to bed.”
“You won’t get that far, you are writing on the table!”
“Oh, thanks, mom!”
“Why do you have to be like this?”
“It won’t take longer than five tiny minutes”
“Which will turn into ten then twenty! I know you!”
“Starting right now. Five. Counting down.”
“Newt! I am not letting you endanger yourself! You will be back up the second I turn my back if…”
“It would be quicker, you know…”
“And will you stop clicking that insufferable pen?”
“If you could just stop screaming at me!”
Without realizing it, Hermann had taken the other man’s wrist into an iron grip. He could feel a rising pulse, unsure whether it was his own or Newt’s. His head was buzzing, with anger and worry. There was a strange pause. Then, he could see it, plain as day, on Newton’s face. His rising body temperature, his breath coming up short, the emotional turmoil flaring up in his eyes. The wreckage he had caused.
Yet it all ended suddenly, the second Newt looked back at him. He blinked, as if struck by some sort of realization. Hermann let go of his arm.
Both pens were delicately dropped onto the table with no further annoying little noise.
Did… Did Newton Geiszler just… Apologized? What in the…
With intent, Newt went back to sit on his bed, but as he turned, Hermann had had a glimpse of this peculiar smile at the corner of his mouth that lingered.
I remember now, it seemed to say.
I had forgotten, but I remember. What makes your blood boil.
And I enjoy it.
“This is fascinating! Man, have you read it? Of course you read it!”
One week later, Newton was crouched in a corner of his room, with “The limits of Theory of Mind explained” opened before him at the very last page. He looked enthusiastic, thrilled even, at the verge of an incredible epiphany. Well, he had liked the reading, just like Hermann predicted.
“So this whole thing, it’s not about studying apes and monkeys at all! It’s about the Drift, isn’t it? They had to learn what physically limited the brain, before they could start studying the real deal. Now that was a really smart move. I told you she was smart.”
“Theory of Mind” was a somewhat controversial term. It designates the faculty of an individual to predict the behavior of another that he perceives as different, by understanding that one’s false beliefs or set of morals vary from one person to the next. And it had been a long, incredible journey, for neuroscientists to determine whether or not creatures other than humans had a theory of the mind. In other words, could animals make a distinction between their knowledge and the knowledge of their peers? And not only that, but could they determine that others too, made theories about themselves?
Do others know that I know that they know?
This whole idea had taken a drastic turn when Drift technology had come into play. But because it had been a weapon created in the middle of a war, no one had taken upon themselves to study it in detail until recently. There had been other priorities at the time, such as, for example, giant monsters killing people.
The Drift introduced many paradoxes in the way it worked and in the way individuals behaved under its influence. A human brain produces way too many thoughts for a human consciousness to be aware of, let alone two of them combined together. That technology imposed a strain on the mind of its users that no one was built for. As such, it had been demonstrated that Drifters entered a different state of consciousness once the neural bridge was activated, one of the reasons the brain suddenly made no difference between present and past experiences, a phenomenon known as “Random Access Brain Impulse Triggers”. In the same vein, it had seemed like Jaeger pilots, while under stress, had more trouble focusing their conscious minds in the shared space, making oral communication necessary when it shouldn’t have been, while still being able to pilot their Jaeger in perfect sync. They instinctively knew what the other had in mind, but were not aware of it. They couldn’t rationalize it or focus on it, like looking into a map with a magnifying glass; you are too absorbed by the little details to see the greater picture. Therefore calling out moves remained the best way to focus attention in a battle.
Yet seasoned pilots, who had spend a decade or so of their life dedicated to the program, had shown signs of an altered state outside of the Drift. And after disconnection, one seemed to have a greater rational understanding of another’s personality rather than while the connection was still active. So perhaps the true crystallization of the artificial mind-meld did not happen during the neural handshake, but in its aftermath.
In 2028, two scientists of the University of Toronto made a major observation. For months, they surveyed a total of six Jaeger pilots who had an above-average strong connection with their partner, in order to study and record what Doctor Caitlin Lightcap had called “Ghost Drifting”, the ability to share a muted link outside of the Pons system. Two in particular showed interesting signs. The first, Drifter A, was put in a situation that triggered a particular thought regarding their co-pilot Drifter B. It went as followed:
Placed in front of the triggering situation 0, Drifter A had the distinct impression that if Drifter B was present, they would know the way Drifter A would react in front of this situation, and would have a strong emotional response to it: laughter.
Not only that, but Drifter A felt, like it was the most lucid truth in the world, that Drifter B knew what was happening in their head at that exact moment, despite Drifter B’s total absence from the scene.
Drifter A knew that Drifter B knew what Drifter A would be thinking in that situation. And Drifter A felt like they knew that Drifter B knew that they knew.
And this was how a 35 years-old person with arachnophobia started laughing for ten straight minutes at a gigantic tarantula. They had stopped looking at the situation through their own eyes and started looking at it through the eyes of their partner’s… Hypothetical presence.
Of course, everyone could do this, in theory. But not like this. Opting for this type of thinking for most brains is very counter-intuitive. Still Jaeger pilots did this on a regular basis; they automatically theorized the thoughts of their drift companions, often on more than three or four layers. I know that they know that I know that they know. If you were a seasoned pilot, this little exercise slowly became your way of thinking by default.
This behavior had been observed countless times, but this pattern slowly erased a misconception. There was a belief in the scientific community that the personality of the drifters slowly changed and overflowed into one another. Perhaps that wasn’t true.
Perhaps it wasn’t so much of a direct personality change, but rather an adjustment in one’s theory of mind, induced by a cognitive reconstruction. To put it bluntly, it could be possible that the Drift forced brain cells to restructure themselves to accommodate the change, resulting in a neuro-divergence that never existed prior Pons technology, causing a drastic shift of perspective in certain situations without erasing one’s personality.
The fear of spiders wasn’t gone nor replaced.
This was the tough nut that Doctor Nusslin and Doctor Chen were trying to crack, and in the process, shading a new interesting light on the very strange case of one Doctor Geiszler.
“Hey, Hermann! Maybe we should give them a call, you know, ask them if they could use the both of us as guinea pigs…”
“Out of the question!”
“Why not? I want to be a part of that!”
The plan was to trick their little fishes into hatching and maturing as fast as they could in order to observe as many generations as possible. So Newton had a new rhythm to his days, feeding them, watching them at regular intervals, keeping their water warm. This, Hermann noticed, gave him a semblance of structure in a place where he had not seen the sunlight for years.
Today, Newt seemed in a good mood, he was singing or humming rather, which was a pleasant sight but… Not so much of a pleasant sound. It didn’t matter, for once Hermann was very happy to be annoyed. They exchanged very few words at first, quite content to simply be in each other’s company without any of the complexities of classical social interactions. It was quite nice. This was not something either of them had anymore. No one ever visited Newton and all Hermann ever did was work, with no other type of social activity in his life. Those visiting hours each weekends were all they had left and silence always ended up being more comfortable than awkward. Well, if you could call this humming silence.
Hermann’s leg felt sore. He had to sit in a weird angle to relieve some of the strain. It was a “let’s relax and idly review our notes” kind of mood. Even back in their Hong Kong Shatterdome days, this had been something he truly appreciated about the man, that social imperatives didn’t need to be met. It was incredible, how cozy this vast prison cell could be all of a sudden. Or was it Newt’s efforts he made recently to turn the whole cage into a jumble of books, papers and items, with no possible order, that had given him that impression? Was it simply misplaced nostalgia?
Newton had rolled back up his sleeves too, again, something he hadn’t seen for a while. The old tattoos on his arms had made a come back, as colorful and strange as Hermann remembered them. And as he let his eyes roam for a bit, he couldn’t help but wonder, did Newt’s feelings towards those drawings on his skin had changed, after all that had transpired? And in a little corner of his mind, he could hear a very small answer.
Though he could not grasp in which way this change had occurred. If anything, he had expected Newt to have gained an even greater fascination for the beasts. Or perhaps not. No answer came.
He had no idea how his old friend could… manage. Every time he tried to look back on that one Drift, he would be overwhelmed by the urge to vomit. He had no way to even describe it to himself. The one memory that lingered was this awful sensation to be repeatedly mentally crushed by this cold pulsating powerhouse of a mind, and that somehow, together, they found a path through it to get a glimpse at that one little information they needed to save the earth. It had been chilling and alien, and he didn’t want to dwell on it. He had nightmares, but they didn’t have any shape whatsoever, they were just… Horrible sensations.
It wasn’t until that train of thought had ended that he realized that he had been staring at the tattooed forearms for all that time, and that Newton had stopped humming. He was standing still right next to the tank, a can of fish food opened in his left hand. A muted sense of anxiety fell unto the picture, barely relieved when finally Newt decided to mumble:
“I wonder what it tastes like.”
“Are you seriously considering…? This is dried plants, it doesn’t taste like anything.”
“Oh? Did you try it?”
“I don’t need to try it to know that it is. Please, put that down.”
But as Hermann spoke, a pinch of fish food was lifted and put into the mouth of a very stubborn scientist. Because of course he did.
“Are you happy now? I told you it wouldn’t taste like anything.”
“No, I like it.”
“You simply say that because you know I find this disgusting and you enjoy my misery. What are you doing?”
Under the gaze of a bewildered Hermann, he lifted the can up as if knocking back a shot of whisky, and tried to swallow the mouthful, before choking and coughing a small cloud of fish food dust with a pathetic squeak.
He had Drifted with this man.
The worst part probably was, he would do it again if they ever found themselves in a similar situation, for his sake. Newt was the only constant thread in his life after all. He never could walk away. And Hermann had tried, so many, many times.
He patiently took back his cane and walked up to him with a paper towel.
“Please spit that out.”
He was obeyed for once.
“You can’t fault me for trying.”
“Yes, yes, I can.”
“No, you don’t. You’re giving me the look.”
“And will you tell me what look that is?”
“The “I wish I could go back in time but I don’t know how” look. Yeah, that one.”
“I do not have that look!” Hermann snapped.
“I think you do. It’s when you do the thing with the sidelong glance like you’re really pissed but not really. I’m pretty sure you think it’s gonna hide it but it’s not.”
“Don’t be ridiculous.”
“Cause I always am, apparently. Are you entertained yet?”
“Newt, you are not making sense.”
“I mean I have all day, every day, I’m stuck in a cell buried God knows where. So if you have something to say, just say it, man!”
His voice went so high, it cracked on the last few syllables. Hermann felt petrified for a second. He had no idea what he was supposed to say. The mood had changed so quickly. All he knew was, whatever he did, it would have the power to send Newton tumbling back down, and he had no idea how it got there.
“So, am I wrong?”
The distress was palpable. Perhaps he should concede this round.
“Maybe. Maybe you’re right.”
Hermann didn’t feel any better, in fact he felt worse. And now, Newt was looking at him as if somehow he expected something more.
“Newton, you have to help me here. What do you want to hear?”
He realized, too late, that he probably shouldn’t have phrased it like that. It sounded insincere, the last thing Hermann wished to sound like. The face in front of him hardened.
“No, I’m sorry. This is not what I meant.”
“Oh, I know what you meant!”
“Why are you doing this to me?”
His tone wasn’t mean; it was, for lack of a better word, heart-breaking. With the same anguish that Hermann probably felt. The walls were closing in on them. Newton was still talking.
“Am I… Am I imagining this? Am I? Because if I am, I need you to tell me, right now, you can’t keep this going, whatever it is. Ok? I’m stuck here! You can’t give me hope if… If… ”
There were so many questions. Hermann was desperate to sort it out. Did he let something on that he shouldn’t have? Did he say something at some point that had provoked all that? Surely there was some sort of reasoning behind this, but what was it?
“Newton, I beg you. Listen to me very carefully. I need you to spell it out for me. I can’t answer if I don't know the question. I promise, I am not trying to…”
“Do you regret it? Yes or no?”
There it was.
Newton couldn’t have hurt him more if he had actually punched him. The air had been knocked out of Hermann’s lungs.
Everything fell back into place. He didn’t need one more word, he had perfectly understood the question. And he couldn’t even play dumb, because at this instant, he understood that Newt understood that he understood.
Was that… Was that how this whole mess had started? Did Newton anticipate him so much, that he had caught his train of thought before he even got there?
No, that couldn’t be right.
That could not possibly be right.
His head felt so light all of a sudden, and yet so heavy. He could see through the fog that Newton was on the verge of collapse, but he couldn’t say anything. His lung froze, his jaw clenched tight. He was pretty sure his hand on his cane was slightly trembling. Still, he could not find the strength to simply look down.
What was happening to him? What was happening to them?
He heard the cracking voice from an echoing distance; like his ears were plugged from too much pressure. He couldn’t distinguish the words but he could hear the fact that Newton had started hyperventilating. This was not good, he had to move. He had to do something!
“I’m sorry, man. I-I.. am sorry.”
“I’m… Alright… It…” Hermann attempted.
He heard a few light steps right in front of him. Before he could blink, he could feel one hand on his shoulder, holding him in place so he wouldn’t fall. Did he look that bad?
“Hermann? It’s ok. You know I wasn’t… I wasn’t trying to hurt you, right? I didn’t mean to push it… You know I lo…”
“Don’t you dare!”
The coldness in his tone surprised them both.
Somehow everything within him was trying to avoid going further down this conversation. Unfortunately, Newt wasn’t responding well to that visceral reaction of his. So he grasped the first thing that came to mind, out of desperation.
“The… They’re watching us…”
Hermann knew the monitors were turned off, but he couldn’t think of anything else to say to try and justify his huge slip up without slapping Newt in the face. Figuratively.
And maybe, just maybe, Newton knew he was lying… And panicking. It didn’t change the fact that he still had the can of fish food in his hand. With a face full of dawning tears and frustration, he threw it across the room in the general direction of one of the cameras, and against all odds, it actually hit.
The howling of the alarm crushed their eardrums to a pulp. This did nothing to calm either of them down, but Hermann was still aware of what would inevitably follow. He could not let it happen. So he put himself right in front of the entrance, desperately clinging to his cane for support. Sure enough, those military idiots came barging in…
“All right, that’s enough, put those guns down, nothing to see here, that was an accident.”
He couldn’t actually tell for how long he argued. His voice was shaking and Newton had retreated to the farthest wall, head between his hands. But everybody knew that something was up, as if Hermann’s voice wasn’t enough to give it away. He was taken out of the cage and they left their prisoner in peace.
The halls felt even darker now, devoid of life and submerged into ice-cold air. He was holding his cane tight. Too tight. The metal handle was fusing with his hand, with so much pain.
“No, I don’t need anything, thank you. I just need to catch my breath for a minute.”
Why couldn’t people just leave him be? He wasn’t made of sugar, he wasn’t going to melt. Hermann was offered a chair in one of the side rooms. But he couldn’t sit on it. He couldn’t stay still. Not here. It was too similar. All he could see around him was this disgusting blue neon light, the horrible, horrible black walls, and those bright lines that his anxious mind would follow.
It was still vivid, the nightmarish vision of that body, locked in place, bound every hour to that metal armchair. And he remembered getting in, and settling for hours and hours in front of him. In front of Newton, sure of himself, of his abilities, that he was the only one that could help him, the only one that could understand what it was like, to be in contact with that horrifying hive mind. He had been so convinced that he could find a way to get through to him.
How could he have been so naïve?
It was still there. The confident smile that haunted his consciousness whenever he couldn’t sleep. Hermann closed his eyes. In the dead of the night, it kept coming back. It was the bright smile of a man sure of his words, sure of the effect they would have. It didn’t matter if they were true or not, that wasn’t the point. They were meant to harm, they were meant to hurt. He knew it didn’t really come from Newt, but from the things inside his head. It didn’t change a thing.
“Of course, I love you,” Newt had said. “But that’s the wonderful thing about all of this. It’s that I could kill you anyway.”
That was the point.
The point when he should have walked away.
But they had him. They had Newt, and through him, Hermann.
And he couldn’t help but wonder now. He would never get rid of that crippling doubt.
What if he had played right into their hands?
What if he didn’t save the world after all and simply did as they saw fit? What if he had taken Jake down that road with him?
What if he had doomed them all?
Chapter 4: Prophecy
Liwen Shao stepped out of her personal chopper, ignoring the cold wind biting at her cheeks. Her henchmen ushered her through security and into the elevator. The dark tunnels leading to the Prophecy base had become a familiar sight by now.
It had been lucky that Liwen had always understood the importance of connections in the business world. You had to know the right people at the right time, always. And if you didn’t, you needed to know the people who could introduce you to them.
She abhorred that particular exercise. Her cold demeanor had made it more bearable throughout the years: she looked commanding enough so people would not bother her into submission, yet competent enough to be sought out by many. Nowadays important people came to her, though that didn’t mean she could allow herself to be a total island. That was not how her world worked.
Although the freezing Siberian weather was pretty unforgiving, she was glad for this opportunity to live a more recluse life away from Shanghai, if only for a few days every month. The construction of the underground facility that would shelter the Prophecy project had been a massive collaboration, supervised by the PPDC. Yet most negotiations with private corporations had been handled covertly by Shao Industries, in order to put enough wait to accelerate the decision making process. To be honest, she was incredibly relieved that this phase was mostly over.
It had been a hustle, justifying every little decision. The location had to be secretive and secure, away from most natural disasters. And it had to be equipped with potentially multiple power sources— thermic, water-based, air-based— that could be self-sustained, with multiple back ups and safety protocols. It also needed to stand away from the new political divide. Of course, nations would go back to bickering after the war ended. They were all children, trying to own this bright new technological toy.
The reinforced elevator brought her down miles under the mountain, flanked with the only assistant she could bring safely. The Prophecy base was home to six different laboratories, food supplies, as well as its supercomputer which had recently broke through the 150 PFLOPS ceiling, a new world record. And they hadn’t just built one of them either, they had built three, whichcould now extensively exchange data and results with a shared memory bank: the most reliable calculating machine in the history of mankind. Never before had the cold Siberian weather been so desperately needed. Fortunately, while the overheating factor had proven to be a highly complicated problem, the supercomputers alone provided enough heating for nearly the entire base. And this was just the beginning.
Because now, the network specialists had to sustain it. They had to make sure that the machines could keep on running the calculations, non stop, for the next few centuries, while their engineering team would work on improving them still. That was the next step, the next challenge. Finally something Liwen could feel excited about. This was the thought that allowed her to tolerate all the unpleasantness they had gone through to keep this project alive. The greatest simulation that any team had ever worked on, so complex that it completely broke down the first prototype and that even this new three-headed monster could barely run it.
All of this in order to unravel the secrets of precursor technology. Well, no, that was partially incorrect. The alien tech was deeply rooted in the very nature of they symbiotic biology. It was not an external tool, like it was for humans. It was linked to their way of life, it was linked to the hive configuration. Cloning wasn’t really a choice, it was their way to do things by default, even if the means had evolved over their millenary reign. So in order to tap in the entirety of that incredible knowledge, and finally hold in their hands the power that their enemies used against them, Gottlieb had imagined a simulation based on all the data they had collected during the war and through Newt, in order to recreate the world of the precursors in mathematical form.
The anteverse in a computer.
The final assurance for humanity as a whole that no more threat would come and claim them.
With this one ambition in mind, Liwen passed the long corridor that would get her to her lab, only to slow down near the junction to Gottlieb’s office. Beyond the metal footbridge and the glass doorway, something had caught her eye. That was right, she needed to have a conversation with her colleague about the last entry…. Liwen came to a full stop: Gottlieb wasn’t up and at work, he was sitting at his desk with his face in his hands, his skin so much paler in the blue lights. She took a deep breath, sent her assistant ahead, and redirected her steps towards the office. She knocked lightly on the door; the moment he saw her, he discretely closed a file on the holo display. Hermann Gottlieb was not the type of person to browse social media during working hours. Something was wrong.
“Liwen. I am happy to see you back,” he said, getting up to greet her.
“Doctor Gottlieb, you have failed to update me in due time. That cannot do.”
“I am truly sorry…”
“You, more than anyone else, are aware of that time is of the essence. This is very unlike you.”
“I see.” He took a deep breath. “I have failed to anticipate the progress Prophecy made on the past week. I didn’t expect it to go that fast. It was my mistake, I take full responsibility.”
The apology, the tired, very slightly guilty look in his eye, then the poker face and the responsibility discourse. Liwen was getting a certain impression of déjà-vu, but not from recent events. She looked straight at him as she spoke:
“Doctor, this is not the first time you made such an unworthy oversight! You have been distracted. Some of your recent data is simply inaccurate. It happened twice, each time on a Monday, each time after returning from your visits in Alaska.”
As if bracing himself for impact, Hermann’s hand clenched the cane, lodging it firmly into the ground. She soldiered on.
“You asked me to keep you in line. To make sure your relation with Doctor Geiszler would not get out of hand and affect the project. It is affecting it now. I have to ask you to cut any contact you might have with him in order for you to regain your senses.”
The man was reeling from her words and stopped mid-sentence. His nostrils dilated with the exhale.
“It’s not that. I am fine.”
“Cease all contact or I will inquire the matter myself.”
The fact that he had not come up with any valid excuses yet meant Liwen was probably right. And that her fear was founded. It was obvious Hermann could never let go of his former friend, even after all that it had cost him. This was the reason he had asked her to step in if he showed any sign of mental fatigue. Why her? She could only guess. Perhaps because she would be inflexible in her way to handle things. And inflexible she was going to be. Hermann had only two choices left; comply or explain himself. His eyes closed for a brief moment. Liwen was ready to strike again, but he cut her short.
“I can’t abandon him. Not now. I… I was asked to bring the Tokyo flight case file to Newt to see if he could sort this out, and I think…”
“I think he can crack the case. But he needs time. And help. He is still very emotionally unstable. Not that he was… Before but…”
Now she was pissed.
“Are you telling me that you have been working on another project during your days off?”
“No, not really, I just helped.”
He cringed, probably at the sound of his own voice. The lack of confidence dripped from his shaky tone. It took all of her strength not to break him in two.
“You have been working double shift and as a result you are now making mistakes a freshman would be ashamed of! What did you expect would happen? I can’t stand for this and I won’t stand for this. Prophecy is your work and you would compromise it for someone else’s problem?”
“I have not abandoned it. Unfortunately, no one else will step forward to assist a man hidden miles away from all civilization.”
“Then leave him there. If he can find the solution, let him find it on his own.”
“He will crumble and collapse the moment I turn my back! We need Newt, it is that simple.”
“No. You need to believe the world needs Newt. That is the truth.”
Clearly, this time Liwen made an impact: Hermann went back to his seat, an air of defeat displayed all over his features.
“I don’t understand you,” she whispered. “You fought hard for this. You went against the council. This project cannot go on if you tire yourself beyond repair.”
He looked back at her, nodding.
“I… I will be more careful with my spare time. But I won’t walk away.”
“I thought we had agreed Prophecy was a priority.”
“Yes Liwen, we agreed. But this entire matter bothers me. You have to understand; Prophecy is useless if we can’t even keep this tiny rock of a planet we live on from blowing up in our faces.”
Why were they inviting him again? Well, sure, he wasn’t really invited per say, Nate had dragged him all the way to Lima. The rest of the board was tolerating him because he was important now. But was he really? There was a slight difference between being a very well loved public figure and being truly important.
Jake was not in a position to make decisions. He was still training his crappy cadets in his crappy Jaeger simulator. (And he actually believed that he was better at it than Nate ever was. He was cool, funny, handsome. They loved him, for the most part. And patience surely worked better than Nate’s pushy and cynical behavior.)
Of course, he had a say in everything now, within his own framework. Still, why did he had to go through that meeting? Of course, he was glad to be traveling a bit but that was no vacation either. His opinion didn’t really matter in this particular crowd, so why bother? Why dragging him all the way out here ?
Was that a punishment in disguise? A way to remind him what his place was out in the world? Whether he was piloting Lady Avenger or walking around in uniform, all he ever did was stand there and look pretty. He didn’t like it. Too many bad memories. And this had not been the nicest of meetings either. If anything, Jake hadn’t liked what had been said around him one bit. It wasn’t that nothing was getting done, but he wasn’t sure they were done for the right reasons and that unnerved him even more. You would have thought the long ass war against the precursors would have taught them a thing or two, but no. Where to even begin?
Jake was under the impression that the PPDC was obligated to join in for public safety reasons, but now it felt more like a pretext to have a tighter hand on the recently created “Contaminated Wildlife Containment Agency”, the new collaboration program in charge of studying and resolve the new crisis at hand. So the military had stepped in to keep order, but they weren’t planning to jump into the fray. Not completely anyway. That was a weird position to hold.
Stand there and look pretty. Again.
“I respect you opinions” Nate said as they walked of that boring conglomerate.
“Oh? Is that why I’m here? Or is my presence required to make you look good?”
“No. Come on. I look better than you.”
“Keep telling yourself that.”
“I thought you wanted to know what was going on.”
“Well, next time, bring me to the meeting where actual decisions are being made.”
“I’d agree, but…”
The both of them went down the stairs into the main hall.
“We’re kind of stuck right now,” Nate added.
“So, the only plan at this point is to reduce the animal population in sensible areas, without actually knowing the cause of the attacks. Great. Am I the only one here thinking that these people have no idea what the hell they’re actually doing?”
“What about the tracking devices then? What if they could track and separate the affected animals from the others?”
“That’s cool and all, but so far it’s nothing tangible. It’s an idea. I’ll believe they can do it when I see it.”
“But what else do you want them to do? All the research so far is inconclusive.”
“Here’s the thing.” Jake stopped right in his tracks. “Why do I feel like the head of that research department cares more about tracking the contaminated species than, you know, finding what’s causing all this?”
“That isn’t fair. You heard him, even if we knew the source factor for sure, the damage done to those creatures is irreversible. It’s not a disease. They can’t be cured and we can’t just wait it out. I mean, you’ve actually been listening to those experts, right?”
“That’s the weird thing. I haven’t heard them all just yet.”
Now, it was night time in Lima. The message of the day had been “we’ll need your collaboration eventually, please stay out of our way, we’ll keep you posted to make you feel important”, something along those lines. The following morning, they would head back to china. From his hotel window, Jake could see in the artificial lights what was left of the former Shatterdome in the distance, stranded at sea on its island, watching relentlessly the horizon like a stone gargoyle on a giant sand dune. It was more of an official building now than a military base. A memorial for the pilots and victims had even been added to the entrance. The meeting had been held there and not at the Awaq Uru center. Maybe they had thought it was more appropriate.
Lima had been rebuilt quite a bit, but some places along the coast remained something of a wasteland with slums growing out of nowhere. Jake had felt a pang of nostalgia when he had first seen it in the distance from the car window. It was very similar, in a way, to what he had known back home. Obviously, a few illegal bars would have settled there too. Could be interesting. And dangerous. His Spanish was really rusty.
Ah, what the hell.
He felt way too smothered in his nice hotel room anyway. But he had something to settle first.
Gottlieb answered his call almost right away. It was clear as day he didn’t expect Jake to contact him like that, even though he knew he had clearance. He looked worried.
“Hey! Er, sorry about that. Didn’t mean to scare you or anything.”
He could see the scientist breathed easier, before sending him a death glare.
“Ranger Pentecost. I gather you are at the summit in Lima.”
“You know about it?”
“Since you have deemed relevant to bring the Tokyo Flight case file to me, I made a point to, at the very least, keep myself informed of the situation.”
It was probably around 11 AM in Siberia. Gottlieb was holding a steaming cup in one hand and a wrinkled piece of paper in the other. Perhaps Jake was catching him at a bad time. Honestly, he hadn’t even expected him to answer. He had thought the scientist would be stuck in his lab or something.
“So, how’s research?”
“I believe you are referring to Newton’s work and not mine, given the circumstances. Frankly, it is going better than expected, although progress will be slow. You cannot ask one man to do the work of an entire team on his own.”
“But it is going somewhere, right?”
“I believe so, yes.”
“Keep me posted, then.”
Gottlieb’s eyes narrowed.
“Did something happen?”
“No, nothing happened. Not a goddamn thing. Incidents are what keep on happening, though. So you know what, if you need help, contacts, clearance, whatever, anything I can do, let me know. I have a funny feeling that you might be on you own on this one. At least for now.”
A couple of minutes after the call ended, Jake had changed into whatever he had that was more casual and had left the building discreetly, already wondering in which general direction he should be headed. Soon, he caught a shadow moving at the corner of an eye.
“Talk about timing, ” a voice said.
Jake fully turned, coming face to face with a tall, pale figure hidden under a cap the same dark green as his jacket. He hadn’t changed much, it was the light beard that was distracting.
Of all the things he expected to see tonight, this man wasn’t one of them. Yet confusion vied with awe. Jake was probably standing very awkwardly. Thankfully, Raleigh made the first move, reaching out his hand with a smile. After the usual greetings, the former pilot offered to make up for lost times around a beer or two. Jake couldn’t bring himself to say no.
He was really surprised by the idea, though. The two of them had never really talked before. Sure, they had met but… When Mako had introduced them, it was around the time of their father’s death and… Let’s just say Jake was not in a good place at that time. But he knew Raleigh and his sister had remained close over the years.
The last time he had seen the man had been, unfortunately, at Mako’s funeral. Not the official one, the private one they had held for friends and family. Jake and Raleigh had stood next to each other in deep silence, crying their eyeballs out, not daring to say a word to each other. Then Raleigh had left not to be seen again. Until tonight.
Jake wasn’t too thrilled about it. Raleigh reminded him too much of his grief: simply glancing at him stirred an awful lot of uneasy emotions in his guts. But Raleigh’s attitude was joyful and polite and soon enough, the sadness dissipated into a comfortable atmosphere, only slightly tinted by melancholy.
“Seems like you’re the real deal now, sitting with the council and at the same table—”
“Wow, no, no, no, man. I have to stop you right there. Don’t put me in the same bag with those idiots. I’m just here because of Nate.”
“You mean Marshall Lambert?”
They had ended up following the streets at random. Most of the slums had been constructed on top of old collapsed houses, a maze of colorful low buildings. The government clearly hadn’t bothered messing with it. Then both pilots had entered the most crowded, ragged-looking bar they had found. If it looked both decrepit and full of people, it could only be good.
“I take it you don’t plan on following in your father’s and sister’s footsteps?” Raleigh asked with a crafty smile.
“Hell no. I didn’t want to come back, remember?”
“I do. Yet here we are.”
But the ranger kept on rambling.
“You should have seen him, with his smug face. ‘I respect you opinion, Jake.’ ‘You should tag along if you’re so worried, Jake.’ Well, bullshit that. Sometimes I feel like they’re draining me on purpose and I’m doing them a favor by staying. I don’t even care about them to be honest. The PPDC was my father’s world. It was Mako’s. It never was mine. They gave it all they had. Problem is, I’m not planning on doing the same.”
“I’m thinking I stayed for the cadets. All of them. They’re always little shits, you know? Think they know better than anyone else.”
“Oh? Can’t imagine why you like them.”
“Shut up. Not all of us are perfect heroes.”
“I had no idea that’s what I was.”
“Sorry. Just. There’s always going to be Jaegers in the world now. Even though Lady Avenger is a museum piece now more than a weapon, with the redesigns and all, it’s very clear that they’ve been considering using Jaeger tech for new, less noble purposes. It’s too late to go back to how things were and I’d rather be the one who trains them. Who trains the recruits. The day I leave, they’re gonna replace me with some asshole that’s gonna fill their heads with loads of propaganda bullshit. I just want to make sure they know what kind of world they live in. To them, I’d give it all. To them. Not the program. But the more I think about it, the more I feel I’m here to give the higher ups a good conscience. ‘Oh look, we’re open minded, we have the troublemaker in our midst.’ No man. I’m tired of feeling used, know what I mean? Of course you know, you’ve been there. And why am I telling you all this?”
Raleigh laughed silently, then he nodded to Jake with a smile... It was the exact way Mako used to, when they were young and her younger brother was relentlessly complaining about something. Right away, Jake felt his entire body freeze. And maybe Raleigh understood what he’d done, because he looked away, taking a few gulps of his beer in embarrassment.
Quite a few seconds of silence followed.
“So, how about you?” Jake asked. “How are you doing?”
“Not that bad, for a nuclear explosion survivor victim of radioactive poisoning. Somehow, I don’t really feel that sick.”
“What have you been up to, then?”
“Not that much. There was just a shit ton I wanted to see, you know, before the end comes for me as well. I took a backpack one morning and hit the road. It’s been pretty great for the most part.”
Something wasn't right. Jake could hear it in his voice. Not that he was a very difficult guy to read, he pretty much wore his heart on his sleeve all the time.
“Is that why you’re in Lima? Why do I feel like it’s not a coincidence?”
“I was in Australia last year. On that beach.”
It took Jake a second to really measure the weight of those words.
“You mean… The creepy shark incident?”
Raleigh’s expression hardened, his jaw tensed and an unusual light settled in the blue shade of his eyes, full of dread, doubt, and somehow, fascination as well.
“I have seen some fucked up shit in my lifetime. I’ve literally seen the anteverse, I’ve been there, that alone should win the messed up award, right?”
He downed the rest of his beer in one go before continuing.
“I have no idea how to even describe it. Those sharks. It’s going to sound crazy but I don’t think they wanted to die. Still, they went ahead and charged that tiny portion of land. It was so incredibly violent. I’ve never seen something like it. So when an old friend told me about the summit…”
“An old friend?”
How did everyone know, damn it? Weren’t they supposed to be discrete?
“Tendo Choi. I just thought I’d get here and poke around a little.”
“Oh, so that explains the beer and the catching up stuff. Well I’m going to have to disappoint you, nothing interesting happened in this stupid Shatterdome.”
Jake finished his drink as well.
“I guess this is not worth it for the rest of the world then, ” Raleigh said. “We won the war. What else could happen?”
“Don’t look at me, I don’t like it anymore than you do.”
“So what then? We all sit around and wait? We check things out of our bucket list and hope for the best?”
“That. Or we can get ice cream to go with that beer while I tell you about my useless back up plan.”
Chapter 5: Kaiju Blues
Hello. Sorry for the long absence, this chapter has been kind of a pain to write, but it's quite long as well. Writing this is quite satisfying to me but I have no idea if people other than me will like it.
Also, if you're all caught up and you wish beta read this thing, you can drop me a line on twitter. This french guy could use the opinion of an english speaker.
Have a nice week everyone !
It wasn’t exactly the best plan. Jake knew it. Unfortunately, he wasn’t going to sit back and wait either, despite the fact that it wasn’t his field. Maybe the years had made him nosy; maybe it was just stubbornness.
Or… He simply enjoyed the annoyed look on Nathan’s face.
“Oh, so you can complain when you get dragged into a meeting and I can’t?”
“The thing hasn’t started yet,” Jake replied as they walked the dark corridor of the military base. “At least wait until the snoring begins. You know, make it look like you have something to complain about.”
His former co-pilot gave him the darkest stare he had seen in a while. It would be funny if the situation wasn’t so dire. A couple of weeks ago, Doctor Geiszler had made something of a discovery and one morning Jake had received an email from a very distressed Gottlieb that insisted that it was crucial to have Newt’s assumptions heard. This had lead to a series of events where Jake had basically bothered Nate until he had agreed to contact the right people. And since one couldn’t just move this very sensitive prisoner from his secret hiding, they both had to take a plane to Alaska. Nobody knew what was going to be said but Jake had a very bad feeling. Nate grunted.
“Look. When you told me you needed to talk to Hermann Gottlieb, I thought you meant just Hermann Gottlieb.”
“Nah, man, that’s not what I said. I said we should talk to Gottlieb about what Newt knows—”
“It doesn’t matter! I thought you wanted Gottlieb to be in charge! You know! The not murderous one of the two.”
And there they went. Return of the awkwardness. Nate kept going:
“What on earth do you think you’re doing? Do I have to remind you that—”
“No, man, you really don’t.”
“We can’t trust this guy!”
“And you think I don’t get it? He almost handed the earth back to the Precursors and he took my sister away, so if you think you don’t like him, believe me, it’s nothing compared to how much I hate this son of a…”
Jake realized all of a sudden that people might be listening. He took a deep breath.
“Listen, Nate. I don’t trust him. I just don’t. But I trust Gottlieb. If he says the man is onto something, I’m willing to hear them out.”
“I hate to be that guy, but how do you know Newt is not going to try and trick him this time?”
“Because now Gottlieb knows better.”
Hermann could not rest easily. When one had been part of the scientific community for as long as he had, one simply knew those things. Roy Flores-Renan, the head of the Awaq Uru project, did not have a good reputation. Not that he was incompetent by any means; he did publish a very impressive work on fractals when he was a mere twenty year-old student. However, he was one of those men that would lean where the money came from. Not that there was anything wrong with that. Problems started when money influenced or silenced one’s results. And Flores’ reputation had gotten stained the day he had sold out a fellow scientist whose body of work was threatening one of his clients. Very nasty business. Yet he had been chosen as a lead to the Awaq Uru project, where all data concerning Kaiju investigations had been gathered, the research center that now sheltered the “Contaminated Wildlife Containment Agency” and Hermann honestly didn’t know how to feel about that. Yes, he was competent, but under which conditions was he leading his team?
The only response both the scientists and the military had agreed on so far was population control, in the hope it could both limit the number of incidents and contain whatever was affecting those animals. In practice, that meant systematically killing animal populations that showed specific signs such as neurological dysfunctions, strange behavioural patterns, inexplicable blood loss, that kind of thing. Obviously, those measures wouldn’t solve a thing, but they were all they had to maintain a semblance of control.
Flores was a mathematician by formation, just like Hermann, but instead of redirecting himself towards physics or cryptology, he had chosen to move towards marine biology instead, which felt a little bit out of character. If one wanted to make money, surely it was a safer bet to cuddle up to the banks rather than study sea turtles in the middle of the Pacific. Still, Hermann knew Flores was well off, mostly due to his groundbreaking work on genetics that had started blurring the boundaries in between disciplines. If anyone could challenge Newt on his own theory, it was this man. And that was incredibly worrying. It would all boil down to Flores’ willingness to listen. He could help them or he could destroy them.
Yet, when Hermann had greeted the scientist at the entrance gate, it had been absolutely cordial. The head of Awaq Uru had under-dressed, with a simple black T-shirt and jeans under his heavy coat and gloves. Nothing that would let on his wealth, not even a fancy watch. He was smiling, beaming even, and shook Hermann’s hand with something akin to excitement. If Flores had reservations, he had shown nothing of it.
“Man, you ok?”
Hermann snapped out of it, answering with a simple “Mhpf”. Newton was typing frantically. Last minute preparations, without a doubt. They were now waiting for their last two guests in order to begin. They had moved seats and a holo display inside the cage, since Newt wasn’t supposed to leave. Hermann stared at him for a while but his old friend seemed totally engrossed by what he was doing. He had taken more weight and looked less fragile than in the previous months. His face had regained some of its color and roundness, his smile felt less empty. Hermann remembered a time when he hated that smile, but now he couldn’t remember what he had loathed about it, exactly.
The past months had been hectic at best. There had been a phase when Newton had spiraled back into anxiety. He hadn’t been eating and nothing really had mattered outside of the fish tank. Moreover, Hermann had the distinct impression that he was purposefully not looking at him, averting his eyes each time they could meet. That, he had thought, was quite distressing. When he had confronted Newt about it, the man had stayed quite elusive, and at the same time strangely precise:
“I-I mean yes… I mean no… I’m not trying to avoid you. Not at all… No, that’s really not… I’m fine! I’m really fine! I’m not trying to do anything. It’s just sometimes, you know how things are… And look, my head does weird shit now. I mean different than before. I know it, you know it. There’s no point in pretending that it isn’t a thing. But you don’t like it. Fine, whatever. I guess what I’m trying to say is… I’m really happy that you brought me this, that you went through all this trouble so that I could work… Sure, I’m doing all of the work, but you’re here, you’re helping in your own way that’s what counts. I’m grateful. I mean… I don’t want to repay all that effort you did by making you even more uncomfortable, so I’m trying to keep my brain in check. A little. Keep my reasoning were they belong… You come every week, you do your best not to complain every five seconds. And while I think it’s slightly unfair you never talk about your own work…”
And Newt had gone rambling on like that for another ten minutes. Two things had transpired through. First, that Newton seemed aware that he was now reading into Hermann’s thoughts beyond what he himself was comfortable with. Second, admitting to that had clearly made Newt feel better. The descent had stopped after that day and even if the mood rollercoaster had still not ended, something might have changed for the better. But it was far from a constant progression; there were ups and downs, as expected.
Once again, Hermann had to blink himself back to reality when a distracted hand landed on his shoulder and lingered there on the velvet fabric for an excruciatingly short second.
“How’s Liwen doing? She’s not coming today, is she?”
For a second, Hermann doubted he had heard that question right.
“What makes you think I’ve seen her recently?”
“Well, you’re working together now, aren’t’ you?”
Hermann did his best to hide his surprise but probably failed. He felt his eyebrows slightly tilt upwards as he replied:
“I don’t believe I’ve ever mentioned this. So how—”
“You didn’t choose that jacket.”
Hermann’s eyes narrowed as they fell on the dark magenta color of his clothes. He had to get that velvet jacket when Liwen had insisted she would not bring him to meetings with her corporate rivals as long as he would ‘dress like that’.
“Yeah, that’s what she does,” Newt said with a half-laugh. “You have my sympathy.”
Hermann then heard the characteristic swoosh announcing the imminent opening of the airlock. Both scientists froze and their eyes met. The nervousness filled the air; they weren’t as ready as they pretended to be. Never-the-less, Newton finished his typing on the console, before shaking his shoulders and striding towards the door. Their time had definitely run out. Hermann struggled to his cane and pulled himself back to his feet. He watched as the prisoner, with a smile and a high pitched tone, went ahead and greeted every single one of the newcomers as if they were guests at his own house, and not high-ranking officials entering a high security cell.
It had been troublesome to convince them all that they needed to hear what Newton had to expose, giving his personal history. But the insistence of both Jake Pentecost and Hermann had weighted heavily in the balance. Perhaps Liwen had sent a memo as well, just to get rid of the whole ordeal. The new Secretary-General had agreed to make the trip, so did Flores and two of his lead researchers, not to mention Marshall Lambert and Jake. It wasn’t going to be much of a crowd, but if they could convince only those seven people, the rest would follow smoothly. And now Hermann was certain of the critical aspect that their little experiment had uncovered. They needed to make an impact.
The stiffness of the conversation took a blow when the two biologists finally came face to face. Watching Newt greet the head of Awaq Uru was, by far, the most bizarre thing. The two of them nearly jumped into each other’s arms, professing loudly how incredible it was that they could finally meet in person. The excess of familiarity almost gave Hermann nausea.
Wait until you get to know him, see how incredible that’s going to be.
As he realized Ranger Pentecost was approaching, Hermann left his annoyance behind.
“Hey. Sorry we were late. I see this idiot’s already winning the crowd. No offense,” Jake said, nodding towards the two very loud scientists.
Lambert was right behind him and greeted Hermann with proper cordiality.
“I guess this is going to be a short one,” Jake whispered, staring at the head of Awaq Uru. Flores was as pale as Newt, with darker eyes and small rectangular glasses.
“Oh, don’t let the scene fool you. Flores sees us as rivals, not colleagues. If I had to make an educated guess, I’d say he’s trying to bring us to a sense of false security. He will not let Newton tear down his own work so easily. His ego might not recover.”
“So you think Newt could do it?” Jake asked.
“I certainly hope so. Perhaps not shatter it completely but at the very least, breach it enough in order to push everyone in this room to consider a new approach.”
“Well,” Lambert interrupted, “if his theory is true and he has enough material to back it up, then it shouldn’t be a problem, right?”
Hermann took a deep breath.
The Marshall smiled and backed away. With a frown, Jake whispered again:
“Let me guess. It’s not going to be that simple, is it?”
“Newton is isolated and has been working on this case for only nine months. Flores has a budget, an entire lab and probably an extraordinary head start. How easy do you think this is going to get?”
When everyone was moderately comfortably seated around the holo display, Newton stepped at the center to start his presentation without any kind of preamble.
“So, about our little discoveries… I hope everyone is nice and cozy because we’re going to be here for a while. For the sake of this demonstration, I’m going to ask you to forget any preconceived notion you might have about this series of events. Especially because we have a bunch of non-experts here that might get lost real quick if we don’t take it steps by steps. As you obviously know, we’re here to solve the deep mystery of our unruly cold-blooded creatures. Or half cold-blooded. Well, most of them are cold… The point, yes.”
Hermann had had to hit his cane against the table in order to bring the rant back on track. Newt had insisted to talk first. Nobody knew whether he had both the energy and the carefulness to carry this whole thing, but no one could do it with as much conviction as he had.
“The origin of our little Hitchcock fever dream has been difficult to pinpoint, to say the least. That’s our greatest difficulty right now. My colleagues here, I know, have a lot of suspicions but no hard evidence. Hence why you all agreed to lock yourselves up with me today. But given the geographical locations of the major events, I think we can all agree this is a repercussion of the war itself. Most occurrences started around the Pacific Ocean and now they are spreading.”
A terrestrial globe appeared on the display, each location highlighted in order.
“First western India, where an entire road got covered overnight by dead tarantulas. Then Argentina, where a dozen of reptiles started convulsing at the same time, and I’m being told we’ve had our first lethal case in the Atlantic last week. My guess is, no one has actually any clue on how to stop this, otherwise you wouldn’t be here listening to my ramblings. But fortunately, today I have a couple of answers for you that you might want to consider.”
Newt had seemed very unsure at first, but was warming up slowly. He seemed more at ease, very much like a comedian on stage. Hermann sat on the side, slightly behind the speaker, and already he was breathing easier. It was like watching a sunflower raising its core towards the light at dawn. His Newt— no, not his; the old Newt— seemed on the verge of coming back to life. Of course, it wasn’t surprising: Now that he had the attention of an entire small committee, it surely felt like his own self-centered heaven.
“First, a quick recap, especially for those in the back who do not know much about the actual science.”
Hermann’s eyes rolled. Did he really need to be such a show off?
“We have two main suspects in this debacle. I’m sure most of you understand who those are, so we’ll make it quick.”
Newton cracked his fingers and pressed the button on his remote.
“First: Kaiju blood. The main culprit for most of our troubles since the very beginning of the Kaiju attacks, responsible for the majority of the collateral damage. And this is a tricky substance to study, first because kaiju blue is one of the most toxic substances to ever exist under our sun, but also because, well, kaiju blood is not technically blood. It has a very marginal role within the body of its proprietors and it is more of an amalgam of different substances, than actual blood that serves a purpose for the organism to function properly, if that makes sense.”
The integrality of all the chemical data on the subject was scrolling down on the holo screen, adding flickering lights to the side of Newt’s cheek. The shine captivated Hermann.
The biologist was always very good at catching the light, on more than one level.
“It exists to do damage, not to simply carry oxygen or elements to feed the brains and muscles. And its composition is extremely complex, beyond our actual level of biomechanical understanding.”
Both Hermann’s hands rested atop of his cane. He had forgotten for an instant the rest of the room. Newt had worked so hard on this. The shadows under his eyes were incredibly dark now that his skin had grown even paler, but he looked happy. He was in his element, pouring his heart out into the work, while Hermann always felt more at ease in the shadow of a well-crafted façade that acted as his shield. Always that divide, that drive that would put Newton were no one else could reach him. Hermann would try and step out into the light if that meant they could stand a little closer, but he knew it would burn him. It was better to remain where he was, and watch from afar.
“For the same people in the back,” Newt said as he moved about his hand in the general direction of Marshall Lambert, “look at it like a mixture of poison, acid and nanotech that lives within something more akin to a lymphatic system inside a literal killing machine. So yeah, very difficult to study. And to add to that, because otherwise it would be too simple, most of its components love to create new and interesting reactions with other elements.”
With a dramatic sweep, he made the data slide to the side.
“So this is suspect number one. Now, for suspect number two: Radiation.”
New data appeared, a model that Hermann was closely familiar with, since he was mostly responsible for its development fifteen years prior.
“Kaiju that crossed the breach to reach our universe carried with them a very specific radioactive signature; again, this is common knowledge. But not many people actually understand why. Now thanks to the data collected, my esteemed colleague over there—”
Newt vaguely pointed his thumb towards Hermann, not bothering to even fully turn towards him. Typical.
“—has been able to determine that, surprisingly, the laws of physics in the Anteverse are slightly different than what we know here. Not too different, but different enough to allow for heavy elements to persist when they could not possibly exist on earth for any lengthy periods of time.”
Yet, as the explanation went on, Hermann realized that before that moment, Newton had kept sneaking glances at him, standing at an angle where he could still see Hermann on occasions while still facing his audience. Odd.
“Now this is important. Whenever Kaiju crossed the breach, any particles that they may have carried with them which would have been too complex to maintain themselves in our own universe would have immediately started decaying. And that means radiation. Each new entry has been irradiating the bottom of the Pacific Ocean. This has been going on in regular intervals for years, and we still have no idea of the long-term consequences.”
Once again, Newt angled his head just enough to make eye contact.
“Also,” he cheerfully added, “can we ponder on the fact that this discovery does imply that the Precursors have within their grasp elements beyond Bismuth that do not exist in our own Universe and that fact alone is the most awesome thing?”
Hermann’s blood rose to his head instantly:
“I have never made such claims!”
“Too bad, ‘cause you could have. Just with the PR-22—”
“That is just speculation as long as we do not find any reliable traces—”
“Yeah but if your calculations are correct there’s no way—”
“It would not have happened anyway if that had required us to send a drone into their sun—”
“You don’t need direct data to prove atoms exist.”
“It’s not that simple and you know it!”
“All right, fine, stay boring if you want to. Now.”
Newt turned back towards his audience and Hermann was left to wonder why on earth his idiot co-worker would take that tangent. Moreover, why was it so easy for him to get on his nerves? He wasn’t trying to prove who was right and who was wrong for once; if anything his faith in his abilities could have been seen as a compliment. An inaccurate one, but still… Why was it so hot in here all of a sudden?
“The main problem in all of this,” Newton began again, “is that when it comes to understand the consequences of all those factors, we lack a ton of crucial informations. But, at this point, I can tell you, without the shadow of a doubt, that our culprit is suspect number one. And here’s why.”
The holo display went blank for a while.
“First, we have to take a good look at our state of affairs. Most of the kaiju blood that we could not contain, years and years ago, after the first attacks, is actually still here. It still exists. The main currents carried it and it slowly sank at the bottom of the Pacific Ocean. Kaiju blue, unlike oil, doesn’t stay on the surface for that long. Because it slowly changes, it interacts with different molecules around it. And so the deposits that we have on our ocean floors, well, it’s not really Kaiju blood anymore. It’s more like a mutated residue. And this is fascinating to study. We know the basics of the chemical reactions because three years ago, a submarine was dispatched to some of the deepest parts of the eastern Pacific to take samples and observe how life forms were doing down there. And not only did they discover that kaiju blue did not simply dissolve into the gigantic water mass like we thought, but also that those deposits just might have created an entirely new type of biome that never existed prior. And before the boring side of the room jumps in again—”
Newt turned to give Hermann a reproachful look and it took all of Hermann’s self control not to respond in kind. They could not be seen bickering like children for the entirety of that meeting.
“—I would like to point out that I’m using the word ‘biome’ because this mission has also discovered bacteria that could survive within those deposits. Earth bacteria.”
One button press later and the microscopic organism in question appeared on the display.
“Now if this doesn’t sound suspicious, nothing will. How did anyone fail to go bonkers over this is beyond me, to be honest.”
One could wonder if Newton was actually trying to appear annoying to his audience. Or maybe it would harden his will to see said audience dismiss him and part of his brain actually wanted to be rejected, in order to have the pleasure to prove them wrong. Both theories were plausible to Hermann.
“The non-scientific side of the room has a question,” Marshall Lambert said with a hint of irritation. “When you say bacteria, do you mean something like a disease?”
Hermann answered with a reassuring tone:
“Not at all, we’re talking about harmless bacteria, comparable to the one you would encounter on sulfur deposits. It is difficult to observe because it cannot survive beyond the biome that it was born in. No chance of it reaching the surface on its own.”
“No need to panic, Marshall,” Flores said with a teasing smile.
“I see our head department over there is getting bored. Let’s speed things up, shall we?”
The leader of Awaq Uru politely nodded. As if Newton wasn’t enough, Flores’ carefree attitude was starting to get on Hermann’s nerves as well. He had his elbows on his knees, his head resting on the back of his hands. Why couldn’t he stop smiling?
“How in the hell is that a connection, you might ask? And the most unsolvable questions of all, how does a marine phenomenon start influencing terrestrial animals? Well, worry no more, I’m going to walk you through it. Step one is to establish the damage inflicted on all the contaminated animals. And at this point, we hit our second wall. You see, lots of autopsies have been performed on the specimens we could preserve, and unfortunately, not all the damage is consistent. Some seem very reminiscent of chronic radiation syndrome, which also has neurological effects, like seizures. But others do not. And as Doctor Flores has stated in one of his public reports, it isn’t really certain that the word ‘damage’ is the right one here. They’re more like small mutations or anomalies, at best deficiencies. But no major degradation was found in their DNA, which throws the radiation theory out the window, nothing at first that could explain their pattern in behavior either… Or could it? Because I’m under the impression that we were all looking at the wrong place. I mean, most teams focused on this idea that it was an increase in aggressiveness or a form of neurological malfunction causing a failure of their survival instinct that was at fault. And what a mistake that was. I almost made it myself. Almost.”
You could see the cringe on the audience faces. Once again, Newt sent a quick amused look in Hermann’s direction, who actually felt like strangling him for his show of arrogance. If he wasn’t going to care about whether or not they took him serious— Wait. The low key compliment, the boasting.
Was Newt trying to impress him?
Preposterous. Hermann already knew everything there was to know about his experiment. Why waste time on him? He wasn’t the one in need of convincing!
“There is one trait that is consistent in almost every case.” Newton continued. “So let’s look for a second at the brain of our samples.”
On the holo display, three strangely colored transversal scans of three different-sized brains had appeared. The very thin shape of an amphibian’s brain, a more bulbous one belonging to a bird, and finally the triangular brain of a shark.
“Here, samples that were taken at the site of different incidents, one in Australia, two in America. All the anomalies that could be found on them were color coded blue. Can you see any pattern?” He asked, waving at the chaotic pattern of colorful stains. “Well no, looking at it like that everything seems quite random. Except for this one area here that seem to show up in 99% of the cases I’ve studied.”
Newton zoomed in a peculiar area that was slightly different in each brain.
“ Doctor Geiszler,” Flores asked, “may I ask how you got your hand on our data?”
“The PPDC passed them down to us,” Hermann interjected who knew better than to give any names at this point.
“I took the liberty of contacting one of my former colleagues, Doctor Chen—a neuroscientist who specialized in alternate states of consciousness—in order to have someone confirm my suspicions. Unfortunately, I had no answer… Until this morning.”
Hermann felt his eyes grow wide. Newt asked him to send the message but he had no idea Doctor Chen had actually sent a reply, probably through the military. Though he had to wonder why Newt didn’t tell him in the first place, instead of going all dramatic. Truth to be told, Hermann was fighting the urge to reprimand him, to clearly tell him how unimpressed he was, that this whole scene was ridiculous and pointless since things could never go back to normal.
Why would he do this?
But then again, why did Hermann felt satisfied knowing Newt actually cared for his opinion of him? No, he knew the danger. He pulled all this nonsense at the back of his mind to be dealt with later, or preferably never. His old friend was shivering, like a kid at Christmas, eager to impress, eager to hammer in his point. Newt pressed a command on the console and the annotations Doctor Chen had sent layered themselves on top of the scans.
“She has confirmed that the sector that gathered the most anomalies is, in every case, a junction in the right hemisphere, specifically the area that gives you the ability to perceive your body as you own. You may have all heard, I assume, of a little thing called ‘out of body experience’. Well, a few very determined scientists managed to recreate those in a lab by deactivating a certain part of the brain. This one to be exact,” Newt said as he pointed to the junction still highlighted in blue. “Well, no, to be fair, there’s more to this than just this one, but let’s keep it simple for now. The mechanism behind this phenomenon is still very much obscure but what we do know is that you shouldn’t mess with this zone. So my theory goes as followed:
“This anomaly causes a major failure to integrate all sensory and proprioceptive informations that converge to the equivalent of the temporoparietal junction on the right hemisphere when the subject is submitted to an unusual amount of stress. This trauma causes a disembodiment, perhaps even with autoscopy, which means that none of these animals were actually trying to cause harm, whether to themselves or to others. For the people in the back, it means that our victims disconnect from their beings when they panic and are simply looking at their own bodies, unable to recognize it as their own and unaware that they can actually stop it. It keeps going until they die.”
Hermann was observing the subtle change of mood as the small audience was taking in what had been said, then pulled his attention back to Newt, who had caught his breath for a split second.
“I would also like to clarify that this isn’t an OBE as you would experience it from lack of oxygen or that we have been replicating in labs. The configuration seems slightly off, which explains the quirks in statistics, but our knowledge here is limited. For now.”
Even Flores had gone serious, captivated even. He said:
“And you claim you can link that to the Kaiju organisms?”
“Of course I can. I’m glad you asked. In fact I’m pretty sure that’s where your team is stuck, right? Parts of the Kaiju cortex do withhold a substance that causes OBEs and that drug was sold on the black market for a while. So when you see those results, the first thing you look for is traces of that same substance in the brain of the animals. But there’s none. And neither in the stagnated blood. All the signs are there, but they are impossible to link properly. As you know, the danger of this configuration is, once the crisis starts it never ends and I haven’t been able to find out why just yet. But that’s what we want, to predict how it begins in order to find out how to stop it. So here’s the question: Is this caused by exposure to a toxin? Or is it a more complex process? And if so, can the lack of exposure solve our problem? You know what, let’s go to the practical side of science. I would like to introduce you all to my little friends.”
Newton tiptoed to the fish tank that was secured on a black trolley.
“Who knew you could have pets in prison, right?”
He brought the peaceful and adorable fish colony in front of his audience.
“Some of you might recognize this peculiar species. This is Nothobranchius Kadleci, small African fishes that live in small bodies of water and die out during dry season. Because of their location, none of those have been exposed to any of the damage done either by Kaiju blood or radiation. So, I decided to call in a few colleagues to see if they’d be interested in doing a little experiment. And they were. The goal was to study the effect of degrading Kaiju blood on their system.”
The holo display suddenly showed images of another tank, with the same type of fish.
“Meet group A, safely kept in a laboratory in Arizona. This is our reference point, they were grown in perfect condition, with clean water, no exposure of any kind. Those are the lucky ones.”
With a sweep, a new tank came into view.
“Now, for the poor fishes which are likely to die; meet group B. This is where it gets complicated. We have no access to any Kaiju Blue biome to speak of, but we have the composition of the water in those areas. So we attempted to recreate it in a lab in Berlin. We can’t simply put those little buddies in sea water of course, this is not their habitat, so we had to craft a new environment for them. And some of those components are really rare and really specific, and some are really really common. In order to make sure that it is indeed those specific biomes that are responsible, we created a partial environment with all the more common chemicals that creatures could encounter to see if it had the same results. That is group B.”
A new sweep.
“Group C now is kept in Berlin within the same lab that helped with the decoding of the Kaiju Biome. And this is where the real work starts. They have been exposed to the whole thing. Their water is as close as we were going to get to replicating the actual toxic environment. And because of the specifics of their biology, we were able to trick our groups into developing at quite a fast pace, in order to observe them evolve upon several generations. Seven was the most we got out of them in such a short notice. Within Group C, upon exposure, 80% of those individuals were not able to survive into adulthood within the first generation, contrary to group B were 50% survived and seemed to slowly build immunity. Unfortunately when it comes to full exposure, the mortality rate seems constant and drastic. We also found a very awful noise that causes extreme stress to those poor little things. So what happens when we expose them to our very scary stimuli?”
Hermann looked anxiously in the direction of the Awaq Uru team. For a brief instant, Flores’ brows furrowed. His expression had the same disdain that once haunted Hermann’s own mind. For a mathematician, observing and showing were not enough. One needed to demonstrate in order to be a ‘true scientist’. The warm black eyes behind the rectangular glasses had now sharpened.
All the attempts of triggering a reaction had been recorded. In all laboratories, the tanks were under surveillance 24/7. Both group A and group B went through all the testing without showing any of the abnormal behavior, as demonstrated by the footage. The small vertebrae’s spread suddenly as they got jumpscared but would calm down only a few seconds after the sudden noise. In order to make sure no “false result” would be obtained, all science teams had conditioned them to associate a lesser version of that noise to another source of stress, lowering water, predatory presence, etc. Then came group C.
The footage Newton showed was from the fourth generation. Like the previous experiments, the fishes attempted to swim away after the noise, but contrary to the others, their speed and behavior became more and more erratic as seconds passed, until the point when the frenzy took over completely and they all jumped out of the tank out of panic.
“Yeah, the team couldn’t save that group.”
The elation in Newton’s voice was gone. Hermann could tell he was frowning a little bit, his hand clenched around the very remote that could send the same sound through his own fish tank, the only other company he’d had throughout the nine previous months. Hermann felt truly for his friend in this instant.
“I’m showing you the fourth generation because we couldn’t have any divergence in terms of behavioral patterns before that. This is a very important factor to take into account. Because if this some sort of poisoning, then, why don’t we have conclusive results right in the first generations? And of course, what is this tank right in front of me for? Well, I’m glad you all asked. This is group D, the seventh generation to be exact. Don’t worry, the water here is absolutely clean, no toxins whatsoever. Only the very first generation was exposed, and their eggs were sent to me for observation. As Lieutenant Malleanu will tell you, it is out of the question to bring any toxic elements inside of this room, so that alone should guarantee you that there has been no contact whatsoever since then, only normal temperate water. And right here,” he said, showing off the small controller, “I have the sound we used for triggering purposes. I have not tested it yet but I imagine you are all curious about it.”
The room was dead silent.
“If there are no objections, here we go, then.”
Newt gulped. His chest rose with a slightly increased rhythm, his lips slightly parted, eyes fixed on the small, insignificant animals that wouldn’t survive more than a year anyway. Hermann could almost hear him say goodbye in his head.
He pressed the button.
As before, the fishes spread quickly, swimming around the bottom of the tank. A couple of seconds later, they slowed down. Hermann could see a tiny bit of light in Newt’s darkened pupil, perhaps the hope that he may have been wrong after all. But no, the frenzy began, as ruthless as he imagined it would be. Somehow, it was even more impressive in person. They moved around until it appeared the water was boiling, before jumping on the cell floor, one by one, at increased speed. Newton closed his eyes, now standing in the dismay his own experiment had wrought. There was no point trying to save them, they would never stop that destructive behavior. One by one, the fishes came to a full rest.
“I have to admit, this is quite amazing.”
Hermann turned his head towards Flores in anger. The bastard knew he was striking an emotional blow, he could tell. His tiny little roguish smile made it obvious. Without thinking, Hermann had rose up to his feet and walked to stand right behind Newton, carefully resting his weight on the cane. Water had spilt all around.
“I fail to understand your optimism doctor, since this new element works against us,” Hermann replied in the most deadpan way possible, knowing his presence might have affected his friend. Newton turned to put a hand on the mathematician's shoulder for a second, as if to make sure he was really there. The moment ended as quickly as it began.
“Never-the-less,” Flores continued, “I do not feel more enlightened than I was two hours ago. What you have given us is no proof, this is simply conjecture. You are implying that your group inherited acquired traits from up to seven generations ago even though every single research on epigenetics seem to indicate an impossibility for traits to pass down after the fourth so easily. While it is remarkable, you bring no real tangible link to the table. And there could be dozens of more likely explanations at this point. Yet, you decided to pick this one? Why?”
“I do not believe it to be unlikely,” Newt answered, maybe with less conviction that he should have had.
“I am not claiming your suggestion to be impossible, Doctor Geiszler, I am simply stating that it is highly improbable, and that you lack the information to back it up. You admitted it yourself.”
“Maybe I did, maybe I didn’t. But while I am consigned to the cage, I still managed to have clearance to access a SEM and an LCMS for couple of months. And you’re right; there is absolutely no trace of any of the chemicals in the adult’s bodies of group D.”
Newton took a deep breath. He braced himself against the console, his face paler, his shiny eyes more tired than before. He was losing his grasp on reality, Hermann knew, he had seen this expression before.
“In… In the seventh’s generation, at least.”
With a more determined gesture, Newt sent a new file to the holo screen, a microscopy colored image of thousands of cells gathered. The display zoomed in and lost in this infinite amalgam, it found one pink filament hidden in there, and brought it to the foreground.
“Amongst the second generation, after thousands of hours of search, I found those in one of my babies. Incredible what you can do when you have a shit load of free time.”
The head of Awaq Uru had gone stiff and silent, his face hardened as he hit the back of the chair. For the first time since the beginning of the meeting, Jake made his presence known:
“So what is it?”
“It’s an unknown protein,” Hermann answered. “Or more specifically, an alien protein.”
This was even more impressive when you knew that you couldn’t just ‘see’ a protein via microscopy, you had to go through a few extra steps. In other words, you needed to have imagined first that a protein could have a role to play in order to find it. The Newton Geiszler way of thinking at its best.
“It is very similar to those found in Kaiju organisms,” Newt continued. “You needed a link? Here’s one. I bet you, if you give me enough of these and you let me redo the experiment, I will somehow have similar results.”
“But wait, you didn’t find any in any other fish?” Jake asked again.
“Not in later generations. But there’s no need if it acts through hereditary transmission, in which case it is the information that the protein carries that is being transmitted, not necessarily the protein itself, so to speak. So yeah, problem solved, you can all go home and have a beer.”
“That explains nothing,” Flores interjected, “not how your mysterious proteins takes form, nor how this trait can possibly be transmitted to terrestrial species that never came in contact with the biomes.”
“It’s possible a good chunk of the toxins passed through the food chain—”
“You can’t just wave that at us and decide this magically solves everything!”
“I think I just did.”
“What he meant was,” Hermann said, as he knew it was time to step in, “if you let us re-run the experiment on a larger scale, to test that protein, then we just might give you the definite answer.While imperfect it is the only road available now, I suggest we take it.”
Both Jake and Marshall Lambert looked like they were considering it; Flores, not so much.
“I have one more question, then. You are trying to push us very far. Which would be fine if there wasn’t so much at stake and if any delay wouldn’t cost us. But I wonder how much of Doctor Geiszler’s analysis choices were driven by his love for Kaiju biology and how much by rational thinking.”
Newt looked stunned for a moment before his eyes grew wide.
“The pot calling the kettle black, Flores?”
Hermann gritted his teeth. If it became a personal confrontation, it would come back and bite Newt, not Flores. A fact his old friend apparently chose to ignore. Surprisingly, the head of Awaq Uru seemed to back off.
“Alright, my apologies. Let’s, for a minute, imagine that your theory is correct. What would be your recommendations for dealing with our current crisis?”
“Whether you like it or not, epigenetics seems to be our best bet,” Newt grumbled. “I mean, if this is passed down via genes that suddenly becomes active, then there might be a way to turn it back off again. Unplug the whole thing.”
“Very unpractical on the short term.”
“I agree. It could take years of research that we don’t have. But it is the fact that there has to be a way to counter their spiraling down, the real threat. There has to be something to do here. You need to find out what. This must be your absolute priority, not playing with tracking devices and organizing mass murders.”
The reproachful tone was particularly cutting but it couldn’t even dent Flores cool demeanor as he answered:
“That is incredibly vague. We cannot randomly block signals in one’s brain. If all you can do is criticize my team’s work—”
“Hey wait a minute!” Jake interrupted. “If those deposits are the source of all our problems, can’t we just clean them up?”
“Do you think we didn’t think about it?” Flores asked with annoyance. “You don’t seem to understand that even if you gave me a small army of Jaegers to send at the bottom of the ocean, it would probably take more than fifteen years and cost billions. Which country of the world would be willing to take the burden? Can the army finance it? I sure can’t.”
“Then why finance a rubbish scientific campaign that wouldn’t work?”
“We’re just trying to save as many lives as possible. It’s a short term solution to buy us some time, nothing more.”
“I expected a bit more determination from you.”
“And I expected a little more than far-fetched assumptions, Doctor Geiszler. I’m disappointed.”
Newton clenched his fists, letting his voice go into its more desperate high-pitched self:
“Well, excuse me if I can’t do much from inside here!”
“Is that why you so desperately need to be right? So we let you out?”
As the tension was rising, Newt almost tripped on his own feet the moment he was going to answer. He passed a hand on the side of his face, as if making sure it was still there.
“All right, that’s enough.”
Hermann stepped forward, lightly pushing his old friend towards his own chair. Remarkably, he only marginally protested.
“I’ll take it from here, thank you.”
Newt was on the verge of having an episode, he was too tired, they both understood it. The chaos planted by the Precursors was still lodged somewhere inside his mind. Hermann lived in the fear of the day when that part of Newt would reawaken and Hermann would see Newt disappear in the burning blue light the hive mind had kindled in him. Would it be selfish of Hermann if to safely keep Newt in the darkness with him? It didn’t matter now. Once again, Hermann pushed the thought to be destroyed in his mental paper shredder and stepped forward with confidence.
“Now, Doctor Flores, we have not gathered you all here just to expose a theory, I’m afraid. I know this must look very unpractical at this stage, but before you draw any conclusions, I would like to present you with my own work.”
The terrestrial globe hologram came back up behind him, displaying entire new blue zones within the ocean.
“This is a simulation mapping all the kaiju deposits that we know of around the pacific rim. Based on the rate of dissolution in salt waters, the state of the currents and the model proposed by Doctor Geiszler, I have calculated that in order to terminate every life form that could pass down this active trait, at this point in time you would have to end 40% of this planet’s known animal organisms.”
The map suddenly was replaced by Hermann’s calculations, from start to finish, that were previously haunting the walls of the prison cell. This had an impact. The small audience were exchanging worried looks.
“I fear it is too late to go back now to how things were. We are running out of time, out of resources and out of luck. Protecting the densely inhabited areas won’t be enough if 40% of our animal wild life now represents a threat to us. We need an efficient solution and we need it in a matter of months, if we do not wish to face a mass extinction scenario. Because it is coming within the next year. Now, I am not suggesting you need to let Doctor Geiszler out but the only reasons those laboratories collaborated on this experiment was because I asked them in my own name. All I request is that you give this man a small team within Awaq Uru and you give him the means to work on a proper solution, because you need it. And fast.”
The head of the laboratory in question was staring back at him serenely, then shifted to scrutinize the holo display.
Hermann graciously invited him to come forward. Flores walked to the device and patiently, went through all the lines of numbers and symbols. He stayed silent for many long dragging minutes. Hermann could see an impatient Jake flicking playfully one of his medals under the disapproving stare of Marshall Lambert, until finally the silence was broken:
“Flawless, as always. As a fellow mathematician I can only admire this state of the art. I only have one inquiry. If I follow your previsions and if indeed we have reached the 41.98799% threshold, shouldn’t the ratio of incidents be way higher than it actually is?”
Hermann stiffly raised his chin.
“You believe my calculations to be incorrect then?”
“No, they are by far, incredibly accurate. However, there is a disparity with your own previsions.”
He highlighted a sequence of equations within the holo display.
“There might be parameters that still come into play. We cannot be fully aware of all the crisis that occur, that would be ridiculous.”
“Yes, but your previsions here were made with the number of crisis recorded, not with the absolute number. So even if we make the probability to determine a margin of error…”
Through the console, Flores added a few line of numbers, before sending the results to Hermann’s side of the holo screen.
“We are still way off. Do you have an explanation for that?”
“I… do not. Not at this stage.”
“Mmh. I have one. Your simulation is off the mark because Doctor Geizsler’s model is incorrect, plain and simple.”
Hermann had started to protest but Flores cut him off with authority.
“Doctor Gottlieb, I respect you, immensely. Unfortunately the amount of work that rest on my team’s shoulders means that I cannot put them in an even more difficult situation. And I will not risk it all for a man that has threatened the entirety of this planet just out of recklessness. If the military is willing to let him out, then I will take him in. Begrudgingly, but I will. If not, then I will not push for it. I don’t have the time, I don’t have the patience. Let us work, that’s all I ask.”
There were a thousand things Hermann could have replied to Flores argument of probabilities, but all were too far fetched. Not completely to be dismissed, but not really probable either. While Newton had no problem throwing himself into speculations all the while being certain he would fall back on his feet like a cat, Hermann was not ready to make that leap of faith. And he could still remember all that annoyance, all that frustration that used to eat him alive because Newton could never keep up with his standards, with his rigor, with his rigid sense of perfection. Now that same perfectionism had suddenly come back to slap him in the face. It was Hermann now that could not raise his own bar and meet Newt’s standards of relentless determination.
And that was ultimately what gave the win to Roy Flores.