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Final Strain

Chapter Text

It starts in November, though they don’t know it at the time. What they do know is that currently it’s New Year’s, of the lunar variety, and there’s a bunch of them, maybe twenty all up, piling into the MTR on the way to TST to see the parade. It’s been storming on and off all week but there’d been a tinge of blue just before the sun went down, and the forecast is for the weather to hold through the night.

Hermann hadn’t wanted to risk it, or the crowds, or the staying up late (“Honestly, once you’ve seen one parade you’ve seen them all”), meaning it’s the first time Newt’s gone into the city without his speaking-mouth-and-emotional-support human since The Article. The fact he’s in the middle of a noisy crowd of j-techs, Rangers, lab staff, and LOCCENT personnel non-withstanding, he still feels . . . naked, somehow. And not just in the literal sense which, yes, because it’s not exactly like kaijin wear clothes (he has bracelets, though! And rings! And even one of his old ties tied around his left wrist! It counts!) but more importantly in the sense that there’s no armed guard and no paparazzi (at least not at first) and this is just him, going into the city, with a group of coworkers, because he can.

It’s . . . weird.

It’s weird and Newt’s determined that it shouldn’t be, resolutely focusing on Tendo and Mako and the Larsons and not on the people who point and stare and, occasionally, shriek when their group goes past. Because it’s Chinese New Year, baby, and the parade is happening and Newt is going to be there, first time in over a decade, and so help him but there’s no force in this universe or any other that’s going to stop him from having Eff. Eue. En. Fun.

They bail from the MTR at Tsim Sha Tsui, have to loop around the station a few times until they find an exit Newt can actually get out of. They’re greeted at the top by Alison Choi and a half-a-dozen other miscellaneous family members, ages ranging from fifteen weeks to ninety-three. There are hugs, and introductions, and Newt tries not to notice that most everyone here knows each other except for him.

“It’s so good to finally see you again,” says Alison, whom he met properly maybe once before, sometime when the Breach was still open and she still worked at the ‘Dome.

“It’s good to be out again,” he signs, completely sincerely. Tendo translates and Alison laughs, squeezes his small hand and gives him a kiss just behind the nares, and it’s okay, it’s fine. He’s here, and it’s fine, and Tendo knows a place just off Nathan Road that does ice cream doughnuts, and they’ve got a little time before the parade so haul ass into some half-closed mall and order a dozen of the things, in every flavor from Matcha to Tear Gas, heaping helpings of heart attack Newt looks at with a vague sort of academic distaste now all he can smell is the chemical reek of indigestible sugars and decaying fat.

On a whim, he grabs the cardboard cartons and books it for the doors, outraged shouts and laughter following in his wake. His hands are full, all of them, meaning he’s running on two legs meaning the humans actually have a chance of catching up. Or more than a chance, as it turns out, when Newt rounds a corner on Mody and runs straight into the freakin’ Marshal.

He stares at Hansen and Hansen stares at him, anxious pedestrians on cellphones for two blocks in every direction, half a dozen j-techs and pilots coming up fast behind him. Eventually, Hansen says:

“Mate, you shouldn’t have,” and takes one of the boxes from Newt’s pile. He’s taking his first oversized bite of a Tear Gas and Chocolate doughnut when everyone else catches up. “Delicious,” is the verdict, and Newt doesn’t even try and resist when people grab the rest of the boxes from his hands and redistribute them back to their proper owners.

The music starts not long after and their group—grown somehow larger again—stakes out a segment of road between Chungking and the SOGO to watch. The crowds are wary of them at first—are wary of Newt, at first—but soon the mass of bodies and good ol’ Hong Kong practicality wins out, and they’re crushed in on all sides, strangers tripping over Newt’s tail as they go past. Newt spent Christmas in London with Vanessa and Lena and Dad and Uncle Illia, New Year’s in Bavaria with the Gottleibs (minus Lars), but he’s forgotten how . . . visceral humans are. How much they cough and splutter and wheeze and breathe, the hotwet carbon stink of them pressed shoulder-to-shoulder in the same place. It’s not . . . bad, exactly, and he tells himself the uneasy drone he can feel below his gut is anxiety at being out, at being seen and filmed and gossiped about and he has eyes everywhere, now—on his head and his arms and his chest and his haunches—and he can see it, all of it, from every angle and—

(Jaeger oil and fried wiring, half a city away. The smell of sweat and wool and, “It’s fine, Newton, you’re doing fine,” muttered into a recalcitrant coupling, meticulously flayed by patient, long-boned fingers.)

“Yo, Newt. Do us a solid, brother.”

—and Tendo is handing him a child.

Newt blinks, and the child blinks back; big brown eyes and ice-cream smeared mouth.

“Can’t see over the crowd,” Tendo explains, and . . . right. Right, of course.

Which is how Newt ends up standing, big arms out and up like a flexing bodybuilder, supporting half a dozen children above the crowd as the parade starts to trickle past.

And, thing is? Hermann is kinda right; seen one parade, seen them all. A bog standard formula of pop music and traditional drumming, of scantily dressed ladies, of lion- and dragon-dancers, of corporate sponsorship and Hello Kitty and LEDs and Newt loves it. Even as his ocelli are poked by sticky child-fingers and his gills kicked by free-swinging trainers and his tail keeps getting freaking stepped on by passers-by.

There are jugglers and acrobats and a float with SUGARSTARR, belting out over-choreographed dance moves and lip-syncing to their latest interchangeable commercial pop hit. The children scream in joy and somewhere to the left someone keeps coughing and everything is pounding sound and dazzling light and the smell of dusty faux fur as one of the lions nuzzles Newt’s snout, in solidarity maybe, and a hundred camera flashes go off as Newt throws a peace sign with his small hands, just because.

And then everything goes to shit. Again.

Seasonal flu, they’d called it. Spread through half the city, happens every year, nothing to worry about except for the very old and the very young and the very sick. There’s a vaccine, of course, but who has time to bother with that? So many vaccines nowadays, between the flu and the k-virus and everything else. Something’s gotta get you in the end, right? No point worrying too much.

Except it’s not the flu.

The first victim, they trace later, is Jason Kwan Tin Lok. Fifty-three, delivery driver, bachelor. Lived alone in a tiny apartment in Broadview Court. Quiet but friendly, no police record, in generally good health. According to coworkers he’d developed migraines and a cough, about a month prior; had started getting strange and withdrawn. Stopped talking. People had worried but hadn’t wanted to pry, and Kwan had had no close relatives in the city to take care of him.

At 5:43pm on 31 January, Kwan had taken the MTR into TST. By then, his cough was crippling enough for other passengers on the subway to remember him, pale and drawn and shivering, hunched over inside a huge puffer coat. From there, he’d walked to Kowloon Park and sat, unmoving and staring at nothing, waiting for the crowds to gather and the parade to start. At 8:37pm, he’d risen, walked straight into the crowd and approached a woman named Natasha Rinne (forty-eight, banker, watching the parade with her wife and two children). Then he’d grabbed her, spun her around and—opening a mouth filled down the throat with shark-sharp teeth, opening it so wide he’d split open the skin of his cheeks—had bitten off half her face.

Jason Kwan and Natasha Rinne, the first two victims. And not the last.

Newt feels it like a punch in the dick, and the unexpected jolt of it sends him staggering. It’s not as loud as before, not the endless roaring he’d felt with Aurora but it’s close, and suddenly he knows, down to his glass-cored bones, that the low hum of disquiet he’s been feeling isn’t coming from him.

It’s from the hive.

He’s not alone.

He doesn’t think. Can’t think. Instinct and blind panic and the hot throbbing of the Anteverse, and Newt’s arms are full of children and there are humans pressing in on all sides and suddenly everything is rotting meat and parasites and oh god Newt has to get out of there.

He takes one shuddering step backwards, then two. It’s impossible not to notice, even above the music and the screaming and the crowd, and he gets a, “Hey, man. You okay?” from one of the young pilots. Angela. Her name is Angela, and he has exactly enough presence of mind to stutter out one single word before he’s shifting his grip and turning tail, literally, and is gone.

(Half a city away, shaking hands put down a half-soldered circuit board and pick up a phone. Hermann sends one text message, badly misspelled, stands, and runs to LOCCENT as fast as his aching leg will carry him.)

A panicked kaijin carrying an armful of screaming children is not exactly a mundane sight, even for Hong Kong, but no one wants to get in his way, either; the crowd is dense but it parts in front of him, screaming, and some dim part of Newt is aware of the footsteps following behind, of people shouting his name. He has no idea where he’s going bar “away”—he’s inside, then outside, then inside again—and no idea what he’s going to do when he gets there, but the problem is solved for him when he bursts out onto Minden Row and a huge black car screeches to a halt, cutting off his path.

Three people jump out, sunglasses and tailored suits, and one of them holds up a wrist to show Newt her tattoo.

“Boss says you need an evac for some kids,” she says, and her voice barely even shakes. And that . . . it brings Newt back to himself. Sort of.

Hannibal’s people. Hermann texted them. They must’ve been close to get here so fast but, well. So is half the city.

Newt nods, suddenly painfully aware he’s carrying an armful of other people’s children. He puts them down, carefully, even as a good dozen of their parents catch up and come to a breathless stop around him.

“It’s happened, hasn’t it?” says the Vulture, eyes darting between Newt and his newly arrived pursuers. “This . . . it . . .”

She can’t bring herself to say it, but Newt nods anyway.

“Get everyone you can back to the ‘Dome,” he signs. He’s not even sure anyone nearby can understand him, and before he can find out he hears the screaming start in earnest. Not the joyful calling of a crowd or the yelps as he’d passed through it, but the shrill, animal sound of agony and terror. “I have to—” he manages, at the same time the Vulture says:

“Go, go! We’ll handle this.”

So he goes. Back to Nathan Road, back to the screaming and the sick pounding signal in his gut. The crowd has caught wind something’s wrong, is fleeing in earnest and this time people crash into Newt in their panic. Doing so doesn’t help their mental state but he tries to catch as many as he can, help them up, stop them from getting trampled or worse. What else can he do? Defiant to the last, a hot ball of outrage and horror, spitting in the black-hole faces of the avatars of authority themselves.

The Anteverse wants him to kill all humans? Well then they can watch Newt fucking save them, instead.

He sees his first kaijin—his first one not in the mirror—in the dim halls of Chungking Mansions, between an abandoned currency exchange and a shuttered store selling knockoff hardshell suitcases. The kaijin is wearing the legs of a lion and is thrashing desperately at the lion’s front half, who’s valiantly trying to hold it off by beating it with the blood-smeared head, jaw flapping and eyes rolling grotesquely. The front-half keeps calling the legs’s name, begging him to stop, to come to his senses, as people flee around them.

Legs gives one final lunge and Head screams and Newt’s claw catches the former, knocking him flying against the glass of the exchange.

“Come on!” he screams at it, broadcast in pure thought and backed with a roar. “You wanna go? You wanna fuckin’ fight? Fight something your own goddamn species!”

Half of Legs’s face has been ripped off, the skin underneath the hard, charcoal-black scutes of a kaiju. It has no lips, raw teeth grinning a death-skull grin and there’s nothing human Newt can feel beneath the bulging, mad blue eye.

Newt tries, anyway, pushing forward into the static roar of the hive. Lucas, Head had been calling, and Newt screams the name now, desperate to find something echoing back, anything. Because this isn’t right. This isn’t like Aurora and it isn’t even like his own mind. There’s just nothing, just void, just mad alien violence and—

(“He’s trying to reach them,” Hermann mutters. Someone’s made him a cup of tea and he cradles it in shaking hands. “But there’s nothing there to reach. Nothing human left.”)

—and Legs lashes out, screaming an awful, half-human scream. Newt catches his, its, arm easily; it’s the left and the hand is wrapped in the remains of fraying bandages. The thumb and first two fingers are stiff and rigid, distal and middle phalanges fused into razor-sharp claws, protruding grotesquely from the remains and bloodied, ragged skin.

“Oh god I can’t,” Newt thinks, bile and acid rising in his craw both figuratively and literally. “I can’t hurt them. They’re people. I can’t . . . I can’t—”

Legs tries to pull its arm free. It isn’t as a strong as Newt and it shouldn’t work, it shouldn’t, except there’s a horrific wet tearing and Newt feels the bones and muscle slide out from his grasp, leaving behind a sleeve of empty human flesh.

Legs stumbles backwards, shaking its newly-freed arm— its newly freed arms, two vicious, whip-cord thin limbs separating out from the cocoon of one.

“Please,” Newt begs it. “Please, don’t do this. We can help you. I can—”

Something slams into his side, not heavy but sharp, piercing hide and muscle. He roars in shock and pain, stumbling sideways. He grabs at his flank and his claw closes around another grotesque pile of rubbery muscle and torn cloth and bleeding flesh, and he throws it blindly. The second kaijin’s teeth and claws take a good chunk of his side with them as it goes, and it’s only then Newt notices there are more. A dozen maybe, writhing around each other on four limbs and six, hissing and snarling through half-stripped faces.

And Newt . . .

Newt is bigger, and he’s stronger, and he’s spent hundreds of hours, training with Mako, training the Rangers. He knows how to destroy like a kaiju and fight like a human and against one opponent, or two, or three . . . he could take them. But six? Twelve?

He kills his first not long after. It’s not intentional, not quite, but there are too many teeth and too many claws and the floor is slick with Blue and Hermann screams with every new gash. Newt lashes out with a fist and catches one of the kaijin’s skulls against a wall. The wall shatters and so does the skull and there’s something . . . wrong about it, something hollow, and even with its head gone to kaijin stumbles drunkenly to its feet, long tails freed from its skin and thrashing behind it. The second time, Newt drives a fist through its abdomen, right through the secondary brain, and this time he feels the hot, slick slurp of pulverized organs and this time when the kaijin falls, it doesn’t get back up.

The others howl at the feel of it, at the feel of that black pit of static, finally spluttering out, and lunge. Newt knocks three aside and rolls back himself, dorsal plates slamming into a shopfront in a cascade of brightly colored saris. For a moment he’s blinded by orange and pink and gold and it’s then he hears:

“Doctor Geiszler! Get down!” And then a dull pop and a hiss as something metal skitters across the floor.

Newt just has time to register the gas canister before the calcite hits him and he sneezes, eyes watering and lungs closing against the burn.

Hands grab him, human hands, and through the haze Newt blinks up into the helmeted face of a PPDC Ranger.

A Ranger, but not a pilot. These are ground troops, trained to fight kaijin, the PPDC’s worst and most dire contingency.

“Doctor Geiszler!” the Ranger says again, voice muffled through his helmet. “Doctor Geiszler we have to get you out of here.” Through the smoke, Newt can see more dark shapes pouring into the corridor, hear the tromp of their boots and the sharp firing of their modified weapons, scaled down from Jaeger size.

Newt stands, stumbling, and lets himself be pulled out of the building by the Ranger. They get onto the street before his limbs give out, and he crashes to the pavement. The air is thick with calcite, the chalk-dust bombs the Rangers have been using to corral the kaijin, and Newt starts sneezing and can’t seem to stop.

“Shit,” says the Ranger. “Shit, we’ve gotta get—”

It’s as far as he gets before a sleek, blue-black form launches itself out of the smoke. Newt gets off a half-barked warning but the Ranger has already brought up his rifle. He fires three shots, neat and sharp and bright and loud, and the kaijin’s body crashes to the ground not three feet from Newt.

Half its head is gone, skull opened to the world. Skull, but no brain; there’s nothing inside the cavity but a layer of thin blue slime. Across the city, Hermann throws up all over the LOCCENT floor.

Newt, meanwhile, raises a fist, and slams it into the midsection of the still-living kaijin, even as it struggles to its feet, pulverizing the secondary brain—the only brain—and putting the thing out of its misery.

“Shit. Fuck. Body shots only!” Newt hears the Ranger bark into his comm. “Target the— God. Shoot ‘em in the dick. They’ve got . . . there’s nothing in their heads. No brain. And— and Jesus we need . . . we need— Whoever the fuck knows first aid on a goddamn kaiju! I’ve got Geiszler but he’s in bad shape; they fucked him up good.”

I’m fine, Newt wants to say. They build us tough. And it’s true, he should know. But the Ranger is right, too; Newt doesn’t quite feel pain the way he used to but the feeling he does feel he’s feeling now, everywhere, and the Blue pooling beneath him is getting to be a serious safety hazard.

Somehow, he manages to stand, manages to lope half a block and, at the Ranger’s urging, turn down Middle Road where a group is rushing up to meet them. Two more Rangers and a blur of white hazmat suit and another smear Newt can’t quite make out through watering eyes until it gets close enough to resolve into the jeans and leather jacket of the Marshal.

“Jesus, what the fuck happened?” the latter says, skidding to a halt. He reaches out as if to touch, then thinks better of it.

“Sir! Found him in the Mansions.” From the Ranger. “Got jumped by a dozen of those fucking things but was holding his own.”

“I didn’t— I didn’t want to kill them,” Newt’s hands say, almost all on their own. “They’re just people. They’re just— That could’ve been me. It was me. I can feel them, I should’ve . . . I should’ve felt them. I knew something was wrong but it doesn’t feel like before, not like with Aurora, there’s no . . . no nothing there, it just buzzes and buzzes and buzzes and I can’t stop it and oh god there’s more they’re still out there I have to— I have to—”

“Doctor Geiszler! Enough!”

Newt blinks, then sneezes, then blinks again. Then lowers himself, slowly and painfully, back down onto his haunches.

“What you have to do,” Hansen continues, voice hard and sharp, “it sit there, get patched up, get decontaminated, and get your scaly arse back to the Shatterdome, do you hear me?”

And somewhere there are gunshots and helicopters and the hideous whoop whoop of the attack siren and the air is thick with ammonia and chalk and it’s been twenty minutes, max, since this all started and somehow, somehow, Newt manages to nod.

Hansen softens, just a touch. “Good,” he says. “Leave . . . leave the rest of the ground clean-up to the Rangers, all right? They’ve got it under control. You’ll be needed soon enough, but not getting torn up out here.”

“How . . . how many dead?”

A sigh. “Less than there could’ve been. Near as we can tell, mostly they were interested in finding you.” A pause, then: “You saved a lot of people, doing whatever you did. But Newt? Don’t you bloody dare ever do it again, you understand me?”

“They had nothing.” Like Newt can’t stop himself from saying it. “Nothing inside. They hollowed them out.” He looks at the corpse, pulled to the side, currently being examined by more hazmatted scientists. His scientists, somewhere beneath the plastic and rubber.

Hansen is watching, too. “Whoever these people were,” he eventually says, “I think they’ve been dead a lot longer than just today. That’s where I’m going to need you, understand? There’s going to be questions, big questions, from big people. I need you in a state to give me answers.”

Newt nods. “Yeah. Yeah . . . okay.”

“Good. Get yourself fixed up, then get home. You’ll have ten hours, max, before the entire world comes down on us like a bloody Cat 5 over this. I want a good news story for them when they do.”

So Newt gets patched up, and decontaminated, and piled into a truck headed back to the ‘Dome.

“Gonna have some funky scars from this, Doc.” Vicente Otero, one of Newt’s team, had turned out to be the designated first aid specialist. Newt is mostly clean, or at least non-toxic, blasted with HC-Orange and with all his biggest gashes plugged by the silicon sealant he’s been using on himself since realizing it was impossible to find stitches that wouldn’t just melt in his flesh.

Newt just sighs. He still aches, everywhere, the biggest chunks—taken from his left arm, right leg, tail—throb hot and distracting, and his eyes and lungs still itch and burn from the chalk. But his head feels . . . clearer. And the incessant Anteverse buzz is gone from his gut. He’s trying not to think too hard about why.

They’ve found sixteen kaijin so far. Fourteen in the area of the parade and two who looked to’ve turned before managing to get there. So far there’s six dead—six humans dead—about twenty people in critical condition, and a hundred or so more with minor wounds, mostly sprains and abrasions from the crush to escape. Like everyone keeps telling him, it could’ve been worse.

“Doctor? We’ve got a match from the field team. It’s K3T12.” Another one of Newt’s half-hazmatted people, Vivian Li. Vi had been with their original group, had run to the nearest PPDC vehicle as soon as they’d shown up, ready to suit up and get to work.

“From Foshan?” Newt asks, and gets a nod in return.

Huh. “Hear that, Herms? Means this one’s on me, not you.”

(“Don’t be ridiculous,” comes the reply, muttered to the LOCCENT floor. People have long since stopped worrying at Doctor Hermann Gottlieb, PhD., talking to seemingly nothing. “This is no-one on Earth’s ‘fault’ and we both know it.”)

“Sure sure. That’s why you’ve been beating yourself up since this started, wondering why your dumb model didn’t predict it.”

Because the model had predicted Foshan, back in November. They’d ended up with a smidge over four hundred dead and hadn’t bothered looking for survivors since everyone knew the k-virus was fatal. Fuck.

“Trace the . . . the victims,” Newt signs. “See if they were in the area at the time.”

Vi nods. Not quite as young and wide-eyed as she’d been when she’d first joined them, a million years ago now. But still just as eager and stubborn and bold. “Already on it. Some of the bodies still had ID on them. They’ve traced at least two; Jason Kwan and Hu Fang. Former a delivery driver, latter an academic. Both would’ve been in Foshan during the outbreak.”

“No vaccine?”

“No. Looks like. Hu Fang, uh. He was an antivaxer. Thought the virus was, like, a conspiracy or whatever.”

Of course he did. Newt sighs, and closes his eyes, and can’t even feel anything in particular at the information.

Still, that’s Hansen’s good news story; K3T12 has spectrum, and it’s definitely A-origin.

“Pull samples from whatever you can,” Newt signs. “Start sequencing. I want to know how this thing stabilized and I want to know why it only did it in these people, not anyone else.”

“Right. I’ll let Doctor Ng know.” A pause, then: “We’ll beat this,” Vi says, and there it is. The same fire Newt remembers from the belly of blacked-out ship. “We’ll beat them.”

Newt just nods, saying nothing, and praying for the certainty of youth.