The scary part is the bar looks exactly like Newt remembers.
Older, definitely. More run-down. Paddy’s had never been the most salubrious location in Philly but now it looks positively condemned. The sight of it still manages to shake loose a part of Newt’s brain he’s tried to keep boxed and separated for over a decade. He was twenty-three the last time he stumbled out that door, visions of the beast they’d eventually call Trespasser smashing through his brain as effortlessly as it’d been smashing the west coast.
Trespasser had been the end of the old world and the birth of the new, and he’d been the birth of Newton Geiszler, too. Newt had come screaming into existence that day in 2013 in a gutter and a puddle of vomit and a burning need to do something.
Well. He’d done something all right. And now that something was done and… what? What do rock stars do after they’ve saved the world?
Came back to where it’s all started, apparently. Just a jittery ball of tattoos and pills and a letter, crumpled and shoved into his pocket.
Newt takes a deep breath, rolls down his sleeves, runs a hand through his hair, and walks into the pub.
The inside of Paddy’s is like walking into a wall of deja vu, except it’s less quixotic nostalgia and more a creeping horror at just how much the place smells like Newt’s lab. The same mix of old ammonia and sparking wires and rotting rubber, all smeared across a base of souring alcohol. Newt can practically hear Hermann’s smug little, “Told you so” at the realization.
“Hey, man. We’re closed.” The voice comes again as Newt walks up to the bar, to the man sitting behind it. He hasn’t looked up, is too engrossed with playing Super Jaeger Smash! on his phone.
“It’s two in the afternoon,” Newt says in reply. “Since when is this place closed at two? Or ever?”
The man behind the bar looks up, and Newt tries not to wince. He hasn’t seen Mac in over a decade and he knew, of course he knew, his childhood friend would be older. Older in the same way Newt’s older, thicker around the waist and greying at the temples. But long nights and unwise Drifts are one thing. Whatever Mac’s been doing—and Newt is pretty sure he can guess—has hit him far harder than bad Shatterdome food and inter-dimensional alien madness.
“Look, I said we’re closed, so we’re fucking—”
Newt’s counting it down in his head: three, two, one…
“Holy fuck… Ch-Charlie?”
Kind of, thinks Newt. But what he says out loud is, “Hey, Mac. Long time no see.”
Mac doesn’t pass out from shock, but it’s close.
Newt gives half a twist of smile. “Nope,” he says.
“You don’t fucking call, you don’t fucking write… Jesus, man. Here.”
A beer appears on the counter in front of Newt. The bottle is old enough that the label has rotted away, replaced by a long stain of rust from wherever it’s been hiding at the bottom of the filthy fridge. Newt suppresses a shudder of revulsion that’s all Hermann all the way down. It’s been over a year, but sometimes the Ghost-Drift still hits like a Jaeger’s fist.
“No thanks, dude,” Newt says. “I don’t drink.”
This earns him a lip-curling sneer as Mac takes a swig of his own (rust free) bottle. “Since the fuck when?”
“Since it messes with my meds.” ADHD and anxiety, mostly, but it’s a bit of a cocktail. Turns out, untreated mental illness coupled with undiagnosed dyslexia and un-corrected vision issues can really fuck up someone’s life. The substance abuse wasn’t helping either.
“Fuck,” says Mac. There’s a silence, long and awkward, and for the first time Newt has no idea how to fill it. He thinks maybe Hermann was right. He shouldn’t have come back.
“So what’ve you been doing for the past ten years?” Mac solves the problem for him. “We thought you’d run off and, I dunno. Gotten eaten by one of those kaijus or whatever.”
Newt laughs, but it’s damaged and humorless. He still wakes up screaming sometimes, Otachi’s tongue glowing just behind his eyelids. “Almost,” he says. “Twice. But, nah. Joined the PPDC. Been jumping between Shatterdomes since I left.” He wants to add some kind of platitude, some kind of sorry-for-not-calling, except… Except he doesn’t. Or, rather, Newt doesn’t. He doesn’t because Newt isn’t sorry and Charlie is dead, and so both of them say nothing.
“They did not let you into the Corps,” Mac says. “If you’re gonna fucking lie—”
Except Newt is pulling out his wallet, PPDC ID sitting snug in its clear plastic holder. He flashes it at Mac, fingers carefully obscuring the name. Mac’s eyes bulge in disbelief. “No way,” he says. “No fucking way…”
“You’re half right, though,” Newt admits. “I didn’t join straight away. Got a doctorate at MIT first.”
“Fuck off. You can barely fucking read, you liar.”
Newt shrugs. “Text-to-speech, dude,” he says. “Welcome to the fucking future.” Then, before Mac can quiz him further, “So how’s… how’s the rest of the gang?”
“Dennis got busted for fraud back in ’23,” Mac says. “Selling passes to some kaiju bunker that didn’t exist.”
“Fuck.” There’s Otachi’s tongue again. The hot press of bodies and the thick stink of fear.
“He’s in jail now,” Mac continues, oblivious. “One of those fancy ones, like with a tennis court and whatever. He keeps coming up for parole and he keeps putting it off. Says he’s doing way better on the inside than he ever did out.”
“Of course he is.”
“Dee got married. Some porn director from Nevada. Lives in a giant fucking mansion now with like ten million kids. And Frank…” Here Mac pauses, looks at Newt. “Uh…”
“I know,” Newt says. “I got the letter. It’s why I’m here.”
Mac nods. Another awkward pause, then: “Sorry, dude.”
Newt shrugs. Charlie would’ve cried, maybe. But Charlie’s been dead for thirteen years.
“So…” Mac starts, fingers picking at the label on his beer. “Does this… does this mean…?”
“Got a meeting with the lawyer tomorrow,” Newt says. “But, yeah. It does.”
“Damn, dude,” says Mac. Newt thinks that about sums it up.
Hermann’s voice is tinny and shrill through the phone’s speakers, but even in low-fi the outrage in his voice makes Newt laugh. “It’s not that bad, dude.”
“There’s a rat, Newton. A rat.”
“Just a little one.”
“It’s sitting on the bar. It’s looking at me right now.”
“Mac says his name is McPoyle.” Newt’s grinning, he can’t help it. Hermann’s outrage always was the best outrage, and a video tour though Paddy’s has certainly proven effective at getting him into a good old fashioned strop.
“Newton, for god’s sake. I know you have some kind of… sentiment for that awful place, but you know—” Here, Hermann bites his lip, looks away from the screen. “You know what it did to you,” he finishes, quieter.
Which, okay. Not nearly as fun. “Dude. Don’t.” There are some things from the Drift they don’t talk about. Charlie Kelly constitutes roughly 76.45% of those things. Hermann saw what he saw and he can’t un-see it. That doesn’t mean it’s open season for twenty questions.
Hermann looks like he wants to say more. Opens his mouth, closes it again. Then sighs. “Very well,” he says. “Just… be careful.” His expression is soft, fingers raising to touch below the camera, as if he’s reaching to stroke Newt’s image on his laptop screen.
“I will,” Newt promises. “I am. I mean, c’mon man. You’re talking to the guy who faced down Otachi and her baby and a crazy mobster and potential brain damage all in one night. You think a crappy bar is gonna beat me?” Which earns him an absolutely withering expression, so: “You know what, dude. Don’t answer that. Think about how soon you’re gonna be flying out here to rescue me, instead.”
“Friday, pending further disaster,” Hermann says. They’ve known each other long enough that Newt can see him make the conscious effort to pull back from the argument. The magic of the Drift. Ten years of raving screaming matches are a hard habit to break, but they’re both trying.
“I’ll try and stay alive until Friday then,” Newt says, grin returning. “After that, no promises, Doctor War Hero.”
Hermann huffs, but it’s mostly affectation. Mostly.
They say their goodbyes and hang up not long after. Newt is lying on his back on a filthy booth seat, and he remains there for a while after the call disconnects, eyes closed and grinning at the grimy ceiling.
“Who was that?” Mac asks, a sneer creeping in as he adds, “Your boyfriend,” in a singsong voice.
Newt just grind broader. “Fiancé,” he corrects. “But yeah.”
“Hong Kong, man. I mean, the food at the ‘Dome was rubbish, but we’d sneak into the city sometimes and, man. Even with everything going to hell, food in Hong Kong? Fucking amazing, dude. There was this place up in SoHo that was, like, one hundred percent chicken. Like, literally everything on the menu was fucking chicken but it was amazing, man, I swear. Herms fucking hated it because it was noisy and they made you line up for, like, ever, but I used to go with Tendo’s crew sometimes. So good. And that’s not even getting into the dumplings. Man, you have not had dumplings until you’ve had dumplings in Hong Kong.”
Mac is kind of glazing over but he perks up enough to ask, “Were you there? At the end. Y’know. When they bombed the Breach?”
Newt’s mouth snaps shut so fast his teeth click. And, thing is. It’s not like he hasn’t been on TV. It’s not like the PPDC’s been shy about putting him and Hermann in front of cameras, not like they haven’t told their story again and again. He can’t believe Mac hasn’t seen a single interview, hasn’t seen Newt’s face in a single broadcast. He can’t believe that, but he can believe Mac still looks at him and sees his old buddy Charlie. And Charlie? Not the guy anyone was going to be running a special report on for saving the world.
People see what they want to see, Newt supposes. He wonders what it is, exactly, that Mac thinks he did at the Shatterdome. Scrubbed toilets, maybe. Newt decides, in that moment, that if Mac can’t work it out, Newt’s not going to tell him.
Maybe he’d always decided that. Maybe that’s why he’s had his sleeves rolled down since he got here. He was shirtless on the cover of Rolling Stone and a special guest judge on Ink Master, for god’s sake. It’s not like people don’t know his face.
People, but not Mac.
“Yeah, I was there for Pitfall. Got stuck in the city when Otachi landed. She dug up the shelter I was in and nearly fucking ate me.”
Mac must’ve decided Newt’s telling the truth about that, at least, because he says, “You’ve been that close to a kaiju?”
“Yeah, dude,” says Newt. It’s probably the understatement of the century. The only person Newt knows who’s been closer (and survived) is Hannibal Chau.
“What’re they like?”
Newt says nothing for a moment. He couldn’t speak, even if he tried. Not over the sudden stink of machine-flesh and the howl of a thousand beasts waiting in a thousand cages. Over the memory of dead black eyes and whirring chitin and hunger and pain anddestroyverminfilthcleansekilldevour—
“Big,” Newt’s mouth eventually manages. “Really… really big.”
Mac snorts. “Bet you weren’t even really that close,” he says. Newt has nothing to say in reply.
Somewhere between the ragù and the tiramisu, Mac leaps up, blurts something about needing to piss, then runs off before Newt can blink. He’s still processing the departure when a voice says, “Um. Is… is everything all right, sir?”
“Uh, yeah it’s gr—” is exactly as far as he gets. Because that’s exactly as long as it takes him to turn his head and look up at the speaker.
It’s the Waitress.
Newt blinks. Then blinks again.
He’s going to kill Mac. He totally is.
Newt shakes himself. Rubs a hand through his hair and pushes his glasses up his nose and says, “Uh, yeah. Yeah, everything’s great!” His voice squeaks on the “great” and he tries not to wince.
Holy shit. The Waitress. Newt hasn’t thought about the Waitress—and, go figure, he still doesn’t know her goddamn name—for a long time. Truth be told, he doesn’t want to be thinking of her now. Or, doesn’t want to be thinking about himself thinking about her. Whatever.
There’s an awkward moment. Newt can see the recognition, hovering just beyond her eyes. It’s an expression he’s gotten very used to, over the last year or so.
“Um,” says the Waitress. “I’m really sorry. But I just… I have to ask. It’s just you look so much like him and—”
Newt rolls up a sleeve and holds out Yamarashi.
They talk for a good fifteen minutes, during which time Newt finally learns the Waitress’ name (Mary). She’s hardcore flirting with him, too, or at least makes a go of it, until she asks about Hermann. Her shoulders sag a little when Newt says the words “my fiancé”, and absolutely no part of Newt is disappointed by the reaction.
“You used to live around here, right?” she asks at one point. “Before the War, I mean.”
“Part owner of a bar down the street,” Newt confirms. “It… wasn’t the best time of my life.” It’s not a secret; one of those things he’s talked about in interviews. Nothing like a mentally-ill-substance-abusing-dyslexic-made-good story to get people polishing their bootstraps.
This earns him a smile, soft and genuine, and three slim fingers resting briefly against his shoulder. “Well. I’m glad you found what you needed. The whole world’s glad. And, in case no one else has said as much: welcome home.”
“Dude,” he says, leaning across the table, eyes wide and incredulous. “What did you do? She was smiling, dude. Smiling.”
Newt has the sudden realization that Mac did not, in fact, bring him here to make friends with the Waitress. Mac brought him here to make an idiot of himself. The knowledge sets off a strange, queasy roil in the pit of Newt’s stomach. Catches the breath in his throat and sets his hands to shaking with a sudden, surging tide of an emotion he doesn’t want to think of.
He thinks of chalk dust, instead. Chalk dust and the hum of a holoprojector and the scratch of wool against his cheek. Friday. He just has to survive until Friday.
“Told her about my fiancé, dude,” he tells Mac when he thinks he can. “Chicks dig that shit, listening to guys talk about their boyfriends.”
This earns him a strange look. “Your boyfriend,” Mac repeats. “Right. This is Johnny English from earlier.”
“His name’s Hermann,” Newt says, “and he’s from Germany. He just does the RP thing so people think he’s posh.”
“Hermann the German,” Mac says, voice and expression still pitched in that strange zone. “The soon-to-be Mister Charlie Kelly.”
“That’s doctor,” Newt corrects. “Call him ‘mister’ to his face and you’ll wish you’d wedgied a kaiju instead. Much safer.”
“Hermann the German, Doctor Mister Charlie Kelly. You’ve gotta be fucking kidding me.”
“How’d you meet this Doctor Mister, anyway?”
“Letters when I was at MIT,” Newt says. “He was with the Jaeger Program, I was doing a dissertation on kaiju cellular regeneration.”
Mac gets halfway through mouthing this before his eyes narrow abruptly. “All right, asshole,” he hisses suddenly, lunging halfway across the table. “Just who the fuck are you? The Charlie I know can’t even spell the word disser-whatsit.”
“Neither can I,” Newt points out, which is true. “And that’s why God invented voice memos and predictive spellcheck.”
Mac continues to stare him down, and Newt thinks the expression might even be intimidating to some other Newt in some other life. The other life that didn’t involve having a gangster stick a knife up his nose or the hotwet breath of a live kaiju against his skin.
Eventually, Mac leans back in his chair. “Fuck,” he says. “I just… Fuck.”
Newt just shrugs.
This earns him a sympathetic look. “It’s understandable,” the lawyer says. “After everything. And now the death of a family member on top of it all.”
Newt nods, and doesn’t bother to correct her.
Two hours later, Newt is the official owner of one run down shitheap of a pub. He doesn’t even know how Frank ended up with the entire deed and, honestly, doesn’t care. He has a set of keys, though, and lets himself in. It’s eleven twenty-six and Mac is nowhere to be seen, so Newt laps the place three times.
By the fourth, the pub has failed to spontaneously clean itself so, with a muttered curse at the part of his brain that will forever house a piece of Hermann, Newt gets to work.
The door opens a little after five. Newt is up to his elbows in bleach and grease and not in the mood to deal with Mac, and is halfway though snapping something to that effect when a voice calls out, “Hello?”
Newt pops his head over the bar and, sure enough, it’s the Waitress. The Waitress and three of her friends, none of whom are bothering to hide their disdain at their surroundings.
“A-hah!” says Mary, breaking out into a stunning grin at the sight of Newt, grease-smeared cheeks and all. “I knew this was the place!”
“I thought this dump closed down years ago,” one of Mary’s friends offers.
“Honestly, I’m not sure it didn’t,” Newt says. “But, on the plus side, the fact that no one knew we were still here means most of our wine cellar survived rationing. And when I say ‘wine cellar’ I mean ‘hole in the floor where the wine goes’ but, hey. It’s all good inside the bottle, right?”
“They drank that champagne from the wreck of the Titanic,” Mary points out.
“Well, I’m not sure we’ve got anything that fancy,” Newt says, leaning across the somewhat cleaner bar. “But how bout I go see what I can find?”
They hand him some money at the end. Newt hands it back after he realizes the register is so rusted that it won’t even open, let alone ring up a sale.
“What are you going to do with this place?” Mary asks.
“Hermann says I should burn it and salt the earth.” Even as he says it, Newt knows it isn’t going to happen. Literally or metaphorically.
Mac stumbles in just as Mary’s crew is leaving. He looks even worse than Newt remembers from yesterday; disheveled and red-eyed.
“Where have you been, dude?” Newt asks, at the same time Mac blurts, “That was her! Dude, what the fuck?”
Newt shrugs. “Told ya, man. Chicks dig guys with boyfriends.” Also, guys who saved the world. Meaning the one time in his life Newt is actually popular with the ladies (and dudes) is the one time he isn’t interested. Go figure.
Customers gone, Newt snaps back on his gloves and retrieves his bucket from where he stashed it. He’s still working on getting the beer taps back to some semblance of clean—I’m messy, Hermann, not dirty—when Mac blurts:
“What the fuck did you do to the toilet?”
“No. No, you did. It’s been busted for like ten years, man. Ten. Fucking. Years. Every time someone flushes it, the lights blow out!”
“Call a plumber?” Newt suggests.
“I called every damn plumber in Philadelphia,” Mac snaps. “None of them will touch it because they say someone’s connected it to the power mains. And no electrician will touch it because it’s a fucking toilet, dude, seriously.”
Newt sighs, pulls off his gloves. “Which toilet?” he says. “I’ll take a look.”
“We nailed it shut,” he says. “After the Miller Incident.”
Newt doesn’t ask, just peers through the nail-toothed maw of the jamb. Inside is a wall of stench and a tangle of wires, and for a moment Newt is back in the Boneslum, wet and exhausted, driving a neural spike in a dying infant’s brain and—
—someone is shaking his shoulder. Not gently. Mac.
Newt blinks, and the Boneslum is Paddy’s again. Newt isn’t sure it’s an improvement.
“Hey? You back with me? You kinda… zoned out on me again.”
Again, like Newt’s done it before. Shit.
He swallows, his hands shaking where he drags them across his face, rubbing his eyes hard enough beneath his glasses that black-red Anteverse fractals bloom behind the lids.
“… Charlie?” A hand on his shoulder.
Newt shrugs it off. “I’m fine,” he snaps. “It’s fine.” He tries not to notice how shrill and cracked his voice sounds. He has pills in his jacket pocket but he doesn’t want to take them. Instead, he thinks of wool and chalk and tries to slow his breathing and calm his heart.
It’s okay. They’re gone. We nuked the Breach and they’re gone.
“Dude. You’re freaking me out…”
The comment chokes a laugh from Newt’s throat, thick and hysteric. Mac is freaked out. Fuck.
“Flashbacks,” Newt eventually manages. “It’s fine. We all get them.” Him and Hermann, Tendo and Herc, Mako and Becket. Plus everyone whose names Newt never knew. All the survivors.
“That’s some Vietnam shit right there,” Mac says. Then: “You don’t… you don’t have to, like. With the toilet…”
“It’s fine.” The more Newt says it, the more that, one day, it’s likely to be the truth.
He pushes past Mac, into the small bathroom. Just a toilet and a sink and a real Newt Geiszler mad science special of scavenged wiring and repurposed circuitry. Newt doesn’t remember assembling it, although he can tell straight away that it’s his work. Or, it’s Charlie Work; a mess of genius layered under ignorance and solvent.
“What the hell is it, man?” Mac is still there, lurking in the hallway.
Newt’s still trying to figure that out. In the end, it takes him about ten minutes. Then he bursts out laughing, and calls Hermann.
It only takes Hermann five to crack the mystery of the electric crapper. He always was better at the engineering stuff, not that Newt would ever say so out loud.
“Uh-huh,” says Newt. “Guess I got sick of people bitching about the power bills. So I rigged this up so it feeds back into the mains supply every time some chick takes a shit.”
“Charming. Though in its current state I dare say it will do little more than cause a blackout.”
“That’s what it’s been doing, yeah. Capacitors have blown.”
“Mm. That’s the least of it. Is that… dear god, Newton, are those car batteries?”
The horror in Hermann’s voice makes Newt laugh. “Had to store the power somewhere, right?”
“This thing is a death trap. You’re fortunate it didn’t electrocute someone.”
“Honestly, I think it did. That’s why Mac nailed the door shut.”
“She was okay! Just ‘a bit singed’,” to use Mac’s words from earlier.
“Dear lord. Disassemble it immediately.”
“Aw, c’mon, dude. Can’t you give a guy a little credit? It’s pretty good, I think. I don’t even remember building it so I must’ve been pretty high at the time. It’s an achievement!”
“Newton, for god’s sake!” There’s that edge in Hermann’s voice, again. Newt doesn’t want edges, not right now.
“C’mon, Herms. Admit it: I’m a genius. And right now, this genius is off to Radio Shack to buy some new components.”
“Newton! Please, I—”
“Don’t worry about me, Herms. I’m a rockstar, remember? I’ll see you Friday babe, okay? Iloveyoubye!”
But Newton’s gone.
Of course, Radio Shack hasn’t actually sold the sort of stuff Newt needs since the end of last century. So, instead, on Thursday morning he drags Mac to some dingy store that sells broken down TVs and microwaves, and spends the next hour happily piling an old shopping cart full of junk.
Even junk is expensive, although Newt is surprised at how much there is. “I’ve lived so long on the Rim,” he explains. “Out there it’s all rationing and scavenging parts to keep the Jaeger running. We went to Singapore once back in ’21, on a clean-up. That city basically doesn’t exist anymore, you know? They recycled half of it into Jaeger and the other half into the Wall. Place is a ghost town.” He pauses for a moment, turning a gutted toaster over and over in his hands. “I guess they’ll rebuild it, now.” He puts the toaster back on the shelf.
“We had rationing here for a while,” Mac says. “Dennis and Frank used to run counterfeit food stamps out of the back of the bar.”
“Of course they did,” says the part of Hermann left over in Newt’s head. It earns him a dark look from Mac. “What?” Newt asks, scowling.
Mac opens his mouth, then closes it and looks away. “Forget it, man. It doesn’t matter.”
Newt just shrugs, and keeps moving.
Ten minutes later, he’s at the counter, the greasy dude sitting behind tallying up Newt’s pile of junk. The best find, in Newt’s opinion, is an old holoprojector. It’s busted, of course, but Newt’s had enough experience fixing Hermann’s gear to be pretty sure he can repair it. It also costs double the rest of the cart combined.
Mac boggles at the price. “How the fuck can you afford this shit?”
“Back pay, dude,” Newt says. “Most of us who stuck with Stacker at the end had stopped taking salary for years. Plus people gave up their savings to keep the Hong Kong ‘Dome running after the UN cut funding. Didn’t seem much point saving up for a future if there wasn’t going to be one, y'know? Stacker kept pretty meticulous books on it all. After VK, Herc—the new Marshal—he took the books to the Secretary-General, asked what people would think if they knew we closed the Breach at the expense of a bunch of J-techs feeding their kids. Fast forward a couple months and, bam. Suddenly bank accounts all over the ‘Dome are fat and happy.”
“I didn’t know that,” says the man behind the counter.
“Naw, dude,” Newt says. “We’re not supposed to talk about it, y’know. But I figure, fuck ‘em. What’re they gonna do, arrest me?”
The guy laughs. “If they try, I’ll get my boys and we’ll bust you out ourselves,” he says. “We’d all be dead if it weren’t for you. It’s the least we can do in return.”
“No, man. The least you can do is give me a discount.” He winks, and the guy laughs.
“Not gonna happen, brother,” he says. “I got three kids I gotta put through college, now that the world isn’t ending.” He grins, big and proud. Newt can’t help but return it.
Mac, meanwhile, is silent all the way back to the bar.
The first customers trickle in around five. They’re friends of friends of Mary, people who’ve seen the posts on Facebook and have come to check things out for themselves. They shake Newt’s hand and hug him and take selfies and ask him to autograph body parts. He does all this and tells stories and answers questions and people don’t even mind that the beer is too flat and the wine is too old.
“Where the hell are all these people coming from, man?” Mac asks, the second time Newt sends him out to retrieve more beer. “Just because you cleaned the fucking toilets at a Shatterdome you’re suddenly some kind of hero?”
Newt scowls, feels something hot and angry curl up in his gut. It’s been days, man. Days. And, okay, the whole undercover hero thing was kinda fun at first but, fuck Newt thought Mac would’ve gotten it by now. “Just get us some more fucking beers, man.”
“Get them yourself. You’re not the fucking boss of me.”
“Dude, I am. I totally am. While you’re in my fucking bar—”
“It’s not your fucking bar!”
“Excuse me? There’s a deed at the lawyer’s that begs to differ. Frank left this place to me.”
“You were dead! You were fucking dead, man. Thirteen years I’ve been here, thirteen fucking years. Sitting in this shithole, watching Frank drink himself into oblivion and what do I get? Nothing! Not a fucking thing. And then Frank dies and you show up with your fucking PPDC ID and your degree and… and just who the fuck are you, man? You aren’t Charlie fucking Kelly. You aren’t my friend, aren’t the guy I grew up with.”
“Hey, Mac. Wait—”
“No. No, fuck you, man. Whoever you fucking are. Whatever. It doesn’t matter. I’ll get your fucking beer. Just… get out of my face. I’m done, man.”
But the back door slams, and Mac’s gone.
“Where’d everyone go?”
Newt doesn’t look up. “Sent them home.”
A heavy thump as Mac put the case down on the counter, then an awkward pause. “Hey, look,” he says. “About before…”
“You were right.” Newt still won’t look up. “Charlie Kelly is dead. You don’t know me. My name’s Newton Geiszler.”
“Uh…” Mac hesitates. “So, like, is this, like, some kind of long lost twin thing, or some kind of identity fraud thing, or—?”
“No, dipshit. I changed it when I enrolled at MIT, fuck. It’s a fucking metaphor, man, Jesus.” He smashes together a coupling as he says it, hard enough to bend the pins.
“Well sor-the-fuck-ry. Not all of us studied fucking literature at the fucking Ivy League.”
Newt sighs, looks up. Fuck. This isn’t coming out right. “Biology,” he says. “I’m a biologist. Xenobiologist. I used to cut up kaiju. That’s what I did for the PPDC all those years. Cut up fucking kaiju so I could tell the Rangers where to punch. And now all the fucking kaiju are gone and, fuck, dude. What the fuck use am I anymore? The one thing in my life I was actually good at, and it’s gone. And then I get this letter from Frank’s lawyer, telling me he’s dead and he’s left me this place, and… fuck, dude. I thought, why the fuck not? It’s not like I’m doing anything else with my life.”
“What about your… your boyfriend?” Hesitation there, just a little bit. Newt pretends not to notice.
“Fiancé. Hermann will be fine. He’s a genius. Math, physics, engineering. Hell, you know what he does for fun? He wrote this AI that models the stock market. Does this fucked up high frequency trading shit, like buys a million shares in some shithole company for point zero-zero-one of a cent and sells them half a second later for point zero-zero-one-one. He wrote that for fun, because he needed to take him mind off the fact that every time we lost a Jaeger that was his code, his systems that were failing. Hermann can do anything. He’s got so many job offers from so many places he can’t even respond to them all. But me, what’m I supposed to do? Who needs someone to cut up kaiju nowadays? Everyone just wants to fucking forget those things ever existed.”
Mac looks at him, really looks at him, for the first time since Newt’s come back. When his eyes go very, very round, Newt knows he’s finally figured it out.
“I’ve seen you on the TV!” Mac says. “Holy fuck. We used to… we used to joke about it, me and Frank. ‘Doesn’t that guy look like Charlie’. We used to call you ‘smart Charlie’ and…” He stops, swallows heavily. “Frank knew,” he says, much quieter.
Newt has nothing to say to that, so he looks back down at the projector, and fiddles with a few more pieces.
Twenty years later, Newton Geiszler would relate this story to a drunken LOCCENT gathering, including one Hermann Gottlieb, during an ill-advised late night game of truth-or-dare.
Three years later, Newt would learn, via the Drift, that this was the moment Hermann realized his feelings for his irritating lab partner may have extended beyond the merely platonic.
Funny, the way things go.
“You know,” says the crew’s chief, “I used to do decon on kaiju corpses out west, and I still think your bar is the nastiest shit I’ve ever seen.”
“No argument there,” says Newt.
He spends the rest of the morning making nice with Dean Ward at the University of Pennsylvania. It’s exactly as tedious and awful as Newt expected it to be. He might have six doctorates, most accrued over the years he was working with the PPDC, but he was never really suited to the academic lifestyle.
Still, he agrees to do a Q&A with a bunch of students and faculty over lunchtime, and it turns out pretty well. He talks about the kaiju and the Drift, and a bunch of bright-eyed kids ask him his thoughts on things like the potential medical applications of both.
“There’s generations of research still to come,” Newt says. “The things we’ve learnt about tissue culturing, cellular regeneration, and neural interfaces will take a century to mature, at least. It’s an exciting time to be in STEM.”
This, of course, prompts a round of questions on what Newt plans on doing next.
“You know,” he admits, “I’ve recently inherited a bar. I was thinking maybe it’s not a bad place to retire. Let the young and fresh come up with the next generation of breakthroughs, y’know.”
It’s not until he’s walking out that it occurs to him this might have been exactly the wrong thing to say.
“This” is one extremely pitiful betta fish, sitting in a filthy “tank” made from an old bottle of Jack Daniels and rescued by the cleaning crew. The thing is pale and listless, most of its fins rotted away to nothing.
Newt takes the bottle, and spends the afternoon at PetCo, buying a decent tank. He sets it up on the newly cleaned bar, and carefully transfers the fish.
The betta perks up almost immediately; wriggling its finless body through the plants and sunning itself next to the heater like a man coming in from a snowstorm.
“You’ll be fine,” Newt declares, satisfied with the day’s work.
He decides the fish’s name is Charlie.
“Dude!” Mac yells above the din. “What the fuck?”
“I may have told the student body at the University of Pennsylvania about Paddy’s,” Newt confesses, equally loudly. After that, there isn’t time to talk in between taking orders and pulling beers.
At some point in the evening, a young woman appears at Newt’s elbow.
“My name’s Tamika,” she yells, by way of introduction. “The other guy caught me taking orders and asked if I wanted a job.”
“Do you?” asks Newt.
“Then you’re hired. Good luck.”
They kick everyone out sometime after midnight. There’s an enormous was of cash underneath the still-broken register, and Newt shoves a handful at Tamika before telling her to come back tomorrow. Then he sits down at the bar to count the damage.
It takes a while—numbers and Newt only get along slightly better than letters and Newt—especially because he counts it twice. Then he calls Mac over to count a third time.
At the end, there’s no denying the result:
“This is nearly ten thousand dollars,” Mac eventually says, eyes round and reverent.
“Yeah.” Then: “Um. So, like. Do we have a safe?”
Hermann does not travel well, and he lands stiff and sore and exhausted. Newt kisses him hello then leaves him to sulk in a corner while he fetches Hermann’s bags and summons them an Uber.
When they get back to the hotel, Hermann strips down to his underwear, drops face first onto the bed, and promptly falls asleep. He’s said exactly two words to Newt since landing (“Newton” and “yes”).
“Welcome to Philly, old man,” Newt says, pulling the duvet up over Hermann’s shoulders, small smile tugging the corners of his mouth.
“The menu. We have to update it. I don’t think these prices have been changed since Trespasser.”
Another night, another huge crowd at Paddy’s. Newt is standing behind the bar, being shouted at by a menu-waving Tamika.
“And food,” she’s saying. “People keep wanting food, and I have to tell them we don’t have a kitchen.”
Newt’s about to answer when he gets an idea. “I’ll be right back,” he announces. Then he’s running out of the bar.
Fifteen minutes later, Newt walks back into Paddy’s, a loaner chef and armfuls of food in tow.
That night’s take is even bigger than the last.
“Hey, man. Rude. I had it cleaned just before you arrived. By professionals.”
“Then I shudder to think of the state it was in before.”
To say Hermann is not impressed with Paddy’s would be an understatement, although his dissatisfaction abates somewhat when he sees the pile of cash from the past two nights.
“So you’re doing well?”
“It’s the celebrity thing,” Newt admits. “Y’know, come hang out at the bar of the dude who saved the world. It won’t last.”
“Unless you make it last,” Hermann points out.
“Look around you, dude.” Newt opens his arms to demonstrate. “This place is falling apart. Nothing’s changed since I was last here a decade ago. I have to keep running out to buy cases of beer from the place down the street, and last night I borrowed a chef from the chick I used to creep on.”
This earns him a raised brow. “The Waitress?”
“Her name’s Mary. She owns a restaurant nearby and would really like to meet you. But that’s not the point, dude. The point is I don’t know how to do this!”
“You don’t know how to run a bar?”
“I thought you used to own this place?”
“I think? Maybe? But we didn’t run it. We used to hang out here because there was free beer!”
“Newton, that’s illogical. If you owned the bar, then someone must’ve been buying the beer and—”
“I know, dude! I know it makes no sense. That’s exactly my point!”
Hermann makes a noncommittal noise, eyes scanning around the bar with the intensity he used to reserve for his equations. Finally, he says, “These are soluble problems. If you do not wish to run this… establishment, then you’re under no obligation to do so. Simply sell it.” He runs his finger over the counter as he speaks, lips curling into a sneer at whatever he finds.
“Yeah,” Newt says after a while. “I guess you’re right.”
Which earns him a disdainful sniff. “As it if could be any other way.”
“Mac!” he snarls. “That backstabbing son of a bitch!”
His rage lasts exactly seven and a half minutes, which is how long it takes for Mac’s head to appear around the door jamb.
“Yo, Charlie,” he calls. “Come give us a hand, will you?”
“Mac, what the fuck, man—” is about as far as Newt gets. Because there’s Mac, standing on the sidewalk, surrounded by a dozen silver kegs of beer.
“For the taps,” he explains. “So we don’t have to, y’know. Keep running out to buy more.”
“This… This is why you took the money,” Newt realizes.
Mac’s expression keeps fluctuating between scowling and uncertain. “Yeah, man,” he says. “That was… I mean, it’s what it’s for, right? And don’t worry, this is all good shit. Got some Bud”—he kicks the kegs to demonstrate as he speaks—“got some shit from the local microbreweries. And, look. Even got this.” He points to one keg whose label, after some squinting and concentration, proclaims it to be Kaiju Blue. Newt assumes it’s a brand and not, in fact, a literal description of the contents. “That’s good, right?” Mac continues, when Newt says nothing. “I know we need other stuff as well. Was gonna go out to the wholesaler but figured you might wanna come with.” He fidgets, weight shifting from foot to foot.
“Um,” says Newt. Then: “Yeah, man. Yeah, sounds good. Just let me go tell Herms.”
“Your boyfriend?” Mac still has a weird sneer on the word, one Newt doesn’t want to examine too closely.
“Fiancé,” he corrects instead, descending back inside the bar.
Mac and Hermann’s first official meeting goes about as well as Newt could’ve imagined, which is to say, only slightly better than Newt and Hermann’s own first meeting. The words, “That’s Doctor Gottlieb, to you, Mister McDonald” are uttered more than once.
Hermann’s interest in procuring wholesale liquor is significantly lower than his interest in reading Breach site update reports, so Newt kisses him and leaves him perched awkwardly on, “arguably the least infectious piece of furniture in this place, for god’s sake Newton your lab was less hazardous than this cesspit!”
“Your boyfriend’s a fucking douche,” Mac announces when they climb into his car. “I think every time he opens his mouth I can see the fucking stick up his ass.”
Newt just grins, enjoying the warm soft feeling he gets whenever other people don't understand Hermann. “That’s just Herms, dude. Don’t worry about it.”
“I’m not worried,” Mac says. “Just wondering what you see in a prissy crippled faggot who looks like a rejected extra from a 50s spy movie.”
“He’s a filthy rich genius who coded the Jaeger, found the Breach, predicted attacks, and saved the word,” Newt says. “Plus he has a giant dick, is a beast in the sack, and we’re Drift compatible.”
“What, you take an online test that tells you that?”
Newt rolls his eyes. “Do you even fucking watch the news? We’re fucking Drift partners.”
“Literally, apparently,” says Mac, the edge of a grin creeping in at his own joke. Even still, Newt caught the little jerk Mac made at the words Drift partners. Newt thinks of the threat of a broken arm and someone else’s lifetime, a whole universe seething blue and angry in between.
Newt snorts, and there’s silence for a while. Then:
“So-oo-oo… you’re really a fag, then?”
“Yeah, dude. I’m really a fag.”
More silence, and Newt can practically see the numbers ticking down until Mac’s next question. Like his own personal War Clock, ready to predict:
“So what’s that like, then?”
“Well,” Newt says, “it’s a lot like not being a fag, except people ask you a lot more dumbass fucking questions. In 2026,” he adds, pointedly.
Mac nods, fingers tapping on the steering wheel as if digesting this Very Important Information.
“Yeah,” he says eventually. “Yeah, right.”
Tamika does a bang-up job, arriving early and bustling around the bar like she knows exactly what she’s doing (she doesn’t, Newt will later learn—this being her first bar job—which honestly makes him even more impressed). Not to mention Mary shows up just before the crowds hit, a chef and a kitchen hand in tow.
“My boys called around,” she explains. “Pink and Anderson used to work in a gastropub on South Sixteenth.”
“Owner sold up after VK to move back out to San Fran.” Which, unforeseen consequences of saving the world, go figure.
Pink and Anderson are, indeed, as good as promised, which Newt ascertains by sharing a pancetta and goat fetta pizza with Hermann in a corner. “It’s gonna get busy soon,” he warns.
“I know,” says Hermann. He’s sipping a beer. Hermann doesn’t drink much, except for when he’s steeling himself to endure something social.
“There’s an office out the back if you need to escape.”
This earns Newt a small smile. “I had intended to stake out this table and practice my glare, first.”
“People will want photos, once they work out who you are.”
“Yes,” says Hermann. “I expect they will. Such is the price of being a tourist attraction, I suppose.”
Newt’s only reply is to lean across the table and kiss him senseless.
The register is still busted, but Mac has made Tamika write down every transaction by hand in a yellowing ledger that looks like it has its origins in the previous century. It’s all itemized, too, not just whole orders. In another part of the book, Mac has taped all the receipts from everything they bought earlier in the day.
Hermann peers at the numbers through his glasses, mouth pressed into the thin line Newt loves so much. He quizzes Pink for a while on recipes, then announces: “You are not charging sufficiently to cover costs, let alone make a profit.”
Newt eyes the pile of money. “Really?”
“Mm. I’m estimating some variables, of course—power, gas, salaries—but I believe so. With more extensive data I could produce a more accurate model.”
“There’s a pile of bills in the office,” Mac offers.
Hermann sighs, removing his glasses to rub at the bridge of his nose. “Bring them to me,” he says. “It’s not Breach physics, but I’ll see what I can do.”
Hermann produces his new bar model—also known as a menu—in consultation with Pink and Mac. Tamika who, as it turns out, is studying graphic design, formats everything and prints out a stack at school. She brings them in the next afternoon and presents them to Newt and Mac, bouncing anxiously on the balls of her feet as she awaits their verdict.
“This font is fucking rad,” is Newt’s opinion.
“I like the paper,” is Mac’s.
The font is a slab serif—Newt has no idea what that is, but nods anyway—and the paper is brown and textured and slightly thick.
“I expect they’ll get spilled on, and we’ll need to print more,” Tamika says. “The paper is five cents a sheet, and the menu layout is in Pages, so if you need to you can change it on your iPad.”
“It’s like… it’s like a menu from a real bar,” Mac says, voice quiet in its awe.
“And I thought your lab wear was unprofessional,” is Hermann’s opinion.
“Dude, it’s a bar, not a fucking presentation to the Security Council. Besides, this way, I don’t have to keep rolling up my sleeves whenever someone wants to see my ink.”
“Mm,” says Hermann. “I’m not sure I approve of this… shameless display.” But he’s smirking, pressing Newt up against the hotel room wall, long fingers brushing against the soft skin of Newt’s waist.
They’re twenty minutes late back to Paddy’s, and Mac scowls at them when they walk in. “Where the hell have you been? We open in ten and there’s already a queue!” A pause, then: “Dude what the fuck did you do to your arms?”
“Not just the arms,” Hermann replies, before Newt can. “That garish monstrosity goes from neck to ankle, I’m afraid.”
“Oh yeah?” snaps Mac. “Well… fuck you, grandpa. I think it looks sweet.” Then, to Newt. “Show me more, dude. These are kaiju, right? Holy fuck that’s so badass.”
Over Mac’s shoulder, Newt sees Hermann wink.
“Did you sleep?” Hermann asks, froggy mouth slipping into a frown.
“A little,” Newt lies.
Hermann makes his doubtful “hmm”, then: “Do you wish to talk about it?”
Newt opens his mouth, then closes it again. His head has been a hot whirl since the first customers stumbled in last night. Since he watched Mac command the bar and Tamika control the room. Since the first orders came out of the kitchen—pizza and burgers and fried chicken and tater tots—and the first snap of a cellphone in his face, a grinning girl pointing eagerly at his tattoos.
“I dunno why I came back here, man,” are the thoughts that manages to coalesce from the maelstrom. “I think… a part of me wanted to see the gang, but… I dunno why I came back.”
Hermann sits up, propped against the headboard. He reaches down to stroke cool fingers across Newt’s brow. It feels good, feels calm. Newt groans and lets his eyes slide shut, tries to focus on the touch and not… not the rest of it.
“Despite all odds,” Hermann says after a while, “Mister McDonald does seem somewhat competent at his job.”
“Yeah,” says Newt. “Mac’s cool. He’s just… y’know. Things weren’t always the best for us, when we were kids.”
“Mm.” Silence for a little while, then: “The offer Cambridge made us is still very attractive. Although it is in England, so you may need to adjust to the weather.”
Newt snorts. “Yeah,” he says. “Right. Like it’s always sunny in Philadelphia.” Then: “Herms. I… I think I want to stay here. Run the bar with Mac, y’know? I just… I need to do something else for a while. After… after…” After the stink of rotting silicon and the feel of breath like boiled ammonia, peeling the flesh straight off his bones. After mad eyes like dead stars, and the gulf of a trillion years, passing in a heartbeat. After the screams of tearing metal and the howls of dying beasts. After cold sterile corridors and rationing and budget cuts and the Wall and the Clock and the endless seconds ticking down and down and down and another city lost another coast destroyed, the threat of nuclear winter and sunsets that look like the ones he remembers as a kid, except back then the green in the sky was the solvent in his blood and now it’s an atmosphere full of fallout because what’s a few generations of cancer compared to the end of the world? What’s brain damage compared to a retard dirt-grub son-of-a-whore? A pile of filth and destruction, a train wreck cesspit used to paper over something even worse.
“Breathe, Newton.” And his hand is on Newt’s chest, not pushing, just shifting Newt’s focus. “Do you need me to get your medication?”
Newt wants to say no but he’s already nodding. Nodding and swallowing and trying not to notice how much the back of his throat tastes like cat food.
Hermann leaves the bed, and for a while all Newt has is cold skin and the uneven thu-thump of Hermann walking without his cane. When the warmth returns, it’s on Newt’s side. “Here. Sit up.” Hermann’s hands—slim and strong—slip behind Newt’s back and help him upright. Hermann passes Newt a pill and Newt dry swallows it, which earns him an, “Oh, Newt…” even as Hermann presses a glass of water into his hands. Newt drinks the water, because it will make Hermann happy, then he settles himself against Hermann’s chest, because it makes him happy.
“I’m not running away,” he says when he’s calm enough to speak again. Whether it’s the meds or the sound of Hermann’s heartbeat or both. “I just… I need a break.” Twelve years of hell on top of twenty-three in purgatory.
“Well,” Hermann says, fingers tracing across Yamarashi’s snarling face, “I suppose Cambridge’s loss is the University of Pennsylvania’s gain.”
Frank Reynolds is buried in a tiny plot at the ass end of Laurel Hill, cheap tombstone small and cowering beneath the sea of mausoleums and weeping marble angels. The grass hasn’t even grown in and the thing already looks squalid and forgotten, and Newt isn’t sure what he feels about that.
He didn’t bring flowers and, from the look of it, neither did anyone else before him.
He has no idea why he’s here, hand clasped in Hermann’s, warm against the cold November air. Frank is dead. Standing in front of his grave is not changing the outcome of that equation.
“I think he knew,” Newt says eventually. “Who I was, I mean.”
“Very likely,” Hermann says. “You moved interstate, changed your name legally via public record, and kept the same social security number. It would hardly have taken great effort to track you down.” The but no one did hangs between them, heavy and unspoken. There isn’t even a missing persons report; Newt checked.
“I kept waiting,” he confesses. “Those first few months at MIT. I kept thinking that, like, I’d turn a corner and there they’d all be. I mean, Mom was there when I got my first doctorate. It’s not like I vanished.”
“You did not attempt to contact them, either,” Hermann points out.
“The world was going to hell,” Newt says. “You remember what things were like, after Trespasser.”
“I do. And I recall everyone dealt with it in their own way.” The biggest recorded spike of suicides in history, amongst other things.
They stand there for a while longer, the sky above pressing down like lead. Finally, Hermann says: “I feel obliged to mention at this point I deeply, deeply dislike the name ‘Charlie’.”
Newt laughs, he can’t help it. “Better or worse than Newt?”
“At least that has a scientifically respectable base.”
“Um, excuse me? Hello? Charles Darwin? Greatest biologist of the modern age?”
Hermann shudders, or pretends to. “Ugh. Biology. Are they still classifying that as a science? How dreadful.”
“Fuck you, dude.” But Newt’s heart is light and he’s laughing, pressing against the familiar warmth of Hermann’s side. Hermann’s arm slides around him in turn, and Newt wonders how they must look; him in his torn jeans and Knifehead hoodie, Hermann with his cane and the thousand dollar wool coat his mother sent him because “Hermann, I can’t believe you wore that awful parka on the television!”
God, Newt loves him. So, so much.
“Let’s go, dude,” he says. “I’m done here.” There’s nothing left he wants to mourn.
He spends the next week bouncing between contractors and consultants, getting recommendations and plans and quotes. The money’s not an issue, but it’s not trivial, either. Not for what Newt wants to do.
Hermann spends most of his time at the university, which is ecstatic at his arrival. Newt is dragged along once or twice and agrees to do some part-time work, guest lecturing and lab stuff and whatnot. By night, he hangs out at Paddy’s with Mac. The crowds show no sign of thinning, and Newt walks in one evening to be comforted by woman big enough to put Ranger Kaidonovsky to shame.
“I hired us a bouncer,” Mac explains, eyes not meeting Newt’s. He’s been acting off ever since Newt announced he was staying.
“Good plan, dude,” Newt says. He keeps meaning to ask Mac what his deal is, but not long later, the crowds arrive, and then it’s go time.
The next morning, Newt and Hermann and Mac stand out on the sidewalk, watching a bunch of burly-looking dudes nail white MDF across the facade, Newt clutching Hermann’s hand while Mac carries the fish tank, half-emptied for its trip to Newt and Hermann’s new apartment.
“So hey,” Mac starts, “I’ve been meaning to ask: why’d you call your fish ‘Charlie’?”
He’s asking Newt but it’s Hermann who answers:
“Because he used to live in a bottle,” he says. “But now he’s betta.”
The refurbishment of the bar takes three months, two of which is spent waiting for packages and parcels to arrive. Memorabilia from Tendo and Mako and Herc and Becket; from any of the old crew Newt could badger into donating whatever they could think of. Tendo’s rosary and Stacker’s hat. Max’s collar and the Wei’s basketball and Yancy’s helmet. Even a single golden shoe.
Newt spends the downtime hunting for an artist good at latex and anatomical modeling, eventually finding a girl on Etsy who squeals over Skype when he explains who he is and what he wants. He flies out to Phoenix to meet her in person, and they spend an intensive week in her dad’s garage hashing out the details. When the final results arrive, three days before re-opening, Newt gets a hit with a flashback so hard Hermann finds him sitting on the floor staring into space a half hour later.
Hermann starts to box everything back up and put it all out of sight, but Newt stops him.
“No, don’t,” he says, grinning. “It’s perfect.”
They let the rest of the staff back in two days before opening night. Tamika squeals when she walks through the door, cartwheeling down the line that now splits the bar in half; wooden booths and towering chalkboards on one side, steel stools and bubbling vats of replica kaiju parts on the other. Pink and Anderson nearly faint when they see the kitchen, exclaiming about each new shiny chrome appliance Newt has no idea the function of, but which the project manager assured him were state-of-the-art.
There’s a new point of sale system, too. It does something with automated inventory Newt’s sure Mac will think is awesome, except when he looks around, Mac is gone.
“I think I saw him head back out,” Tamika says, running her hands across the POS tablet like its a gift from god almighty.
Mac is out on the street, sitting in the gutter, arms wrapped around his waist and breath clouding around his head. He’s rocking back and forth, very slightly.
Newt sits down next to him, knees popping in a way that reminds him of every year between his old life and his new.
“Was it me?” Mac asks.
“I just… was it me?” He won’t meet Newt’s eyes when he speaks. “We’ve know each other forever, dude. Like, since we were kids. Just you and me, Mac ’n’ Charlie and… and getting wasted beneath the bridge and collecting dead birds in the forest and ice hockey and that time we found Dad’s prono stash when we were eight and… and was it me? You were always there and then you weren’t and when you came back you’re like some genius fucking hero who saved the world and what the fuck, man! We were friends! Why didn’t you call or text or write and I thought you were dead!” Mac’s been getting more animated as he speaks, his last sentence punctuated by a shove hard enough to send Newt sprawling. “Thirteen years I’ve been stuck in this shithole bar, and suddenly you’re alive and everything you touch turns to fucking gold. Why? How? This isn’t you! You’re a glue-sniffing retard who eats cat food and can’t even write his own name! What the fuck!” Mac quiets, all of a sudden. “We grew up together. You weren’t like this then. And I just… was it me? Was I the one fucking you up all those—”
“Shut the fuck up, Mac.” Newt’s had enough. “Jesus, you sound like Dennis. Not everything’s about you, okay.”
“You remember when we were seven? I taught you how to huff cooking spray to get high and Mr. Malek caught us behind the monkey bars?”
Mac looks away. “Yeah. Yeah, I remember. You got sent to Mrs. Jones’ retard class.”
“You know fucking why that happened? You wanna know the real fucking story?” Newt doesn’t bother waiting for an answer; Mac’s going to hear this whether he wants to or not. “Mr. Malek asked me what gave me the idea about the spray. I told him I’d been to the dentist, and they’d given me nitrous oxide to get me high before pulling my tooth out.” Newt hooks a finger at the corner of his lip, pulling the flesh back to show the gap, still there after all this time. “I’d asked the dentist about the gas, and she’d told me a bunch of stuff. I think she was just chatting to keep me calm or whatever, but one of the things she mentioned was that it’s a propellant, like in aerosol cans. I dunno if you remember, but we’d watched this documentary about the periodic table like the week before. I figured ‘nitrous oxide’ must have nitrogen and oxygen, so when I got home I looked through every fucking aerosol in the house for something with N and O on the label. The chemical formula’s actually N2O, so the two threw me a bit, but I worked it out. Anyway, I chose the cooking spray because it was edible, and then it was just about separating the gas from the oil. I figured that if I sprayed it into a plastic bag, I could trap the nitrous oxide and inhale it as my leisure. Bam, easy high.”
“Holy. Shit,” says Mac. “I… I thought you’d seen it on TV or some shit.”
“That’s what Mr. Malek said, too. But I assured him that no, I, Charlie Kelly”—he tries to ignore the way his voice skips a little on the name—“had invented huffing from first principles at age seven.”
“Mr. Malek said he had a test he wanted me to take. He sat there and watched me as I did it on the iPad. It’s like, these sequences of shapes and whatever, and I thought it was great. Easiest thing I’d ever done in school. When I was done, he made me take it a second time, with different questions, to double check. After, he told me I’d scored a hundred percent, twice in a row, on what’s called Raven’s Progressive Matrices. It tests IQ without having to rely on language skills or math. Then Mr. Malek gave me a copy of The BFG and asked me to read a passage out loud; I couldn’t.
“We did some more stuff; I took some more tests. If Mr. Malek read the questions out, I did fine, but if I had to read them myself, I fucked up. He dictated a passage to me and asked me to write it down. Afterwards, he asked me to explain the pictures and why I used them, and I told him they were easier than letters, and that I’d gotten the idea after watching a documentary on Egyptian hieroglyphs.”
“Oh my god.” It’s barely audible, muffled behind Mac’s hand, clamped tight across his mouth.
Newt sighs. “Mr. Malek called in Mom. He told her he thought I was gifted, but dyslexic enough to be functionally illiterate, which was why I was struggling. He said that, with her permission, he’d like to get me remedial help for the reading, with the idea of eventually moving me into advanced classes, but that we’d need to go through the Principal, Mr. Harris.”
“I remember him. He was a piece of shit.”
“Yeah. He was a racist, misogynist dickhole. He wouldn’t believe Mr. Malek that I was smart, and made me re-take a bunch of IQ tests. Except he made me take the written ones, so I bombed. Mom and Mr. Malek knew it wasn’t fair, and were talking about going to the board, but Harris got me alone and…” Here Newt stops, sighs. Then: “He told me that bastard sons of a junkie whores should know their place in the world, and that I had to say that Mr. Malek helped me cheat on the tests. And if I didn’t, or if I said one single word against Harris, he’d call the cops and tell them what Mom did to support us. And then they’d take her away, and I’d never see her again.”
“Holy shit, dude, I…” Mac looks at Newt, then, eyes big and round. “You never told me any of this.”
“I was seven, dude. Harris was like god. I did exactly what he said and still had nightmares about Mom being taken away for like a decade. I think… I think Mom knew what had happened—she was pretty used to being treated like dirt—but we had no money and she didn’t know what else to do. Harris fired Mr. Malek, too, just to make a point; it ruined his fucking career. And me, I was terrified that if I ever let on how smart I was, then I’d never see Mom again. And if I was wasted all the time? Well, then no one would ever figure out my ‘secret’.”
Newt pauses, knees jiggling against the cold, eyes darting and unsettled. It occurs to him they’re sitting in almost exactly the place he threw up in, right before he decided to change his life.
“I grew up terrified of being smart,” he says. “But when Trespasser came… I guess it made me realize there were worse things in the world than Jacob Harris. I didn’t know what else to do, so I tracked down Mr. Malek. He was still in Philly, still a teacher. I told him everything that had happened and I told him I’d had enough. That I wanted to get clean and go to college. The fallout was barely settling, we didn’t know back then there’d be more kaiju, but people were doing all kinds of crazy things. Going back to school was pretty mild, considering. Mr. Malek said he knew some people. He helped me get into MIT, get into rehab, get into therapy. Hardest shit I’ve ever done—and, dude, I’ve legit faced down live kaiju more than once—but when Hundun chomped half of Manila I knew it was right. I blew through my first doctorate, then enrolled in the Academy, got thrown into K-Science, spent the rest of the time bouncing around the Rim. Mom died just after I joined, so after that there wasn’t any point asking for safer assignments. Nothing to go back to, y’know? And the thing about the ‘Domes was no one gave a shit who you’d been or what you’d done before you got there. No one cared what you used to huff or how many pills you were on or who your mom banged or who touched you in the bad place as a child or how little you showered. The world was ending. Showing up and trying was enough. First time in my life I’d ever had that.” Newt pauses, takes a deep breath. “So, no. Dude. It’s not fucking you. It’s me. It’s always been me.”
The roar of a car passing by. Then:
More silence, long and awful. Finally, Mac blurts:
“I think I might be gay.”
Newt laughs, he can’t help it. “It’s 2027, dude,” he says. “They have an app for that. Plus, I’m pretty sure being manager of the hottest gay bar in Philly will help you figure it out.”
Mac startles at the words, head swinging wildly between Newt and the bar’s still-hidden facade. “It’s not— it’s not a gay bar!”
Newt shrugs. “It will be. It’s like if we’d called it ‘The Alan Turing Tavern’. Even if you don’t fill the windows with pride flags, you still know who’s going to show up.”
“Who?” says Mac, who apparently doesn’t. “Dudes named Alan Turing? Who’s Alan Turing?”
“Ask Hermann sometime. I’m sure he’d love to tell you.”
“No way, dude. Your fiancé’s terrifying. You know that, right? He’s like this… this mobile cloud of disapproval.”
Newt scoffs. “It’s fine. He likes you.”
“Yeah, caught out. He thinks you’re a douche and only deigns to be in the same room as you because you’re my best friend.” Newt realizes what he’s said a moment after he’s said it, feels his spine go rigid, waiting for Mac to laugh, to scoff, to—
“Well, then. Lucky me,” is all Mac says. When Newt dares look, he’s smiling, small but real.
Drift Compatible opens its doors on April 1, 2027. Modeled after the old shared lab space of Doctors Gottlieb and Geiszler, the entry queue on opening night stretches around the block, and stays that way for months.
Just inside the entrance, a holoprojector shows schematics of the Breach. Rumor is, it's powered by the flushing of the women’s toilet.