Hermann came to himself in small increments, his awareness beginning with a deep breath and getting stronger with each twitch of his fingers. The world under him vibrated, the strong thrum of an engine sending jarring thumps through his legs and spine. He was sitting upright. He was…
Hermann opened his eyes and it took a good five minutes for him to decode his surroundings. He was on a bus. The interior was completely dark, save for the faint illumination of the driver’s dashboard and the pale strips of emergency lights lining the floor between rows of padded seats.
As the cloud over his brain began to clear Hermann recognized the bus. It was the same one that had taken himself and Newton through the sagebrush deserts of North America. He had received his Loper button in this very seat. It was the bus to Hurricane.
Hermann struggled to reign in hazy thoughts and turned to look out the window. There was nothing beyond the cold glass but a thick grey fog. No landmarks, road signs or stars penetrated it. It was like the bus was sliding through a tunnel of mist; it made the inside of the bus feel too close. The air was still, smothering and oppressive. Gottlieb watched the swirling tendrils of fog straining his eyes to see through it. After several minutes of fruitless squinting he finally gave up and turned his attention back to the bus interior.
The seat next to him was empty. Newton’s blankets were there in a crumpled pile but he was absent. Searching the cramped space around him, Hermann thought he was alone at first but soon realized there were other riders. The dark outlines of heads appeared, just visible in the seats around him. Were they still going to Fort Tempest? Had the smuggling, the Breach church and the Lopers been something he imagined? Had all of it had been one long dream… his own occurrence at Owl Creek?
Hermann forced himself to stand, shuffling uncomfortably to his feet. His body was strangely numb and he leaned heavily on the surrounding chairs for support. The bus shuddered under him like an animal breathing deeply in and out as he made his way down the aisle. It was much longer then it looked and he was out of breath by the time he made it to the first silhouette. Flustered and starting to feel a tinge of fear, Hermann reached a tentative hand out towards the occupant of the darkened bus seat. They shifted, reaching up to click on the overhead reading light and Hermann felt himself gasp.
“It’s alright Cariño.”
Mrs. Melero’s lips crinkled into a soft warm smile, her eyes twinkling up at him, face thrown into sharp relief by the sudden illumination. Hermann blurted the first thing to come to mind.
The Ranger laughed and shook her head.
“I don’t think so Hermann. But I’m honored if you think of me that way.”
It was immediately clear she wasn’t the Kaiju Hive queen; there were no flickering shapes or echoing voice. It was really Mrs. Melero. She was wearing a threadbare purple sweater and her leather Ranger jacket. He could see a Foxglove Jupiter insignia just visible on the edge of one shoulder, well-loved and frayed from use.
Hermann was beginning to suspect this was not the bus to Fort Tempest. He was not on his way to Hurricane at all. Nita Melero ducked out of the light and moved over to the seat by the window. She patted her now vacant spot encouragingly, her wedding band glinting as she pulled her hand away back into the shadows. Hermann looked around the bus before swallowing at a lump in his throat and easing down into the chair.
“Mrs. Melero…I…you’re de-.”
“Scoot closer, Cariño. You must be freezing.”
Her hand found his and she felt solid. There was nothing ghostly about the heat in her fingers or the comforting way she squeezed his palm, squishing his bony knuckles together. She was right; he was cold. He hadn’t even realized it until she had brought it to his attention. He drew in a chattering breath. Small shivers were coursing from his toes up to his teeth. Mrs. Melero put an arm around him.
“Misplace your jacket, eh? I’m sure you’ll find it.”
Gottlieb glanced down at his skinny torso and found he was wearing the same ratty outfit he had worn to the summit. The dress shirt was quite old; Hermann wasn’t sure if was something he owned previously or something that had been in the Motorhome when Balor purchased it. The shirt was huge on him, but then, all his clothing was. He searched his stomach and chest with probing fingers expecting to find…well, find something; blood, a big gaping hole or even just a rip in his shirt. He found nothing but buttons and slightly uneven seams.
“Mrs. Melero, m- my memory is a bit hazy but I’m positive that you are dead and before I woke up on this bus I was…”
Hermann stumbled over the words. He was almost certain he knew what had happened but it was difficult to recall the precise details.
“I-I was addressing a crowd... I-“
He licked dry lips and she watched him patiently from the gloom, the white reflections in her eyes vibrant in the dark. She had the same lovely floral smell he remembered so vividly, a mixture of lilac and rose with just a hint of honeysuckle. She stroked his hair and he could sense the smile on her face even if was lost deep in the shadows.
“You have lost more weight. What did I say to you about that before Cariño? How can you pilot when you are so skinny?”
Hermann leaned into her touch, his fear fading. It was good to see her, to hear her voice despite the circumstances.
“…I haven’t piloted in months Mrs. Melero. Newton and I were in a terrible brawl and lost our Jaeger. Occam was destroyed on the US border. You…well. Many things changed after Helsinki.”
Outside the bus window just beyond the fog Hermann could see flickers of neon signs. They flew past, here and gone in an instant, lining whatever formless highway the bus was traveling. They could have been signs for purgatory or a Pizza Hut for all he could see. There was still no trace of real countryside outside of the bus. Not even in the front where he could just make out the driver subtly turning the steering wheel. Mrs. Melero squeezed his hand again, lifting it up and pressing it to her cheek. Her face was only barely outlined by the reading light.
“You are still a Ranger. Even without a Jaeger you should always be prepared. Hard times or no, it is important to keep fighting fit.”
Bathed in the muted glow Hermann felt like he was sitting in the spotlight of a strange play. Everything was so odd and confusing that nothing really surprised him. He had lived through months of bizarre unsettling dreams; this was simply just another one of those. He paused trying to figure out what to ask first...what to say.
“We’ve had a rough patch since you’ve been…since you left.”
Nita let out a hollow sigh, mournful and sweet.
“Oh Cariño. I’m so sorry.”
Shifting in his seat Hermann touched uncertain fingers to the place where he had felt the bullet strike him. He remembered being shot. The force of the impact, the heaviness in his body and Newton’s voice… Hermann sat ramrod straight when the realization hit him. He couldn’t feel Newton. His partner’s bright colors and impulsive emotions were conspicuously absent. The Hive was missing as well and the hole both of them left behind was raw, bleak and bottomless. Hermann rubbed his chest frantically. He was alone in his own head.
“Am I dead, Mrs. Melero?”
She said nothing for a long time. The light above them flickered. Bulky unseen objects shifted in the overhead luggage compartments.
“…How is Neta doing?”
Hermann was thrown off; he hadn’t expected her to dodge the question outright. That wasn’t Mrs. Melero’s style. She was always so straightforward with him. Never blunt, but always honest. The fear returned tenfold, sitting icy in his chest.
“She- she’s doing well to my knowledge. She found a kind drift partner named Koosha Degari…But Mrs. Me-“
A voice whispered from the next row up and Hermann startled. Raising wide eyes upwards he was stunned to see Chuck Hansen leaning nonchalantly over the headrest of the seat in front of him. The Ranger was only partially illuminated, his babyish face resting on folded arms.
“So what if you are dead? What then? Ya gonna give up…keep riding?”
Hermann’s brow furrowed his tongue curling with a dozen questions. After the close of the Breach he had suffered a multitude of nightmares and a surprising number of them involved Chuck Hansen. He did not…had not known the Ranger well, but his death was unexpectedly painful. It was because of his age. He had died so young and Hermann could almost hear his last screams when the Striker exploded. Herc Hansen didn’t even have a body to bury.
Chuck’s voice was angry, childish. He seemed to spit words rather than speak them.
“I said, ya gonna give up, doc? You can’t stay on this bus. Ya gotta get off.”
Mrs. Melero pulled her hand away from Hermann’s and the warmth dissipated instantly. Chucks lips pulled back in a snarling smile that was as much dangerous as it was friendly.
“Got a ways to travel back. I envy ya and I don’t, Doc Gottlieb. Never much cared for ya living. But then we were both assholes.”
Hermann was completely at a loss now. He looked around and realized in horror that the dark figures filling up the bus seats had all turned to look at him. He could just make them out; the overhead light reflecting off a skull-shaped ring, three identical people-like shapes all sharing a single row. The bus went on and on, it’s seats stretching as far as he could see. There was no back to it just endless rows of phantom travelers barreling down a lightless road. It was an infinite bus of war dead, casualties of Kaiju, poisoning and starvation all disappearing into the vague distance.
Hermann choked and looked away skin pale, breath coming in harsh gasps. Chuck Hansen leered at him.
“Ger’off the bus.”
Mrs. Melero reached into the pool of light one last time and took Hermann’s face in her hands, her brown eyes somber. She stroked his cheek with a thumb and strained upwards to put a soft kiss on his forehead, her voice was a whisper in his ear.
“Don’t look back, Cariño…just keep going. Whatever you do. Just keep moving. Do not let yourself get lost…it’s so easy to get lost…”
Hermann nodded wordlessly his voice frozen in his chest. With a small squeak that was meant to be a thank you he stood, lanky limbs tangling together as he made his way forward to speak with the driver. It struck him that there was no pain in his leg and hip and the thought clung just under tremulous waves of panic. He broke into a run. He could see the drivers back but he couldn’t reach him. It was like being on a treadmill; he was going and going but getting nowhere. The seated shadow people were bearing down on him, silent; and though Gottlieb couldn’t see their outstretched hands he could feel them drawing close.
Spectral fingers reached to grip his clothes and body, pushing to bring him back. To sit him down and take him wherever they were going. With a last kick of desperation Hermann plowed down the aisle, his hand just brushing the shoulder of the dark driver.
“Sir, please! Would you sto-“
Before he could even finish his sentence he realized the bus had stopped. All the interior lights were on and he was completely alone, all by himself inside a normal sized well-lit charter bus. The driver’s seat was empty and the door to the outside lay open. Hermann didn’t stop to question it; he scrambled down the narrow stairs and out into the open air. It was cold night outside. Fog still swirled about in wisps, curling around the sandy ground and idling bus. There was no sign of a bus stop in the flat empty desert Gottlieb found himself in. The bus had stopped in front of a single enormous boulder, its bulk the only thing Hermann had to orient himself. A chill wind stirred the mist, throwing up an eddy of sand. It blew into his mouth and he could feel the unpleasant graininess in between his teeth.
Turning back to the bus Hermann wasn’t surprised to find it was already gone. He hadn’t heard it rev up, couldn’t see its taillights retreating into the inky darkness. There was no road in the desert...no sign of tire treads in the sand. Hermann shook off his bewilderment and took a dragging step towards the boulder trying to get his bearings. He couldn’t see a single star in the sky. There were no mountains; there was absolutely nothing he could use to define a horizon line.
Reaching out a quivering hand Hermann leaned back against the boulder, intent on just breathing and figuring out his next steps. The moment his fingers brushed the rock’s hard surface light burst from it nearly blinding him. Taking a faltering step back Hermann blinked searing afterimages from his vision. What he thought was a clump of stone was actually the gigantic head of a decapitated Jaeger.
Bringing up a hand to shield his eyes from the sudden brilliance Hermann gaped at the bodiless metal head in shock. The eye shield stared blankly past him and it took a moment to recognize its corroded features. It was the Nova Hyperion, one of the better mach 2’s.
Nova’s head didn’t answer him, its expression vacant and unreadable. The emergency lights lining either side of its face blinked at random intervals. Enormous flood lamps perched at the crown of the head burned vividly, once again putting Hermann into a spotlight. Reaching out to touch the Hyperion Gottlieb felt a chill that made all the hair on the back of his neck stand up. It was like the Jaeger was watching him. Not with pilots, but with the tinted orange glass “eyes” of the mech itself. The wind blew through his flimsy shirt and rattled the loose edges on the head’s metal plating, kicking up a noise that was eerily reminiscent of clanging wind chimes.
Looking out into the light cast by the Hyperion Hermann could see another piece of Jaeger; an arm. It laid discarded, hand and fingers half-buried in the blood-colored sand. Wrapping his arms around his chest Hermann plodded towards it, shrugging against an icy gust that tousled his hair and hiked up his pant legs.
The arm had belonged to the Chrome Brutus. He recognized the wide flat palm and elongated fingers. There was a current generator in the Brutus’s thumbs. In battle it would press its hands together and pull them apart leaving a deadly wall of electricity. A “taser of epic proportions” Newton had called it. Newton. Was he alright? Had the assassin shot him? Had the PPDC taken him prisoner under the guise of protection? He reached out again where he usually felt Newton in the ghost drift. The connection was agonizingly empty, devoid of Newt’s fluttering thoughts and vivid colors.
The lights on the Chrome Brutus’s hand sparked to life as Hermann moved past it. His whole skinny body wasn’t even the size of its pinky finger. One casual flick of its wrist and he would be pulverized. Hermann shuddered inwardly. As soon as he was three steps beyond the Brutus another Jaeger part lit up in front of him. The graceful arch of the Tacit Ronin’s leg glowed in the inky dark and a few steps beyond that he could make out the rough dimensions of the Coyote Tango’s spinal column. On and on they went, mechanical cadavers shining like a trail of gargantuan breadcrumbs.
Hermann spoke aloud surprised by the shaky sound of his own voice in the dead quiet.
“Ha-ha… how fitting. I’ve been retired to Oblivion Bay with the rest of the dead relics.”
Hermann journeyed on, steps heavy. He turned everything over carefully in his mind. Death and drifting seemed to have a lot in common. The farther he walked the more complete the jaegers, isolated body parts gradually becoming the corpses of complete mechs. Slumped over a half-formed sand dune lay the Puma Real, its empty Conn-Pod watched him desolately as he passed. The Echo Saber, which had much in common with the Gipsy Danger as far as design, slumped on top of the Real; A gaping hole in its chest where its reactor should have been. One of its legs was ripped from the socket and lay in his path. Hermann ducked under the soaring arch of the Puma’s broken knee and kept moving. His gait was stilted and dragging but good enough to make steady progress.
Jaegers that Hermann had never seen in person but still recognized started to appear. They were older models, some of which had never seen combat. He wove around the experimental Tare Colossus, a Jaeger so insanely huge it took four people to operate. It had moved only once in trials. A team of three brothers and one sister had managed to it walk four steps before the neural load overwhelmed them. It rotted shoulder to shoulder with its polar opposite, the Colt Scrimmage, the smallest Jaeger ever built. Colt was a very early attempt to make something a single pilot could operate. It would have been completely useless against even the smallest cat-2. Slattern would have laughed at it.
Hermann blew on his hands trying to get heat back into his numb fingers. The dark world had no end, no edges…just more of the desolate elephant graveyard. He wavered and his pace slowed. He felt very tired and heavy. He cast about for a place to stop, to rest for just a moment or two. Hermann turned towards the nearest Jaeger carcass, deviating from the lit path. He stopped, startled when he realized the mech in front of him was achingly familiar. Closing the gap between himself and the Jaeger Hermann grinned.
“Occam…It’s so good to see a friendly face.”
The Razor was a wreck. Its head smashed in several places, the eye-shield a mess of splintered glass. Gottlieb could just make out the imprint the Black Roger’s foot had left in the torn steel and twisted fiberglass. Despite the damage Occam was still beautiful. Just being close to it filled Hermann with heartache and nostalgia…an insatiable longing for early morning patrols and night watch under the stars.
Something flapped in a stray wind and Hermann glanced upwards astonished to see his Ranger’s jacket hanging from one of the busted headlamps on the side of the Razor’s head. Stretching up he pulled it down and hugged it close, smiling at Occam gratefully.
Hermann slipped the warm leather-scented jacket on and burrowed into it. The heaviness bore down and he blinked tiredly, making his way towards a partially buried chunk of Occam’s shoulder. If he could rest for just a few minutes then the going would be easier. Before Hermann had a chance to take a seat on the scuffed scapula plate something white streaked near his feet. It ran ahead of him into the light of the Jaeger closest to Occam, the Lucky Seven. Climbing up onto a piece of the mechs hand the white shape stopped. Perching in front of a massive cracked light built into the center of the Lucky’s chest. The Seven lay on its side, arm thrown out. Fingers splayed and the silhouette of the white thing was thrown out tall and spindly, casting a long shadow over Hermann as he stared at it.
The white Jackelope groomed its whiskers and scratched behind one long slender ear. It rose to its hind legs, throwing back its head and antlers to gaze at Hermann critically.
“What in the world…”
The words stopped cold and Hermann gagged on them. He instantly forgot all thoughts of resting, his leg dragging slightly as he staggered towards the Jackelope. The Lucky Seven’s old light created a halo effect on the creature’s brilliant white fur, giving it an otherworldly radiance. Hermann stumbled, kicking up a bent metal bolt. It clattering into a shard of broken sheet metal and the noise startled the Jackelope. It bounded into the dark, throwing up a wave of red dust as it fled.
Hermann broke into a shambling run without thinking. He felt his hip throb slightly but didn’t care. He had to reach the Jackelope, had to find out where it came from where it was going. He looked back over his shoulder taking on last pining glance at Occam. It faded into the shadows and the rest of the scrapped Jaeger became a tattered blur in his peripheral vision.
Gottlieb ran until his leg felt like it was about to snap, until his lungs began to burn. He could just see the Jackelope sprinting ahead of him, its body a long comet of shining white. He trailed after it pain building up in his hip and leg but never quite reaching the point where he needed to stop. Mrs. Melero warning reverberated in the empty Hiveless part of his mind; keep moving…don’t stop.
The decaying Jaeger remains became sparser, giving way to random pieces of metal then flat empty ground. Light created a horizon from nothing as the sun started to rise and the Jackelope bolted towards it. Hermann slowed his pace gasping for breath, eyes screwed shut against the dawn. Something was…off. He could see that right away. The sun was wrong; it was the wrong color and size. He turned away from the glare but could still feel it…massive, scalding and the color of coagulated blood. Hermann opened his eyes to find that the cold dark desert around him had turned into something so shockingly alien he felt a powerful urge to vomit.
Tamping it down, Gottlieb gagged and walked on. The sun was a dying star, a red boil on a fleshy pink sky. The burnt out remains of a city that was definitely not human in origin grew around him and Hermann could see the fierce silhouettes of Kaiju rising from its ashes. An alien ocean lapped at his feet. Its water smelled like the chemical waste sink on Newton’s side of the lab in Hong Kong and its surface had a phosphorescent glow. The oceans neon blue color clashed painfully with the pink sky and black sand. Hermann jumped back so it wouldn’t touch his feet and swallowed a mouthful of unbreathable air.
This was a memory from he and Newton’s drift with the Kaiju infant, a chunk of Hivemind history. Was this the world that had fallen before Earth? Perhaps it was several worlds back. They were colonists…would Earth have changed like this, its natural greens and browns skewing into this cotton candy nightmare?
A crescent shaped object the size of a fighter plane soared silently overhead and Hermann watched it progress with morbid fascination. The colonists, the precursors as they had come to be known, made almost no sound as they scouted the remains of the abandoned city. A Kaiju responded to their presence and the closer it came the bigger Hermann realized it was. Slattern would have looked like a puppy at its feet. Even Mother would have to look up into its face. It’s…face. Hermann again felt a wave of queasiness that started in his brain. Where was its face?
He couldn’t tell which glowing nodules or pulsing orbs of flesh were the eyes. It didn’t seem to have a mouth. If Kaiju were based on the animals of the planets they destroyed the local wildlife was more bizarre then he could imagine. Gottlieb held himself and shook, Newton would enjoy this…Newton would at least find a scientific curiosity in it.
The floating vehicle made a low, dense humming noise and the Kaiju raised up what Hermann guessed was probably its head. The creature gave a shuddering earsplitting reply that turned all the bones in Hermann’s body to jelly. He cried out and started to run again, tottering side to side as he went. All he could think about was putting as much distance between himself and the Kaiju as possible. A thought drifted to the front of his mind and Hermann bit back a sob. He had died and this was hell. He had fallen way beyond anything Dante could have predicted. Circle nine, traitors frozen in ice…circle ten, mathematicians stranded in an alien apocalypse.
Hermann gagged, his senses overpowered with the smell of Kaiju rot. It was something he was all too familiar with - that horrifically sharp scent of saline and ammonia. Without realizing it he had run into the corpse of a fallen Kaiju. The creature had died on the beach, a hole forming tunnel-like through its abdomen. The ribcage unfolded around Hermann like an immense cathedral and the organs glistened above with flickers of bio-luminescence.
Outside the corpse heat hung wet and almost solid in the air; moving through it was like plowing through a bowl of gelatin. Hermann made to stop, hypnotized when he realized some of the organs were still alive. Before he could even contemplate the thump of a house-sized heart, before he could really wrap his tired brain around where he was… Hermann spotted the white shape waiting patiently at the other end of the Kaiju passageway. The Jackelope balanced on its hind legs and wiggled whispers at him ears swiveling, eyes never leaving his. Hermann felt himself moving towards it again. Why… it had brought him here, hadn’t it? It could lead him somewhere even worse if he followed but… he called out to it with a hoarse, hurt voice.
Leaving the cavernous hollow of Kaiju innards Hermann stumbled out into the open. The air was muggy and smelled like salt and rotting vegetation. It spoke of heat and tropical storms. The slate beach had transmuted to white sand and crystal water. A breeze rattled some nearby palm trees and white foam hugged the shore in smooth ceaseless patterns. It was beautifully Kaiju free and Hermann, still disoriented from the abrupt shift in environment, was nevertheless relieved to be away from the alien…dimension? Dream?
The Jackelope was gone again. Hermann sucked in a breath of air that tasted like sunshine and walked towards a pier that stretched out into the infinite blue ocean. Its worn wooden legs clustered with barnacles and seagull droppings.
The scene was familiar and it took Hermann several moments to realize why… He had seen it in Newton’s brain. During their drifts in Occam he had seen this same beach and felt nothing but sick angry emotions coupled with it. The Jackelope had brought him to the awful paradise on Earth where Fortress II was stationed. Two people stood on the pier and Hermann approached them cautiously. Negotiating a bit of rocky pathway He wandered out onto the pier his steps creating a shuffling exaggerated tapping sound on the faded planks. Trip-Trap-Trip-Trap, a voice whispered in his head, little goat little goat you are walking on my bridge…
A seagull mewled overhead diving towards a flash on the water and the two figures stared at it murmuring in low voices. Hermann strode a bit faster, the promising flash of color on skin seized his heart and squeezed.
It was Newton, and the closer he got the more he realized this had to be a dream…or something close to it. Newton didn’t react to his shouts and face was whole, every muscle in working order. There was no droop to his eyelid or slight frown to one side of his mouth. There was more meat on his bones, arms and shoulders thick with muscle. His skin was warm brown in places and more freckled then Hermann had ever seen it. The skin on Newt’s nose and forehead was red and peeling from a healing sunburn. He had obviously been in this tropical environment for a while.
“I-I don’t know dude. What makes you think we would even be compatible…”
Hermann stopped his breath catching painfully in his throat. Newt couldn’t see him. He was a memory, an illusion…a drift ghost. He was so caught up in staring at him he hadn’t even bothered to spare a glance for who he was talking until they replied. Sean Patrick Flood towered over Newton gazing down at him with military detachment.
“I feel confident enough in my abilities as a pilot that I think I could drift with ya, Doctor Geiszler sir…”
Newt plopped down on the pier and stared at the water, his bare feet dangling over the edge. He spoke in a voice that was exhausted, defeated.
“Call me Newt, man…only my mother calls me Doctor.”
Hermann felt tears building in his eyes and in his chest. He spoke aloud even though he knew this non-Newton couldn’t hear him.
“That joke was never funny.”
Sean Patrick chuckled anyway and it was friendly, nothing forced or condescending. He sat down next to Newt reaching to untie his heavy combat boots.
“Alrigh...Newt. Yeh can call me Sean if ya like. In academy they called mah “Lucky” cause ah the cereal mascot, buh I warn ya Uncle Balor hates tha nickname.”
Newton cringed at the mention of Balor’s name. Hermann took a step closer his hand hovering just above Newt’s head. He could almost feel real heat drifting of him, smell his terrible aftershave.
“I’ll stick to Sean then. I don’t want to get on your uncle’s bad side anymore then I already am.”
“Yeah, I know eh may seem like a bit of a shit buh he means well. You’ll see when we geh to Fortress I. This place puts em on edge.”
Newton chewed his bottom lip angrily and picked at a bit of splintered wood.
“Yeah, no offense, but breathing puts your uncle on edge.”
Flood laughed and Newt relaxed slightly, his shoulders slumping. Hermann shivered. The longer he lingered the colder he felt despite the sweltering island heat. Raising his eyes back up to the ocean Gottlieb saw the pier had elongated into a sort of meandering path out over the water. Wooden planks moving towards the horizon like an endless line of railroad tracks. That was his way and he knew he should move on…but he couldn’t tear himself away from Newton.
Newt spoke again, voice earnest and hands flailing as he tried to make Sean Patrick understand.
“Sean man, I don’t wanna sound like a dick and you seem like a real solid guy…but there’s only one person I’m compatible with. There’s only one person I want to be compatible with.”
Hermann took a deep breath digging fingernails deep into the palms of his hands. Flood didn’t seem surprised or hurt by Newton’s words. He only nodded hanging his legs over the side of the dock next to Geiszler’s.
“Yeah? So why didn’ ya tell em tha? Ask fer the PPDC to bring em in for trials?”
Newt put his hands over his neck bending his face towards his knees his voice muffled.
“He has a life man. Family, career, all that jazz. What kind of dick would I be? Just yanking that away because I-…fuck, you know that old saying? “If you love something let it go” Well, that’s what I did…I let him go.”
Sean made a noncommittal grunt and poked Newt’s shoulder.
“Aye…buh you know the other half of eh right? If you love something leh eh go, and if it comes back to you, it’s yours forever…”
Sean Patrick glanced over his shoulder right at Hermann, staring directly into his eyes.
“If it doesn’t, it never was, and it’s not meant to be.”
Hermann jolted in shock and took a step backwards, breath catching in his throat. The world shimmered in a heat haze and he turned panicked heading toward the winding pier. Something snapped under his foot and he went down through a rotted plank of wood. Mrs. Melero berated him in his head as he fell. Keep moving Hermann, don’t stop for anything, don’t leave the path.
The water was ice-cold and it pulled him downwards. He surfaced only just long enough to see the sun shining through the hole he had fallen through before the chill water sucked him under. He sank like a stone, eyes open screaming soundlessly. He knew this. He had done this before. He had fallen down deep into the blackness, plunged past the strangled sounds of memories. His own, Newton’s, the Hive’s - they all melded into a rush of water and the sensation of suffocating. Bleary shapes whisked past brushing him. He felt drained and knew that this was it. He couldn’t struggle, couldn’t pull himself back up.
Intense pain crawled languidly through his chest, a heart attack in slow motion. He could feel a burning in his stomach and tasted blood. A void opened beneath him and he sank towards it kicking uselessly against the descent. His struggles became more and more apathetic; a strange feeling of relief stole over his senses. He could let himself fall; it was over and he was ready to let himself go. He had done everything he could, he had done more then most…more then anyone could have expected.
The sluggish fall continued down…down towards something deeper then sleep. He smiled, skipping past depression and bargaining, straight into acceptance. There was no shame in being dead. The intense pain inside his chest, the fire in his stomach and ever-present pain in his hip faded, the urge to fight going with them. Hermann watched bubbles trickle up above his head in the blue-black darkness and his eyes slipped shut. He hoped in the end that he had been redeemed somewhat…he hoped they would understand.
The fall stopped.
Hermann opened his eyes.
At first he was sure it was the Jackelope coming towards him illuminated from behind by an ethereal light…but no, now it was too large looked more like a man. No…It wasn’t human either It was too big. The thing moving towards him was enormous and dazzling white. Its name trickled into Herman’s brain, filtering through his dulled senses.
The white Kaiju floated close regarding him in the dark. When he spoke there was a soft almost intangible bit of an Irish accent clinging to each syllable. These two things didn’t fit together. It was the mental equivalent of peanut butter and bubble gum.
“Is that the end?”
Hermann righted himself reaching out a pale hand to touch Kotick’s mammoth face. He felt solid and real…warm. The Kaiju’s blue eyes watched him lovingly and the voice filled him up, buoying him away from the pit he was falling into.
“Is the story finished?”
The luminous tendrils of whiskers pressed against him, their ends lit up like bright blue stars. Hermann thrust his body forward resting on Kotick’s nose. He laughed dazedly caressing the smooth rubbery skin.
He was at a loss. His first Hive brother, his savior was here again pulling him up from the dark.
“…you’re here. You’re here and I was never even able to repay you for your first rescue…all of them. You keep rescuing me. You keep trying to save me.”
The whiskers pushed close in something akin to an embrace. The Kaiju’s voice was sounding more and more like Sean Patrick’s with each passing moment.
“Small voice is mah Hive brother. Love ya, you make meh proud.”
“Your voice… have you been Sean Patrick? In the dreams and the drift…was-was that you?”
Kotick’s eyes seemed to shine brighter, skin crinkling at the edges. Imitating the exact way Hermann’s own did when he smiled.
“Maybe…maybe nothing is only one thing. Like Hive. Small voice is always many things. The son of cruel madman, friend of Rangers and love of tha Fast Thinker. All and one. This one is not just Kotick and not just Patrick. Many Lopers, many Kaiju…many voices and all together.”
Hermann was puzzled, he tensed his body tightly to Kotick’s and shook his head unable to decipher the words.
“I don’t understand…that just sounds like some nonsensical riddle Sean Patrick would say.”
Kotick rumbled not unkindly and they floated in the emptiness in an island of blue light.
“The drift is three. The Jaeger and the two Rangers but it is also one…aye? All things together to make the different things and a new thing. All the pain of a long journey combine to make a new person. Small voice is not the same as the start…yes?”
“No…I suppose I’m not.”
Gottlieb looked up and found himself staring into his own face in reflected in one of Kotick’s massive eyes. The pupil grew and shrank, undulating as it focused on him. The Kaiju’s voice was a sweet growl.
“Does the Small voice wish to go on? To fall?”
Hermann considered examining his own tired features in the neon blue surface. The entire waking world had become a hazy impression. He could only remember that up above there was pain and uncertainty waiting. Down below him there was nothing but oblivion and in it was peace, finality. He would be over.
“It is not shameful to wish for rest. Not bad to fall.”
He considered the option…but only briefly. Reaching a bony hand reflexively into the pocket of his Ranger’s jacket Gottlieb felt the hard disc shape of a peppermint candy. He shook his head and smiled his hand wrapping around it and clenching it tight. Newton wasn’t there; he was waiting elsewhere. Torn and tattered and always loud, plowing straight ahead in his well- meaning way. Leaving him was unthinkable, him or the twins, Mako, Balor, Becket…his family and his Hive. They would be waiting. Hermann smiled at his reflection in the smooth surface of the tremendous eye.
“I can sleep when I am dead…Newton is waiting for me.”
Hermann looked up and Kotick followed his example. Miles and millennia above them a weak light was just visible, the fabled light at the end of the tunnel.
“Then we must go find him.”
With a powerful thrust of legs and tail the Kaiju began the journey up out of the silence. The memories flashed past again, two lifetimes and a civilization’s worth. People and places Hermann knew and didn’t know. All of it thrust together in a stormy of chaos and held together by strands of remembrance thin as spider silk. Hermann clung to Kotick, his body resting just above his nose and between his eyes, carried by a memory of something that loved him.
Black ocean gave way to rolling green hills. The British countryside and a babbling stream surrounded on all sides by shade trees.
The smell of early summer was thick in the air; the sun baked the earth and made the whole world lazy. Hermann squinted into it and watched a white butterfly land on his hand flap its wings once then take off again. Sean Patrick whispered into his ear and a friendly hand shoved him forward.
“He’s easy ta follow…calling ya till he’s hoarse…live good, Doc.”
Hermann turned quickly to look Sean in the face. He wanted to thank him, or Kotick or both of them …all of them for their help and guidance. He wasn’t the least bit surprised to find nothing but humid empty air.
A rabbit ran from the underbrush disappearing into a nearby hedge bursting with of white flowers. There was nothing special about it. No antlers, just an ordinary British rabbit. Hermann took a step forward struck with the smells of clean air and damp earth.
In the creek near the tree line he could just make out the shape of a person. They waded in the water, black pants rolled to the knee, sleeves pushed back to reveal jeweled tattoos. Hermann raised a hand, his whole body filling with joy as he started to run.
Newton was just about to turn. Just about to turn away from the shining water and look down the field towards the noise…when Hermann woke up.
Hermann’s mind was fractured…broken, he had to piece himself together like a jigsaw puzzle. He had to find himself in the ruins and it was not an easy task. Childhood, school bullying, Kaiju and Newton, everything in descending order of life and love affairs. He was first aware of the bitter taste of canned oxygen; Gottlieb had become quite a connoisseur of O2 during his time as a Ranger. Some of the really old oxygen canisters had a slightly brittle tang that lingered in the nose and mouth when you breathed in, and he could feel that on his tongue now. It was solid glorious proof. He was alive.
Hermann searched until he found the part of his brain that made his eye open. With a huge effort he forced open one eye then the other, put off by the collection of gunk that had accumulated in his eyelashes. The ceiling above him was metal. But he had for the last ten years or so lived in many places with metal ceilings. Metal or concrete, cold and gray it didn’t tell him very much about where he was. He was definitely on some sort of painkiller. He could feel it burning through the blood in his arm, presumably from an IV. It crashed through him making the ceiling swim unnaturally. Hermann groaned but was happy for all of it, the nausea, the numbness, the underscore of pain. It all meant he had survived.
Hermann turned his head as far as his oxygen mask would allow and was more than surprised to see who was sitting next to him. Vanessa put down the tablet she had been holding and pulled her chair as close as possible. She beamed, taking his hand in hers and stroking his shoulder. He couldn’t feel it very well. His body was still a mysterious no-man’s land that he knew existed but couldn’t move. Consciousness wasn’t going to last long and Hermann knew he had to make the best of it.
“Don’t force yourself to speak if it hurts, Hermann… It’s alright. Don’t be scared.”
He smiled at her weakly and blinked a few times to make sure she wasn’t a mirage or another way for Kotick-Sean Patrick…whoever it was, to fuck with him. No, his ex-wife was still there, her hand smoothed his hair and checked his pulse. He tried to speak voice coming out low and rusty.
Vanessa smiled her eyes brimming with relief. A watery light shifted back and forth almost imperceptibly over her face. She grabbed a clear plastic bottle from the floor near her feet and removed his mask long enough to let him take a careful sip.
“Don’t gulp…take it slow. There you go honey…shhh. Its alright.”
Hermann tried not to chug but the water was like liquid gold and he was thirstier than he realized. The effort it took to lift his head enough to swallow was grueling but he felt much better afterwards. He spoke again and was able to coax actual words from his sore throat.
“We’re on a boat. Well, boat is perhaps too small a word. It’s more of a ship…your ship.”
Vanessa laughed as he gave her a bewildered look even managing to hoist up an eyebrow. He was feeling more alert now but wasn’t sure how long it would last, his mind bolstered mostly from adrenaline-spiked curiosity. He held Vanessa’s hand tighter.
“Why? Wha-…What happened? Why-you?…here?”
“After you were… after you were shot.”
Vanessa swallowed the word and spat it back out angrily. She paused and debated how best to explain. She didn’t raise her voice above a soothing whisper even though it looked like she wanted to scream.
“Fuck, Hermann…baby, I don’t even know where to start. I heard about the Summit and didn’t know how to contact you so I went to Seattle and waited. I’d been searching for you for so long. I would have joined the Lopers at the rendezvous site but they wouldn’t let anyone out of the city. Only people traveling in from outside were allowed to go…if they hadn’t let them it would have caused some kind of riot.”
Hermann listened, watching her anxiously.
“You shouldn’t have come.”
She shook her head and laughed affectionately touching his shoulder again.
“Yeah…well, I did. After they declared you dead- They, the PPDC, started to follow me. It was just like you warned me would happen in our call. I left London…took a job in DC without telling anyone and kept a low profile.”
She shifted in the hard chair, a haunted look in her eyes. More had happened then she was letting on but Hermann didn’t ask for details. Vanessa always said exactly as much as she was comfortable with. Pushing would do nothing.
“I knew you were alive, right from the start…Even before you released any of the videos online. I had no way to reach you-but then you announced the summit…”
She stopped taking a unsteady breath through her nose.
“But enough of that. Back to the present…the assassination attempt. They broadcast almost everything, kept the cameras rolling. After you went down that Kaiju with the frills…”
She waved her fingers around her face and wiggled them. Hermann smiled and a dry chuckle escaped his battered voice box.
“Yes, Mudpuppy! Mudpuppy tried to protect you. The smaller Jaeger…the Hellion I want to say? It grabbed him but another Jaeger intercepted and the two of them started to fight. My god, it was insane…the crowd went crazy. Fortunately it didn’t last long. They both backed off and Mudpuppy made it to the ocean. The Kaiju were making the most horrible noises. It was like screaming, Hermann. They never did attack anyone but shortly after that a Ranger was shot and they still don’t know by who…or who shot you for that matter. They say that twenty rounds were fired in total…”
“An I doubt they’ll ever figure eh out…”
The privacy curtain, a white swath of cloth that surrounded Hermann’s bed parted briefly and Balor Flood padded in looking frazzled and old. He approached the bed and sat at the end of it staring at Hermann with an unmistakable look of pride.
“It’ll be a great mystery, people writing books about eh fer years ta come. If ya ask me…I think it were all of em. The PPDC, USA…UIS, the Kaiju Church…maybe even some random nuts hiding among the Lopers. They all tried ta kill ya at once ‘Ermann, an none of em managed it. Once they look at all tha bullets they ken find I guarantee they’ll be from lots a different guns.”
Hermann watched Balor fondly but froze when Vanessa’s words struck home.
Balor put a solid hand on Hermann’s good leg.
“Catfish were shot. He pushed in front of you trying ta keep you oughta harms way while Mori calmed down tha Kaiju pet a yours. They shots jus kept coming. They probably hit him on purpose…eh knows more bout the smuggling then anyone. “
Vanessa squeezed his hand consolingly.
“Is he a close friend? He’s here, he’s in stable condition on the ship.”
Ship. There was that word again. The wheels in Hermann’s head started to turn painfully. She had said that before. He struggled to retain the information and piece it together so it had meaning.
“Glad he’s alright I-Ship…you said our ship?”
Balor laughed and it turned into his familiar hacking cough. He reeked of cold, wind and smoke.
“Boy you an Inkstain are the kings or…should I say queens ah your own country now. Tha was the deal ya struck an the world’s gotta keep its end ah the bargain. The PPDC gave ya a ship to sweeten the deal and you’re out in international waters now. S’only safe spot fer you an the Kaiju.”
Hermann tried to push himself up in a rush of panic nearly ripping all the tubes and wires from his body. Panic moved through him in palpable waves and he looked at Vanessa, panting and wide-eyed. He had been so distracted he hadn’t even asked where his partner was.
Vanessa pushed him back down and he bit his tongue at the wave of agony that roiled through his guts from the bullet wound. Lesson learned; the meds could only dampen so much pain. She looked more amused then anything.
“Stay still, you are going to pull out something important. Newt is perfectly fine, just look over the side of the bed.”
She pointed down and Hermann did so twisting slightly to stare at the floor next to his narrow hospital bed. On a short cot overloaded with blankets and pillows Newton lay passed out, drool dribbling from his mouth. One hand lay over his eyes while the other was propped up on the side of the bed as if reaching for Hermann, waiting for him to take the proffered fingers. He seemed scrunched as close as humanly possibly, body splayed and relaxed in deep sleep. Balor rolled his eyes and kicked at the edge of Newt’s makeshift bed. Vanessa glanced over and her tired smile widened.
“We had to slip him a sedative, he was completely manic. This is the first time he’s slept since the summit and that was what-…three days ago? You’ve been out of it a while, Hermann. The bullet missed most vital organs, it grazed your liver...the tip of your left lung. They drained the fluid from your chest and you've been improving. It’ll be alright, just need to watch your heart and blood pressu-”
Balor interrupted with a barking cough, waving his hand so Hermann would pay attention to him.
“Lissen, boy. There’s some important things ‘appened since you’ve been out.”
Hermann felt Vanessa tighten her grip on his shoulder protectively.
“Dr. Flood I don’t think he’s ready…”
Balor snorted; if there was one thing Hermann knew about him from all their time together in the last year it was this. Flood hated anything he viewed as coddling. Hermann watched the two of them trade frosty glances and attempted to take Newt’s hand over the side of the bed. He was restricted in his movements by his IV, but he managed. His fingers found Newton’s and he squeezed. The fog still hovering over his senses cleared. A pleasant tingle of warmth worked up his spine and the voices of the Hive burst forward concerned. He reached for them; it was alright…he was alright now.
“ Look ‘Ermann…tha border war an the skirmishes. After yeh were shot it all escalated.”
Gottlieb’s focus turned to Balor and the Hive retreated back. The ship heaved and moved under him, rocking his bed and he knew the Kaiju were swimming close…a tight circle of protection.
“Aye, pointing fingers, people in cities starting to protest both peaceful and not…”
Vanessa stood putting Hermann’s hand down carefully. She pulled the white curtains around the bed wide open, letting in milky light from a nearby window. It was round and metal, the glass thick. Outside Hermann could just make out the grey plain of the ocean. On a nearby bed The Whateley twins were passed out, curled close together like sleeping cats. He smiled at them, the net of warmth and safety pulled tighter.
“Well, sorta over you, you an Inkstain. Yer symbols of a cause. You represent something bigger. Part of a huge web ah lies an monsters…hey.”
Balor snapped his fingers to get Hermann’s undivided attention again and narrowed his eyes.
“We’re all ere. Mori an Becket are topside…an you’ll see em. Just listen. In case an important dignitaries or somethin come ya gotta know whas going on.”
Running a shaking hand through ringlets of graying hair Balor looked at Vanessa, and she spoke slowly, apparently under the sudden assumption Hermann could only understand things spoken one syllable at a time.
“The United States agreed to give you and Newton an Island, a small cluster of them. You have your own country. Neither of you are the citizens of an existing government anymore. The Kaiju have their own country.”
Balor looked at Hermann apparently to gauge his reaction but Hermann just nodded waiting to hear more, curious but holding it in…digesting it. He wasn’t surprised at the news; the summit had seemed to be leading this direction and it made sense that an assassination attempt had sped up the desire to rid other countries of responsibility for himself and Newton.
“Well yeh got yer own government and …yeh now have the biggest army ta land ratio ah any nation in the world.”
Balor’s face cracked into a weathered grin, yellowed teeth flashing.
“Lotta Rangers defected.”
Hermann shook his head slowly from side to side and his grip on Newton’s fingers tightened.
Vanessa spoke, voice still measured and punctuated with long gaps.
“After you were shot and the protests started…the riots. The border standoffs in China and in the USA intensified and then...I think the second day you were unconscious the USA reached out to the UIS’s and asked for a meeting.”
Balor grinned like mad taking up where Vanessa left off.
“Called fer a damn truce...an emergency meet-up. And then damned if it wasn’t Melero and Degari who gave this satellite interview with some reporter…same one ya punched if yeh can believe eh. Almost every pilot team in tha PPDC defected fer…well they news ‘as taken to calling it Kaiju Country. An Inkstain welcomed em in. Offered amnesty ta whatever Rangers wanted it…aye and citizenship.”
Vanessa put a hand to her chest.
“That’s how I ended up here. I got in contact with Newt by offering CNN a live interview. Asking the ex-wife of a Kaiju diplomat invasive questions was just too juicy for them to resist. I asked for amnesty on the air and Newt found me immediately. He offered complete protection from PPDC harassment. It was such a relief.“
Hermann still didn’t quite understand he pressed shaking fingers to Newton’s wrist. Just to feel the steady push of his pulse. It anchored him.
“Newton did that?”
“Yes. Newt’s been talking to officials and press nearly nonstop. He doesn’t appear anywhere in person obviously but he actually spoke to top PPDC brass several times.”
Hermann watched Vanessa tuck a blanket snugly around his chest, covering whatever tubes were running under his hospital shift. She glanced sidelong at Balor before continuing.
“The long and short of it is this Hermann. The PPDC is an international organization…its employees are under the jurisdiction of the UN and the Peace Commission. The Rangers knew that if they quit and went back to their own individual countries they could face a reprimand or worse…some of them could have been arrested. But someone found a loophole, they left the PPDC and declared themselves refugees…they asked for citizenship in your country, Hermann. In the Kaiju’s country…and Newt gave it to them.”
She smoothed his hair from his face smiling.
“Now the PPDC has very few pilots…and the unemployed Rangers could possibly out them on anything illegal.”
He smiled back weakly feeling an almost orgasmic relief fill his whole stringy being.
Vanessa nodded enthusiastically relieved that he seemed to understand.
“Smuggling, extortion…abuse. Neta Melero spoke openly about what she and her mother did in California…what they were forced to do, what is still going on. The whole world saw the jaegers fighting at your summit.”
“They gah their backs to the wall…its all coming unraveled.”
Hot tears stung Hermann's eyes. He let out a soft laugh.
“A-All the PPDC pilots? The Rangers? “
“Good number of em, an a few high ranking techs like Tendo Choi.”
Hermann’s heart soared at the mention of Tendo joining them. He listened attentively as Balor listed off names, not just of the pilots but of the jaegers, counting them off on his fingers. Some of which he didn’t even know…hadn’t even met.
“The Foxglove…that’s Melero and Degari, they was the first to come forward…then Nancy Archer and Honey Parker…an they’ll bring Harry with em. The Mare cousins from tha Waltz Inferno, Strife Chimera sisters…Frost Potemkin, Risky Dynamo, even the Rebel Samson.”
Hermann blinked, surprised.
Balor shrugged and squeezed Gottliebs’s leg, his eyes lit up cheerfully and his cheeks flushed with triumph instead of alcohol.
“Aye, an most of Fortress II if ye can believe it. There are a few tha didn’t leave, one or two teams…an a few tha don have partners buh all round the PPDC is crippled. Buncha empty hunks of metal sitting in the bays. Heard rumors tha half the pilots on the UIS side up and walked away buh I don know if thas true.”
“They’ll find new pilots…”
Newton stirred slightly in his sleep ,his hand clenching around Hermann’s knuckles before he settled again his breath snorty and comfortable. Outside the porthole window there was a cry of something that could have been a Kaiju or a seagull; it was hard to tell. The sound was echoed by a distant crack of thunder.
“Nah for awhile. An I think most ah the pilots will eventually go back… eventually, buh not now. They gotta sort out this mess.”
Hermann was struggling to keep his head up, his brain racing and fighting sleep at the same time. The pain in his stomach flared then settled, a fresh wave of painkiller lacing up the IV and into his bony wrist.
“How can we house these people what is this island like I don’t…”
Vanessa looked at the door probably debating if she should get a nurse.
“Don’t worry. It’s going to be alright. Several countries have offered aid and we have the ship. Not sure how many of the other pilots will even travel to the island itself. Many may stay where they are until enough progress is made and they make a deal to return to the PPDC.”
Thunder boomed but it was farther away, retreating across the sea. Rain pattered against the window, the ship listing back and forth like a swaying hammock. Vanessa continued her voice a warm murmur.
“There’s an abandoned town on the island. Vacation homes and hotels…but that’s not something you need to worry about. You just need to get stronger.”
Vanessa stood and stroked Hermann’s cheek once more with cool fingers.
“I’m going to find some medical reinforcements to check you over…I’ll be back in a minute.”
Hermann managed a half nod and watched her disappear out into the hall. After a minute of easy silence Balor cleared his throat meaningfully.
“Aye, yeh did good boy. Yeh both did really good. We’ll plow on together…”
He gestured to the Whateley’s and the room at large; to all the people seen and unseen.
“All of us. Things mah never be easy…buh the worst is over.”
Balor gave Hermann’s ankle one last consoling pat then stood and smiled down at Newt, wiping at his eyes fiercely. He walked to the little table at the head of Hermann’s bed and reached into his pocket pulling out his silver flask, the stag-headed Jaeger blinking in the yellowish overhead light.
“We didna have ta do eh…”
He set the flask down on the table where Hermann could see it and pulled his hand back.
“I guess we don’ always ave to fight until the last is dead…”
Hermann smiled looking at the flask and then up into Flood’s electric blue eyes. Outside the Kaiju surfaced, lifting their heads towards the rain and dancing slow circles around the ship. Hermann could feel where Mudpuppy had lost a one of the neck-frills on his left hand side; the pain was just noticeable under the morphine. The Kaiju didn’t dwell on it, swimming down and up again hunting and nudging gently at his Hive brothers, happy just to be alive. Deep inside the Drift Mother sang, her booming voice powerful and loving.
Balor left the flask on the side table, walking towards the door.
“Guess I gotta stop drinking then…I’ll be back later ‘Ermann. We’ll talk more after yeh rested proper.”
Hermann watched him tiredly. Later he would tell the old man about Sean Patrick…or part of Sean Patrick. He would tell him what his nephew had done with a Kaiju’s help. But now…The rocking ship lulled him into a doze. The burning pain in his chest and hip waned and his heart kept time with Newton’s. He walked forward through a tunnel of green light; back towards the small figure waiting in the green meadow…ready to help him catch salamanders.