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Infinite Regress, Under Duress

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Newt broke his left shin (tibial shaft fracture) when he was 6, falling out of a tree.

His parents freaked when he hobbled in, but his Uncle kept them calm as they bundled him into the back of the Volvo and took him to hospital. He cried more out of shock, than pain. Because, ow!  The thing that stopped his tears, unexpectedly, once he was sitting on the hospital bed with his leg carefully propped up, his curls mussed and still full of leaves and mom holding his hand, wasn't pain medication, but seeing his x-ray. He broke off crying, and stared.

“Of course you did. How predictable,” Gottlieb tells him, in a breath like a sigh.

They are in the Lima Shatterdome, and have been working together for 5 weeks. That morning Newt had been re-watching footage of Trespasser and Karloff and Scissure's destructions, and so was hypothesising over lunch, talking rapid-fire about lizard limb regeneration, nerve stimuli, the potential of what they might see next, the capacity the kaiju seem to have to continue moving despite injury, like walking on broken legs - which is pretty fucking cool. He'd mentioned his own mid-sentence and gone on to continue, but Gottlieb had looked up suddenly from his tray, his (rumours have it) ‘lasagne’, and what had appeared to be ignoring Newton but apparently wasn’t, and asked. Blurted.

“How did you manage that?”

Weeeell. Newt had paused. There was no wild-card, there; no cool or dramatic story, nothing unique. Unfortunately. He wanted to impress Gottlieb, he can admit it, sure. In the past when asked if he'd ever broken a bone, he used to make up varied, exciting explanations, particularly when he was a teenager and realised that girls, and boys, smelled really, really good and had great hands and hey, feel this awesome bump in my shin, let me tell you about it... Particularly when thoughts and reasons became so easy to come up with, to extrapolate and justify. Particularly because he is super fucking smart and he really likes trying out new things, and he was a slightly desperate kid, yeah. Desperate for a lot of shit.

Shit which he generally turned out to be very good at doing.

Except calligraphy, that one time.

Now, though. Stories weren't going to work. Not after kaiju have appeared, after terrible, awesome things, after— just, After, the unseen capital letter implied – that doesn’t work. He can’t do that. Not here. Not in the Shatterdome, not when the inky crust over his first kaiju tattoo (first, because he knows now that he will get more, just like he knows there will be more kaiju; he knew it as soon as the itching burn began on his skin and he realised that he loved it) over his right arm has long since flaked off and they’re really there forever. They’re real.

Not to Gottlieb, who Newt can tell isn't really the type to get sucked in by exaggeration. Not with those considering, interested eyes on him.

They’re kind of brown, kind of gold.

Huh.

So, Newt had taken half a breath in and unexpectedly answers, honestly.

After his sarcasm, Gottlieb looks back down at his notes and continues it. “Of course you climbed trees as a boy.”

Newt rolls his eyes.

“Yeah, Dr. Gottlieb, whilst, since you were never actually a child yourself, there’s no way you would have.”  

Because fuck, seriously. Jesus, it was as if Gottlieb had been spontaneously birthed as he was: perpetually 54 years old with the hair of a toddler. He was a natural singularity. It totally warranted further study because who could imagine that? Not even Newt. This guy? Playing? Please.

But it’s not true, and After - which is a different kind of time period altogether, post-saving the world, and, he knows, a much better placemarker for life as he knows it to be now: B.D. (Before Drift) and A.H. (After Hermann) – After, he knows the truth. He sees it in the Drift. Hermann pulling himself up onto the wall between their garden and their neighbour’s again and again; to determinedly count stars, to check constellations against his book, to watch planes with his head tilted back and his hands on his hips, and his 8 year old arms had wobbled, his elbows cold from the snow, when he pulled himself up there the first time, Christmas Eve morning, his heart pounding, all so that he and his brother could throw their aeroplanes off further, higher - and so that is what having older siblings taunt you and push you into doing things you half don’t want to, and half are grateful to them for making you, feels like.

Good to know.

“Well anyway, it was a pretty big deal for me at the time,”  he adds, in the mess hall, shrugging at Gottlieb - who says nothing else. So Newt sticks his tongue out on impulse and turns away to answer a question from Joe, their best analyst. End of.

That was actually his biggest understatement, that day.

That year.

Ever.

So the way his bones had knit and mended, the way his skin itched underneath the cast, the way it differentiated him from what he was before yet could not be seen except under the skin - the fact that it won't be something he passes on to his children but will be a shadow on an x-ray until he dies, the way it will never be known except if you get inside him, take a look— How it’s him, all him, himself a copy, himself an extension of others and yet singular, alone, unique…

This had all helped decide his first, and enduring, area of study. Of love.

Biology, dude.

Awesome.


 

When Hermann is six, he is inherits a collection of Spirographs from his elder brother.

They are positively antique by then, if still having a slight resurgence in popularity around Europe, but where his siblings tire quickly of it, Hermann is deeply fascinated. As fascinated as a child of six can be - but then, not many six year olds can think like Hermann.

The patterns are beautiful, the certainty of them pleasing, the logic infallible. The shapes. He knows these. He watches them unfold in wonder, drawing with his bottom lip caught in his teeth, wiping his hair out of his eyes over and over, and reaching for new sheets of A3.

He is a child in love with numbers, with infinity. Space. He leafs through astronomy books, begs his parents to read him ancient Norse and Teutonic legends. His knees are perpetually pink from sitting with heavy books from Father’s study on them, from scuffing them as he pulls himself up the neighbour’s wall, from being pushed over by his brother and sisters. Tickle fights are appallingly tiresome when he is forcibly dragged into them, but he has long fingers and skinny arms and, on occasion, wins.

He leaps ahead in mathematics, breaching gaps of logic that most adults can’t. It comes to him so easily, has always come to him so easily, it is as though he can say I already know this, and his first look at spiralling equations is like a moment of recognition because he already sees numbers like that. Inside his mind, they are so beautiful. They have their own map, their own constellations. He sees them with his own spacing; the numbers are never flat but extra dimensional, instead, and they move, they connect, they explain themselves…

He tries to explain it to his parents, but they cannot understand it. They frown, glance at each other. They make him get his eyes tested, more than once. They try to touch his mind. He is highly gifted at abstract mathematics and fractals are like déjà vu for him. Why? No-one can explain it. His siblings are also intelligent, but not like this.

Soon he stops talking about the pure way he sees the numbers. Better simply to study and look at things within his own mind, his own way. It is not until he is an adult, at University, that he hears the word synesthesia muttered under his friend Vanessa’s breath as she skims an article, and something shifts. Something makes sense. By then his own ability has lessened incrementally, changing from the pure, beautiful shapes of his childhood to something more organised, now underpinned and shaped by the lines of logic and knowledge and research that he has accumulated. Nevertheless it is…reassuring. He was not a mad child, and he is not now.

Then he panics; is it the only reason he is so gifted? Is it the reason he can think like he can? But no. No. He has worked so hard, for so long. That is all his own. He did it. Him.

As a child, he has poor instincts in a lot of areas – socially, mostly, which comes from learning early how to ignore taunts, to block out distractions, and becoming too good at it. It carries on into adulthood. He can sit in a state of total (in)attention with pages or books in front of him until his Mother or his sister taps his shoulder, or Bastien pokes him in the head to get his attention and makes him scowl and pull his headphones off,  or when Vanessa nudges him with her books in the library and makes him blink, look up to her smile. Because he wants, because he wants to get elbow-deep in imagined space, in abstraction. He needs to touch and understand it. Make connections. He needs to. Pi, patterns, integers, algebra. Philosophy. Geometry and equations and engineering are wonderful. Heavy, manmade machines that move through the air like skimming water, planes taking off like breath. It fascinates him.

When is 10, he goes to the best boarding school in the UK that his parents can find for him, and though he has few friends outside of his siblings, he knows enough not to take the spirographs with him. He will be bullied for that, if nothing else.

He’s not wrong, but he’s not entirely correct either. The boys find other things to bully him for instead. He almost needn’t have worried.

He is mocked for his intellect, his age, for his German accent, for his British one when he returns for holidays. How predictable. Whilst is away, Mother writes to him of her love, observations from home, updates on his grandparents, plans for when he is back. Father writes him with riddles to solve, and he and his siblings write to each other in simple codes, which Hermann always breaks first. His ciphers are the best, of course. He only mentions the bullying once, in a letter to his elder brother, but makes him swear not to pass it on. Dietrich doesn't, ever, but he doesn't like it, and when Hermann comes back for holidays, Dietrich is the first to run forward at the airport line, startling the staff. 

As he gets older, the patterns from school are proven again, and again. He learns not to speak German unless he is sure of the people around him. His siblings don’t worry about it and tell him not to, but for Hermann, it will always reveal too much, now, an unknown quantity against what he does know - that people tends towards the repetitive. So he stops. He gets snippy, clipped, cuts people off before endings he can see in conversation; he pertains instead toward things that he recognises.

He appreciates the classics, always has, but is mostly blind when it comes to himself, so when Mother stops dressing him for the varying weather, he simply carries on the same, and then further, on and on and more. He likes the familiar. He wears pinstripe, wool, tweed. Jumpers he’s had for years or that were his brother’s. His only concession is shoes: brogues, spats. Patrick Moore is to blame for this. Hermann loves him, deeply. It is a silly story and if he ever tells Newton, Newton will laugh and laugh at him, he is sure. (Until he does tell him, even before their Drift, surprising no-one more than himself.)

He polishes his shoes every day, irons his collars, but forgets everything else. It is inconsequential.

His parents divorce when he is 16 and goes to University early. Though he ought to have seen it coming, and Bastien raises his eyebrow and dares to say, Come on, Hermann, it still shakes something in him. Some central truth. He had believed. He trusts less easily. His mother moves back to Wales, and is very happy, his Father carries on advancing further and deeper into his fields.

University, at least, is a revelation. No-one mocks his mind. They nurture it, they cultivate his ideas. He takes side courses in the engineering department, graduates early from programming courses, intimidates the IT workers into letting him practise on the machines. He makes one close friend, Vanessa, from Brixton, who is reading Biochemistry and actually has more siblings than him, long, dark curly hair and very expressive hands. There is also Henry, reading Physics, from Oslo, and taller than even Hermann’s younger brother. They all bond over getting stuck in the same lecture room, originally. It’s inane, but turns out to suit them all well. No one would never have thought to put he and Vanessa together, particularly, so apparently different as they seem, but they work.  

Thankfully everyone else leaves him alone.

He carries on the tradition of writing to his siblings in codes. Bastien doesn't even try anymore, Dietrich uses it to spell rude things, and Karla is generally lapse and prefers to just talk to him. There is one email that he sends her that takes her three months to decrypt. In the end all it says inside is him wishing her happy birthday, which is now late. She calls him, exasperated, her German slipping softly into the accent that is most like their grandmother’s Welsh, Hermann, really, you could have just told me that.

He loses his virginity with Vanessa when they are both 19. They take it very seriously. It is special, unique. An Event.

He sets up his room with candles, red roses, and classical music. (Mozart is too varying, Beethoven too reflective. Bach seems a safe middle bet?) Flattening his hair in the reflection in the window before drawing the curtains, whilst Vanessa changes in his bathroom.

It is— it is fine.

Afterwards, they lay on their backs, under his sheets, Hermann catching his breath again. Vanessa catches his eye sideways, and he looks back, the chorals swell - and unexpectedly she is laughing, and Hermann is chuckling as well. Anticlimax is not the correct word, but fits. He laughs with relief and confusion all at once. She rolls and hugs him fiercely around the ribs, then props herself up on one elbow, smoothing his hair off his forehead for him with her fingertips and then tucking her fingers under her chin.

“Perhaps,” he says carefully, “we should never do that again.”

She smiles widely, her dark eyes bright, shining. “I think you’re right.”

He smiles at her. “You are. Beautiful.”

“I know,” she says, but her smile goes soft.

Over time, that night becomes simultaneously one of his most treasured memories, and one of the funniest things that has ever happened in his life. He has never been more earnest— more serious. Neither of them had. They mock themselves endlessly when they are older. Well, Vanessa instigates mockery and Hermann agrees, wry, a little embarrassed but only in a distant sense.

She calls him two weeks after she leaves for further postgrad abroad, and Hermann has begun another condensed engineering degree at TU Berlin.

“You broke my heart you know. I was a bit in love with you.”

“No you were not,” he points out.

She sighs and agrees. “No, true. I was in love with your brain.”

He smiles to himself. “We are attracted to the same things,” he agrees, meaning hers, and how he had loved her too. Loves her.

“Yes,” she says, all seriousness. “Cock.”

He hisses at her and she giggles for the rest of their conversation. She giggles even more when he finally gets his first desperate fumbles - in an alcove in the library, and the doorway by his little flat, and on the way back from the toilet in a coffee shop in town - with Benjamin, his lanky blonde neighbour. Benjamin is doing a PhD in French philosophy and kisses like he is in a hurry, but he is a little more experienced then Hermann, very, inexplicably keen on him, and they find their own rhythm quickly. A very nice rhythm.

"French?" Vanessa asks, skeptical.

"At least he's not reading poetry," Hermann sniffs, and Vanessa cackles.

When he is 23, he goes skiing in Bavaria with Karla, her boyfriend, and Father planning to join them after a few days. Another continuation of his family’s Winter tradition. (With an extra: Vanessa.)

One day into the trip, he has an accident, if one can call it that when you see it coming; he’s not convinced. An idiot further up the slope decides to show off, pushing himself and rushing past Hermann’s elbows at top speed, making him flinch - and being himself, Hermann tutts and slides across, not wanting to be anywhere near that - but he does it too sharply and shudders, spins, and when he looks back forward he sees immediately that he has put himself off course, too quickly. Even after he rights his trajectory he sees that he is fixed for collision with— that's Karla's red suit.

He’s going to knock into his sister. Not too fast, but fast enough—

He stabs his sticks into the snow and lets himself jerk and tumble sideways.

Instinct and certainty and stupidity are oddly interconnected.

He would have been fine, in all probability, but by wild bloody chance however his right ski doesn’t come off, and they left it until February to come, rather than January, so the snow is malleable on the surface, slipperyhard underneath, and a thousand other factors but mostly his own stupid self come into play to mean that instead of stopping, Hermann flips, arcs, his leg twists around the ski for a second and then he crunches into solid snow.

His head hits a bank and he blinks up at sky, blinks light from his eyes and somehow tastes it, bright, in his mouth.

The reconstructive surgery in Munich on his knee, the addition of the pin to his thigh, goes as planned. No issues. Everything is predicted to heal without hindrance.  He is ordered to rest, recoup and do strict physio for the next year. Karla cries all over his chin when he wakes up in the hospital with a sodding great bandage on his leg and he purses his lips at her, tries to pat her back and misses, still a little blurry on the drugs, which at least makes Dietrich laugh. No lasting problems. Not the end of the world.

He goes back to the UK, with great plans. Teaching schedules, research. Then six months later, not long after he turns 24, an alien being erupts through the Pacific Ocean and attacks San Francisco.

He is already down to crutches, moving fine, and in the middle of researching two concurrent theses. That day he is in Cardiff, visiting his grandmother in the home she has been moved into. He watches the news on the tv in the lounge with elderly people asleep around him, his leg up on a spare chair, the nurses and carers crowded around in shared, mute horror. His grandmother’s hand is slack in his but he doesn’t notice that she’s fallen asleep again, unable to take in even something this momentous.

Immediately afterwards, Hermann is too busy for anything else. Anything small. His mind spins. The world is irrevocably changed and nothing he saw makes any sense. It needs to. What is the probability, what is the cause? He neglects the exercises and stretching, furiously making phonecalls, having meetings, sending and replying to emails, requests, being one of the top physics experts in the world, receiving and sending demands, publishing ideas. He knows when his knee starts clicking at least twice a day, and he gets intermittent numbness in his outer thigh, that this will likely go on to cause him problems later in life - but it has so much less magnitude than this, than now. This study, this urgent cause.

When he is 25, he works solidly for six days finalising the spiralling lines of code for the first Jaeger programme, and he cannot sleep whilst they program it in. He watches it by computer feed instead, elbows on the desk, leaning on the cane he’s come to need on occasion, rubbing at his eyes and staring at the screen as things move and lights and machines whir, metal flashes. He has that feeling again like, like planes taking off—

When he is 26, he meets Newton Geiszler in Lima, and notices immediately that he has green eyes.

The decade that follows is…unpredictable.


 

The conference in Seoul, 2014, had them both on the list - of course - but they never met in person.

They were in different areas, and turned out to have been seated on opposite sides of the room. As if the universe knew what to do from day one. Abort, abort, shit; an unstoppable force is about to meet an immovable object. Or something. Physics is not completely Newton’s thing, that’s more Hermann. Anyway.

During the day they’d moved around the conference in their own ways: Newt flitting, joining every conversation whether invited or not, getting his presentation out of the way at 10am and then fielding questions for the next hour whilst Hermann did a full, thoughtful circuit before giving his presentation on inter-dimensional astronomy and the inversion of physics, with reference to alien presence, round about the same time that Newt got dragged into a debate on tensile strength in conference room B.

Hermann spent all of Dr Geiszler’s talk obediently listening to Father and a group of others, outside. He was drilled on the topic of his talk, having to point out that as he had essentially had to invent the topic thatno, he did not know everything yet. Then he had to discuss gravitational echoes with one ear straining for the echoes from inside the main hall where this talk - the presentation on Body-Mass versus Plausible Creation Theory by N. Geiszler that he’d written onto his own personalised, hand-drawn version of the agenda - with notes – as Number One - was taking place.

He was furious to have missed it, white lipped. He never said a thing to Father.

When Newton realises what talk he’d missed later he is loudly, and repetitively to everyone in the hotel bar, super, super fucking pissed. It was the only talk he’d circled in red pen on his crumpled print-out, fuck.

Abort, abort— theeeeere you go.

 


 

Not before K-Day, but after, Hermann’s sees a name repeated a lot. In publications, journals. He is attuned to spotting patterns, after all. ‘N. Geiszler.’

It appears in PPDC information and updates, in a number of articles with fascinating proposals and ideas. One tiny but luridly printed picture that he had taken a moment to study, in which the Doctor appeared to be throwing up a peace sign.

He has very dark hair, glasses, and looked to be shorter than everyone else in his team. That was about all that could be gleaned from it.

Hermann had queried one point in a publication online - queried, not sniping, not in any way, and if it was, well it was far too much fun to be called that – and received two for one of his own in response, a note in one thread, questioning his integers. His. He’d taken a whole five minutes out of his schedule to respond to it, to destroy it. He hadn’t even recognised the name of the user until the fog of rage had passed.

When he later spent two days researching the acidic radius of kaiju blue with the idea of plotting a square kilometre geometry model, hypothesising that he might be able to work backwards from it to assist in locating the Breach, four times in one day the initials N.G and the various, appropriate abbreviations entailed after appear on his screen, in print.

Repetition.

They start being CC’d on the same PPDC emails very quickly. Hastily fired off questions in group meetings. He is invited to join the new team assembling in the Lima shatterdome and agrees, on the condition he can bring his own research his own way, and the email agreeing lists the rest of the team he will be working with.

Oh, look. How unsurprising.

As he is packing up his things, he gets two emails. One is from Vanessa, telling him that while she knows he never looks at anything popular or interesting on the internet, he should know that an artwork rendering of his jaeger code has become the most popular screensaver download ever, and congratulations, will that add another letter to his name?

He blinks, fairly surprised - until he sees the address on the second email in his inbox.  He leans in to check, then clicks on it sharply.

Dr. Gottlieb,

Hello, and sorry – or shold I say entschuldigen Sie bitte ;D - for being so forward but I need some help. Great to meet you, sort of, and sorry I didnt in Seoul but don’t hold that against me- just hoping you can let me know everythinh YOU do before you come on the dimensional radius of the radiation readings in August 2013 for the following co-ordinates…

He has mis-typed the co-ordinates. Hermann spots the mistake immediately.

He also pauses, because dimensional radius is not something he told anybody else he was researching.

After a moment’s thought, he calls the number listed at the bottom of the email to confirm, question, and perhaps to rub in the mistake – no, Hermann is not always a nice person, and these things matter.

He is also looking forward to conversing. There are few minds he is interested in. Professional curiosity, not nerves. He understands that Dr Geiszler is also German, but based in the US. What will his accent be—

The idiot who answers the other end of the phone tells him that Dr Geiszler has already been moved to Lima. That this was the number for his previous residence.

He hasn’t updated his email signature yet.

Hermann sighs, deeply.

It takes him 25 minutes to track the man down to the correct extension number in Lima. The phone is answered with a fumbling noise, a burst of static, the sudden drop in volume of some extremely loud music in the background that he vaguely recognises from his last trip to America, and then a surprisingly shrill, Hello?!”

He clears his throat. “Dr. Geiszler?”

“…Yeah?”

“This is— this is Dr. Gottlieb. You emailed me.”

“…Did I? Wait, shit, I did! Dr. Gottlieb!” There is more fumbling, a crack and then the voice comes through a lot clearer, and closer. More intimate. Hermann sits up, straighter. “Hello, hi! Sorry, I’m…I forgot there was a phone to be honest, I have never been called on this number before. Actually, how did you get it? I don’t even know what it is.”

“I,” Hermann says, stupidly. He wasn’t expecting that many words, so quickly. “…A process of elimination. And some coercion.” He may have pulled rank. His own rank. He’s never used anyone’s name but his own, thank you.

Dr. Geiszler laughs. “Nice. Very James Bond.” He continues straight on talking before Hermann can even begin to think of an appropriate response for that. “I mean! Very cool. Very cool. Uh, so, thanks for getting in touch. Um. Wie geht es Ihnen?”

“Yah— yes, I’m fine, thank you.” He doesn’t have a lot of time before he needs to leave for his flight, and he is not accustomed to speaking German in front of his current colleagues. He is always careful with doing so, in fact. In all situations. Old habits, a painful death. He makes to continue, then remembers his manners. “I— You, as well?”

Dr. Geiszler chuckles, after a moment. “Yeah, dude, danke. Mir geht es gut. Actually I’m pretty freaking excited to be honest, your mind is rad. When do you get here, what are you working on now, any advances on calculating the Breach location?”

“Some – How did you know that?!” His current area of focus is supposed to be classified. He glares over his shoulder at the rest of his previous team; they are carefully not listening.

Dr. Geiszler’s chuckle comes down the phone again, high and shrill. “We work for the same people now? Plus. Logically thinking ahead from what you were last publishing results on, I figured what you’d be heading to next…” He leaves the connection unsaid. He doesn’t need to.

Impressive.

 “Of course.” Hermann clears his throat again.

“So! You got data for me?”

“Yes, however, I’m unsure what you are hoping for as I arrive tomorrow. Were you looking for a preliminary outline before seeing me in person, or was it simply a…head’s up, as it were, as to what you would like to begin once I am there?”

On the other end Dr. Geiszler breathes in, then out once. “Both, actually. If you can give me a few averages, I can start off my end here and then we can—” He snorts softly, which comes down the line as static. “Meet in the middle, as it were.”

Hermann narrows his eyes. He is being mocked, he thinks.  He does not wish to jump to conclusions without more data, though. “…Certainly. However the averages are complex, and I need some clarification. The co-ordinates you sent were wrong.”

There is a pause before Dr. Geiszler answers. “…Yeeeeah, I type super fast when I email, especially jet-lagged at 4am. Shit happens, typos happen.” He pauses again. Hermann mentally stops, thinks. Was he too rude? It was nothing but truth. Fact. Perhaps he’d misconstrued— “I didn’t, uh. I’m sure your giant brain worked out what I meant.”

Geiszler laughs, Hermann doesn’t. He’s gotten lost somewhere. Was that— a compliment?

“Yes.” Scheiße. Think quickly. Conversation is so frustrating. “I— I wonder, have you made any advances in your assessment of metabolic effects of kaiju blue?”

“Loads – but the big thing is the correlation between bone and metal, you gotta see this stuff. My research is amazing.

“I have no doubt.”

Pause.

“…Was that sarcasm, man?”

“No! No, I’m. Looking forward to getting to work with you.” He is. He’s known that for a while, and he wants to get started. They have so much to do. “I. Have been for some time.”

“Oh.” Geiszler clears his throat again, breathes, then his words rush and tumble at Hermann. “Okay—  sorry, sorry I’m still jet-lagged here. Really don’t think it’s gonna be good for me to argue with you whilst I’m distracted. Though—“ His voice changes again, closer to the phone once again. “I’ll still win even then, for sure.”

Hermann licks his lips. “I wouldn’t count on it. Your mistakes are easy to spot.”

Geiszler laughs. “Well you do seem to enjoy pointing out flaws in stuff I’ve done.”

He bristles. If that was an attempt at clearing the air, it failed. “I point out facts, only. I would have thought someone with your…varied academic experience would be used to criticism.”

Geiszler snorts. “Hoo, yep, that’s why I went for six doctorates, I’m just a glutton for punishment.”

“…Are you trying to out-qualify me?”

A sound of shock. “What— No! No.” Gieszler coughs. “I’m not. How could I?”

Pause.

Pause.

“…True.”

He gives a short bark of laughter again. “Oookay, well. I’m sure we’re both extremely educated and impressive. You can show me your credentials when you arrive if you feel the need.”

Pause.

“That, sounded weird, I meant—”

“Do you have a compulsive need to mention your doctorates in every conversation we have?” Hermann ought to stop talking, but now his hackles are up. He doesn’t entirely know what just— it felt like flirtation, or mockery. Flirtation feels sticky in his throat and the rest, well, Vanessa and his siblings are the only person he feels at all comfortable around with any sort of teasing and he doesn’t know Geiszler beyond digits and letters. This feels horribly familiar. Hermann has nothing that he needs to prove to anybody, to his mind, and he is tired of repeating that fact to himself, to Father, to— Geiszler is, is messing with him. Definitely. “Or, is this for my benefit only?”

“This is our first conversation.” Geiszler’s voice has changed. Still high but with a dirty, rough edge. Like a sawdrill. It drops into Hermann’s stomach. His thoughts buzz.

“Technically, at best. We have conversed via the internet. Though I agree that your typing barely counts as dialogue.”

Something creaks. Possibly the phone, in Geiszler’s hand. “Do you seriously want to have a talk about the linguistic value of the internet and typing as a reflection of personality, Dr Gottlieb?” Geiszler hisses.

“Absolutely not. Anywhere that pictures of cats can be used as a viable response to conversation doesn’t bear much scrutiny.”

“Oh my— Fuck!” Geiszler starts laughing, and laughing, ending with some sort of guttural noise. “You’re the most arrogant person I have ever met, and I haven’t even met you.”

“Me?!” Hermann’s voice disappears into a range he hasn’t used for a while. One of his ex-colleagues glances over and Hermann turns viciously aside, leaning against the table, leaning over the phone.

“Never mind my questions, I will send over the outline for you now, though I doubt you will understand a thing until I get there and explain it tomorrow. Or. Wednesday.” He rubs the centre of his forehead. Suddenly, he has a headache.

“Great.” More rustling. “And I have nothing to add to that except ‘LOL’, ‘cat’ and ‘dot com’. Safe flight!” Geiszler barks.

Then he hangs up.