It was the final week of January, more than a year after the closure of the breach in Hong Kong, and Hermann Gottlieb was making stroganoff in Bavaria.
His accommodation was a small apartment at the top of a three-storey building at the edge of Munich, with a single bedroom and a small kitchenette with a slanted ceiling and single-glazed windows that faced upwards to the sky. The building itself was old, and had no elevator to speak of. Twice a young woman who lived below him had caught him on his way in and attempted to seize his arm and help him upstairs, causing him to recoil in disgust and, the second time, shout at her to leave him alone.
It had just gone 6pm, and the slanted windows in his kitchen were clouded with steam from the cooker. Outside the sky was dark, starless and stained orange by the lights of the city that never slept. Hermann was browning strips of peppered beef in a saucepan coated with olive oil with one hand, and leaning heavily on his cane with the other. At precisely fifteen minutes past six, he answered the door to his older sister Karla, whom he had not seen in five years, and way always impeccably on time.
“Hermann!” she announced in her German accent. “It’s been too long. How have you been?”
“Not too bad. I’ll take your coat.”
“I’ll manage. Here.” She thrust a plant pot containing a small shrub of spiky leaves into his free hand. “I brought you an oleander.”
“I hear they’re extremely poisonous.”
“Yes. It will bloom in the summer, if you water it.”
Karla was a tall, handsome woman with long brown hair and a fair complexion mottled with sun spots like coffee stains on her face from years of fieldwork. She liked to wear long skirts and flat, brown, sensible shoes with soles like door stops. At six-feet-tall, she had never worn heels, but this was due to her own personal tastes rather than any desire to placate the fragile feelings of the male colleagues she often towered over, and would have worn them had the fancy taken her. In her younger years she had been gangly, but her work had ripened her muscles, and a healthy appetite ensured, as she was now in her late forties, that she had filled out.
For much of his childhood Hermann had considered her a giant, though Dietrich was taller and Bastien, when he grew up, taller still. The only family Hermann out-measured was his mother, and two small grandparents on her side, who died very quickly within six months of each other when Hermann was eight-years-old.
“Did mother send a message?” Hermann asked. His mother would often use his siblings as messengers.
“It is her birthday next month,” Karla replied. “She said you must be busy. She wouldn’t like to take you from your work.”
“But you will send her a card. She’ll be upset if you don’t.”
“Will you be visiting?”
“Perhaps. But if I can’t I’ll send one of your brothers with an apology and a box of wine.”
They spoke very quickly and evenly, as they always had, in a way that made it difficult for anyone who hadn’t grown up in that tall house in Garmisch-Partenkirchen to discern whether they were arguing or getting along. Like their brothers, they were fluent in both German and English and spoke in one or the other, depending.
The Gottlieb children had been born in batches. Karla, the eldest, had come into the world in the winter of 1977, followed one year later by Dietrich. Twelve years of risky business ventures and pioneering research never seen before followed before the couple found the time to arrange for Hermann’s birth in between appointments. By that time Nina, their mother, was thirty-eight, and Lars almost a decade older than that. Still, they persevered with the birth of Hermann’s younger brother Bastien a year later, if only to even things out.
Hermann and Karla had never been close, but shared an understanding that came with the appointed role of an older sibling who bore on their young shoulders the intense weight of their parents’ expectations, their fury and their disappointment, like a baton passed from one generation to the next. All four Gottlieb siblings were inescapably bonded through the terminal unhappiness they had inherited and cultivated in toyless playrooms with whitewashed walls, furniture they were forbidden to use, and no talking after six o’clock rules. But it was Karla and Hermann who had endured the wrath of their father on his worst days. Both had huddled under blankets with tiny hands clamped over the ears of a hapless younger brother.
Hermann, he had been told, was born to relieve his mother of the trauma she had endured as a result of a nameless sickness that afflicted Karla - another first born to right the wrongs of the one they had created accidentally while young and in love. His creation had been sensible, methodical and devoid of passion. For a while the couple had been satisfied with this arrangement, as Nina had grown bored with her existing children and considered them, at eleven and twelve-years-old, to be beyond redemption, and there was nothing that pleased the senior Dr Gottlieb more than a successful business transaction.
But Hermann had been a difficult pregnancy. Nina had suffered greatly with migraines, pelvic pain, and severe bouts of sickness that began shortly after conception and continued for the full nine months. Her ankles had swollen grotesquely and she had been bed-bound for five weeks with an IV inserted to replace fluids lost due to sweating and vomiting. The baby was eventually born feet-first, two weeks late and still drastically small, and was ripped so carelessly from her womb by an inexperienced doctor that she could not bear to hold him, and begged the nurses to remove him from her sight. The horror of having carried Hermann for those nine months persisted for his whole childhood and endured even now. He was regarded by his mother as something not quite human; a changeling child with big, unsettling eyes that she had grown inside of her, like a bluebird that warms the eggs of a cuckoo. She would stiffen whenever he drew too near, and for as long as Hermann could remember she loathed to touch him.
Karla took a seat at a narrow end of the oval-shaped table where Hermann had set out a knife and fork on a red woven table mat.
"I didn’t think you cooked,” she said as he busied in and out of the kitchen.
“I took some classes,” he replied. They had been organised by a plump elderly woman who smacked his knuckles with a spatula. He had been, as ever, an exemplary student. “Beef stroganoff. It’s kosher.”
“I didn’t know you cared about that.”
“You know how it is.”
He sat down at the opposite end of the table.
“I think Dr Gottlieb is losing touch with his faculties,” Karla said. “He is forgetting things. He won’t admit it, of course. Mother tells me he has been requesting cups of tea and then sending them away claiming he never asked for them. It’s a shame.”
It was customary for them to refer to their father as ‘Dr Gottlieb’, as they had done so ever since they were old enough to leave the nursery where they solemnly played with building blocks and books that were too advanced for their infant years. Hermann had completed his engineering and applied sciences studies at TU in Berlin more than a decade ago; Karla, too, had been a doctor of archaeology for some sixteen years and had studied and lectured at universities in Germany, England, Egypt and and Pakistan. Dietrich had a PhD in civil engineering and Bastien was a professor of computer science at the University of Edinburgh. Still they were imitations, messy cut-outs of the cloth that was the original Dr Gottlieb, each an ungainly limb on the Frankenstein’s Monster he had created. In family pictures, in which the young doctors Gottlieb stood in a regimental row from tallest (Bastien) to smallest (Hermann, lop-sided on his cane), they all resembled Lars. Hermann had been the first to decline the tradition of a two-yearly family picture as he was haunted by the thought that, with time, they would somehow merge together into one big, imposing Lars Gottlieb. His siblings had endured for several years longer before declaring they simply hadn’t the time, to which their mother, who had to have everything just so, had sniffed: “There’s no point anyway, if it’s not all of you.”
Hermann said, “He is getting older.”
“He is,” Karla agreed. “How’s your health?”
“Much better, actually. I got some stronger sleeping pills.”
“Mother says you shouldn’t rely on your cane so much. She saw you with it on the news. She says it discourages healing.”
“I have multiple sclerosis. I’m not going to heal.”
“I know. But it’s what she says. This stroganoff is delicious, by the way. You know in Russia they serve it over sauteed potatoes.”
"I prefer it with rice."
“I hear you’ve applied to study at LMU.”
“Xenobiology, yes. They want me to lecture in applied sciences too, chemistry and engineering mainly, which I’ve agreed to, but only for PhD students. I can’t think of anything worse than a theatre full of freshers still hungover from the night before.”
“You’ve never shown an interest in xenobiology before.”
“That is not true. I have a number of qualifications in biology. I have at least one respected paper published in the field. This is simply a way of advancing an already established skill set.”
“You’ll be quite the celebrity.”
“I hope not. I dread being recognised in the street. I can’t stand the thought of being known.”
“When are you going to stop punishing yourself, Hermann?"
“I have no idea what you’re talking about.”
“You should find yourself a nice boy.”
Hermann stiffened. “I plan to be very busy.
“What happened to that man? The little one, the irritating one.”
“Newton and I had a good working relationship,” Hermann said in a way that made clear that he did not wish to talk any more on the subject. It was an unspoken agreement that Karla was never to broach the subject of his sexuality in exchange for him offering her the same courtesy, though she and the rest of the Gottlieb family had been aware of his inclinations for some time. It felt violating for Hermann that they knew even though he had never told them. Like he had been stripped of something deeply personal. He had tried desperately took keep Newton from them.
“You should have him over. I would like to see him.”
“He is… occupied elsewhere. He’s in Beijing, as far as I know.” In fact Hermann did know, as he had followed Newton’s paper trail from the day he left the shatterdome. He had distracted himself with frequent trips to the library interrupted with properly scheduled five-minute breaks of undignified weeping behind the wheel of his second-hand car while blasting Heart’s 1987 number one hit ‘Alone’ and similar 80s power ballads from his ancient tape-deck. The phase lasted four weeks and he emerged from it ten pounds thinner, with ugly, purple rings around his eyes and a renewed conviction that there was a small, unfortunate group of human beings in the world that were not meant to be loved, to which he and his siblings belonged. His older brother Dietrich, who was painfully shy and spoke so little Hermann could not ever recall having a proper conversation with him, had twice been arrested for battering former girlfriends. Bastien had married a fine woman he had met in a university brass band, and they had two children, a son and a daughter, before divorcing two years later. She was now a barrister at a generally respected law firm, and Bastien saw his children every other week.
Hermann had often wondered if he could have kept Newton with him by keeping his distance. Perhaps they would have carried on side by side, not lovers, not quite partners but together nonetheless, silently satisfied with looks that lingered too long and the occasional brush of hands, never spoiling things by talking about feelings. Hermann suspected not. Without the imminent threat of a triple event they had no reason to continue living in limbo. If Newton could not get his closure in his bedroom, naked and spread out while Hermann whispered in his ear, he would find it some other way.
Hermann said: “What do you have on the horizon?”
“I’m planning on returning to Egypt. I’ve been asked to take part in a dig south of Cairo. It will be good to do something practical again. Those beasts were so annoying.”
“Annoying, is that really the word?”
“Yes, quite annoying. I had sent several very important documents to a colleague at the University of Auckland that got lost in the aftermath of the New Zealand attack. The back-ups I had were all corrupted - months of work on the excavations at Mohenjo-daro. I will have to start again from scratch.” She shook her head. “All that history.”
“The cost of war is difficult to comprehend. I had thought I would sleep better once it was all over. But I don’t think it will ever be over. Not in our lifetime.”
“Will you ever return to the PPDC?”
“If the kaiju come back. Otherwise no. It was near-sighted of me to assume the jaegers would be put out of commission after the closure of the breach. The American armed forces have shown a great interest in utilizing the mark-fours and fives, I’ve heard. There’s talk of single-pilot models in development for police officers in Europe, Asia.”
“I read the news, yes.”
“It’s morally corrupt. Ten years of my life I spent developing the code that formed the foundation of these machines. I thought I could achieve something, only to end up a pawn of the military industrial complex. I might as well have handed them the plans on a silver platter. I’ve written some very strongly-worded letters. People will die because of this. I… dream about it, sometimes.”
“You’re still a socialist then,” Karla said.
“Yes I am.”
“That little man is a socialist too, isn’t he?”
“Must you call him that? He was a communist.”
“A communist! I should have known.”
“There’s nothing wrong with that.”
“Oh, I suppose not,” Karla sighed. “I’m an egalitarian.”
“You’re a libertarian. I despise that about you.”
“Let’s not fight about politics. I have enough of that from Dietrich. It’s so dreadfully boring.”
“How is Dietrich?”
“He has some very strange ideas about immigration, overpopulation. I don’t like it. I don’t like to engage with him,” Karla said. “He’s very angry. You are too, but not in the same way. He frightens me.”
“Someone should intervene.”
“I’m not frightened of him.”
“Because you don’t know him like I do.”
Karla took a long sip of the wine Hermann had set out in appropriate glasses on the table. “Ugh,” she said. “Merlot. I can’t stand the stuff. Too sweet.”
“You don’t have to drink it.”
Hermann took a gulp of his own wine, spitefully. Karla shovelled her last few forkfuls of rice into her mouth.
“Dr Gottlieb has been in Berlin this past week, meeting his business associates," she said. "He will work himself to death. If anything he has become more involved in the past year. I sometimes wonder if he might have preferred the breach not to be closed, that the world perished and all of us along with it. You quite disgraced him by being right in the end.”
“He should know by now I can always be relied upon to disgrace him. It’s one of my finer qualities.”
“Mind you don’t choke on those sour grapes.”
“I don’t understand why you’re still loyal to them.”
“I wouldn’t call it loyalty. It’s goodwill, mostly. They seem so fragile these days.”
Hermann considered the two weeks he had spent in the Gottlieb household with its faded pink wallpaper and pictures of long-dead relatives who watched with disapproving eyes as the prodigal son returned to disgrace the home he had left eight years ago in a storm of foul words he could never take back. There was plastic on the furniture and a thin layer of dust covering every mantelpiece, and the whole place felt not quite lived in, though his mother’s reading glasses were placed neatly on the kitchen table along with a newspaper dated just two weeks earlier. The ghost of her presence hung about the place. Hermann ensured he was long gone before she returned from her stay at a medical spa in Waakirchen that she attended frequently for bouts of sleep therapy.
“I don’t know if you think you’re hurting them by refusing to see them,” Karla said.
“I’m not trying to hurt them.”
“But you’re angry. All these years and you’re still angry.” She sounded amused, as if Hermann’s lingering resentment for their parents was something incredibly childish. She regarded him with the knowing smile of an older sister observing the beginnings of a temper tantrum.
“You act like you’re so above it all,” Hermann said.
“No, I simply learned to move on. I bear them no ill will, though I won’t cry for them when they die, which will be soon I think. You’ll do your health no favours, Hermann, if you carry on like this. Your forehead is terribly wrinkled. Anyone would think you were as old as me.”
“If you expect me to hold out the olive branch now after all these years, you’re sorely mistaken. You drink their poison if you want to. I’m doing quite well without it.”
“You’ve always been sensitive. Even when you were little. You always wanted to be picked up and held.”
Hermann felt a stab of sympathy for his infant self, the sobbing two-year-old with arms held out like a starfish, only to be shooed away with a wave or the nudge of a boot. He wanted desperately to protect him.
“I don’t see why that’s such a terrible thing,” he said. “A child needs love, affection. It’s normal, for a child.”
“Part of you is still waiting for them to love you, I think,” Karla said. “I tried to warn you. I grew up in that house desperate for love, but they never gave it to me. They were never going to give it to you. It doesn’t matter how long you wait, or what you do.”
“Despite it all, here we are,” Hermann said. "The Doctors Gottlieb.”
“We’re like cactuses. We thrive on neglect.”
“Do you think we thrived?”
Karla downed the last few drops of her wine.
“Your relationship with your little man, Newton,” she said, “was it sexual?”
“I don’t think I have to answer that.”
“No. You don’t.”
Her tone made Hermann seethe. He scraped his knife hard against his plate as he cut a leftover piece of gristle in half.
“You presume a great many things about me.”
“Not a great many,” Karla said.
“And what about you, dear sister? You’ve always done so very well alone, haven’t you? Friends have come and gone - but never a partner! Never a lover.”
“Oh, there have been men.”
“And I suppose that was always the problem, wasn’t it?”
“I did not come here to discuss my personal life,” Karla said calmly.
“You’re more than happy to pry into mine.”
“I was concerned. You never learned how to look after yourself properly.”
“I assure you I have no need to be looked after.”
“I suppose you’re right.” Karla ran her finger absent-mindedly around the rim of her empty plate. “Perhaps it is harder for you,” she mused. “You weren’t conceived with love. I heard there is something wrong with babies that weren’t conceived with love. You grow up warped.”
“We were all warped,” said Hermann icily.
“You’re the one who can’t let go. You still detest them so.”
“I have every right! Dear God, Karla, listen to yourself! We were like bones to them, to be broken and reset repeatedly because we were never growing right. When I was twelve, you know, they took me to a therapist. He put an elastic band on my wrist and told me to snap it whenever I felt urges. They told me I must take care not to get sick.”
“You’re emotional, Hermann.”
“I can’t help it,” Hermann snapped. “This whole family drives me to distraction.” He threw his knife and fork down on his plate, picked it up and walked around the table to collect Karla’s.
“You don’t have to do that.”
“This is my house. You are my guest. I will take your plate.”
Karla said, “If you insist.”
Hermann carried the plates in a small stack through the doorless archway that led to the kitchen and placed them in a sink of water he had run earlier and filled with soap suds. Without turning on the light, he pulled on a pair of bright pink Marigold rubber gloves and began to wash up solemnly. After a while, Karla appeared at his side with her now-empty wine glass in one hand and Hermann’s, still half full, in the other. She picked up the open bottle of Merlot from the counter, poured herself a fresh glass and drank it all in one graceful gulp. She filled up again and finished off the rest of the bottle by pouring it into Hermann’s glass until it brushed the rim.
“You should go easy on that. It’s strong stuff.”
“Little brother, it takes a lot more than this to get me drunk.”
Hermann dried the plates and put them back in the cupboard above the sink. He was adept at doing things one-handed.
“I know you loved that man,” Karla said without looking at him.
“None of us know how to love anyone. Not really. I may be the one with the cane and the curved spine, but we’re all… stunted, in that way.”
“You might’ve said crippled,” Karla muttered.
Hermann said, “I don’t like that word.”
She left him alone in the dark kitchenette. He picked up the glass she had filled generously. His hand seized and he spilled half of it down his shirt. For a moment he looked down at himself and the steady drip-drip-drip into a puddle on the floor. His spasms had been getting worse. Physicals had been carried out at his own insistence, visits had been paid to specialists, he had been poked and prodded and jabbed with needles. “Excessive stress,” he had been told. “Take a holiday, you’ll feel better.”
Hermann mopped himself up with a wet tea towel and walked into the living room with his shirt sticking to his stomach. Karla had relocated herself to an armchair in the living room in front of the oak cabinet with space for a TV set that Hermann had not found the time to acquire. She was nursing her wine glass in her hand, moving it around and around and watching the pale red shine the dark liquid left on the inside of the glass as it rose and fell with every measured spin.
“We are friends, aren’t we Hermann?” she said.
“I think we have a good working relationship.”
"I’m glad you do.”
“But you’re right. I don’t love you. You are my brother. I care about you, but I do not love you.”
“I don’t think I love you either,” Hermann said.
“That’s alright though. We don’t have to love each other to enjoy each other’s company. The food and wine tastes just as nice. Cheers.”
“Cheers.” Hermann raised his glass in a mirror to Karla’s, as she was left-handed. They smiled at each other without a trace of sadness. Hermann sat down in the chair opposite her, which he had bought second-hand from a tatty market stall run by a wild-haired man who was mostly selling fruit, and lamp shades made of stained-glass. They drank another bottle of wine over two games of chess, which Hermann barely won, and told terrible stories about their respective younger brothers.
“Bastien is struggling, I think,” Karla said. “His children are getting older now, and they’re pulling away, as children do. He’d baby them forever if he could. You know he still talks with Miriam. I don’t know how long they have been divorced now.”
“He’s a good father, despite everything,” Hermann said.
“He needs them,” Karla went on. “They love him, but they don’t need him. I think he’s struggling to make peace between the two. More wine?”
“I need it.”
“I do as well.”
The round red alarm clock on Hermann's shelf above the oak cabinet ticked past 9pm. Red-faced, Karla declared that she ought to be leaving, as she had an appointment the following morning.
Hermann took her coat from the spiral hanger on the back of the door and helped her into it before she could protest. She laughed and gave him an affectionate push.
“I called you a taxi-cab,” he said. “You’re in no state to drive.”
“When you’re right, you’re right.”
She opened the door. The stairwell outside was always bright with yellow light no matter what time it was.
“Nobody would think any less of you,” she said, as she put on her shoes, “if you went after him.”
“I can’t,” Hermann whispered. “What would I say? It’s been a year. He might even refuse to see me. I’m so scared that he has moved on while I remain… so very much the same.”
“That’s your decision,” said Karla properly. “It’s not the right one, but it’s yours.”
They shook hands.
“I hope you enjoy your studies.”
“You will tell me when you’re back in Egypt?”
“Of course. Goodbye Hermann.”
She smiled at him, wrinkling her forehead and the corners of her mouth. Hermann felt a twinge in his arm and thought about embracing her, but put it down to an untimely tremor. She left, and he locked the door behind her.
Hermann went back into the living room, sat down in the armchair in front of the chessboard with its scattered kings and queens and stayed there for a while. He had not talked so much to one person in one sitting for some time, and found himself exhausted. He missed the easy back-and-forth he shared with Newton over the white tape that separated the two sides of their lab. He missed his sparking energy, his stubbornness and the small creases in both his cheeks when he smiled. The past year had been the longest and coldest in Hermann’s recent memory.
His hand was twitching more violently than before. Reaching for his cane, he made his way into the kitchen to take his third dose of medicine of the day. Outside the slanted window the light of the moon had broken through the grey clouds, and it began to snow.